The sign was unmarred, the wide steel door gleaming proudly with a virgin layer of bright royal blue paint. It read: “No Hostages Will Be Permitted Through These Doors.” This rather ominous message was then repeated in Spanish, just to cover the bases. Like the door and the fences, the building itself looked fresh and brand spanking new, a real oddity in the penal world. I gave it six months before this place would be singing a song of a very different key.
“Well, that’s good to know,” quipped someone behind me, sotto voce. Another voice, this time heavily laden with the accent of Mexico, chimed in: “Hey Vato, how does it make you feel to know that if I take you hostage, they will just shoot us both? How’s that for company loyalty?” His laughing was interrupted by a clicking, whinging noise, and then men were shouting. Underneath the din, I could hear someone wheezing, and when I managed to pull a 180 (not the easiest feat when you are chained hand to waist to foot), I saw a small man with a dark complexion laid out on the ground, doubled over. The other 11 men in the transport group were all attempting to get as far away as possible, which was not easy in such a small enclosure. One of the black-clad Civigenics officers was standing over the fallen man, his collapsible asp baton now fully extended.
“How’s that for shutting the fuck up!?!” he roared, his eyes quickly daring anyone else to smart off. He had the same barely controlled fury in his eyes that I had seen in some of the guards at Limestone and Fort Bend. Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Whatever. I was just glad that they had been forced to lock the pistols and shotguns in a heavy steel deposit cage before entering the razor wire perimeter jungle. Very glad.
Above the “No Hostages” door hung a tiny glass globe, which had a golden hue to it. Obviously a camera, and a fairly new one, at that. One of the transport officers spoke into his walkie-talkie, and the door swung open, revealing at least six more guards. Four of these carried the “trouble-maker” to a waiting wheelchair, while the remaining two ushered us forward in menacing tones. It made me a little uneasy that the four who carried our fallen member looked very practiced at this maneuver, as if they had done this before. “Not their first Rodeo,” as the expression goes in Texas. I did not see this man for several weeks, until he was released from seg into rec with the rest of us. I didn’t recall him missing both of his front teeth, nor did I remember the huge black rings which now circled his eyes. But, hey, my memory is spotty at times.
He wouldn’t speak with any of us in the yard. He just sat there, plumped down with his back to the concrete wall by the toilets, bouncing a blue racket ball against the partition. Every once in a while, it would get away from him, but he never went to retrieve it. He would just continue staring at the wall. Occasionally, someone would bring it back to him, and he would go back to lobbing it, as if he had never stopped. I used to believe that there would be a reckoning for this type of thing, that someone would ride in on their white horse and avenge the “bouncing ball” man, who no longer had his mind. I sometimes see this avenger in my own reflection, and it scares me, the things that my brain comes up with, I feel I am doomed to play Iscariot with my right hand or my left. If I had gone after the guard, really broke the spokes on his sadistic ass, I would be betraying this new system of ethics which had taken me so much pain and blood to construct. If I just sat there and watched them transform a man into a no-man in the space of a few weeks, I would be betraying my own humanity. I was 26 when I learned that sometimes the idea of winning is an illusion.
It was the same day that I first saw the bouncing ball man that I started reading books on the law, which is as close as I have been able to come to charting a safe passage between the Scylia of violent, reactionary style disobedience, and the Charybdis of giving up completely, and opening my own veins all over this concrete soil.
Even the holding cells to which we were led were clean, which has to be some kind of penal first. The cinder block walls were a clear, crisp off-white; all the metal was the same royal blue as the door. I didn’t see any insects or mold, and the whole scene was vaguely creepy. It made me feel as if I had stepped into an alternate universe, or, you know, maybe one of “them thar fancy norther Yankee states,” where they don’t snicker when someone says “prisoner’s rights.”
The van had mostly consisted of Fort Bend inmates, with a few men from several counties south of Dallas scattered in for diversity. I knew several of the guys, including a very tall, obscenely muscular black man called “Big C”; an older, balding, pot-bellied gentleman named Roberto; and a quiet Filipino boy, whose name escapes me. We sat there for several hours, doing what everyone incarcerated does with the lion’s share of their time: waiting for something to happen. Big C informed me that he had been caught twice with weed in the past, and this was his third strike. In Texas, this can mean that they may try to label you as a habitual offender (pronounced “Ha-bitch-ual,” often simply called getting “bitched” out) The result of a habitual tag is a life sentence, which seemed an awfully harsh punishment for an ounce of weed, but it didn’t surprise me to learn that such things are commonplace in the state that gave you GW and Alberto Gonzalez. Most everyone in the holding tank knew who I was, and avoided the conversation of “time,” for the most part. When someone didn’t know and asked what I was looking at having to do, I simply told them that I had some unpaid parking tickets to take care of. People who knew otherwise usually smiled at that.
