Don Cardinali dug his fork into a heap of pasta that smothered his chicken, and swirled the noodles into the puddle of tomato sauce on his plate. His eyes were a glazed white. His mouth opened wide for each bite, emitting an odor that smelled like a tube of glue.
A few bites later, he pulled up a pile of pasta, clamped it with his knife and fork and shoved it so hard into his mouth that he snapped his dentures off his gums. “Holy fucking shit!” he yelled, drawing some looks from the others at the Cedar Lane Diner in Teaneck. He set down his utensils, refastened his teeth and resumed eating.
Then Cardinali, 53, pointed at the chicken filet on his plate.
“Want some?” he asked, his new, oversized but shiny white teeth jutting out from his wide grin.
For once, Cardinali, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was happy. Just a month earlier, in December 2004, he was eating most of his food with a spoon. He had to wait in meal lines that were a half-hour long at the Bergen County Jail, where he was locked up, again, on drug charges. Other inmates stole his food while mocking his shoulder-length, blonde hair, calling him “gay” or “fag.” After the watery oatmeal or the runny eggs was slopped onto his wooden tray, Cardinali would grab four honey buns, and stuff them in his armpit. Then he would sit at a table, alone, shove the rolls into his socks and save them for bedtime.
This was his seventh jail stint and, quite possibly, his worst. In one incident, Cardinali screamed at an inmate who routinely taunted him, compelling the corrections officers to restrain him and send him to lockdown for three days, where he was prevented from having contact with other prisoners.
He also was thrown out of a Bergen County program that provided guidance to prisoners with mental illness. The objective of “jail diversion” was to get the well-behaved prisoners with schizophrenia and other disorders a speedier release – if they showed promise that they wouldn’t again break the law – and provide guidance to them once they’re on their own, looking for a job. Cardinali initially agreed to play along, going to therapy sessions and agreeing to be interviewed for a potential early release. But his erratic behavior, coupled with his history of relapse, did him in.
Desperate, he called his family, friends and attorneys. The only one who answered was his mother, Agnes, but she wouldn’t talk for more than a few minutes. Then he’d ask for his sister, but she wouldn’t even come to the phone. Both his mother and sister had restraining orders against him.
“He’s a no-good drug addict. If he gets out, he can’t come home,” said his sister, Diane. “He soils the family name.”
Cardinali had no hope of getting out before July 2005, when his 1-year sentence would be finished. His next court date was Jan. 28, when he was supposed to face state Superior Court Judge Eugene Austin. Even if he had been a model prisoner, however, he did nothing to help himself get a job, transportation, housing or anything that could help secure an early release.
“I just haven’t been able to call anybody to help me out,” he said. “I had been waiting to use the phone at the jail, but there was a bunch of guys waiting to use it.”
On Jan. 28, at the court hearing, his attorney, Diane D’Alessandro, spoke for him. She told the judge he had a job, a shelter to go to and a ride to take him there. She said he would stay clear of drugs, stay out of trouble and stay clean. Cardinali admitted later he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I just nodded along,” he said. “I wasn’t going to argue with her.”
He was set free.
One the way out of jail, Cardinali hitched a ride to the Bergen County shelter. That night, he slept in the back of a delivery truck. For the next month, he would alternate between the shelters – as long as they had room – and the trucks parked in front of the Bergen County Community Action Program’s shelter on Orchard Street in Hackensack. He would wear the only clothes he had, or had access to. He got money for a meal from anybody he could, usually begging for a few bucks so he could eat at McDonald’s. And, as he did just before lunching at the Cedar Lane diner in February, Cardinali would spend much of his time roaming the streets, squeezing roofer’s glue into a plastic bag, covering his mouth and sucking in the fumes.
Even as his life of hardship continued, Cardinali sat at the Cedar Lane Diner in February 2005, and found reason to smile, even if his slippery dentures made smiling a struggle. Finally, he found something that worked for him.
“I’m an addict. I’ve had a relapse here and there. But I’ve been working on recovery since 1981. I have a lot of support outside,” Cardinali said after his release.
Still Cardinali had a plan. He would beg for money from friends he hadn’t seen in a while. He would try to reconcile with his mother, he said, even with the restraining order against him. He wouldn’t have to rely on the drugs that the jail provided and did little to relieve the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Instead, he had his glue and, if he could ever find the money, he would buy heroin, too.
