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.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.