“What do you think dying would be like?” my cellmate, Michael, asks me. He’s 34 years old and has spent just three months ‘outside’ since he was 17. His daughter, now half his age, has only spent three months with her father. He’s covered in tattoos, dark green and black marks on his arms, legs, hands, neck, and face; skulls, crucifixes, illegible scrawls. He’s your worst nightmare. I’m not sure if Michael is trying to intimidate me with his question or if he’s just thinking about the person he had murdered. I decide to answer with a question of my own.
“Have you ever been put to sleep for surgery?”
“Yeah”, he replies, a little surprised.
“Well, do you remember how you went to sleep and then instantly woke up, as if no time had passed, but in reality, a few hours had gone by?”
“Yeah”, he nods slowly.
“So, obviously I don’t know for sure, and it’s different if you’re religious, but I have a feeling that’s what being dead is like. It’s not like when you’re asleep. When you’re asleep and you wake up you’re aware that some time has passed, right?”
A dark, contemplative frown adds an additional series of lines across Michael’s graffitied forehead.
“You’re right”, he eventually says, “You’re totally right. You don’t remember a thing.”
“Right, it’s not an experience of nothing, it’s more absent than that, it’s pure nothingness.”
“Holy shit”, he says, looking off into the corner of our white concrete cell, “It’s like how you don’t remember anything from before you were born.”
“I think so, yeah.”
“It’s nothing. It’s totally nothing.”
“Which makes life something, right?”
“Holy shit, man, that’s like a fuckin’ revelation.”
Whether or not he was trying to intimidate me, he’s not anymore. I’ve somehow earned his respect. Not that I think I needed to. I don’t know the details of his past, I don’t know what he’s been through and what he’s put others through, but he’s being nice to me. At this point in time, that’s all I care about.
“It’s totally not like being asleep”, he continues, his mind still occupied with this, “It’s not like a bad dream. It’s just… nothing.”
He lies back on his bed, the bottom bunk, and I lie back on mine, the top bunk. While Michael thinks about how death isn’t like a bad dream, I think about how life has suddenly, somehow, become one.
I was on my way to visit my girlfriend and her parents in California. A day ago, I was in Wellington. How the hell did I end up sharing a prison cell with a murderer in the Federal Detention Center in Hawaii?
Rewind 24 hours.
I’m in Auckland International Airport talking to a kind-faced Malaysian man named Sun about his trip to the United States. We’re both waiting for our Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu, after which he’s going to Los Angeles and I’m going to San Francisco. I’m planning on meeting my girlfriend, Emma, and her parents, who live on the other side of the Sacramento Valley in a small mountain town called Mi Wuk Village. Emma and I are planning on camping in some of the national parks and visiting places like Death Valley, Monument Valley, and Portland. West Coast road trip. In Portland, I have a friend that I have never met, the publisher of my book, The Bloom. We’re probably just going to get a beer and talk about life and literature in her favourite brewery. Sun is going to meet his wife in San Bernardino. We board the plane just after midnight on the 2nd of November and fly northward into the night sky.
I wake up several hours later and see the pale blue waters off the Hawaiian archipelago underneath the plane’s wings. Gliding over fishing boats dotted around Pearl Harbor, we touch down and disembark. The customs line is long and slow and I begin getting a little nervous that I’ll miss my connecting flight. With about an hour to spare, I finally make it to the customs desk. Instantly, things turn sour.
“What’s your purpose for visiting the United States today, sir?” the stern woman behind the computer, fingerprint machine, and camera asks me.
“I’m just transiting on my way to San Francisco.”
“Let me repeat”, the woman says coldly, “What’s your purpose for visiting the United States today, sir?”
Caught a little off-guard by her accusative tone, I go into more detail.
“Well, I’m going to San Francisco to meet my girlfriend and her parents.”
“You have a girlfriend in San Francisco?”
“Yes. Well, she’s staying with her parents about three hours out of the city.”
“What’s their address?”
