17 July, 2012


The dining hall fills. Nearly 140 convicted men hurriedly eat the dinner they’ve been issued, then wait for the exit door to be opened. On any other evening there would scarcely be time to choke down half of what’s on my tan plastic tray before guards rushed us out. Because we’re about to be released to our recreation period, though, the fifteen-minute limit alotted by policy for each mealtime is not applied by the guards in charge. Staff enforce their rules selectively.

I clench my jaw and rub my thumb the way I do even when I’m not anxious. Earplugs aren’t allowed here, and the noise of so many impatient souls in such a cavernous space is just shy of painful. The crowd’s not usually this loud. It is turning into an evening replete with exceptions

Twenty-five excruciating minutes crawl by. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine. Then thirty. The basketballers are itching to play their game, the weightlifters are fidgeting in their seats, the library-bound are flipping idly through borrowed books. Conversations have grown even more emphatic. I’m about to put my fingers in my ears when there’s a lull.

The lull lasts. What? Something is happening. I turn and scan for the sight that has calmed this madding crowd. A brewing fight? Someone being taken to the Hole? The sighting of a woman whose appearance wouldn’t sour milk? No.

A downy tuft. One of those wispy, floating white globes of seed that are distributed on the wind — from what kind of tree or weed I’m too botanically ignorant to know. Someone must have kicked it up after it wafted through the door with us, over a half hour ago. Now it’s suspended in midair, between tables, and nearly everyone is watching it drift. They’re transfixed.

One lanky man with glasses blows at it and grins as the feathery little orb catches in his airstream. It sinks abruptly, then, and another man stretches out a tattooed hand to fan upward. Those within the tuft’s proximity are united in unspoken urgency to keep it aloft. The scene is vaguely aquatic. Arms extend almost delicately from tables, like the undulating tentacles of octopuses, and smiles sprout with the suddenness of sea anemone blooms. The puff itself — langorous, incidental, aimless — reminds me of a jellyfish.

I’m not going to call this moment beautiful. Video of a discarded plastic grocery sack buffeted by breezes, performing air ballet, is a better (and similar) exemplar of accidental profundity in that which has been discarded. I won’t go there. Nor will I stretch to comment on the essential undercurrent of innocent joy in even society’s most nefarious outcasts. (I’m not a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of guy.) But in the full ninety seconds that that tiny seed holds the prisoners in delighted thrall, before it’s forgotten and borne away by everyone’s crushing move for the at-last-opened door, there’s — I don’t know — a kind of peace. And it’s nice.


  1. "One of those wispy, floating white globes of seed that are distributed on the wind"

    Ha! I don't think *anyone* knows what they're called!

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Melbourne, Australia


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