Welcome to Jeans Town
“The color is wrong,” said the man behind the heavy glass window.
“But—all the website said was green sweats,” I insisted, holding the sweatpants and sweatshirt purchased at Target earlier that day.
“They’re supposed to be hunter green. And they can’t have pockets or a hood,” said the man, pointing at the hooded sweatshirt and pants, which I might have called a fern green if I worked at a clothes catalog.
“The website didn’t say that,” I faltered.
“Well, I’m just telling you the rules,” the man said.
“Where am I supposed to get the right sweats, then?” I felt near tears. The page had specified dark green sweats and that’s all. Nothing about the exact shade of green or pockets or hoods.
“Steve!” the man called to a colleague. “Where do you get the sweats now?”
Another man walked over to the window. “I think it’s called Jeans Town,” he said.
“Where is that?” I asked, trying not to cry.
“Patchogue. They have the right stuff,” the other man said.
Everything I said and did when interacting with these institutions seemed to be wrong. There was some unwritten code that I as a middle class, educated person wasn’t privy to, so much I didn’t understand. Such as where I was supposed to buy the sweats approved for wear by my son in the county jail.
When I was pregnant, this wasn’t how I’d pictured parenting my son at age 20. I’d expected our future to be J. Crew, not Jeans Town. By now, my husband and I, wearing Shetland sweaters and corduroys (maybe I would be wearing a barn jacket), would be tailgating with our son at the annual Yale-Harvard game, probably out of the back of our SUV. My husband was a Yale alumnus, so it stood to reason our son would go there too. Maybe we’d have a couple of younger children tagging along; one of them would go to an artsy college.
That neither of us like heavy sweaters, corduroys, or SUVs didn’t seem to matter. And as it turned out, my husband had left me by the time my son went to jail. The kid didn’t have the grades for Yale, nor did he want to go away to school. My future was to be “Broke single mom crying as she drives out of the jail parking lot,” not tailgating at the Yale-Harvard game.
Nor was my son’s situation something I could tell my friends about. Where I live, in the Hamptons, is about $27,000 bottles of rose wine, $10,000 per table fundraisers, and friends telling me I should go to a trunk show from a little-known but talented Italian designer. Not about my actual life: canned soup for dinner, unpaid bills, and green sweats from Jeans Town.
I tried to find Jeans Town. For once, my cell phone was intact, in my possession (I tended to lend it to the kids if theirs were out of commission, a fact that friends of mine were scathing about, as if I gave up my phone out of pure caprice), and charged up, so I could use its map to locate the shop. The façade of the store advertised jeans, sneakers, and cellphones. In the dimly lit interior, I pushed past the display of much better cell phones than I possessed, sneakers that cost more than my property tax bill, and saw a section that was not but might as well be called “Jail Wear.” Sets of hunter green sweats were stacked neatly packaged in plastic; some of the packages included cotton long johns.
I selected a couple sets in XL, hoping the size was right. My son is 6’5” but less than 200 pounds, so not easy to buy for. But I wanted my child to have everything he needed, and I didn’t want him to be cold. I brought the packages to the register, where the checkout clerk regarded me kindly and compassionately. The clerk talked me to sympathetically about the clothing needs of inmates and what they were allowed to possess, and recommended some long johns for the winter when the jail was under heated. His kindness brought tears to my eyes. I guessed I was a resident of Jeans Town now.
Sometimes I get so tired of pretending. Pretending I’m rich, pretending I’m happy, pretending I’m like everyone else in the Hamptons. Pretending I don’t answer my phone because I don’t like to, instead of the truth, which is that bill collectors and credit agencies dun me every day and fill up my voice mail. Pretend that I really do have money and I can afford to eat out and drink $22 bottles of wine every day. Pretending that I’m not overdrawn on my bank account, or that I have credit cards, or a credit rating above 580. Pretending that my family problems are funny—ha ha ha, my crazy kids drive me nuts!—not things that cause me to stay awake at night, wondering where my child is and whether he’s safe.
My boy did go to a college, a local one, for which we bought him a car to commute in. He got sent to jail after driving drunk in that car on New Year’s Eve when he was 19. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged except for his car, but he was underage and the judge wanted to teach him a lesson. In the courtroom, my child started shaking uncontrollably when the judge issued the sentence. The judge then asked our lawyer whether the boy was on drugs and had the shakes. “I think he’s crying, your honor,” the lawyer said. “The time for tears is long gone,” intoned the judge. He might have well have said, Welcome to Jeans Town.
I ran out of the courthouse in shock. I didn’t know they were going to send him to jail. I called my husband (long distance), crying so hard he didn’t know what I was saying. I drove home in a dream and hid under a blanket, alone.
I sold some family heirlooms to pay for a good criminal lawyer, which was the only way I could think of to raise the money. Shame kept me from telling most of my friends, making me feel even more alone. And most of the time, when I told people what he’d done, they made sure to tell me that they didn’t condone DUIs, as if that was necessary.
It was only for five weeks in a minimum security facility, but it felt far longer to me. I visited my boy once a week, bringing him magazines and books to read. The correctional facility helpfully had an enormous sign reading JAIL with an arrow nearby, which feels like a punch in the gut when it refers to where your child is being kept prisoner. The entrance was guarded, and you had to give your name and the inmate’s name to the guard at the entrance, as well as give them ID. The guard at the front said to me, “Do you know where to park?” and I, thinking of other things, replied “Mmmm.” He said sharply to me, “Is that a YES?” “Yes,” I replied meekly. In my former middle class existence, I was used to politeness, but in Jeans Town, rudeness from authority was the order of the day.
Finally, after divesting myself of my wallet, jewelry, cellphone, and so on, I was permitted to see my boy. The child I would willingly have gone to jail for to spare him, the boy I would unhesitatingly take a bullet for. He was the same old kid: funny, smart, well read, and probably better educated than the average Yale student. Only unlike them, he was wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit.
Weeks later, I drove, alone, to pick him up. The JAIL sign still felt like a punch in my abdomen. I went to the same window as on my first visit and told the man I was here for a release. The uniformed guard barked, “Processing will take one to four hours. Have a seat.” I waited in the molded plastic seats, insouciantly using my cellphone, against the rules. A couple hours later, a heavy metal door stenciled with numbers clanked open and my child was there. Smiling.
They gave him his belongings, including the dark green sweats, in a plastic bag. He stowed the sweats in the trunk of my car. I said, “Surely you don’t want to keep these?” He said he didn’t know; maybe he’d keep the sweats as a souvenir.
The next day, I put them all—the correct shade of dark green, no pockets, no hood–in the bottom of the trash bin. Goodbye, Jeans Town.