28 November, 2019

A Prison Thanksgiving

The smells of turkey and liquid disinfectant vie for dominance in the dining hall. If anyone wanted ambiance, he came to the wrong place. There's a weeks-old blob of margarine disintegrating down the wall and a petrified mustard smear on the spork holder. This is barely an area suitable for human occupation, let alone for eating in. As my housing unit files through the door, a kitchen worker in a white bouffant cap and beard guard is lazily wiping crumbs and gravy spatter off the few unoccupied faux-woodgrain tables.

Housing Unit Three was called to eat first today, and it looks (and sounds) like half of them are still here. There's supposed to be a rotation, but none of the guards ever keep track of who went first yesterday. Because of this (and several other factors), meals are never at the same time, from one day to the next.

Seats are at an unusual premium this afternoon. Normally, my Buddhist cohort and I sit at the third table from the exit, but today, because everyone's crawled out of the woodwork for this special holiday meal, "our" table's occupied. It looks like the four of us will be eating separately. I'm fine with that. It's just another meal, as far as I'm concerned.

I scan for the open seat that offers the least objectionable dining companions. There's time to look around a bit. The line's barely moving. Prisoners whose job is to scoop and ladle out the food seem easily distracted. They need to be reminded over and over again by the guards and cooks: "Let's keep those trays moving, gentlemen!" If there weren't a concrete wall keeping us diners from seeing how the servers treat the food going onto our brown plastic trays, there'd probably be all kinds of fights. I'm often glad there's a wall. Ignorance is bliss.

The first two neon-orange sporks I grab have food stuck to them. You just have to keep drawing handles from the cups until you find a good one. Prisoners in front of and behind me complain. The prisoner in front of me remembers how "the Old Walls" (Missouri State Penitentiary) baked its own bread and gave every man a tray heaped so high with Thanksgiving vittles that he could barely even carry, let alone eat, everything on it. The prisoner behind me doesn't like the look of today's portions. "Man, they tryin' to starve us to death in this bitch!" I shuffle closer to the window. I'll be thankful to reach a table, preferably a fair distance from anyone wanting to bitch.

It's Thanksgiving, so we get a couple of ounces of sliced turkey, a glob of mashed potatoes and gravy, a spoonful of gelatinous cranberry sauce, soggy iceberg lettuce salad, some canned corn, two slices of white bread, and a little slice of pumpkin pie. Everyone looks forward to it, yet everyone expresses dissatisfaction when it's served, even though year after year after year this meal and its portions stay exactly the same. I carry mine to a table where a pair of Three-House residents are finishing up. There are a couple of empty seats, and I hope that no one sits adjacent to me who wants to kvetch about serving sizes. I'm grateful when none does.

As off-putting as the other prisoners' bellyaching can be, I try to be compassionate. Most people in this sour place haven't developed the same perspective as I have. They're still slaves to their negativity, helpless against it. Giving thanks for what they've got would be so foreign to them as to seem downright otherworldly. Only they can change their minds. I let them carp while I enjoy the meal. It's ironic that I, who never felt any love for this holiday, am one of very few here who understand and appreciate its purpose.

20 November, 2019

Happy Birthday, Dear Byron

Getting older is no picnic. Most Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers will probably tell you that after they turned forty, happy birthdays got a little harder to come by. This is at least doubly true in prison, where joy is thought to be as mythical as Santa Claus and racial equality. Somehow, though, I manage to summon enough happiness to smile about turning another year older. You might reasonably ask how the hell I do it.

When I was a teenager, people often thought I was ten years older than I was. Now that I'm "over the hill," everyone thinks I'm ten years younger than I am. Both perspectives have served me well. Appearances aside, however, age is taking its toll. My hair is thin. My vision sucks. My knees ache and crackle. My lungs are bad. Et cetera, ad mortuum.

Whatever. Age happens to the best of us. There are worse things, besides.

One of my lowest points, since the abduction that landed me in a prison cell, was my twenty-fifth birthday. I'd recently lost both an appeal and contact with a close friend. I slipped into a profound depression. Hitting the quarter-century mark seemed like a significant life event, and here I was, locked in a cluttered cell for days on end with a madman, not even allowed out for a shower, in the wake of a prisoner's vengeful assault of a guard. My severely mentally ill cellmate, Hoss, had schizophrenia and a hoarding problem, however, and being trapped in his presence, with his sloppiness and selfishness and constant whining about imagined injustice and persecution, made the pain of my wrongful imprisonment sting that much more sharply. Another item on my list of woes was that the institutional lockdown forced a cancelation of the special food visit I was expecting. Birthday cards and friendly letters poured in from all corners of the globe, but they only reminded me of all that I was being kept from.

