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 entrées 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.

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