Now, prior to leaving New Zealand, I had to apply for my ESTA visa, just like any other New Zealander travelling to the United States. It’s a simple enough process and doesn’t cost a lot, but it requires you to provide an address that you will be staying at upon your arrival in the country. I had tried putting Emma’s parents’ address into the online application form, but for whatever reason, it wouldn’t accept their rural address. I tried again and again but it simply wouldn’t work. Before picking me up from the airport in San Francisco, Emma was going to be staying at her friend’s house in Oakland, closer to the airport and an address that would surely work. So that’s the address I used on my ESTA visa application form. It worked. So, now that the customs official is asking me “What’s their address?”, I give her the Oakland address that I had used on the form to avoid complications.
It seems innocuous. Big mistake.
I search for the address in Emma and I’s WhatsApp messages before the customs official then asks to see my phone. I’m not sure if I have the right to deny this request, but either way, if I don’t give it to her she’ll surely become suspicious and if I do give it to her she’ll see the messages between myself and Emma in which we talk about the Oakland address being that of her friend. I’m damned either way. I give her my phone and she reads the messages.
“Come with me”, she says, taking my passport and cellphone with her.
My heart sinking, I follow her into a small side room. There are a couple of rows of seats all facing a big television playing MSNBC news. Something about the endless madness of Donald Trump’s presidency dominates the room. Along one side of the room are several CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officers sitting in booths with dark uniforms, guns, and serious faces, all pouring over documents and computer screens. The woman who led me into the room doesn’t say anything as she shuts the door behind me. None of the other officers say anything either. After standing there in confusion for a few moments, I approach one of the booths.
“Excuse me”, I say, “Can you please tell me what’s going on? I have a connecting flight I need to catch.”
The officer doesn’t look up from his paperwork.
“Well”, he says, leafing through his documents, “What’s going on with you?”
I’m not sure what to make of this reply. And why won’t he look at me?
I sit back down and wait. I’ve got about 40 minutes to board my flight to San Francisco. I’m starting to get incredibly anxious. Finally, after maybe five or ten minutes, a CBP officer at a booth calls out my name, sort of.
“Yeah, that’s me. David Coyle.”
“Your passport is invalid.”
Now my heart is really racing. Before I left New Zealand I had gotten a brand new passport through the correct government channels. How could it be invalid?
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“It has no signature, it’s invalid”, the officer says, placing it on his desk with a pen. I don’t find the joke particularly funny, given the circumstances, but laugh it off nervously and sign it. I realise their ridiculous attitudes and personas are simply aimed at irritating and agitating me, though I’m not sure of the precise reason for this approach, other than perhaps making people ‘crack’ and thus allowing them to be hit with the full weight of the law. Why antagonism is their chosen modus operandi is a mystery to me. As much as I wish I didn’t, I sign my passport with a visible tremor in my hand.
“Why are you shaking?”
“I’m just a little nervous.”
“Is it a medical problem?”
“No, no, I’m just a little bit nervous”, I say, “I’ve got a flight to catch soon and I’m not really sure what the problem here is.”
“Are you sure it’s not a medical problem?”
“Why are you nervous?”
I know what he’s doing. He’s asking repetitive questions that have obvious answers.
“I just don’t want to miss my flight.”
“So you’re shaking because you don’t want to miss your flight?”
“Don’t know why that would make you shake unless it was a medical problem.”
“It’s not a medical problem.”
“Where are you going?”
“To meet my girlfriend and visit her parents.”
“Who is your girlfriend?”
“Her name is Emma Serianni.”
“How do you spell that?”
“And why is she in San Francisco?”
“She lives there. Well, she used to. She’s a dual citizen of New Zealand and the United States but she’s wanting to start a new life in New Zealand. She’s coming back with me in December.”
“So where does she live?”
“She’s staying with her parents at the moment. They live in California, a little place called Mi Wuk Village.”
“You’re going to stay with your girlfriend’s parents until December?”
“Yes. We’re going to do a little bit of driving around the national parks and make our way up to Portland too to see a friend.”
“The publisher of my book lives there. I’m a writer.”
“What’s their name?”
I tell him.
“That’s the publisher’s name?”
“And what are you going to do in Portland?”
“Just meet her and have a drink, I think she wants to show Emma and I around the city.”
“So you’ve never met this woman?”
“No, not in person. We’ve been contacting each other via email.”