Instead of wallowing for weeks in that gray torment, I turned to creative ventures. Art and (of course) writing got me through the worst of it, implicitly reiterating that old truth: that in life, ultimately, no one's responsible for your shitty moods but you. The next year, I took fun into my own hands. I bought some special foodstuffs from the prison canteen and shared a little birthday feast with my new cellmate. I also splurged by mail ordering a few music cassettes. (This was a long time ago.) The love and well-wishes my friends sent that year had their intended effect, and I sailed happily through my twenty-sixth birthday.

I can't legitimately claim all the credit for this. It'd be impossible to enjoy myself so much without that crucial ingredient to any happy birthday: love. Everyone out there who knows me personally or frequently reads this blog knows that I'm graced with the friendships of many smart, resilient, caring people. My connections to them are the glue that holds me together. To what state might I be reduced if not for them? On the anniversary of my birth, they shower me with cards, letters, and e-mails, as well as money, packets of pictures, and books — every type of gift that the Department of Corrections allows me to receive — and these mean the world to me. Locked in here, alone with society's dregs, my friends make me feel like a prince.

This Saturday I'll turn forty-one. Three of these wonderful people will be here to see me and share a meal made with love by my mother. We'll sit around a table and eat and talk and laugh. The joy of those hours will be palpable. Afterward, I'll sit in my cell, listening to an album I downloaded that morning, reflecting on forty-one years of life, grateful for everything that I have.

Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me.

13 November, 2019

Last Bites: A Different Variety of Prisoner's Dilemma

Away with the notion that prisoners bound for the death chamber request kingly feasts: one of the most common last meals in America is a humble cheeseburger with fries.

Few situations are more harrowing than anticipating one's own execution, so we can understand why the condemned man, whiling away his final hours, would want the comfortingly familiar. Who caves to exotic cravings at such a time, let alone thinks of eating at all?

Tricksters throughout the long history of capital punishment have tried gaming the system, making outré requests to delay the process or piss off whoever would see them hanged, beheaded, shot, what have you. Gradually imposed restrictions curbed such efforts, so that modern last meals often have to come from vendors in the vicinity of the prison doing the killing. Since US prisons aren't constructed, by and large, in bustling cosmopolitan areas, last-meal options are frequently limited to drive-through fare. There's typically a low budget cap, too. No clever forestallments by demanding bird's nest soup, Mr. Multiple Murderer; you'll be lucky to get some KFC and a smirk from the warden.

Although sentenced to life without parole, I'm not in the precarious position of awaiting formal execution by the State of Missouri. I can swear, however, that the chance I'd opt for a burger at death's door is exactly zero.

Granola. That was my parents, growing up. We had VW Microbuses in the driveway, a prodigious vegetable garden out back, and rice cakes and lentils in the kitchen. Mama swore by the health benefits of eating bee propolis; Papa built his own food dehydrator. This is relevant because I was eight years old on the weekend I tasted my first soda and nearly gagged on its sweetness. My cousin gave me a withering look, then slugged hers straight from the three-liter bottle. I poured myself a nice glass of milk. Later, between turns at Super Mario Bros., she offered a Swiss roll. I took one bite, nothing at all like the cakes Mama made, then I ceded to my cousin the uneaten portion.

Mama did a lot of baking, especially through the winter. Much of our heat came from a living-room wood stove with baking racks behind its firebox. When I was very small I sat close to it, enraptured by the flames. Their warmth was as much a comfort as the aroma of Mama's sweet whole-grain loaves. When the time came to pull the bread and let it cool, I was quick with the oven mitts. This makes for fine memories, but best of all was when Mama cut the first slice with her big round-tipped bread knife: that curl of steam escaping through the dark crust, that scent like no other, the slight bowing of the heel before it fell away and exposed the hearty inner substance, rich brown and supple, almost spongy. With a pat of salted butter melted across the surface and glistening, Mama presented that first slice to me. This remains my ultimate sensory memory, from a near-perfect childhood replete with them.

I was arrested when I was twenty-two years old. The circumstances leading to and arising from this comprise a story already widely told, immaterial to this essay except to say that, after being tried by a jury and convicted, then sentenced to two life sentences, my diet radically changed.

