01 December, 2017

Giving It All Up for a Desk Job

The perks of my job in the staff dining hall, where I served dinner to Crossroads' guards and late-working caseworkers, were by all accounts enviable. I got to eat what and however much I wanted (a mixed blessing, come bread pudding nights). My shift was a meager four hours a day, three or four days a week. It paid nearly twice as much as positions twice as coveted. It faced one with no coworkers to have to deal with. Only a crazy person would give it up.

Call me crazy; I took a prison library job on 6 November.

Weirdly, a lot of people think they remember me working in the library before, years ago. I didn't. Even the librarian, when I submitted the application, asked, ''Didn't we offer you a job here once before?" They didn't. Evidently, mine is just one of those faces — library face.

Certain others are surprised that I'd take any position in the library, considering previous complaints about the raging harpies who ran the place. I point out that they're no longer employed here and that the current librarian has yet to turn me to stone with her gaze; I think this will turn out fine. Besides, it's a job — I'm not trying to make friends and influence people.

My position is at the reference/periodicals desk. I hand out World Book volumes, prescription medication guides, and magazines (GQ, Muscle Car, National Geographic Traveler) and newspapers. It's a good gig. My friend Zach and I see each other every afternoon, when our shifts overlap. In between tasks we banter, debate, and collude on strategies legal and writerly.

To judge by the last few weeks, it's work I enjoy. And what philomath wouldn't like having hundreds of hefty, data-rich tomes at his back? On my first day, looking things up for others, I learned all about Aruba, that rottenstone is a silica-rich rock used in metal-polishing, and that Morrissey appears in a hilarious new ad for PETA. It's not Internet access, but it's close enough, for now.

Continuing to look on the bright side of this lifestyle tweak, I was happy to see that, a week after leaving Staff Dining, I lost three and a half pounds. Maybe now I can finally earn those eight-pack abs I've been straining my way toward.

19 November, 2017

Prison Canteen Food Roundup

The Crossroads canteen sells prisoners a variety of products that would surprise the average citizen — light bulbs, ice cream, bathrobes. Of course, surprise isn't desirable if you're a consumer. The list of canteen items here leaves much to the imagination. It doesn't list products' sizes and only infrequently refers to brand names, so a guy doesn't know what he's going to get unless he asks around a little first. Even then, there's no guarantee. I've wished many times that someone made available a report, grading and reviewing every new item in inventory, saving me from wasting precious money on garbage — something like this:

Fresh Catch Fillets of Mackerel in Brine
Who wants to eat anything described with a synonym for eerie? Yet because all Fresh Catch products come in pouches instead of (potentially weaponizable) cans, their slogan, "Uncanny taste and convenience" (emphasis mine), comes off as just an ill-conceived pun.

Less than $1 buys 3.53 moist ounces of omega-3-licious fish — a great, low-calorie, high-protein food. I like putting a pouch of this stuff in some rice, with minced onion, chopped jalapeño peppers, and a dash of soy sauce, for a satisfying substitution for the dining halls' more odious meals.
Product rating:
4 stars

Market Square Bakery Vanilla Wafers
Not to be confused with Nabisco's artificially flavored delights, in that lemon-yellow box, these crumbly little discs come partly pulverized in a maroon plastic bag. Flavorwise, they're fine — a tad greasy, perhaps, but with a not-unpleasant melts-in-your-mouth butteriness that says, "This bag's got another fifteen servings in it; keep eating, Tubbo!"
Product rating:
3 stars

Paramount Dairy Farms Instant Nonfat Dry Milk
Fans of buttermilk and whole milk may balk, but compared to every other powdered milk that this tester has tasted, Paramount's product offers flavor and consistency remarkably similar to its liquid counterparts. In cereal (specifically, Golden Valley Bran Flakes), it offers a rich dairy taste and pleasing creaminess, both of which are also detectable when sipping it solo, chilled in a bottle, after a strenuous workout.
Product rating:
4.5 stars