There was another van load of prisoners in addition to our own, and it ended up taking six or seven hours to process everyone. Our Limestone “oranges” were traded in for Polk County IAH navy blues. Our property bags were searched; questions were asked. Eventually we were all assigned a tank numbers and six of us from RB had the same tank, A-24. The long walk from the holding area offered me a pretty good view of the building, and it was obvious that this complex exemplified a newer concept in penal architecture; something more akin to Betham’s Panopticon than the typical concrete monstrosities to which I had become accustomed.
I saw very few guards. In place of them, cameras were in great abundance, and every hallway ended in a mantrap, or a set of double doors wherein a person entered a small square area, and was then sealed in. When a detainee’s destination was determined by central control, the appropriate door was opened for him. Thus, a few employees could run an entire prison, which is important if your goal is profit, as is certainly the case with privately run facilities. Everything was wide open, also. In place of many solid walls they opted for thick tempered glass. Again, I think this was a function of cost, as with glass walls one needs fewer cameras.
Upon entering the mantrap for A-wing, the escort guard simply looked up at the camera and said his name, and the exit door slid open. Pretty nifty, I thought. A-24 was at the end of the hallway, which was maybe two hundred yards long. As we walked down the run, we got our first glimpse of the tanks, which were laid out on either side of us: very small, with a long window, which stretched the entire length of the enclosure. They were all laid out in a line, and it reminded me of a zoo. (Actually, that is precisely what it was, in a way.) Everyone inside the tanks showed up at the window to see the “new boots,” and it quickly became a game of “look down, or look hard.” After almost a year of incarceration, I knew quite well that there really was only one option.
All in all, we had a good group of men in A-24. The tanks were designed for eight men, and there was less than 150 square feet of floor space, so you can imagine the potential tension such conditions might produce. You bond living like that (or go completely batshit loco), and it was fortunate that there were no real “psych” patients or chronic masturbators in the group.
We quickly divided up cleaning duties and created a TV sharing plan. The latter is absolutely essential for harmonious co-existence. I have seen more fights over the television then any other issue, by far (over thirty, at least). Like everything in prison, the root of this is racial tension: the blacks want BET, the Mexicans TELEVISA, and the whites ESPN or the Discovery Channel. To my surprise, we all came together and made a fair schedule which satisfied everyone. That is not to say that certain unnamed people (ahem!) didn’t joke about certain selections which were made. Big C couldn’t, for the life of him, figure out why A) anyone would climb into a boat to go catch Alaskan King Crab in the middle of the winter, and B) why we cared if they did. His verdict: “You see bruthahs on that boat? Hell Naw! You Europeans is crazy. I keep my black ass on the solid.” As I am all for cultural and racial equality, I made sure to get in a few jabs when he was watching his rap videos and singing the lyrics.
Me: “There a setting on there lower than mute?”
Big C: “Nope, the volume button’s busted ’til six o’clock.”
Me: “I was referring to you, Charles.” (He hated it when I called him by his real name.)
This back and forth eventually spawned all manner of ridiculous low comedy, wherein he pretended to be a white snob from the suburbs named Preston. (“Hey, brahs! You dudes know where I can find the nearest Starbucks?”), and I became Tyrone Rone. It was a good thing that Big C had a well-developed sense of humor, or else I would have gotten my face rearranged several times for re-translating my white commentary into “street”. (When I whipped him at chess, for instance, “Man, I am good,” became “I’m so fly, I put 20s on a cab, go pick up mo’ hoes than the WNBA draft.” He liked that one particularly, and would sometimes make me repeat myself in the yard.) Very few people truly appreciate dry wit, and those who do seem to like it less when it comes from me. I have a gift!
Things quickly settled into a routine: wake up (whenever), shower (the tank had one shower and one toilet), eat lunch, go to rec for a few hours, shower, eat dinner, watch TV, read, die slowly inside, pray, sleep. Repeat often, regardless of your desires.
Life incarcerated is really like a bad song stuck on endless repeat. Several days into our stay however, a new portion of the song began to play, one that I had never heard before: I was asked if I wanted to work. I quickly responded with a rather excited affirmative, and was informed that I would be on kitchen duty at 11 p.m. the following evening. I couldn’t wait to see what life looked like from the prospective of a trustee. The rest of that day passed slowly indeed.
It is one of the more ridiculous qualities of the human experience that when it comes to the subject of time, what we want is always the exact opposite of what we get. When we wish that a wonderful night could stretch on forever, it passes in a breath; when we desire that the universe possesses a fast-forward button, it moves at the speed of government. The night before I was to start work in the kitchens, the Mexicans had the television, which wasn’t always a bad thing. Most telenovelas seem to operate under the very simple equation of: hot chicks – anything resembling adequate amounts of clothing + some very silly rich people behaving scandalously = mucho dinero! Seems a pretty effective formula, at least if you happen to be cursed with possessing a Y chromosome. Unfortunately, the novellas being offered that night seemed even more fatuous than the norm, and my attention kept wandering.