All the Sunday mornings Papa made from-scratch waffles or pancakes, all the bohemian get-togethers where friends gravitated to our vibrant kitchen, all the German dishes — Linsen und Spätzle, Zwiebelkuchen, Kalter Hund — on which Mama raised me, all the trips to the market, where farmers hawked their wares by the riverfront: flats of berries; boxes of leafy greens; brown eggs nested by the dozen in shredded newspaper; plump tomatoes in a hundred sizes and shades of red, yellow, and green; caged, round-eyed rabbits, adorably doomed to be stewed; squash in an earthy kaleidoscope of hues; nectarines, peaches, and melons so ripe that their scent carried thickly into the next row of stalls; eggplants like balls of night; plump, bright peppers; baked goods ranging from zucchini bread to strawberry rhubarb pie; myriad root vegetables like the toes of giants; and on and on, as far as I could see from atop Papa's shoulders. These experiences instilled in me a love for the beauty of food.

By the time I struck out on my own, my first apartment's kitchen lacked a microwave but featured a small arsenal of cutlery, mixing bowls, and saucepans. I might have been the only teenager in the city who owned an Italian marble cutting board, a pasta machine, and a mandoline. I still shopped the market. I considered culinary school.

Miniscule portions of the lowest-quality stuff legally classifiable as food made up meals in the county jail. The olfactory trauma I suffered from the bologna's kerosene stink there will never fade. An already slender young man, after my arrest I lost weight at a startling pace. My cheeks hollowed. My ribs showed. I'm not sure now if, in the days leading up to my trial, I ate anything at all.

I fell into the Department of Corrections' custody thirteen months later, and my body nearly went into shock. In prison they served occasional fresh vegetables and fruit, and the portions, while hardly large, were comparatively generous. While the institution's food wouldn't win any awards, it was edible more often than not. Every so often it verged on tasty.

As an incentive for good behavior, Missouri prisons grant inmates without conduct violations a couple of special opportunities each year. Food visits allow loved ones to bring four "food items," plus bread, butter, and individually packaged condiments, with them into facilities' visiting rooms. In eighteen years I've only missed two, due to minor infractions, and both instances felt like grievous losses.

Food visits are a gustatory lifeline, my one real chance to feel anything akin to that long-distant pleasure once found in a kitchen full of friends. Invitations go out weeks in advance, and the guest lists are, by necessity, short. RSVPs are booked on a first come, first served basis. The meals we gather around aren't of cheeseburgers or fried chicken, popcorn shrimp or pork chops, but more salubrious fare, oftentimes lovingly prepared by my mother, who makes the five-hour drive to see me every month.

Lamb rogan josh, chipotle meatloaf, vegetarian brick-oven pizza, fresh-from-the-butcher Knackwurst, big bowls of baba ghanouj, roast Guinea pig, lasagna and cannoli made by an old Italian woman who really knew what she was doing, grilled halibut, Black Forest gateau, Godiva chocolate cheesecake, soan papdi, croissants with Nutella and raspberry preserves — the years' standouts are too numerous to recount, and my mother laughs at how often I've declared, "This is the best food visit yet"; although, it so often is.

Other food-visit tables end up littered with crumpled Sonic bags, Styrofoam take-out clamshells, and cardboard boxes from Imo's Pizza. After institutional rules changed, disallowing my mother's big, bright Frieda Kahlo bag, she started bringing transparent totes still brimming with enough colors to constitute exotica in this drab place. Wandering eyes take note. Even the prison guards overseeing visits often stop by our table to gawk, then crack wise about the shittiness of their own lunches. What does it say when a prisoner's meal elicits jealousy from someone who can eat almost anything, anywhere they desire?

An argument can be made for the cruelty of capital punishment. Another can be made, likening life without parole to an execution of inhumane duration. If the latter holds a kernel of validity, either I'm exceptional for using adventure, variety, and spice to plan food visit menus, or existential terror takes longer than eighteen years to set in. Maybe my deadening is still in its early stages. What I'm certain about is that I'd choose an atypical last meal.

On the eve of my death, what better than one of humanity's most basic foodstuffs: bread, oven-warm, if possible, with a dish of salted butter? The type of bread wouldn't especially matter. Whether it's rye, sourdough, toasted-seed nine-grain, challah, focaccia, Irish, or French, bread is bread. Bread fostered society's growth. Bread is good. Bread is (to wax poetical for a moment) life itself. In this choice would lie an irresistible symbolism, a nod to the cyclical nature of things — ending with the beginning.

A soft center is revealed as the serrated blade splits the crust. A whiff of heaven floats free in a wisp. The slice falls, instantly cooling. This image compels and comforts me. It's no cheeseburger, but death and food are uniquely personal. It's a last meal. You should have it your way.