18 April, 2013

Worst Day at Work, Ever

Nubbins of barbecue pork swim in grease. Sheet pans on which the potatoes were baked in the oven are double-stacked thirty high, pooling at each layer with grimy vegetable oil. Enough margarine adheres to the sides and bottom of a single pan to satisfy ten or more of the most exuberant bread-and-spread fanatics. The brownie remnants demand a long soak in scalding water before we can fish them out, scour off the chunks, then drop them in the wash sink. Tenacious canned-spinach bits refuse to yield to a stainless-steel scrubber pad without a fight, and, somewhere in the kitchen, there’s a sadistic cook who likes to drain off some of the spinach juice using a strainer pan that’s already a pain to clean when caked with food the inmates actually eat. Any one of these items on the menu make for a longer workday in the pots-and-pans area. Tonight’s dinner consists of all five.

Of course everyone comes to eat. Meal attendance isn’t mandatory at Crossroads, as it is in other prisons, and much of the food here is stomach-churning enough that the affluent inmates often stay in their housing units and cook up meals of canteen-purchased food — beef stew, chicken burritos, cheeseburgers, tuna salad, nachos, et cetera. (My inexpensive preference for meal substitutions is Prisoner’s Thai Noodles, the recipe for which was published here last month.) The menu planners know how terrible certain entrĂ©es are, so, to ensure their numbers and state funding stay constant, they literally sweeten the deal by adding desirable desserts, such as cake or fruit crisp. The barbecue pork draws white inmates like flies to a turd but repels the Muslims and (such as it is) the prison’s Jewish population — ergo: brownie.

There’s a crush to get through the dining hall doors.

These two coworkers and I perform well together, never falling far behind, despite the waves of soiled pans thrown empty or, as is sometimes the case, half full onto our four-tiered rack. We even joke with one another at times, but no so much tonight, when the throngs of diners keep us mute in our activity. Goateed Stan fills what few lulls we experience with typical new-guy questions (“What do I have to do to get, like, a job that pays?”) and obvious comments (“I guess, in a place like this, nothing should surprise me.”) while Ryan tries to stretch a kink out of his prematurely arthritic back and I take the briefest of breaks on an overturned pot big enough to hide inside. Our industrial-sized fan kicks out all the air it can; though, we’re still uncomfortably warm.

Then two carts of pans arrive, loaded down with empties and a few fulls to dump, and it’s back to work.

“Is this the last of it?” asks Stan, hopeful as he picks up a scrubber.

“Not hardly,” Ryan answers.

When both serving lines do finish feeding the hungry masses, our rush begins. A small chaotic crowd forms around us. Inmates from other parts of the kitchen swarm our area to catch whatever leftovers they can before everything ends up in the dumpster. Every time Ryan, Stan, or I turn around in the narrow aisle between the sinks and drying racks, someone blocks our way, trying to shove brownie-pan scrapings into a bread bag, or wrapping some chicken dinner sausages (mysteriously reappeared, six hours after they’d been lunch) in a plastic apron. It isn’t unusual for three or four inmates to stop in at the end of our shift to scavenge, but this is insanity. Carrying a scalding pan from cart to dumpster, I nearly collide with two brownie vultures who placed themselves directly in my path, heedless of my repeated calls of “Hot spinach coming through!”

On similar days, I have been known to get flustered by the tumult, let whatever I’m holding clatter to the floor, and just walk away until the raiding party disburses. (Mobs make me nervous and irritable.) Tonight’s annoyance does not, amazingly, get the better of me. I power through, scrub-busting with vigilance until it’s once again just the three of us surrounding the sinks, the fan roaring above the sounds of nothing but underwater metal-on-metal thumps. And we’re making real progress. I remark to Stan that it looks as though he’ll make it back to his housing unit in time to get a shower, when a couple of the blue-shirted kitchen guards show up looking like Laurel and Hardy — one big, one bony.

“All right, guys, come on. Take a break,” says Hardy, his brushy mustache twitching. “Looks like it’s gonna be a long night.”

To our looks of confusion, Laurel responds, “We need everybody out in B Dining Hall now. Just leave your gloves and aprons and stuff here.”