If anybody asked, Cardinali would tell him he’s fine. He was suspicious of the jail diversion program, anyway. He was afraid he’d be labeled as “mentally ill,” and even if he did get an early release, he’d have a hard getting a job. Now he could live his life, and pretend that all the things that brought him down – his temper, his rap sheet, his illness – don’t really exist.
Cardinali’s main mission was to prevent what happened on July 29, 2004. That day, Cardinali was sweating as he walked the sidewalk in Palisades Park. He was wearing a mesh hat, a sweatshirt and a thick pair of jeans, the only clothes he owned. He walked about two miles from B&B Upholstery, where he did occasional odd jobs, to Valley National Bank, just over the border in Ridgefield, because he wanted to see if his Social Security check had cleared.
But the heat was getting to him. So he reached into his left shirt pocket, pulled out a tube of roofer's glue and squirted a half-inch drop into a plastic bag. Then he put the bag over his mouth, and breathed in, deeply. He removed it, and looked straight ahead. The street was spinning. He stumbled a little, and nearly fell down, but he quickly straightened himself up.
Cardinali walked over to the bank, and headed straight to a teller. He was afraid that he was too high to talk, so he pulled a bank deposit slip and wrote the teller a note. The teller’s eyes nearly crossed as she struggled to decipher his writing. When she told him she couldn’t read it, he grabbed the paper and stormed out.
Outside, he stood in front of the bank window and, again, squirted glue in a bag, and then breathed in the fumes.
Another bank teller saw him, walked over to the alarm and pulled it. Minutes later, three police cars pulled up, and surrounded him. The officers got out of their cars, kneeled behind doors and drew their guns.
Cardinali dropped his bag. He stood on his toes, and raised the other leg high in the air. He later said he felt like the Karate Kid, the homeless version.
“I know Tai Chi!” he yelled.
Three officers ran up to him, cuffed him and pulled him to the car. Cardinali kept shaking his head. For the seventh time, Cardinali was going to jail. As hard as it was for him to stay away from incarceration, he never got used to it.
He was 5 foot 10 inches, yet he was so skinny that he seemed small. He had a temper, but he was also polite, and often apologized for things he said, or things he was about to say. But, in jail, he was often up against people much bigger, more vicious and had no capacity for mercy.
Cardinali’s “pod” at the Bergen County Jail was C-2, where the mentally ill were housed. There, the pod had tables with checker boards painted on, and stacks of bunk beds where the inmates slept. Many of prisoners sat at the tables, chatting and laughing like they were at a poker club. Or, they watched T.V., leaning back in their chairs and listening quietly.
Every Tuesday, counselors from Care Plus, a Wallington-based mental health treatment organization hired by the county to manage the jail diversion program, arrived to meet with groups of inmates diagnosed with mental illness. They held their sessions in a small room with storefront-sized windows, where metal folding chairs were lined in a circle. Inside the room, the cinder-block walls were pale and colorless. A television set sat there, unplugged. A bookcase was there, too. But the books were rarely red. The covers had barely a rip or fold or a fray, like they belonged on the shelves of B.Dalton, not the Bergen County Jail.
The county hired Care Plus to meet with inmates every Tuesday at 11 a.m., and each meeting was really group therapy. Counselors provided guidance to inmates and alternatives to spending their lives behind bars. Typically, 10 to 12 inmates sat in the small room, leaned on their knees and listened to each other bitch and moan about their lives.
Cardinali often walked in late, slumping in his chair, with his blonde hair leaning against the back of the chair, his legs folded and his left hand resting on his right forearm. Cardinali had to be prodded, and practically dragged in there to participate. Sometimes he was mocked and heckled because he would put up such a fuss about doing it. After several meetings, however, Cardinali started to get why the others were there: They didn’t care so much about getting better. They only saw this as a ticket out.
When he was young, Cardinali wanted to be an oceanographer. But he could never stay sober or sane long enough to get a college degree. He liked playing music better, anyway. He played drums in a band called “Omnibus.” He bumped into or played with just about everybody from the Grateful Dead, Pegasus and Quicksilver Messenger Service. When he was in Alcoholics Anonymous in Florida, Dion, the 50s rocker who sang “The Wanderer,” was his sponsor, he said. The guys who wrote “Dancing in the Moonlight,” the hit from the ’70s, penned it in his mother’s basement, he claimed.