Back Country Pepperoni
"READY TO EAT" is what the label on this clear bag of what at first glance looks like kimchi. When has pepperoni required preparation? No one would print "READY TO EAT" on a bag of roasted peanuts or a pouch of beef jerky, so this exhortation seems silly. Getting into the bag takes teeth, plus paper towels or toilet tissue to mop up the resultant grease spill. The product itself is, for the most part, shredded beyond recognition. As for flavor, well, there's pepper aplenty, but the pork and beef the label alleges are present seem in short supply. Wet cardboard, on the other hand….
Product rating:
2 stars

Clear Choice Pre-Cooked Long Grain Rice
Its logo is a check mark and its packaging bears no sign of trademark designator, but this bland filler material is halal, so eat hearty, my Islamic friends! Will you find better rice in virtually any other place? Yes, but in prison many foodstuffs must be packaged in see-through containers (hence the double meaning of Clear Choice's name), so good luck finding any.
Product rating:
3 stars

Brushy Creek Beef Stew
Chunky, salty, meaty — this stuff is on par with Dinty Moore or Campbell's, which, if what those brands offer is a perfect product (i.e., perfectly acceptable canned analog to homemade beef stew), makes Brushy Creek Beef Stew equally perfect.
Product rating:
5 stars

Van Holten's Kosher Pickle (Zesty Garlic Flavor)
It's a pickle. Besides those bread-and-butter atrocities, have you ever known a pickle to be bad?
Product rating:
4.5 stars

Cactus Annie's Jalapeño Squeeze Cheese
Who doesn't like nacho cheese? Nobody, that's who. The agreement that those who eat nacho cheese make with their bodies, not to heed the other's discomfort through the various parts of the shameful ingestion/digestion process, nullifies all efforts at qualitative assessment or criticism beyond solely addressing said cheese food product's flavor. In the case of Cactus Annie's, I can tell you that it's nacho cheese, ergo: yum.
Product rating:
4.5 stars

Panola Soy Sauce
Rice without sauce is nothing. Unfortunately, Panola's sauce overdoes it on water, resulting in what may be humanity's least salty, least flavorful soy sauce ever. Best only used in dire circumstances, along with copious other spices.
Product rating:
2 stars

Golden Harvest Cheese Snack Crackers
Imitation Cheez-Its are bound to disappoint, and these bland orange squares are no exception. Texturally, they're similar to everyone's favorite Sunshine Bakeries snack, but crunching down is, unfortunately, only the first step. Next comes chewing.

Saliva production kicks into overdrive when you eat these, not due to any explosion of cheesy flavor but, rather, abundant salt embedded atop every cracker. This may be deliberate, to trick undiscriminating consumers into believing that they're eating a food so delicious it makes their mouths water. But no. These things suck. Think about licking clean the sweaty fingers of some guy who's just eaten three or four Cheetos — they taste like that.
Product rating:
1.5 stars

Moon Lodge Sour Cream and Onion Chips
To be sour-cream-and-onion — what does it mean? Can mankind ever hope to understand? Is the interplay between the two principal components the sine qua non of sour-cream-and-onion — a Platonic ideal of sour cream balanced just so with an elemental onionness, thereby producing a serendipitous admixture greater than the sum of its parts? Or are all variations on the ratio equally valid, with a spectrum as infinite as it is toothsome, for determining what makes sour cream plus onion equal sour-cream-and-onion? A tertiary possibility undermines these questions, being: is this entire debate merely a rehash of Nagel's, vis-à-vis perception and difference? If so, it could be that "knowledge" (as it is commonly regarded) represents only preferences, fictions, suppositions, and reactive impulses. Consider here the rise of "fake news" and "alternative facts." Montaigne mutters his "Que sais-je?" from beyond the grave; Diderot thrashes in his. Irrespective of which stance we adopt, these chips are bland as fuck.
Product rating:
2 stars

31 October, 2017

Halloween in the Hoosegow IV: Rise of the Octoberfeast Cult

Wolf slammed bones at his usual table, howling every time he scored. Batty flitted around the wing, searching for someone to bleed, the mooch. Some poor wretch wailed a forlorn dirge. The zombies trudged in circles. It seemed like just another evening in B-Wing of Housing Unit 3.

I was on the phone 1 discussing matters inconsequential with a friend. Idly, the way one does in voice-only conversations, I glanced about. The nothing-spectacle held little of interest, just the usual skulking creatures, the gargoyles peering from their vantage, and the ghosts of men drifting through my sight. Then there came, from the shadow of a doorway, two pale men.