Our shift’s forty-some kitchen workers stand in a row on the L-shaped railing that runs the length and breadth of the dining hall — the world’s most absurd police lineup — scrutinized from halfway across the room by five low-level guards and the ruddy-faced lieutenant whom everyone calls “John Wayne” for how he looks in his ridiculous wide-brimmed hat. Other lieutenants and a captain bustle back and forth, speaking in the low tones of a clandestine tactical operation. No one deigns to communicate with the inmates about what’s happening, but those of us who have been imprisoned for any length of time know a shakedown when we see one. Why the staff are expending themselves this way is a matter open to speculation.

Such discussion will have to wait until later, though, because right now no one is permitted to speak. I take a spot at the tail end of the line and stand there waiting, like the others, our butts to the railing, waiting for someone in charge to do whatever it is he’s going to do.

Ten, maybe fifteen minutes in, John Wayne motions for the six inmates at the opposite end of the railing from me to accompany him and five guards back into the kitchen. They disappear. We wait some more. Several minutes later, a different lieutenant emerges and orders the next three guys back. This process continues, with high-ranking guards in stupid hats periodically beckoning for the next few inmates standing against the rail. My knee has ached all day; I am impatient to be done with this show of force, to shower the grime of work off my body and make a telephone call for which I’ve waited all week long. Sleep will be nice, too. But here I am, plans deteriorating right before. my eyes, as this line wends its way toward the door with all the speed and vigor of a chilled, overfed python.

I must wear annoyance and exhaustion on my face, because, as the line wanes, one of the blue shirts stares at me and asks, “Are you all right? You need to sit down? You can sit down if you need to.”

“No, I’m fine,” I say. I hate this question. I get it often. I’m slender, I’m pale, my eyes are somewhat deep-set, but I have a healthy appetite and am not, thank you very much, stricken with plague. There should be a word in English to convey this and save me from having to explain myself. There should be a lot of words in English.

“Are you sure you’re feeling okay? I’ve seen guys pass out just from standing too long.”

“I’m fine,” I say again, hoping that standing up straighter illustrates my point well enough for this blue shirt to leave me alone. “It’s just been a long day.”

The sallow, sunken-faced codger ahead of me surreptitiously drops a small container of jelly he evidently planned to smuggle back to his cell, but my interrogator-cum-physician is too preoccupied, watching me for signs of faintness, to notice.

When my turn finally comes and the dining hall is at last left vacant, I’m led by a heavyset lieutenant and Laurel, the same skinny guard who pulled me away from my post, into a staff locker room marked OUT OF BOUNDS. Alongside a very confused middle-aged black man, I’m subjected to a strip search. Laurel rifles through the pockets of the gray pants and shirt I handed him, asking the lieutenant if he wants my pen and notepaper confiscated.

There goes an hour’s worth of writing, I think. But the lieutenant shakes his head, suddenly staring me down.

“You sick or something?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” I say yet again, this time through my teeth. I make it a point to dress rapidly, the way someone less sleepy and in a better mood might. The lieutenant’s gaze is palpably skeptical as I pull up my pants with an imitation of gusto probably ill-suited for the circumstances.

When Laurel asks, I confirm for him that there were three of us working in the pots and pans area. He asks, “Are you cool with staying and finishing up what’s left over there?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Yeah, sure,” he says, astounding me with his unconcern. “If you wanna go in, that’s fine. It’s late, man.”

Too bad I’m afflicted with this stupid compulsion to finish tasks I start. I rejoin my coworkers at the sinks, just in time to haul the last two unwashed pots over to them and get to work cleaning the filthy tile floor. Being so close to the end of the day elevates my mood. Then I discover the long squeegee handle to be inexplicably slathered with margarine. So much for that.

Floors thoroughly degreased, I try to do the same to my hands, briskly washing them with a sliver of waxy state-made bar soap before going to claim my ID card from Laurel.

Out the door at last! Or at least I think I am. A gauntlet of blue shirts immediately outside the dining hall exit accosts my coworkers and me for rough pat-downs. I grit my teeth through the brief manhandling and am sent gruffly on my way.

My return to the cell is an hour later than usual. Longer. My cellmate glances at the LCD alarm clock, looks me up and down, and says, “Damn, I was about to send out a search party.”

I sniff. “Yeah, well, one found me anyway.”

He nods, inferring my run-in with the goon squad. Then: “Hey, you look a little — I don’t know. You feelin’ okay?”

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