Big C and a rail-thin black man from Dallas named Boxcar Slim were involved in their nightly domino throw down, which inevitably ended up almost coming to blows. For all of that, the descent towards the point of altercation was always pretty humorous, because both Big C and Boxcar were consummate, all-star Shit-Talkers of the first order. The steady slapping of dominoes—the “bones”—on the metal table were completely drowned out by some of the most colorful, incredible, and insulting descriptions of nearly every quality of their opponent’s lives imaginable. Boxcar loved to shout little rhymes when he scored, like, “Gimme my money cuz I likes that honey!” Or, “Nick em, don’t cut ’em,” when he took five points (as in, nick = nickel = five cents = five points). When he engineered a particularly excellent run, his favorite seemed to revolve around his being a “Dominologist.” (“Fool! I told you, I gots a degree in Dominology! The professor is ON CALL!”) These explosions were usually shouted at the highest volume his cigarette-scarred throat could manage, complete with flying spittle, a rambling, hacking laugh, and his crafty little eyes flicking around the room like a switchblade.
Now, I am no slouch at “dem bones,” and I think it will probably not come as much of a surprise for anyone to learn that I can generally hold my own in an argument. But this type of back-and-forth was a new style of verbal combat for me, and my more … ah, “subtle” preferences were not much appreciated by Boxcar. He whipped me pretty good, both at the table and over the airwaves, at least until I figured out his tells and his style of play. After that, things got more even. Earlier that day, I was on a real run and the gods of Table Games were truly smiling on me. Box’s mouth was moving at a speed that could only be compared to that of light, and I was pretty much just concentrating on making him play the last deuce. As soon as he fell in the trap I went several rounds scoring money each time I played, getting more carried away each time, until I dominoed with twenty. By that point his jive talking had become contagious, and I was shouting, too. “What did they say?! I think they say ‘20, and gimme what’s in your hand, fool!’ You may be a dominologist, but I’m a fucking mathematician!” Big C was yelling something about “white-boy this and that,” and Boxcar was looking disgustedly at his dominoes, as if his loss was somehow their fault, a betrayal of the worst sort. He looked at C and said, “Sheeit. We done made us a monster.” I felt pretty proud. Which lasted for about five minutes, until my run ended and he began kicking my derriere all over the table again. Some memories fade, over the long-haul years of life. Some don’t.
I was in no mood for drama that night, though, my mind mostly wandering to the kitchens, and what it would be like to work there. I had not been allowed to work at Fort Bend or Limestone, and I had no idea of what to expect. As I moped about I was distracted by the eremitic Filipino boy who lived in the bunk above mine. He had peeked over the front of his Bible, the first time I had seen him do so in over a week, so I sat down across from him and asked him what he was reading. We talked a little about the book of Psalms, one of his favorites. I liked hearing he had a favorite of something, because he was sort of a Goldilocks Man—everything was either too hot or too cold, in the figurative sense. He always seemed lost, as if he really, truly felt he was going to wake up at home at any moment. I had tried to engage him in conversation many times, because I know exactly what it feels like to feel alone in a crowded room, but he had some very active antibodies to human contact, or something. Fear will do that to you, and he was terrified of what the future held. The Bible seemed to be the one topic he would discuss with anyone, and I used this to bridge the gap into his past. He was very proud of his home islands, and lamented that “none of this would have happened” if his parents had not moved here a few years previously. I never knew what “this” was all about, but I knew he was looking at real time on a penitentiary farm, and someone like him had good reason to be afraid.
He bragged to me that Filipinos were very religious, and were even mentioned in the Bible. I blinked mentally at this, because, modesty aside, I know the Bible better than most ministers. Even if I did not, however, I also know geography, and was perfectly aware that none of the biblical figures he was reading about knew much of the world beyond a frighteningly small compass, and the Philippines were way outside of this. I tried not to convey my doubt, though, because I didn’t want to damage the fragile conversation that had sprung up from such rocky soil.
He must have detected some whiff of the miasma of my skepticism, however, because he quickly told me that if I looked in Acts 1 would see that Paul traveled to the Philippines and converted a vendor of purple cloth. My mind reeled at the numerous and immense errors in this statement, because I knew that he was referring to Acts 16, which took place in Philippi, as in Philip II of Macedon, as in Greece. I could tell by his look, however, that this was important to him, and just said that I thought he was right. (As to what he felt about the book of Philippians, which was Paul’s favorite church, I never learned. I can only assume he also thought this to be written about his islands, as well. I suppose you could say, to borrow Paul’s words from this very book, that I was “not looking to (my) own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.”) I feel a lot of things for Goldilocks Man, even as I write this a few years later. Sorrow. A touch of pity, although I think that pity is ultimately an ugly, vain emotion, for it inevitably places the pitier far above the recipient, and I am no higher than he on any barometer. Scorn, though, I never felt and will not. We humans have millions of mechanisms we build to bridge the gaps between the real and the ideal, and all manner of blinders to keep us from seeing the cold, harsh realities of human existence. I wonder if he still reads his Bible at night, and if he still seems so surprised at everything. I wonder if he still breathes.
