28 June, 2015

Some Awful On-the-Job Awkwardness

The lock on the kitchen entrance to the staff dining hall clicks several times, but the door doesn’t open. I hear the keys on the opposite side, jingling as though a baby’s gotten hold of them and is having a blast. Immediately, I know who’s coming in. And because I know, I don’t hurry to slip plastic serving gloves on, the way I would for almost anyone else coming to eat, because negotiating the whole process of finding a key and turning it is going to take this guy a minute.

Whether his hiring speaks to the Department of Corrections’ affirmative-action policies or its desperation, I can’t say. I’m not being mean-spirited, this particular guard just isn’t terribly bright. You could ask anyone here — employee or inmate — and they’d tell you the same, except using more profanity.

Once he finally gets the door open, then secured behind him, the portly young fellow inquires about the menu. I run it down: roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, carrots, lima beans, and brownies.

“Is there marijuana in them brownies?” he asks, for which I’m at a loss of appropriate responses before he goes on. “Because I wouldn’t wanna be high at work, y’know? Might get into trouble, lose my job.”

He stares me down, blank as a fresh piece of typing paper, and there’s a droplet of spittle adorning his bottom lip.

With my practiced customer-service smile, I tell him, “There’d better not be, or we’d both be in trouble,” and plop his potatoes down. Is it weird that I take a modicum of pride in being able to serve a volcano of mashed potatoes with a perfect gravy crater, a little caldera brimming with savory brown magma? Probably. Still, when I pass him his tray with each item of food neatly in its allotted depression, I think, Another job well done.

He immediately pokes his spork at a small curl of celery in the gravy. “What’s this green shit in this?”

I tell him they also put onions in it.

“I guess it won’t kill me, right?” He holds up tiny plastic cups of peanut butter and jelly, and requests four pieces of bread. “Got my PBJ, just in case.”

He takes his tray to a table and curls himself protectively around it, eating with his humped back to me. The dining hall is predictably vacant at this time, pre-count, and I’m relieved the emptiness doesn’t compel him to make full-mouthed small talk. When he’s scarfed everything down, he comes and sets the tray in my bus tub, behind the counter.

“Pretty bad when the potatoes, gravy, and roast beef are better than PBJ,” he says, turning to me. He takes a gulp from his iced beverage and, with orangey dew on his upper-lip peach fuzz, ups the awkwardness with: “How many years more do you got left?”

I hate this question even when it’s grammatically correct. I hate this question almost as much as I hate its inevitable antecedent, which this guard, of course, follows up with. “Life without!? What did you do?”

There are a hundred different ways I might answer this, but I’ve spent the last thirteen years answering it, and it’s gotten a little old. The energy necessary to defend myself to every nosy parker who wants to know, if I didn’t do anything, how I ended up in prison — exactly the direction this conversation will go if I’m incautious. So I gloss.

“It’s a long story.”

Rather than just throw the containers, still partially full of peanut butter and jelly, into the trash, he takes the trouble to crush them and squeeze the contents out of each. And there’s something in this act — this refusal to acknowledge my basic dignity, presuming that I am not above digging through garbage to claim his sloppy seconds — that transforms my annoyance into resentment. It’s compounded by his next remark.

“You got life without, but they put you in staff dining?”

Although Crossroads is a maximum-security prison, recent adjustments to the custody-level system mean we now get a lot of short-timers, kids with a handful of years (or mere months) to serve, whose untamed antics landed them alongside murderers, serial rapists, and child molesters with multi-decade sentences. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the inmates with the most serious charges are, generally speaking, better-behaved, less apt to act out or do stupid, disgusting things to staff members’ food. I could explain this to the guard, maybe even tell him that, notwithstanding my innocence (which means nothing here, anyway), my exemplary prison work record and paucity of conduct violations makes me one of the best possible choices for staff dining hall server. But I don’t feel like justifying myself to this man.

I shrug. Because the container of peanut butter gave him trouble, he wipes brown goo off his fingertips with a paper towel. The dull, unblinking gaze he maintains gives our exchange the offbeat feeling of a conversation you might have with a dancing dwarf in an unsettling dream.

“Drugs?” he asks, stepping closer.

“Excuse me?”

“Was you high on drugs and shot a police officer?”

What a question! “No, my case doesn’t involve anything at all like that,” I say, right away regretting having disclosed even this much.

“Because I could see, like, if you was a kid, like eighteen, and there’s a twenty-five-year-old in your gang, hands you a gun and says, ‘Kill him.” I can see you not knowing no better and shooting the guy.”

It’s obvious he won’t give up this line of inquiry. Even if it weren’t against the rules for him to ask these questions, I’d feel just as uncomfortable being asked them. I give the guy the gentlest verbal shove I can. Looking at my wrist, I check the time on the watch I’m not wearing, and say, “Well, I’ve got all day to talk, but you’ve got a post to get back to.”

That inscrutable face reveals nothing of his thoughts (or does it reveal no thought?), and for an instant it isn’t at all clear if he got the hint or not.

“I’m gonna tell you this,” he says then. “Everybody’s done a crime. You ask the officers, the caseworkers, the warden, and they tell you they never done nothing illegal, they’re a damn liar. The only difference between you and everybody else is, they didn’t get caught. You can believe that.”

If I had any doubt that this was how he acted on any given day of the week, I’d question his current sobriety. What I do believe, however, is that this is his natural personality. I nod and wish him away. He goes without another word, his key chain jangling wildly on the other side of the kitchen door.

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