16 October, 2018

The Ice Brigade

Desperate men do desperate things. Men in prison seem to live in desperation, make a tenuous home there, furnish it sparsely, and, on occasion, enjoy a nice, cool beverage there.

In my wing, where cell doors come open at 6:40 AM and the inhabitants are free to move about until almost 11:00, the line forms early. It runs up the center of the wing: thirty-some Coleman six-pack coolers and Rubbermaid pitchers and insulated mugs — a perfect row of multicolored plastics set on the polished concrete, in preparation for the big moment. The men whose containers these are want what’s coming.

A low-grade viciousness possesses the assembled, behind masks of bonhomie. One prisoner nonchalantly sets his cooler on the floor in front of someone else’s in the queue. Eyes everywhere watch to see who’ll be the one to call him out. The cricket in one of the shower stalls is chirring, and an alarm clock beeps from behind someone’s closed door. No one speaks.

Some of the men take up space on stools by the phones, some lounge on the stairs, others lean on the desk that stores the wing’s meager board-game collection, still more slouch at the four little tables anchored to the floor several yards away. They have their eyes closed, braving the morning for the coming scarcity; or they’re alert and indifferent to the rule against wearing headphones in the wing, and their heads nod in time with beats bumping from hidden CD players. Real subtle, guys, I think, yet none of the guards in the control module notice or care.

Then comes the double sneeze of the door’s pneumatic lock. Shouts go up — “Ice! Ice!” — and everyone’s on his feet, moving for his container. The porter wheels in an insulated brown cart the size of a newspaper box. He parks it along the front wall, then gets the hell out of the way. The throng surges forward. Boy band fans jockeying for a glimpse as their heartthrob exits the tour bus would be only slightly more avid. Feet nearly touching, they stop, assembled in a staggered line, lost in anticipation. One by one, but barely, they step up.

Each man takes his turn with the red ice scoop. Because the rolling Cambro cooler’s small, shoveling more than one container’s worth of ice from it meets with round scorn and loud derision — double-dippers have to return after the rest of the line’s shuffled away. There’s mild jostling. Surprisingly, though, no one is ever outright belligerent. The ice brigade carries off its chilly plunder without incident.

Relief! The wing’s sodas, burgers, pizza rolls, no-bake cheesecakes, chicken sandwiches, stolen kitchen food, and sundry leftover prison-burrito fixings will keep for another twelve hours. By that point the day’s second bin will be wheeled in for plundering. And the cycle continues.

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