Going to Riker’s Island Prison at 3 in the Morning

I don’t think any of the prostitutes were above the age of 18. One girl told me she was sixteen but who knows. They were all black. The 16 year old was laughing and sort of skipping around while she was talking to me. We were in Long Island City in Queens at three in the morning. They were waiting for the bus to return from Riker’s Island, the prison. All around me were prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers. It sounds overly dramatic to say it that way but that’s what their jobs were and this was their place of work. This particular bus stop was like a bloody, inflected gash at the bottom of Queens. We were the fleas filling it, an endless advancement from sorrow to sorrow. The last street at the end of the world.

This was the only stop for the bus out of Riker's Island and it went back and forth all night. Anyone just-bailed out would get drugs from the drug dealers and blowjobs from the prostitutes. All night long. It was a crazy poem that rhymed all night. This was their day.

(an image of prostitutes taken by Google Earth)

The girls had pretty smiles. They were dancing and hopping as if there was music and they were just little girls at a school prom. I was talking to the sixteen year old about why she was doing this. She was wearing skin tight clothes, short shorts, a tank top that hugged her so fierce it was like part of her skin. She had small breasts and depending on how she moved, one of her nipples would peek out.

“Doing what?” she said. She couldn't stop smiling, skipping, a tiny dance. A guy stepped between her and me, tattoos up and down his tank-topped arms, flashed teeth filled with gold, silver, and dark red gums at me, then turned to her. I didn’t see what he did to her although they were no more than two feet from me. I heard an "ooomph" from her. "OOOmph!" An exhalation of air like a bullet shot out of her mouth.

Something happened. She folded in half and fell to the ground. Then she got up and limped very slowly around the corner into the darkest crevice of the brutal maze we were in. I couldn’t go around the corner. It was pitch black there. And when I peeked one time later there were dark shapes just standing around. Nobody walking. Just standing and I was afraid to go any further. Despondent, changeless, dark.

There was a Mini-Donuts shop with light. It was a greasy bright light with yellow walls and Indian workers always looking skeptically at the customers, even me. They were maybe most skeptical of me.

Construction workers were everywhere, wearing their bright orange and yellow fluorescent jackets so cars wouldn’t run them over. One of the construction guys came up to me and said, “don’t worry. We’re the police. If you need anything, let us know.” Somehow I was under the cone of protection. I was working for HBO at the time and was researching for a project. I wore my HBO jacket.

I was with a girl who was helping me. One time she disappeared and I got scared. I looked everywhere for her. For twenty minutes I couldn’t find her and in my innocence I thought she was dead and it was my fault. I found her when I saw her get out of the back seat of a car with a bunch of drug dealers. She was fearless. Whether she was getting drugs or taking them or just talking to them about whatever, I never knew. But I was in love with her because I thought she was crazier than me and she was always making me veer from happiness to paranoia to utter fear.

One time I stood with a mother and her daughter. They were waiting for the bus to arrive. “We have to go bail out my son,” the mother said to me. What did he do, I asked. He did nothing, she said. I never saw a sweeter face and her daughter loved her.

What had burned straight through their brains, making their eyes taste like candy? If your brains had been sawed through like that would your eyes taste the same? I wanted to touch the daughter’s lips with my hand. The mother and daughter were black but the daughter’s eyes were a beautiful green.

We all got on the bus. I sat in the back with a woman who was a cop. “I’m going to retire in a year," she said. "I want to move to Florida and be a massage therapist.” I could believe it. She had thick arms. She could crush me in a massage. She was thick everywhere.

I went up front and sat next to the bus driver. He was bald and had a face like the back of  a tack with two eyes. “I do this every day, all night long,” he told me. “Its always the same people going back and forth. I get my pension in ten years. The city of New York takes pretty good care of me. I ignore all the junkies but sometimes you see things on this job.  I guess I’m going to do this every night for the next ten years. It ain’t so bad. They take care of me.”

We crossed over a bridge and now we were on Riker’s Island. The entire island is the prison. “Sit in the back,” the bus driver told me, “and put your cameras under the seat and put your coat over the cameras.”

There was only one stop on the island. I said one last goodbye to the mother and daughter and wished them luck. In my arrogance I felt I could marry the daughter and save her. She wasn’t pretty or ugly. She had a shy voice. She had plump fat all over her. She was protecting her mother with her presence. Three in the morning, bailing out her brother.

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We stopped at the only building with light coming out of it.  It was the only light on the island and it blinded everyone on the bus. I watched the passengers disappear into it. The last glimpses of light sucked into a black hole. Goodbye.

The police or prison guards or whatever dragged a big white guy onto the bus. He couldn’t move but they dragged him on and threw him onto the front seat. “Heavy,” one of the guards said. The white guy slumped forward on his seat. He had a gut. A blue ripped t-shirt and jeans. A moustache. Bad acne on his forehead that was covered by greasy black hair. A burn on his face and arm that looked like it could get infected. It had a red, fresh look - the burn still sparkled with different shades of dead skin.