Eventually the evening news came to a close—another day of religious idiots blowing each other up over a few hectares of supposedly “holy” land, more politicians metastasizing their ways into countless living rooms—and an officer popped on the intercom. In a gravelly, distant echo, she called five of us by name, telling us we had fifteen minutes to get ready for work. I put my t-shirt on and laced up my shoes, and noticed that both Big C and Boxcar had an empty mesh bag ready to take with them. When I asked what that was about, Box said “we was fiddin’ to get our grub on!” I must have looked confused, because C told me what it was common practice to let kitchen workers take a little leftover food back to the house as payment. As both of them had far more penal experience than I did, I engaged in a little mimicry.
Two of the Mexicans, Roberto and a really hilarious shaven-headed man called Oso, were also headed to the kitchens. Oso was a serious coffee addict, going through an entire bag in a day. Every twenty minutes or so, he would interrupt whatever he was doing to proclaim, “I think its time to get on that guadiche (pronounced ‘wad-ee-chey’) blast!” (“Guadiche” is a tex-mex prison term for coffee and “blast” is prison slang for engaging in an activity with full attention.) Oso spent most of his time drawing and designing tattoo art, and was quite skilled.
Our door was soon popped, and the five of us entered the mantrap separating our tank from the hallway, which was quickly opened up for us also. We met about twenty other county jail inmates from other tanks on the way down the hallway and I was excited to see a decent guy from FB named Ray. He was a drunk and had like a zillion ex-wives (all of who claimed to hate him, and yet all of whom managed to show up to visit him multiple times, often on the same date … which was always a spectacular event, to hear him tell it.) For all of that, he was an all right guy. His older son was in Iraq, and he was always showing us photos of him and bragging about his exploits. That made me smile and somehow very sad simultaneously, for some reason. Ray had a habit of running his hands through his hair, as if checking to make sure it was still there. I guess it was a nervous twitch, or something. We caught up on current events as we walked the long hallway to the mantraps for the kitchens. It seems that his son’s unit had discovered that in certain Shia zones of Iraq, you could get married for an hour or two to a burka-clad whore, and then have all of the divorce papers waiting upon completion. (I would advise all Christians who just read that and tossed a few deprecatory thoughts eastwards towards Mecca, beware of your own hypocrisy: many of the splendid buildings of Rome—including St. Peter’s—would not have been constructed had it not been for special indulgences of this exact species to the rich.) Ray seemed particularly pleased about this, being an ex-Vietnam vet.
You could smell the kitchens before you even got close: a curious mixture of cleansing materials and cooking greases soaked into the tile floors. No two kitchens are alike, and yet they are all almost always the same. Mountains of gleaming stainless steel; clean, functional right angles abound; the feel of rubber mats on the floors to keep anyone from slipping whilst carrying anything sharp or scalding. I worked as a restaurant manager in the free world, so none of this was new to me, even if I had always been “front of the house.” A quick scan of the kitchen told me that someone had put this place together pretty well, probably owing to the fact that this facility was designed to meet the high standards set for federal inmates. No state prison kitchen would have been anywhere near this nice. To the far left was an office for the kitchen manager, a free world employee of the Aramark Corporation. To the immediate right of the office was the main cooking station, a series of large griddles and immense steel vats for boiling water. Continuing to the right was a series of baking ovens and additional griddles. Along the far right wall was a long serving table, the middle of which was designed to hold the large tray inserts of food. I assumed men would line up on both sides of the table and ladle food from the center on to trays, before passing the tray to the next man in line. Along the back wall were the storage rooms for the food ingredients and the cleaning bay.
The Aramark Man (whose name I forget, but who looked an awful lot like Andy Warhol, so we will just stick with Andy) seemed to be one of those eternally harried souls, forever chained to his wristwatch. He quickly assigned us stations, and passed out instructions on laminated placards. I was to be a baker, and my first duty of the day was to mix the batter for the breakfast biscuits. Not much of a challenge, but when you have been wasting away for the better part of a year, any small morsel of purpose can prove to be very sustaining. I think it was at that moment that I hit on another one of the subtle truths of this universe: we choose our joys and our sorrows long before we experience them.
And so, in an ersatz kitchen, I made ersatz biscuits under the direction of an ersatz Andy Warhol, and yet found a sliver of real life. Biscuits in the morning, cornbread for lunch and dinner … it was a start.
Things quickly fell into a routine, as they are wont to do when one’s day is rigidly defined by activities which require less than a handful of neurons to complete. At some point after the evening news, me and the rest of the kitchen crew would be summoned to duty. We would work until around 11 a.m., and then were given a break to go to rec with our hall, or to return to the house to rest. If we wanted, after that we could return for a few hours to tray up the dinner and scrub the kitchen down from top to bottom. About half of the guys did this, because … well, why not? Given the choice between watching daytime television and actually doing something constructive, I think most sane individuals would gladly turn their backs on Maury (and company) and his quixotically pointless quest of attempting to ferret out “Who The Baby Daddy Might Be.”
