25 February, 2013

Nanny Kitchen

You’d think it was a bizarre day-care center, not a maximum-security prison, if you heard how the kitchen staff talk. Maybe it’s significant that older women are the ones running the show. I can imagine any one of the more unpleasant ones shaking a ladle at some simpering sixth-grader who’s just asked for extra gravy on his instant potatoes, berating him so thoroughly for his audacious request that the poor boy told his parents, whose complaint to the school got her canned and left the harpy no alternative but to seek employment somewhere tougher, where the recipients of her harrying have a bit thicker skin than the average pimply tween. No nursing home would do; working around the elderly, for such a person, is too acute a reminder of one’s mortality. But prison? That’s something else altogether. The sense of menace, working in close proximity to dangerous men, would enliven even the most moribund existence.

During the years I was away from the kitchen (see my previous post), there has been some personnel turnover. Two of the remaining evening staff cooks — “squares,” in the vernacular — made it a point to stop what they were doing, on my first day back, and comment on my return: “Are you back?” asked one; hands on hips, sassily, the other one quipped, “I thought you said you were never gonna work here again.” The rest I only recognize from encounters at the mesh serving-line window. Eschewing many of the meat byproducts that constitute entrĂ©es here, I often break the serving line’s rhythm by asking for a vegetarian tray — behavior that does not endear me to them. One square cook, a short, dried-apple-headed babushka of the sort one sees at craft fairs, actually tries to dissuade me, lowering her puckered face to the wall slot through which meal trays are shoved out, rapid-fire, and, in a voice that could pickle beets, shouting, “The veggie is beans, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“They’re cold,” she says, upping the ante.

Just put the beans on the tray, woman, I want to tell her. What comes out of my mouth is less confrontational: “That’s fine.”

Should I not have been surprised to learn that she’s equally unpleasant when there isn’t a steel partition between us? On my third day on the job, dinner included pizza and cake — “the scab” and “the sponge,” as I call them — two of the most popular items. Granny Sourpuss made a circuit around the kitchen, telling each cluster of workers, “If none of you get caught stealing tonight, we might let you have the leftover pizza. But if just one person takes anything, even a packet of salt, it’s all going into the trash.”

No one stole; no one got any pizza. I suspect her theft speech was merely to engender false hope. Quite diabolical, really.

A different cook, who looks as though what muscles in her face control smiling have atrophied out of existence, is perpetually on the lookout for transgressors of the fine line between leaning and sitting. She isn’t concerned with the hygienic aspect of inmates propping their asses on what probably should be sterile surfaces, nor with prodding slackers, only with the distant possibility of a high-ranking guard catching her underlings committing safety violations. “Hey, stand up!” she repeatedly barks at the almost-seated, “I don’t want anybody falling off anything and getting me in trouble.”

I’m keeping my head down, performing the tasks for which I was hired. With this attitude, run-ins with the self-righteous ersatz matrons should be few and far between. Having to witness the way they treat the other inmates will only get more annoying, the longer I work there; however, I really have started looking forward to nap times.

14 February, 2013

Back to the Salt Mines

The last prison job I held was as the clerk in Crossroads’ food service warehouse. I typed the supply requests for the kitchen; figured usage totals and expenditures for the facility’s daily food service reports; managed the inventory of non-food kitchen items, such as plastic aprons, Styrofoam cups, and yellow rubber gloves; drafted eloquent inter-office communiques for the boss; scaled up recipes sent by the Department of Corrections’ so-called nutritionist, making them into ingredients lists to accommodate a 1,500-man population; monitored milk and produce, and ordered for predicted future consumption; assisted with audits by the institution’s business office; and spent a whole lot of time making up tongue-in-cheek signage for the wall above my desk, in the dimly lit corner of the dry-goods storage area, abutting a pallet of ham-flavored textured vegetable protein (“Case Enterprises, LLC: Perpetually polishing the Big Zero!” was a particular favorite). Most of what I did was technically someone else’s job.

Two years — there was something to that. I couldn’t help but be unsettled by the fact that the longest position I’d held in my life was a prison job. That my work schedule had begun hampering progress on my memoir, then in its final draft stage, made my decision to end the cruel joke of my employment even easier. I tendered my resignation. I even smiled a little at the punchline: that I would no longer earn that eleven dollars and fifty cents each month. I mean, it is kind of funny, when you think about it.