“Please unlock your phone. I want to see these emails.”
He hands me my phone and I unlock it, still with a slight quiver in my fingers. I know this isn’t going well. I show him the emails between the publisher and I where she says she looks forward to meeting me and buying me a beer.
“What’s this woman’s phone number?” he asks, putting my phone down.
“I don’t know. I’ve always only ever emailed her.”
“You don’t know her phone number?”
“No. You could easily find it online if you Google her company.”
“And where are you going to stay in Portland?”
“We’re not sure yet, we don’t know exactly when we’re going to drive up there.”
“So you don’t have any accommodation booked?”
“Not yet, no.”
“And you don’t have this woman’s phone number?”
“No, but you could easily find it.”
“Do you have your girlfriend’s phone number.”
“It’s in my phone, yes.”
“But you don’t know it?”
“No, it’s in my phone.”
“How much does your book sell for?”
This sudden change in the line of questioning makes this whole exercise all the more dizzying than it already is.
“Thirty-four dollars, something like that, New Zealand dollars.”
“How much US?”
“I don’t know. Depends on the exchange rate. Maybe twenty dollars.”
“Twenty dollars US?”
“What’s it called?”
“What’s it about?”
“Ah, it’s a complicated story, it’s a long poem, an epic poem.”
“An epic poem? What’s that?”
“It’s just a really long poem that tells a story.”
“So you’re doing business in Portland?”
“No. We’re just going to go for a beer, maybe she’ll show me around the office, I don’t know.”
“Why would she show you around the office?”
“I don’t know, just to introduce me to people, maybe show me how they make books. It’s a pretty casual meeting, definitely not business. You can see in the emails it isn’t business.”
“What’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“I already told you.”
“Tell me again.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s between jobs at the moment, she’s hoping to find something in New Zealand in the near future.”
“Yeah, a job.”
“What kind of job?”
“Well, an office job, maybe immigration or at the local university.”
“Yeah. It’s the capital.”
“Why does she want to leave the US?”
I have to seriously bite my tongue here.
“She just wants to start a new life in New Zealand.”
“Where did you meet her?”
“By the city library.”
“What’s the name of the library?”
“The Wellington City Library.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a student.”
“What do you study?”
“English literature, history, and Spanish.”
“Why are you learning Spanish?”
“I lived in Mexico for a while, it’s a beautiful language.”
“You lived in Mexico?”
“Yes, I taught English.”
“Where in Mexico?”
“It’s about two hours north of Mexico City.”
“So you speak Spanish?”
“Not fluently, but I can hold a conversation.”
“How did you afford this trip if you’re a student?”
“My grandfather died recently and left me with some inheritance.”
“When did your grandfather die?”
“I don’t know. I’d have to check.”
“You don’t know what day he died even though he left you with an inheritance?”
“It was mid-April. As I said, I’d have to check.”
“And he would want you to spend his money on a holiday?”
“I think he’d want me to enjoy life, yes.”
“What’s your father’s name?”
This kind of insane, pinball questioning lasts for two hours. I miss my flight. I start thinking I need to contact Emma and tell her I will be late. The CBP officer finally tells me I can sit down. The television is still on about Trump. The insanity begins to feel so very real. A few minutes later, the officer goes through my luggage. He goes through my backpack. He finds the two books that I’ve been reading, one on African dictators and Edward Snowden’s autobiography.
“You like reading about criminals?” he asks.
“Lots of people do”, I say, my patience running out.
He finds the chocolates I’m bringing for Emma’s mother.
“That’s all you’re going to give your girlfriend’s mother, some chocolates?”
“That’s all she wanted.”
He finds my notebook. It’s a personal diary that I’ve kept for the last few years. It’s full of ideas, thoughts, personal reflections, dark rumination, sad musings, despair, hope for the future. He begins reading it.
“You have depression?” he asks.
“Yes. Although, I’m feeling fine now.”
He keeps reading.
“Your girlfriend had an abortion?”
“My ex-girlfriend did, yes.”
“What was that like?”
“What did that feel like?”
I pause in an effort to remain calm. I’m feeling like ripping this bastard’s head off. I give him a dead stare that I hope tells him he’s crossing the line.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy”, I say through gritted teeth.