Cardinali had a mother who was nurturing, and a father who was tough, but fair. They were basically stable, and happy, until his dad died in the mid-1980s. That was when his mother, depressed over the loss, told Cardinali that the man who died wasn’t his biological father. His real father was a jailbird, a heroin addict. He was also Jewish, which didn’t go over well with Cardinali’s Italian girlfriend at the time. After hearing the news, she broke up with him. “If you’re Italian, you marry Italian,” Cardinali remembered her saying.
Cardinali started doing heroin in the 1970s when a friend approached him and sold him a $15 bag. “I just found myself driving over to his house, in New Milford, where his family lived and I knocked on his door, like an asshole, and asked if I could get some,” Cardinali said. “And he was the one who put it in my arm the first time. I took it, and he put it right in my arm.”
For the next two decades, Cardinali was in-and-out of rehab centers in Florida, New Jersey, everywhere. Just like an addict, he promised people he’d get sober. He’d never do it again. But, he did. The more he did it, the more he ran into trouble – usually with the law. When the rehab stints failed, the jail terms started. Everywhere he went, he was intimidated, mocked and even beat up, forcing him into rages that sent him to solitary confinement.
At the Bergen County Jail, the troubles usually arose at mealtime. Another inmate would sit next to him, and slide his tray next to Cardinali’s. “You gonna eat that?” the other inmate would say. “Yes,” Cardinali would reply. The inmate would chuckle, stretch his big furry arm and grab his honey buns. “What the hell are you doing?” Cardinali would shoot back. The inmate would just laugh. He’d take a big bite out of one of them, put it back on Cardinali’s tray, and walk away.
Underneath his bed, just after lights out, Cardinali would pull himself toward the dim ray coming from the outside street lamp. He’d then reach into his sock, pull out a honey bun and munch. He’d eat while the others were sleeping. Even in the dark, where he could barely see his food, the honey bun from the sock was the best meal Cardinali got all day.
At night, Cardinali was usually more alert. During each day, the jail had Cardinali on 200 mg of Trazodone. It made him loopy, sleepy and downright numb. It was like heroin. But these drugs made him feel weak, and worthless. “I go down and crash,” he said. “I drag everybody down with me.”
In July, 2004, Cardinali started attending the jail diversion meetings. Even though he routinely showed up late – and would look half-bored as he slumped in his chair – Cardinali listened to Michael Lang, the counselor who led these meetings, and started to believe. In September, he allowed himself to be interviewed by the organization and be considered as a candidate for the program.
On Oct. 12, 2004, Cardinali was told, he’d be led into the courtroom where he’d face Judge Eugene Austin. He faced this judge before; in his prior appearances, Austin lectured Cardinali for his being a repeat offender. He gave him what seemed like the hardest, longest sentences he could give him, Cardinali said. But Care Plus assured him: This time would be different. Here, Cardinali was told, he would play by the rules, promise to continue with the therapy sessions and then, perhaps, he’d get out by Christmas.
But, on the day of the hearing, Cardinali met with his attorney, Diane D’Alessandro, who told him there was a snag. Both the judge and the assistant prosecutor told her: No rehabilitation, no deal, they said. Cardinali refused. He wanted out of everything; not just jail. He had been to rehabilitation 12 times. Each one felt like a prison sentence, he said.
The judge then delayed the hearing. “Every time,” Cardinali said at the time, “I have my expectations high, and they’re dashed.”
About a week later, Lang went to see Cardinali. It was about 1 p.m. Cardinali, up late because he was eating his honey buns in bed, had been taking a nap. He sat up in his bunk, groggy, and rubbed his eyes.
Lang told him that his records were reviewed again. The organization decided, after some painful consideration, that he was too much of a risk. He would not be a successful candidate, he was told, because of his history of relapse. He would not be allowed to go to therapy sessions.
Cardinali pleaded for a second chance. “I’m sorry,” Lang said. Then he got up, and walked away.
When the therapy sessions stopped, the inmates got worse. In December, the same inmate who stole his honey buns swiped a pen from another prisoner, walked over to Cardinali and started lunging at him. Cardinali got into his Tai Chi pose, the same one he used on the police back in July. A sheriff’s officer saw him raise his leg and ran over and wrestled Cardinali to the ground. They grabbed him under his arms, and brought him to the 8-by-10-foot lockdown room, where he stayed for three days.
While in there, Cardinali called his mother collect. It was a brief conversation. He was yelling so loudly, and he sounded so desperate, that she hung up. He tried to call back several times, but she wouldn’t accept the charges.