Leading, looking chronically unrested, was the one of average build. His backswept black hair vaguely reminded me of some unplaceable movie star. His portly peon wriggled up the staircase behind him, protectively hunched over something gathered in the hem of his shirt. I thought of a child afraid that her skirtful of freshly picked daisies might blow away in an errant wind.

Both men reached my door at the top of the stairs, knocked, and sneaked sidewise looks in my direction. What was this? My mild amusement gave way to nascent suspicion.

Doyle, my cellmate, opened the door and they spoke. His expression, as he apprehended whatever the Grub's shirt held, bespoke doubt. The three of them turned my direction, said a few additional words, then averted their gaze again. It was starting to feel like a conspiracy, unfolding right before my eyes.

The Grub stepped into my cell. He re-emerged in a moment, shirt empty. I said goodbye to my friend.

We passed on the steps, the odd pair and I. The tired-looking superior smirked in response to my inquisitive look, exposing a single gleaming canine, but he said not a word. When I entered, Doyle, bewildered, was arranging several tiny heads on the desk.

"They heard you're into Halloween," Doyle said. He rotated an origami skull to face us. "The movies, the candy — they know about the nachos, Byron."

"Then these are an offering."

Doyle nodded. "Seems so. You gonna let 'em in?"

Dawn was hours away when I tracked them down, the men who left the heads. Bobby's eyebrow peaked and the Grub's cheeks plumped with a smile at my approach.

"We knew you liked Halloween," Bobby explained.

"Like, that you were super into it," added the Grub, obviously alluding to my infamous All Hallows Eve ritual.

"Well," I said, "I can't say I ever decorated my cell before. Besides putting up whatever Halloween cards I get from friends."

"We got this book of origami monsters — witches, demons, dragons. It's pretty cool." Bobby hiked his thumb at his larval companion. "All he's been able to make are the heads, though."

"The scarecrow's fucking impossible," the Grub said, scooting his wireframes up the bridge of his tiny nose.

"I draw the faces, then stitch the loop of string on top. We hang ours along our shelf, like little sombrero dingle-balls."

If they were trying to bribe their way into my Halloween-Night Nachorama, I thought, this was a soft pitch. Neither mentioned candy, chips, or Brett, the mutual acquaintance who no doubt spilled the beans to them about last year's celebration. (Although, anyone else might have. The whole wing witnessed us transporting his half of the feast like a corpse, on a beach-towel improvised stretcher.) Theirs seemed like genuine love for the holiday.

The Grub intimated that he had more decorations coming in the mail. Cardstock window dressing. He offered to share some with me, "Y'know, if you want."

I did want.

Bouncing around to Oingo Boingo's "Dead Man's Party," I scattered olive slices. Above the desk dangled six grotesque little boxy heads on orange thread — a werewolf, a ghost, a reptilian beast, a rawhead zombie, a skull, and a ghoulish scarecrow. From the wall leered a magazine clipping of a Chris Mars painting. A paper cutout jack-o'-lantern seemed to laugh at the obscene size of my culinary monster.

This was the year of the largest nacho spread yet, big enough that one could use it as a crunchy bean-and-cheese-filled pillow. The Grub wriggled expectantly, hungrily watching me put on the finishing touches. In his fingers, the sheet that he and Bobby would use to move their third of this massive undertaking downstairs. Bobby and Doyle chatted about their hopes for tonight's American Horror Story. It did feel like a party.

I drizzled a perfect white zigzag of ranch dressing. Brett arrived.

"It's candy pizza," he told us, passing out everyone's container of his own outrageous invention. "The crust is graham crackers and vanilla wafers."

I inspected it through the plastic. "Peanut butter cups, Butterfinger, peanuts, M&Ms…. Are those jelly beans?" Brett nodded.

"I used Hershey's syrup, too. The white stuff is melted ice cream."

"You're a madman."

A neighbor peeked over everyone's shoulders to see what the fuss was about. "Holy shit," he laughed. "Y'all are goin' crazy with this Halloween thing."

Bobby wielded his menacing eyebrows. "You could join us…"

"Yessssss," I hissed. "We demand only the smallest sacrifice."

The neighbor vamoosed, and we descended on our frightful victuals.