He seems unfazed by his behaviour. He seems convinced I’m some sort of criminal, a drug runner perhaps, someone with suspicious connections to Mexico. I don’t really know what he’s thinking. I doubt it’s anything particularly intelligent. He finds the worthless Cambodian banknote that I’ve been using as a bookmark in one of my books.
“Is there any other foreign currency you’re not telling me about?”
“That’s a souvenir.”
“Is there any other foreign currency you’re not telling me about?”
He finishes ransacking my stuff before letting me pack it all back up again. He leads me to an interview room. He makes me raise my right hand and pledge, I’m not sure on what, to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He questions me in this same absurd fashion for two more hours, pistol on his belt. At some point in this circus, I come to terms with the inevitable. He probably decided four hours ago that he wasn’t going to let me into the country. I’m heartbroken. I just wanted to see my girlfriend and meet her parents and my friend.
“You falsified a federal document and lied to a federal officer” he finally says, having evidently killed enough of his shift, “As such, you’re in violation of section [I can’t remember what number] of the [something-something] Act and I have no choice but to deem you as inadmissible to the United States.”
He goes on talking in more of this masturbatory language. I don’t bother saying anything. The ability to change someone’s mind is dependent on the premise that they have one to begin with. He tells me he’s going to send me back to New Zealand on the next available flight. The next available flight isn’t until the following day, so he’s sending me to the Federal Detention Center, Honolulu. I’m not going to California, I’m going to jail.
I’m allowed to make a brief phone call to the New Zealand consulate in Honolulu. I ask the friendly kiwi accent on the other end of the phone to call Emma and my father to let them know what’s happened.
After making me take off my shoes, my belt, my hoodie, and my necklaces, I’m thoroughly patted down. It’s done in front of other CBP officers and is uncomfortable to say the least. I then have to face the wall, spread my feet, lean forward, and put my hands behind my back. Another officer cuffs me and he and his partner lead me through the airport to a waiting police car outside. The hot Hawaiian air hits me like a warm blanket. I’m shunted into the back of the cop car and driven to the twelve-story prison nearby.
I ignore the thick-necked officers’ attempts to chat to me and instead think of a certain irony. I’m thinking of the phrase that has always inspired me to travel, “Ships are safest in harbour but that is not what they are for”. In 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Pacific fleet while it was at anchor nearby in Pearl Harbor. The knockout blow that the Japanese had hoped to administer failed in part because none of the American aircraft carriers were in port that day. As it would turn out, aircraft carriers would prove to be the most important weapons in the war in the Pacific. As we arrive at the prison, formulating the exact contours and irony of this metaphor is how I distract my heartbreak.
Led into the basement of the building, I’m told to strip naked before being given pale green prison clothes and black Velcro shoes. I’m mugshot and fingerprinted. The medical officer asks me if I have sex with men or women before asking how many partners I’ve had in the last five years. He asks if I have HIV or if I’ve ever been raped. He tells me I can’t have my depression and anxiety medication because it isn’t life-threatening. Another officer then asks if I have any gang affiliations or tattoos and if I’ve ever testified against anyone in court. I’m cleared for admission into general population and told to wait in an empty concrete room. The echo of steel and concrete and the banality of white fluorescent lights make me realise this is a real prison. I see someone has scratched into the metal bench the words ‘BE HAPPY’. I’m far from happy. However, I gain some perspective when an old Samoan prisoner is ushered into the room with me. He tells me his wife and children are American citizens but that his green card application was denied. He was therefore in the United States illegally and locked up while he waits to be deported back to Samoa. He’s a nice man and puts me at ease somewhat as to who I’m about to encounter in general population. But he’s old and I’m pretty sure the prisoners will have different attitudes towards the elderly.