Quitting was mostly a matter of pride, a matter of principles. I asked myself, Why serve, and thereby support, the very system that unjustly holds me captive? It felt good to take back that teensiest iota of power. The medical staff was unwilling to treat my bad knees, beyond prescribing an anti-inflammatory I didn’t want, and I used that against them, securing a work restriction in lieu of surgery. The doctor’s order for “no prolonged standing (20 mins.)” exempted me from the work stipulation for living in the comparative luxury of Crossroads’ good-conduct wing, and freed my schedule to rapidly finish writing my first book manuscript. I got a lot of other projects done in the three years of contented unemployment that followed, too.

Then it came time to make a decision that was, in reality, no decision at all. The document a caseworker handed me last month said I was to find a job that my restriction didn’t affect, or else be evicted from the good-conduct wing. Something had changed since I began my retirement. Or, more likely, someone had changed his or her mind about the meaning of “work restriction.” At least a third of the wing’s seventy-two residents — a random sampling of the moderately disabled, the chronically lazy, the temporarily between-jobbers, and even several of the employed (who, for reasons I totally understand, raised quite a fuss over the error) — were given the same written directive to find work or get the hell out.

I immediately put my name in for a couple of preferred positions, but knew, as the days before my one-month deadline dwindled, that my odds with them were slim. Just inside the two-week point, having had no luck anywhere else, I caved. I submitted a request for work in the much-reviled yet perennially viable fallback, the kitchen. A few hours, five days a week, slopping foodstuffs seem worth the privileges of the good-conduct wing, where, for more than five years, coming and going as I please from my cell, showering and telephoning whenever I like, having additional recreation periods, and using conveniently located microwaves and clothes dryers are perks to which I’ve grown accustomed.

So I’ve started as a pot-washer. Donning a vinyl apron and a pair of the heavy-duty yellow rubber gloves I’d previously only handled by the dozen, it is now my duty to scour the cookware from the kitchen’s dinner service. This now takes up the afternoon and early-evening period I used to spend watching Jeopardy! and reading — a transition that takes some adjustment, not least because of the hour and a half that kitchen workers sit idle, loitering in the dining hall, waiting for the 4:00 PM head count to clear. To mitigate that tedium, some bring sudoku or crossword puzzles torn from the newspaper. Some bring a pocket Bible to read. Some yuk it up with their homeboys. Me, I sit alone, a four-top table to myself, sipping water and staring out at the fences and the housing units and a sliver of sky, through east-facing windows, making semi-productive use of the downtime, planning the next essay, blog post, or short story I need to write, before the lockdown for count is lifted and I head back to the deep, stainless steel sinks stacked with pots and pans bearing the crusty and slimy residue of the evening meal, some of which, like the Salisbury steak, I wouldn’t touch without gloves.

02 February, 2013

A Poem from the Vaults


I believe
in speaking.
No bones.
Your indolence
earns no rightful claim
to this
fractured sleep.
And aren’t you
as tired as I am
of our patchy game
of Telephone?
Hooves in Surry
and Moose in a hurry
get us nowhere fast.
But here we are,
and here there are no
rights for me to cite,
this being some
unprecedented rhubarb.
The I who wants you wants
that innermost of yous,
whose limber body
he has seen
only in a certain
lonely medium,
but for whom he often
sings, in the shower,
off-key as a deaf man,
just to feel
its resonance.
Because it’s something.
Because it’s lovely.
Because it matters.

 * * * * *

This poem sat in a folder for three years, more or less in the form you see here. During that time, I was uncertain of what to do with it. It’s so damned personal. In the end, posting it here seemed the most appropriate thing, never mind that the impetus I initially had to write it — the poem’s “you” — disappeared long before I completed the piece.

I’ve been reading a great deal lately about poetry’s obligation to truth. This of course inspires all sorts of rhetorical questions about which truth poetry should reveal, and precisely what that truth is. Strictly speaking, “Declaration” is true; though, it’s not an autobiographical account of the conflict I endured a few years ago, drawn and quartered by the lines hooked to my heart (figuratively) and the chains anchoring me (in the physical sense). If it wasn’t, I would be using this space to describe the mess my head was in when I wrote down the two very apt words from which the rest of “Declaration” grew: unprecedented rhubarb.