The bus left the island. I sat next to the burn guy. “What happened to you?” He wouldn’t answer.

“Hey buddy!” the bus driver said and tried to look around to see burn guy, “can you talk?” the burn guy wouldn’t answer. "Can you talk?" a little louder. No answer.

“Uh oh,” the bus driver said.

We got back to Long Island City. The burn guy was still slumped forward. Not talking. He didn’t get off the bus after everyone else had left. His eyes were blinking. His eyes briefly looked at me when I asked him if he was ok. But then they went back to just looking at the floor. “Oh fuck,” the bus driver said. “I need some help here. I got a guy who won’t get off the bus,” he said into an intercom. “no, he’s just not moving.”

An ambulance showed up. I asked one of the guys from the ambulance what was wrong with the guy. “There’s nothing wrong with him,” he said, “and you’re in my way.”


It took about four of them to carry the guy off of the bus. They put him in the ambulance. I was standing right next to the ambulance and the burn guy was sitting up on the cot in there. I peeked through the window. I thought maybe he looked at me through the window but maybe I imagined that. The ambulance started its siren even though there was no traffic at this time and it drove off.  I could see burn guy not moving and getting smaller as the ambulance drove off. The burn guy was just going from one facility to another. 14 years later is he now a father? Its Father’s Day as I write this. Do daughters now love him? Did they make him marble cake this morning like mine did?

All the prostitutes and drug dealers were now gone or busy. The gray light of morning in the jungle was descending onto the road. Nobody was even in the mini-donuts shop. The night here had its own cadence that its participants would dance to. I didn’t even see any of the construction workers.

“It’s just another night. You can’t let this stuff get to you,” the bus driver told me. And he shut the door and and with a big shifting of gears and levers the bus pulled out of its stop and drove off, under the bridges and tracks that criss-crossed right above us – making sure all the cars and people from Long Island or Manahattan would always stay fifty feet higher. Never coming down to this subterannean level at the dark edge of Queens.

Now I was by myself.  I found myself missing the bus driver and even missing the sixteen year old girl. But it was time for me to go back over the river and go home  The sun was coming up.

Time for breakfast.

  • James, this reads like a William Gibson scene.  Throw in some technology and a mystery to solve, and your next fiction novel has legs.

  • Steven L Goff

    The keyhole satelite pics of the chocolate whores standing on street corner in mix and match bikinis and “fuck me heels” on…..is strangely arousing to me!  I might be on to a new niche’ porn content…..distant voyeurism…so to speak!

    • Meave9

      Rethink that. One of the girls clearly has a stick straight pre-adolescent figure. 

    • Meave9

      Rethink that. One of the girls clearly has a stick straight pre-adolescent figure. 

    • Meave9

      Rethink that. One of the girls clearly has a stick straight pre-adolescent figure. 

  • William Bianco

    Happy Feathers Day to you, James. None of us dads are perfect, but you’re trying, that’s not as common as you think, and counts a lot.

    And thanks for the writings. They’re very helpful.


  • 14 years later you still wonder if he has daughters that love him. That’s impressive to me for many reasons.

    Happy Father’s Day to you, James.

  • “In my arrogance I felt I could marry the daughter and save her.”

    much has been written on the unrealistic expectations girls are taught to have about their prince charming and knights in shining armour.

    Less about us boys who grew up thinking we should/could play that role.

    Truth is, we can do that only for our daughters.  and what a privilage that is.

    No marble cake for me, but my not so little girl took me out to lunch and I had a hot fudge sundae.

    Happy Father’s Day!

  • Wow.  Reads like a great short story.  So much emotion, detail, imagery.  So much life.  Nicely done.

  • paul

    damn man. bien joue.

  • Anonymous

    James, seriously consider another stab at fiction!  This piece has all those great elements that attracted me to Miranda July’s “You Me and Everyone We Know” – the disconnected connectedness that seems to be the modern condition, the elements of the human experience we want to forget or gloss over but keep bumping into. I think you’ve got a great novel in you.  

  • This is a powerful and disturbing story, James. (Nice tie in to Father’s Day by the way.) 

    You’re a brilliant writer. I love this. 

  • Good story. Captivating. I have always loved how night affects people. People change at night. 

  • Reedlee

    Well done James………..but I feel the ending would be stronger if you deleted the very last line.

    • modernmind

      Last line makes it. My opinion.

  • Happy Father’s Day!!!

  • Often parents are a bit too focused on what we think we need to teach our children. Relax a little and appreciate and acknowledge what our children teach us.  Happy fathers day to all.

  • Often parents are a bit too focused on what we think we need to teach our children. Relax a little and appreciate and acknowledge what our children teach us.  Happy fathers day to all.

  • Often parents are a bit too focused on what we think we need to teach our children. Relax a little and appreciate and acknowledge what our children teach us.  Happy fathers day to all.

  • jc

    typo? “And he shut the door and and with a…” Delete this comment after reading :) 

  • wsc

    crazy imagery, james…like a poem that rhymes all night