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.

1 comment:

  1. I can always send you Jeopardy questions in letters so you can stay sharp. Or I can get the video game and quiz you over the phone. Except Final Jeopardy will always be a question about Duran Duran so yeah, I'll always win. :)


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