Alas, I was only destined to be a baker for three days. I think it would be fair to say that it took precisely one tray of biscuits, one of cornbread, and one of dinner rolls for me to become completely and devastatingly numb with boredom. I mocked myself for ever imagining that one could find some purpose wrist deep in cornmeal … and there is always cornmeal. Mountains, rivers, continents of the bloody stuff. It is an almost inconceivable thought for kitchen managers to imagine a lunch/dinner tray without cornbread. This has absolutely nothing to do with any form of gastronomical sensibility, and everything to do with cost/calorie calculations. The state (and in this case, the federal government) determines how many calories per day inmates must be given. Even though the food at IAH was pretty decent (for jail), Andy Analog-Warhol wasn’t above a little cheating. A larger slice of cornbread meant a smaller serving of the main course, or fewer vegetables. Carbohydrates are the cheapest way to sustain a body, and Andy was a maestro at walking the line between the red and the black. Me … well, I would love to say that I couldn’t care less about him drifting off into the lands of unprofitability, but that isn’t true. I didn’t dislike Andy, and I certainly didn’t want to cause him any grief. That said, whenever he tried to “get down” on us in blue, I was ready with my own counter-legerdemain, my own “jack-moves.” I looked at this as an issue of fairness, of righting a balance that was incorrectly zeroed out.
I’ve always been good at justifying my actions. At any rate, on my second day of baker-duty, I got clever and pilfered some jalapenos from the storage closet and baked them in with the cornmeal. Andy was pissed off at me for “Deviating From The Meal Plan” and he reminded me of an old-time, fire-and-brimstone Depression-era preacher, raving about how we must learn to “submit to the Will of Jeeesuuusah!” or in this case, the Will of Aramark Food Services Corporation. I pretended not to notice how after his stentorian homilies and tedious Te Deums were spent, he snuck back into his office with a massive eight-inch by eight-inch chunk of jalapeno cornbread. And I am sure that it was just a coincidence that a few extra buckets of jalapenos seemed to get ordered every week after that. The Mexicans, at any rate, loved my take on boring cornbread. Roberto quickly proclaimed, “Ay Tomas, now you are officially a true Mexicano.” I feigned concern, and narrowed my eyes. “Does this mean that I have to start liking the accordion and women with large asses now?”
He laughed. “Pues, the accordion, si. Those women you had better leave for us. We will send you all of the gavachas flacitas, deal?”
And so it went. It was interesting to watch a species of camaraderie form amongst those of us dragooned into service. (Ok, ok, technically we weren’t “dragooned” into anything, but it did feel that way, sometimes.) On the yard, the thirty kitchen workers mostly stuck to each other, unless they were engaged in selling off food, which had been “earned” while at work. Sometimes I would stop in the middle of scraping a bakers tray or cleaning the ovens, and just pause a moment to look over our stainless steel kingdom: Oso, ubiquitous cup of coffee in one hand, discussing something in a low and furtive argot with another Mexican who was mopping the floors; Big C and Boxcar and another brother named Trill, all laughing and Talking Mad Game in the dish bay, draped out in rubber boots and aprons; Ray, once again butchering whatever recipe happened to be in front of him, his soul parted in twain, part here, part on a tether spinning on a massive spool, stretched all the way out to his son riding in an unarmored Humvee somewhere outside of Baghdad. All trying to deal with this thing, this “justice,” this life lived poorly and without understanding, all muddling through the labyrinthine hallways of God’s Forgotten Ant Farm, his discarded science fair experiment. And all of us, somehow, inexplicably, wanting and expecting and hoping for Him to sweep into the picture and pull our feet out of the fire. Somehow, we all managed to convince ourselves that it wasn’t vanity to expect Him to do this. It was love. Or compassion. Or He had some purpose for us, and He was not done with us. All of us drowning, the boat long since sunk, climbing on each other’s shoulders to get one more gasp of air. Hoping beyond reason. Waiting for a deus ex machina that would never arrive.
This bonhomie did have limits, however, and I began to notice cracks in our camaraderie after only a few days. I suppose that such events are inevitable, given the circumstances. I think most of us understood that what little arguments came up on a daily basis were simply stand-ins for much larger issues, the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back while it chills on the tip of an iceberg. The cleaning bay workers professed their belief that the tray-loaders were lazy, a feeling which was duly reciprocated. The cooks (especially the line-cooks) thought they were all lazy, and everyone else thought that the cooks (especially the line-cooks) were busy-bodies, hoarding all of the excess food. There was, of course, some small kernel of truth to such claims. The cooks were eating good. The tray-loaders and cleaning workers were lazy. These were hardly arguments large enough to cause real strife in a rational human being, since we all basically volunteered to work. Yet, strife there was. You could see all the in-groups forming, building their fences. It was sad to watch. Echoes of Shia suicide-bombing Sunni in a Baghdad slum, Sunni shooting Shia in response on the streets of Mosoul. Catechistically brainwashed Catholic assassins slaughtering Protestants in the alleys of Belfast, reciprocity as guaranteed as the justifications for these acts to be broadcast from the pulpits and altars of supposed men of peace. Serbs and Croats shelling each other and the Muslims in Sarajevo, Tibetan monks battling Chinese nationalists … cooks versus tray-loaders. All convinced that their way is right, having “faith” in something, which gives them that certainty. It is enough to make you cry, or laugh, depending on how jaded you are. (I’m so glass-half-empty, I make Thomas Robert Malthus look like a naive optimist, so you can guess which direction I trend.)