He and I are soon led upstairs to the male prison block. We have to face the back of the elevator as it takes us up. The particular part of the prison where I’m taken is a big long room with two levels of cells lining the perimeter. There’s stairs leading up to the upper level and tables lining the ground floor. It’s dinner time when I arrive and I can see all the prisoners are sitting in racial groups; black guys huddled around one set of tables, Hispanic guys huddled around another, Hawaiians and other Polynesians around another, Asians another, and white guys another. Everyone eyes me up as I walk towards my cell, number 218 on the second level. I don’t make eye-contact with anyone, but I also don’t keep my head low. I do my best not to look scared as shit, and I’m scared as shit. In my peripheral vision are the meanest looking mother fuckers; bald heads covered in vicious ink, teardrop tattoos running down their cheeks, muscles indicative of years pent up in confinement with only push-ups to pass the time. I’d be made a fucking meal of in no time. Passing the Hispanic prisoners, I hear the filthiest Spanish being spoken, but thankfully none of them are saying anything about me, though I can feel their eyes on me.
The guard leads me to 218 and pushes the door open. Being dinner time, it isn’t locked. I step inside 218 and see my cellmate, Michael, lying on the bottom bunk and reading A Tale of Two Cities.
“Hey”, I say.
“‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’”, I say, quoting the opening line of his book.
“How’d you know that?” he says, sitting up.
“It’s a good book, huh?”
“It’s alright”, he shrugs, lying back down.
“Michael”, he says, reading his book, “Shoes by the door and sit down to pee, otherwise piss splashes everywhere.”
I see the toilet in the corner of the room.
Climbing the bunk, I lie on my back and keep quiet.
“So what ya in for, Dave?”
I tell him. He doesn’t believe me.
“They put you in here for that?”
“C’mon, man, what you hidin’?”
“Fuckin’ hell”, I hear him say from the bottom bunk.
“How about you?” I ask.
I don’t ask for any more detail. I offer him the orange they gave downstairs while they were processing me and at first he’s suspicious.
“What do you want for this?”
“Nothing, man. Honest. It’s yours.”
“You don’t want it?”
“Go for it, man.”
Gradually, the conversation starts flowing a little more easily.
“So where you from anyway?”
“New Zealand! Shit. I heard it’s real nice down there.”
“It’s got its problems, like anywhere, but it’s nice, yeah. The police don’t carry guns.”
“What! The police don’t carry guns! How the fuck do they stop the criminals?”
“They keep their guns in their cars. Besides, not many criminals have guns.”
“Man, I gotta go someplace peaceful like that. I wouldn’t even do anything. I’d just hang out. The police don’t carry guns. Holy shit, man, that’s fuckin’ crazy.”
He asks if I have anything to read and offers me an old book of short stories. I stare at the pages but very little of it goes in.
“What time do they wake us up?” I then ask.
This is the only time Michael seems angry with me.
“Don’t ever fuckin’ talk to me about time, man. Six o’clock, eight o’clock, what the hell fuckin’ difference does it make?”
I don’t say anything. We just lie there and read. Michael’s friend from another cell, whose name I miss, then comes in and sits down. He’s missing his front teeth and has a skeleton tattoo on his face.
“They locked you up with a murderer for that?” he asks when I tell him why I’m there. I glance briefly at Michael who’s sat himself on a small table, he doesn’t acknowledge or deny the charge.
“Shit. Welcome to the U-nited States, huh?” his friend laughs, “They lock you up real fast around here.”
They tell me about their time in different prisons across the United States; Hawaii, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri. As they swap stories, I realise I’m no longer scared. I don’t know exactly who I’m talking to, but at least they’re real people, unlike the robotic authorities. I actually start to enjoy the conversation. They find it hilarious that we called being drunk in New Zealand being “pissed”.
Michael’s friend asks if I enjoy the food here. I tell him I haven’t tried it. He asks if he can have my meal downstairs and I say of course he can. We head down to the ground floor with all the other prisoners huddled around their tables. Some are watching a repeat of the World Series and some are playing chess. I get my meal and give it to Michael’s friend. He slinks off and I don’t see him again. Walking back to 218, I stop to watch two guys playing chess. They’re black and white, like the pieces, and I realise that either the self-imposed segregation isn’t as strict as I first thought it was, or games are an acceptable middle ground in which to mix and meet. The white guy loses and since I’ve been watching the game, the black guy asks if I want to play. He’s good, but I beat him.
“You got game, son, you got game, I’ll give you that!”
