If you asked me why we did it, I wouldn’t have an answer for you.
Rikers Island rests just a few short blocks from my apartment and it has always scared the shit out of me. It’s housed everyone from Sid Vicious to Lil’ Wayne, although most New Yorkers have had the good fortune to have never been there, and very few have even seen the beautiful bridge that connects my sleepy eastern Astoria neighborhood to the city’s own version of Alcatraz. Access over the bridge is extremely difficult by car, and impossible on foot. The only realistic way in–besides a caged correctional vehicle–is on the public bus, the Q100 from Long Island City.
The idea of a visit to Rikers has for some time circulated among my friends to no avail. Everyone talks a big game about going while drinking. Just drunken talk.
But not this particular morning. I was home nursing a beer at 5:30AM when my buddy W.N.–who is on the police force in NYC–raps on my door, six-pack in hand. We crushed all six and were having some laughs when he came out with the challenge.
“Bro, let’s go…to Rikers…right now. If we don’t go now we’ll never do it.”
I checked my phone. It was 7AM.
“Okay, why not? Let’s go.”
I grabbed my camera, a moleskine, and two more beers before we headed out. W.N. is a good friend, a real character. He raced through red lights and made a wide erratic turn onto the Rikers Island bridge. He was blasting a NJ hardcore band called “Title Fight” when the correctional officers stepped in front of our vehicle. W.N. didn’t turn the music down. He flashed his badge and the two officers just laughed and made us turn around. W.N. does not like being turned down and was really pissed.
“Fuck that, man. We’ll take the bus! I don’t fucking care. We’re going!”
The sun was coming up now, we were both pretty drunk, and it was too late to back out. After 20 minutes or so, the Q100 bus rolled past our parked car. We both dashed to the bus stop, swigging the last drips from our bottles. I boarded the bus and dumped my change into the slot. It was filled mostly with crackheads, baby mommas and angry dudes. The bus pulled up onto the crossing and I started filming the beautiful bridge and the morning rising sun, all the while trying to convince myself that this was fun and not a big mistake.
The bus pulled up to a dingy building with a walkway formed by armed guards and their attack dogs on either side from the bus to the entrance. We exited the bus and had to act straight while walking through a line up. There is no chance of a cigarette break, no taking in the sights. It’s when surrounded by drug sniffing dogs that W.N. decides to ask me if I’m holding anything, just as we’re about to enter a room to get frisked.
Before I knew it, I had been separated from W.N. I was escorted into a concrete room with multiple officers and patted up and down like a criminal. The room smelled like a cat’s spray, a strange combination of piss and vinegar. A pang rolled quickly from my stomach to my throat, a feeling that leaves you high yet distressed. At this point I no longer enjoyed whatever safety I had by being with my ‘connected’ friend and I felt more than a bit of fear.
“Who are you here to see?” asked the officer.
“I, ummm, well…” I was so drunk I couldn’t even come up with a plausible lie.
“You don’t know who you’re here to see?” said the officer.
It was at that moment a heavily strapped C.O. entered the room and called out my name. I was relieved yet still frightened.
“Come with me,” he said.
I followed him to another room where W.N. was being held. Three guards hovered over him looking agitated yet slightly amused. They questioned us and seemed to find less and less humor in our story. I couldn’t even speak. I was worthless and all W.N. could come up with was, “We had a night man. And we took the wrong bus.”
“What do you mean you ‘had a night?’” asked the heavily armed officer.
“Well…we’ve had a few” said W.N.
“You guys have got to be kidding me!” the officer snapped. “Look, we’re putting you on the next bus and then that’s it. Don’t fucking come back here!”
They escorted us to the waiting Q100 out front. As I boarded the bus, I realized I hadn’t gotten a transfer and had no change on me. The bus driver was pissed off and yelled to the cops. “This guy doesn’t even have change!” They were so over us at this point and just told the guy to take me over the bridge. They really wanted to get rid of me. Neither of us said a word the entire ride back over the bridge to Astoria. I was feeling a bit shaky but still managed to pull my Canon G9 from my pocket and recorded the west-facing side of the ride home. When we got off the bus, W.N. said nothing on the car ride to my apartment except, “I’ll never go there again.”
So here’s the lesson: if you are drunk one night–or morning–and think it will be fun to take the bus to Rikers and continue on the return trip, it’s not really that fun, even if you get to leave.