On the morning of my third shift in the kitchens, I was once again rifling through the inventory room, looking for … something … that would spice up a breakfast biscuit. After failing to find inspiration, I began dejectedly walking back to my station when I paused to watch a line-cook dump crate after crate of eggs into one of the two massive gas-heated vats. Everyone called this cook Space City, for multiple reasons, not the least of which was because he really was a space cadet, having smoked “wet” in the world. The fact that he was from Clear Lake, Houston (home of NASA), was only of secondary consideration. I could never conceive of the logic behind making Space a line-cook. This is easily the most complicated, hurried job in the entire kitchen, and he very obviously did not enjoy it. He suffered under Andy’s yoke, and anyone who ate Space’s food suffered as well. He would often wander back to the cleaning bay to hide out. Andy had a truly stethoscopic mind for detecting sloth, and he would soon storm out of his office, eyes aflame, and would drop on the cleaning bay like a laser-guided and locked smart bomb. We all smiled, watching Andy drag Space back to his now burnt and unrecognizable chicken patties. You learned to ignore Space pretty quickly, however. He just wasn’t on the same plane of existence as the rest of the world. What had caught my eye on the way back from the inventory room was not the fact that he had dropped at least half a dozen eggs on the floor, but rather that of the 600 or so eggs which had been dumped into the vat, 30 or 40 of them were floating on top of the water. He didn’t seem to notice or to care about this, so I approached him. He quickly snapped to attention, I guess thinking I was Andy, his nemesis. After recognizing me, and deducing that he was not about to get yelled at for something, his eyes dropped down towards his shoes. He looked sort of like a puppy that had just peed on the rug—that was pretty much how he always looked. It was enough to make you hate yourself for ever laughing at him. I softened my voice.
“Oh, hey T. What’s up?” Still looking at his shoes, or maybe seeing the broken eggs under his feet for the first time.
“What do you do with the floaters?”
“Uh, I serve ’em, man. Why?” Had he just peeked up at me?
I started to explain to him that when an egg goes bad, it takes in air, and its density changes, making them float. I caught myself before any words had escaped from me, because I really didn’t think he would be interested in such data. Now, I think that I might have done him a disservice.
“Any of those supposed to go to ODR (Officers Dining Room)?”
“Yeah, man, like a few dozen.”
“Hey, Space?” He looked up at my eyes, hard, for the first time.
“Give ODR the floaters.”
“Oh, ok.” He suddenly got a big smile on his face, as he connected the dots, figuring out that there must be something wrong with them. Mischief: the great equalizer.
“Fuck them hoes, right, T?”
“Indeed, Space. Indeed.”
I clapped him on the back, and went back to my biscuits. The next time I looked up, he had acquired a metal stirring spoon, and was batting at the floating eggs, pretending to drown them. He seemed to be talking to them, or maybe imitating the voices of a drowning egg. It didn’t take long before he got carried away and accidentally (and predictably) dipped a few of his fingers into the water, which earned the offending eggs a colorful stream of invective. (“Oh yeah, mother fucker? You’re gonna get eaten for that shit!”)
You have to take your humor where you can get it in jail. I was still recovering from the raw nastiness of my first trip to Limestone, not knowing that I was destined to return there in a few short weeks. After the nearly omnipresent miasma of violence that infected “life” within those walls, the relative peace of the IAH facility was a tad unnerving. You very quickly become accustomed to the presence of violence, so that when anyone approaches you (or even looks at you), your body tightens up and your mind starts racing, calculating angles, readying for the counter-strike. You would call it paranoia, and you might be half-right. You wouldn’t call it that, though, if you had spent any time inside. You would simply call it prudent planning.
This was not a good time for me. I was very happy for the work, because it would at least distract me from some of my thoughts. As I reconnected with my dad (or, connected with him for the first time, to be more accurate), the immensity of the ocean of pain that I had brought to his shores was becoming clearer, as well as the thousands of faulty perceptions that had caused that rift to begin with. I had no experience in how to deal with grief and guilt in these amounts, besides shutting down inside. On top of that, I was fanatically devoted to a God that would not speak to me, and I viewed this as my fault. The Christian community was sending me ugly letters on a nearly daily basis, and this made me question whether or not I would ever be part of a fellowship of like-minded believers. I had finally (and painfully, gloriously) reconnected with “Her,” only to have her letters suddenly cease, sans explanation. My whole life was one massive, festering aporia, and I began to wonder if any of the evolutions I had painstakingly wrought while hiding out in Mexico counted for anything. No matter how much someone deserves punishment, we are all human, and the mind cannot deal with certain things logically or even rationally without training. An environment where most everyone wishes you violence and death is one of these, certainly. My world was fractured into a million jagged pieces, and I didn’t know how to fix any of it.