We start talking about strategy and how the game could have gone differently. For a moment, I forget I’m in jail. He packs up his chessboard and I’m left sitting at the table. Two Hispanic prisoners then sit down to play cards.
“You’re good sitting there, man”, one says to me in English, “You don’t get in our way and we won’t get in yours.”
I decide not to reply in Spanish and instead let them have the table to themselves. Feeling a little more comfortable, I walk around and see a small library, a kind of chapel room, and a shower block. The lights soon blink off and on and the prisoners begin slowly walking back to their cells. Dinner time is over, lock up has begun.
This is when Michael asks me what I think dying would be like. He keeps talking about death, the universe, God, and the nature of hallucinations, group and individual, for a couple of hours. He’s got those wide eyes where you can see the entire white outline of his iris. It has the effect of making him appear particularly frightening at certain moments when saying certain things. His conversation is real prison philosophy stuff, limited, like the prisoner, by the confines of his reality. It’s interesting, nonetheless. I can tell he’s had nothing but a lot of time to sit and read and think. His conversation fades away after lights out with him repeating my thoughts on death.
“It’s nothing, nothing” he keeps saying.
Then he makes me smile to myself.
“I mean, nothing isn’t ideal”, he says, “but it could be worse.”
It could be worse.
I don’t get to sleep for a long time. Not only am I thinking about how I should be driving through San Francisco with Emma at that very moment, but because I wasn’t allowed my medication, I can’t sleep. Taking the medication helps me sleep, not taking it makes me incredibly anxious. It’s like trying to sleep after having three cups of coffee and an argument with your boss. Not only that, but I’m prone to having weird and noisy nightmares if I miss my medication. The last thing I want is to have a loud or embarrassing nightmare in a cell with a murderer.
When a guard wakes me up in the morning, I’ve had maybe two hours sleep. Michael bumps my fist as I leave.
“Don’t ever come back, man”, he says.
“I won’t”, I tell him, “And just remember, there’s nothing to it.”
The same procedure as when I arrived, just in the opposite order, then sees me handcuffed in the back of another police car driving to the airport. The officer keeps telling me that I smell. I don’t reply.
Back in the airport, I’m put in a holding room of some kind for six hours until my flight. They offer me food and water, but I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. I just want to go home. Bored out of my brain, I eventually get given something to read. I look at the words but struggle to take anything in. Finally, I’m escorted by a policeman through the airport to my flight to Auckland. Along the way, I see an official portrait of Donald Trump hanging up on a wall. I have had many great experiences in the United States in the past, it’s an incredible country filled with wonderful people and fascinating places that have a lot to offer, but this particular experience, this particular portrait—it’s the ugly, the punitive, the paranoid dark side. I can’t wait to leave it.
When the plane lands in Auckland eight hours later, the head flight attendant gives me my passport back. The nightmare is over. I’m back in New Zealand. I’m back in paradise. I’m home.
Curiously, however, when driving back to Wellington and stopping at a bar to enjoy a pint and watch a pink and yellow sunset over Lake Taupo, the snowcapped peaks of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe shining brightly in the distance, I then get an unusual email. It’s from a reporter working for Stuff and The Dominion Post. She says that she has heard about my experience in Honolulu and wants to call me. None of my friends know I’m in Taupo, only my immediate family, everyone else thinks I’m in California enjoying my holiday. I fire back an email asking how she found out about what happened to me in Hawaii. She says she can’t tell me. I reply that, therefore, I can’t tell her anything either.
I finish my beer as the purple sky deepens. I think of John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Heartbroken, but not broken, I begin planning for Emma’s arrival in December.
[I decided not to go to the press with this story. If I ever want to visit the United States again (and despite what their government might think, I really don’t want to visit again, especially not any time soon), but if I do want to visit, I have to go for an interview at the consulate in Auckland and pay $260 (I have to do this even if I’m just transiting through the country and not leaving the airport, for the rest of my life). If I had given the press this story, I can’t imagine my interview at the consulate would go well. I decided to write this account for my friends and family on my own website where I can control what is written and when it is taken down, probably in a couple of weeks. And let’s be honest, this basically just saves me from retelling the story a thousand times over!]