Vagneur: From the barroom to the jailhouse

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The door slammed with a thud behind me, and I thought, “Holy shit, this is serious stuff.” Until that very moment, at 19 years old, I hadn’t taken it very seriously, thinking I was somehow going to beat the system. In the dim light, I was (quietly, I thought) stepping over and around bodies, making every attempt to find a chink in the steel armor that surrounded me.

“Goddammit, lay down and go to sleep,” came a cranky voice from behind me, and I could tell from the futile tone that it was uttered from one who had already fruitlessly tried to make his escape. I’ve never quite felt so alone, even though the room was full of snoring, hacking and staring-into-space drunks and social misfits.

“All right, you SOB, I’ll show you how it’s done, in the morning,” and as I curled up on a concrete slab, the stench told me I might have made a bad turn.

“The Daddy of ’Em All,” Cheyenne Frontier Days, is upon us once again (since 1897), and I always wonder if it could ever be as adventuresome again as it was in my youth. One year I drove a team of horses in the big parade, pulling a float of dancing girls — thought I had finally arrived. Entered the wild horse race another year but had to scratch when our mugger got cold feet just before the start. And there was the night I got detained at Warren Air Force Base for taking an officer’s wife — oh, never mind. But getting arrested killed it for me, for a long time, not that it was anyone’s fault but my own.

I was standing on the dance floor, opposite the bar, when somebody sailed a full bottle of beer across the hardwood floor, and being in a congenial mood, I stomped it with my boot, causing it to explode all over hell and customers. Some guy at the bar thought that was great fun and started pitching more bottles my way, and being quick of foot, I didn’t let a one get by me.

Anyway, the cops came, and since I didn’t have a place to stay, I figured, “What the hell, everybody always talks about spending a night in the hoosegow, maybe I’ll just take my turn,” and I went along peacefully with the officers. They stuck me in the backseat with a dog something like Cujo, and although they warned me not to move, Cujo started licking my face, I started telling jokes and it seemed like it wasn’t too bad. They took my money, my hat, my belt and my wallet and offered me the phone to make a call, but why bother? I’d be out in the morning. Oops.

Next morning when it was clear I wasn’t getting out, the cops became deaf to my request to call home, and before I knew it, we were all herded into one long room, concrete and metal tables on one side, jail cells on the other. In a show of warped humor, they served us a big pot of sauerkraut and hot dogs for breakfast, letting us to serve ourselves. I passed.

It wasn’t that crowded, and I took a table by myself, eyeballing the room to see what kind of folks I was dealing with. About then, a 30ish and very tall black man, mostly covered in blood, headed my way. My mind said, “Nope, I don’t need this shit.” The guy was friendly and curious, and when I tentatively asked him how he ended up in jail, he didn’t hesitate. “Some guy called me a nigger,” he said. “I’m used to that, but this guy wouldn’t quit, so I fixed him.” Shortly they came and took him to a different area, seeing how he had been charged with murder. I missed him, too, about the only guy in there I could talk to. The rest were mostly worried about their cirrhosis, chances of getting arrested again or who was going to clean the shower after some asshole smeared the walls with his own feces.

It took forever to reach my dad, who was out of town, for bail money, even though I had a stash in the trunk of my car (the bail bondsman wouldn’t believe me), and I had to spend another night locked up.

Having witnessed the usual parade of bullshit, I immediately claimed my own cell and the top bunk, about as puke-proof as one could get although bedbugs fell from the ceiling with regularity and several times rowdy drunks were shoved into the cell with me. And the smell was overwhelming. I think the bunk sheets only got changed whenever a new jail was built.

And about noon the next day, the bail money arrived. I fled the place with all due diligence, and I’ve never been back.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at