It would be years yet before I learned how to deal with most of those issues. I’m still dealing with some of them today, but I think that this is a good thing. I have converted the evil done to me in the name of Justice to another account. Every time that a guard pushes me into a wall, or I lose books or letters or photographs during a shakedown, or I have to stand naked in front of a whole group of guards, or a pen-pal disappears, or my ex-attorney writes an affidavit full of lies and contradictions, because he is trying to ensure he isn’t labeled as “ineffective,” or I feel like my world has contracted because a good friend was just murdered by the state, it all goes towards the balance. I have this thought—silly, perhaps—that one day, all of this will add up to the point that I no longer have to feel hatred when I look at myself in the mirror. I just take it all inside myself, hoping for that day, decades in the future. For now, this stoicism gives birth to a sort of indifference, which many take for coldness. And that is ok, because I know that I could never explain to anyone how this shell keeps me alive and sane. If an immense intellect like David Hume couldn’t persuade people to understand how indifference to the evil of the world was the greatest possible good, then I certainly am not up to the task. It takes two people to build a bridge of understanding, and that is far too rare these days. It is easier to break and smash, than to fix. Yahweh’s pattern for dealing with the antediluvian world, preserved and mirrored across the millennia: don’t like the world? Destroy it in a childish rage and start over. If you are wondering how such actions were morally acceptable for God, but not for the rest of us, then you are starting to ask the right type of questions. They called it “autistic cleansing” when I did it. I call it imitation.
By lunchtime, Space was asking me to take his station. The egg incident had convinced him that I would make a better cook, and Andy seemed incredibly relieved by the idea. He quickly shuffled Space to the tray-line, and chose one of the cleaning crew for my old baker’s spot. The Mexicans seemed happy to have me (or maybe they were just glad to be rid of Space City), and I enjoyed the responsibilities. (The extra food didn’t hurt, either.) It didn’t take long for me to sabotage the trays. Nobody bothered with eating the oatmeal in the mornings, because it was blander than Al Gore on Prozac. I solved that problem by increasing the sugar content by a power of ten, and the butter content by several times. In addition, I pilfered cinnamon and brown sugar from the storage room to plop in there every few days. Since such a concoction would put a diabetic directly into a coma, I also mixed up a small pot of infinitely blander gruel for them. I knew that at some point, all of this meal-plan tomfoolery was going to blow up in my face, so I started paying attention to just how much food was wasted. I made lists of how much food returned to the kitchen, and by what wings of the prison. Andy was seriously lining his pockets, of that I had no doubt. Probably, many people were lining many pockets, and I decided that if they were doing it, then so could I. After all, they were stealing the government’s money; I was just feeding my people. I began to make less of certain items, and eventually managed to reduce the amount of trays returning to the kitchen with food down to an astonishingly small number. Andy began to look flustered every time he looked over his inventory lists. He couldn’t put his finger on why he was suddenly saving mountains of money on all manner of goods … and then losing it on others. Poor guy. He began to look at me sideways, and would follow me around as I measured things. Occasionally, he would give a loud “ah-hah!” when I under-measured something, and I would simply pull out my charts on returned food, and his eyes would bug out, and he would slink back to his office. I soon caught him smiling as he did his end-of-the-day balances, and he would often make little comments like, “Hmm, I wonder how many extra bags of sugar I should order this week?” And I would just look at him sideways and make my recommendations. It wasn’t long after that that I started getting called down to the kitchens about an hour before everyone else, in order to be his clerk. He often brought me breakfast burritos from Whataburger, or Subway sandwiches. I guess that meant I was officially on the graft team. Whatever. Those burritos were good.
One practice that I was never able to stop was cooking the vegetables in animal lard. This is a calorie trick used in all prisons. By adding lard, you make the caloric value of an ounce of green beans skyrocket, so you don’t have to give anyone as much food. I was vetoed by the other cooks on this, as they liked the taste of veggies soaked in fat. I thought it was a cheap move, but I guess you have to give the people what they want.
There was no saving some of the trays. You can only do so much. The corn, for instance, and the beans, were awful. (How do you screw up corn?) Both of these foodstuffs came from a company whose trademark was “Diamond Brand,” and the Mexicans would often joke about this, extending the label to other clearly deficient items of prison life (diamond brand mattresses, diamond brand officers, etc, etc). I actually thought it was fitting, because nearly everything you know about diamonds is propaganda. They are not intrinsically valuable or rare. They are not the hardest substance on earth; both lonsdaleite and wurtzite boron nitride are harder. They are most certainlynot forever: diamonds are flammable and will burn off in a wisp of CO2 during a house fire. You will be sifting though the rubble, and will come across little melted puddles of gold, but the diamonds will be long gone. (In fact, cubic zirconia will survive, as they are made of refractory metal oxides that can withstand the same heat … so take that, De Beers.) Roberto once tried to spice up the corn by cutting up some tomatoes and throwing some salt in there with them, but that only made it worse. He had cooked up a small portion of this to taste it, and was busy cutting up more tomatoes when he called me over to take it for a test drive. I choked it down, barely. I tried to put a positive spin on things. “Wow, Roberto. That is … um … yeah … well, it’s not that bad.” He looked at me angrily, as if my taste buds were at fault for his failure. “I mean, I’ve tasted worse crap than this that came out of your station.”
