AFTER THE CRASH
“This plane is definitely crashing / This boat is obviously sinking…”
(Lyrics by Modest Mouse, 1997, “Shit Luck” from The Lonesome Crowded West)
“Tim Ryan, please rise,” the bailiff called out.
My stomach tightened. My legs didn’t want to support my weight as I slowly stood upright. This was the moment I had been dreading. The heroin in my system made me numb, but not numb enough to block out what was about to happen.
“Fuck!” I muttered in disbelief that I found myself stuck between freedom and imprisonment. “Fuck.”
As always, I had gone to court alone that day. Just me and my lawyer. There was no sense in dragging anyone else with me. After all, I’d gotten there by my own doing.
My wife, Shannon, had driven me to the train station near our home in Oswego, a western suburb of Chicago. That train would take me into Chicago where I would stand before the judge in a few hours time. My daughter, Abby, sat quietly in the back seat. The three of us found little to talk about on the drive. It was raining, which seemed fitting. No one would want to go anywhere on a day like that, and my mood was especially dark, because I was going somewhere I didn’t want to go. I knew that I would be gone for a long time. To make matters worse, I had absolutely no control over the situation.
“Shannon, they’re taking me today,” I finally broke the silence of the drive. “I won’t be coming back.”
“You say that every time you go to court,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
Oblivion soothed her for the moment. I didn’t share her outlook. I knew better.
“I’m serious,” I said. “If you try to call me after ten o’clock and my phone is off, they took me.”
“Yeah,” she said shaking her head, believing all would be fine. “I’ll see you tonight.”
I jumped out of the car, kissed my wife and daughter, and hopped on the train that would take me to my fate.
The courthouse would not be my first or last stop of the day. I had some “business” to take care of before I got there. I knew after court, I would be taken to a holding cell. And after that, prison. I had seen all the movies. I knew people who had been to the “big house.” Who am I kidding? I had already been a guest of the state prison system once before, so I knew full well what to expect. As scared as I was of what could happen to me inside those prison walls, I was even more scared of what was about to take place inside of my own body.
In the days and weeks ahead of this appointed hour, I didn’t back off my heroin use. Hell, I doubled-down. I knew that once the drugs started to leave my system, I was going to be dope sick. Then I was going to detox hard. It could kill me; I knew that much.
So I did what addicts do: I scored more drugs. First thing on the morning of my court sentencing, I called my drug dealer. Once I got off the train in the city, I took a cab and met him right by his house, which is not something drug dealers usually let you do. I guess I got lucky that day. More likely, my dealer wasn’t willing to pass up making some “easy money” on such a good, loyal customer. I had a $500 a day habit. I wasn’t stupid enough to think my dealer loved me; but I know he loved my money.
I bought sixty bags of heroin. I snorted 10 bags on the five-minute cab ride to the courthouse. I stashed the rest in a hole I made in my jacket. I wanted to take enough smack with me so I wouldn’t be feverishly dope sick in the holding cell. And I madly hoped that once I got in to Cook County Jail, I could see the doctor to help me detox properly.
I had been to prison once before, in 2008. I told myself that I would never go back. If you’re wondering what sent me there the first time, it was something stupid: driving on four revokes. That’s innocent enough, right? Drugs had no part in my incarceration. But where do you think I was going without a license every time I got pulled over? To buy heroin.
The cop who pulled me over the first time was Officer White of the Chicago Police Department. He was a nice guy. I thought it then, and I still think it now. He was just doing his job to keep the streets safe from people like me who get doped up and then kill people with their vehicles.
Eight months after the first citation, I got pulled over again. Yeah, nothing changed.
Do you know what else didn’t change? Who do you think pulled me over the second time?
Officer White from the Chicago Police Department. I was driving a different vehicle. That’s the only thing that had changed from eight months earlier.
I either had the worst luck in the world, or God had a plan for me that He was working even before I acknowledged His existence.
The officer approached my car and motioned me to roll down my window. “Man, you look familiar,” he said.
“Officer White, good to see you. You stopped me eight months ago,” I said, wondering in the back of my head if there was even the slightest possibility that my charm and winning way would get me out of this mess.
“Damn it, I told you to quit driving,” he said, shaking his head. He took my identification and returned to his squad car.
He was gone for so long, I started to believe that he might let me go with a little verbal lashing.
“Tim, this is a felony, man. I gotta take you in,” he told me as he cuffed me.
As a result of that arrest, I got sentenced to a year in prison. Back then, a year meant that you got out after just 61 days if you were a good boy. I made sure that I was a good boy for 61 days. I counted off each day, making little lines like prisoners in old movies used to do by scratching tick marks on the walls of their cells. I served my time quietly, and went right back out there.
I may have paid my debt to society, but I was still an addict with a diseased mind when I got out. While I told myself that I would never go back to prison, nothing changed in my drug use. Nothing changed.
As I sat on the train speeding towards the city that morning of my sentencing, I knew that today wasn’t going to go my way like it had the first time. I had hired the best lawyer money could buy, and he was able to delay my case for 21 months. But this time, matters were more serious. Way more serious.
Once I got inside the courthouse, I had to surrender my coat and other personal items. Please don’t find my stash, I thought as I handed over my belongings. Then I settled into the seat next to my lawyer, and waited.
Despite the heroin coursing through my body, my legs shook nervously under the table.
I thought of my wife, kids, and parents, and I wished to God that I could blame them for some part—any part—of this situation. But this had nothing to do with them. This was about my problem, not theirs. They were always as perfect as a family can be, and somehow I fucked it all up. And now I was going to pay for it. And even though they had no fault in this, they would have to pay for it, too.
“Tim Ryan, please rise,” the bailiff called out, shaking me out of my head.
I told myself that once I got out of this current mess, there was no way in hell that I would ever go back to prison. I was wrong. I would go back inside. But the circumstances surrounding my return to prison would be very different.
Presiding over my case was Judge Wattas, a distinguished, gray-haired gentleman. My lawyer told me he was a Sox fan and a fair man. I didn’t want fair; I wanted forgiving. I wanted a push-over.
My lawyer approached the bench, and I heard Judge Wattas muttering something like, “10-12, 10-12.”
I gathered from those words that Judge Wattas wanted to give me 12 years. I looked at my lawyer with a shrug in need of an answer. He mouthed, “Hold on, hold on.”
My lawyer and the judge continued talking, and then I heard the judge say, “3-3-1.”
My lawyer walked back from the bench and stood next to me. I searched his face for some sort of answer, but at that same moment the judge announced his sentence: “Seven years.”
The gavel dropped along with my hopes of a cake-walk sentence.
“What?” I asked my lawyer. “What is 3-3-1? Am I going away for seven years?”
“No. You got seven years total for all charged. You got three years, three years, and one year. With good behavior, you’ll be out in a year and a half.”
Whew. I had done two months before. Eighteen months was a helluva lot better than the 7, 10, or 12 years that I could have gotten.
Immediately, the bailiff took me into the back, and my thoughts shifted to how can I get my heroin into the cell with me right the fuck now?