“She’s so depressed. It’s fucking a drag,” he said at the time. “She don’t sound good.”
The jail psychiatrist, meanwhile, increased his medication, making Cardinali feel loopy. So he got the psychiatrist to change his medication, switching to half a milligram of Prozac. It was a lot better than 300 milligrams of Trazodone. Cardinali thought Trazodone fried his brain worse than any street drug ever did.
By the time Jan. 28, 2005 came, Cardinali understood what he was going face: The whole court hearing would be a formality. The temper that flared up in December – the same one he kept in check when he first got to jail, back in July – would do him in.
Then, finally, a break: Days before the hearing, Cardinali’s attorney got the word: A back ailment forced Judge Austin to retire from the bench. He would instead get Lois Lipton, a former Family Court judge who talked in a quiet, but reassuring voice, sounding more like a counselor than a judge.
In the early morning, Cardinali got up, combed his hair, slipped on a pair of glasses, faced the sheriff’s officers and extended his arms. They cuffed his wrists, and chained his ankles. Then they boarded the van for the courthouse. He rode the elevator to the third floor, and sat in a small room with bars. His attorney, D’Alessandro walked in, carrying his case file. It was the first time he’d seen her in weeks.
“I’m going to see if I can get your released today,” she told him.
Cardinali nodded. Then a sheriff’s officer opened the gate, clutched Cardinali’s arm, and led him to the courtroom. He shuffled slowly, the cuffs on his legs impeding his movement.
Cardinali walked up to the table, and stood next to his attorney.
“Counselor, do you have anything?” the judge said.
“Yes, your honor,” D’Alessandro said. “Mr. Cardinli agrees to the terms of the plea … But, if I may, your honor – ”
“My client has been in for six months now,” she said. “It appears to me that people with similar offenses typically spend six months – not 12 – in jail before they’re released.”
Cardinali stood silently as D’Alessandro talked, and told the judge he wanted to make something of his life. He’d been involved in Care Plus, she said, but said nothing about him being thrown out. He’s in Alcoholics Anonymous, she said, even though he hadn’t been to a meeting since before entering jail.
Most importantly, D’Alessandro said, he would have a place to live, though she didn’t say where. He would also have a ride, but she didn’t say who would provide it.
“The criminal history concerns me,” Lipton said. “There’re been a lot of disorderly persons offenses that seem to go on and on. …Regardless of that, I am going to impose a 184-day sentence, including time served.”
“Excuse me, your honor,” his attorney asked. “One-hundred-eighty-four days – that means he can be released today, your honor?”
“That’s correct,” the judge said, then turning back to Cardinali. “I believe you are trying to help yourself. But a condition of your treatment is to continue psychiatric treatment and AA meetings.”
“Yes, your honor,” Cardinali said.
His shoulders dropped. Started, his mouth was agape. He struggled with his emotions, not knowing how to feel. Then, impulsively, he managed a broad smile.
Three days later, Cardinali was tired, hungry and feeling a little needy. Already, he had had it with the shelter food, which was only slightly better than what he had at the jail, as well as sleeping in cold trucks and crowded shelters.
He called a friend, who took him to the Cedar Lane Diner in Teaneck, where he had his best meal since July. After that, Cardinali begged to go to Palisades Park. “Please, I’ll do anything,” he said. “Just this once. I’ll never ask again.”
A half hour later, they arrived there, pulling into a parking space next to Hana’s Music. A light dusting of snow started to fall as they got out of the car, and walked into the store. Once in, Cardinali brushed the snow off himself.
Cardinali then started walking anxiously around the store. He looked at one wall, and then another, and then another. Guitars hung from all of them. He saw a Les Paul hanging on the wall rack, behind a piano. He picked it up, pulled out a stool, set it on his knee and strummed.
“I can play anything I can hear,” he said. “What I mean is, I can hear the notes. Can’t read ’em.”
He launched into “Just for Love,” by “Quicksilver Messenger Service.” Cardinali liked Quicksilver. The band sang about love and heartache, but never in a way that made you sad, he said. He sang every word and strung every note like he was 20 again. His chapped fingers, peeling around his finger nails, didn’t betray him. The song moved along, and Cardinali, again, smiled, showing off his big, white dentures.
Just about love, like the wing of some high-flying bird,Of the songs I will sing to you, you can hear every word,