He laughed, and waved the knife in the air towards me. “Ay, Tomas, Tomas … you always say the nicest things to me when I am holding a 16-inch knife.”
Andy was not amused by this comment, but he just rolled his eyes and went back to hiding in the office.
One evening, Big C chose not to go to work. He had received a letter that night, and I assumed it was from his girl, the mother of his son. He went to bed after reading it, and when we woke him up for work, he cursed at us to leave him alone. I really didn’t think much about it during work, to be honest with you. When we were released for rec, I decided to head back to the penthouse and take a shower. When I arrived I noticed that Big C was ignoring me, and didn’t seem to be really watching the television, though he was staring in that direction. Goldilocks Man was sitting on his bunk, reading the Bible, as usual. The program had to do with some crazy pilots testing out a solar-powered airplane, and they were coasting over a large body of water, several thousand feet up in the air. I paused to watch for a moment on my way to the shower. From that high up, the water looked flat as glass, but I knew that if you got closer to the surface, the waves would be quite dangerous, almost rough enough to be lost in. Same with people, I mused as I washed off 12 hours of accumulated sweat and kitchen grease from my body. After I was finished, I made two cups of coffee and plopped myself down on the other side of the table from C. He looked at me once, and then the coffee, before moving his eyes back to the television, I didn’t say anything, just sipped my coffee. He kept looking down at me every few minutes, and I just sat there, quietly watching over his right shoulder towards the hallway window, enjoying breathing air that was not pregnant with disinfectant and cooking oils and burnt bread. He finally broke, and angrily sputtered, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
I didn’t say anything, just nodded. It has been my experience in life that when someone says that they don’t care what other people think, they in fact usually care far more than the average person what other people think, and when someone says that they don’t want to talk about something, that is usually the exact opposite of what they need to do.
After a few more minutes of the silent treatment, I was ready to give up. “What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself. I am not a fucking babysitter. He doesn’t want to talk, fine. I started to stand, but he reached out and grabbed my arm. With his other hand, he produced a letter from his shirt pocket. Sure enough, it was from his girl, and she was cutting him loose. He read it to me, choking up in several sections. Her most recent letters had been full of “I’m going to stick this out with you” type nonsense, and he felt blindsided by the speed with which she was removing him from her life. How could this have been love, he questioned me, eyes wet. I didn’t know what to say to him. My situation was nothing like his. I deserved to be alone far more than he did, but some of what he said struck a harmonic chord with my own fears and loss of Her, and I tried to just listen to him, but I noticed that my hands were starting to shake, something that has come and gone for me my entire life; I’ve never understood why. As he continued, the misery of the human condition was flooding my head, and my teeth started to grind together. I felt taut as a piano wire, and I didn’t know when it had gotten so damned hot, so unbearably fucking hot.
He paused for a moment, looking down at the letter, and then looked up at me.
“I used to know her so well,” he claimed, and something snapped deep inside me.
I slapped his coffee cup off the table, and then I was yelling, yelling, yelling, something about how we never know anyone, and that it was all a lie, all of it, every last bit of it and love was stupid and pointless, the biggest lie of all, a chemical reaction, just seratonin and dopamine and testosterone, and that you can’t count on anyone, damn you, but yourself and none of it mattered anyway because it all ended so f-ing fast, just like life, all of it dust in a very, very fickle wind. I don’t know how we got there, but by the time I was finished shouting, I had him pressed back against the wall, my finger pointing at his chest, and he had this insane look on his face, as if he couldn’t decide whether to hit me or burst into tears. As suddenly as the storm had come on, it dissipated. I shook my head, as if trying to clear a fog, and took a step back. Where the hell had all that come from? Big C had his head cocked to one side now, looking at me as if I was some exotic animal he had never seen before. Goldilocks Man was sitting up, his Bible discarded, and he looked as if he was trying to decide where to run if I started in on him.
I took a deep breath, and looked back at C. He nodded to me once, and said, “Ok.” He repeated it again a few seconds later, and then looked me in my eyes. “Her name was Shawna.”
I just stared at him, acknowledging the unsaid bond, something I couldn’t explain to you then, and can’t now.
“Her name was L-.”
“You remember that saying that its supposed to be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” he asked me, with a small smile on his face.
I nodded. “Lord Tennyson. First Baron of Aldworth and Freshwater. Complete and total fucking idiot.”
“Yeah, he got that s- wrong, didn’t he?”I left soon after that and returned to the kitchens. In the reflection of stainless steel, I looked deep into myself. Who are you? What do you want with me? When are you going to stop surprising me, betraying me? When will I ever gain the control that I have been searching for all my life? When will this all end? Where? How?