Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails – Polk County IAH (Part III)

November 8th, 2009

Things quickly fell into a routine, as they are wont to do when ones day is rigidly defined by activities which require less than a handful of neurons to complete. At some point after the evening news, me and the rest of the kitchen crew would be summoned to duty. We would work until around 11am, and then were given a break to go to rec with our hall, or to return to the house to rest. If we wanted, after that we could return for a few hours to tray up the dinner and scrub the kitchen down from top to bottom. About half of the guys did this, because… well, why not? Given the choice between watching daytime television and actually doing something constructive, I think most sane individuals would gladly turn their backs on Maury (and company) and his quixotically pointless quest of attempting to ferret out Who The Baby Daddy Might Be.

Alas, I was only destined to be a baker for three days. I think it would be fair to day that it took precisely one tray of biscuits, one of cornbread, and one of dinner rolls for me to become completely and devastatingly numb with boredom. I heaped scorn on myself for ever imagining that one could find some purpose wrist deep in cornmeal… and there is always cornmeal. Mountains, rivers, continents of the bloody stuff. It is an almost inconceivable thought for kitchen managers to imagine a lunch/dinner tray without cornbread. This has absolutely nothing to do with any form of gastronomical sensibility, and everything to do with cost/calorie calculations. The state (and in this case, the federal government) determines how many calories per day inmates must be given. Even though the food at IAH was pretty decent (for jail), Andy Analog-Warhol wasn’t above a little cheating. A larger slice of cornbread meant a smaller serving of the main course, or fewer vegetables. Carbohydrates are the cheapest way to sustain a body, and Andy was a maestro at walking the line between the red and the black. Me…well, I would love to say that I couldn’t care less about him drifting off into the lands of unprofitability, but that isn’t true. I didn’t dislike Andy, and I certainly didn’t want to cause him any grief. That said, whenever he tried to “get down” on us in blue, I was ready with my own counter-legerdemain, my own “jack-moves.” I looked at this as an issue of fairness, of righting a balance that was incorrectly zeroed out.

I’ve always been good at justifying my actions. At any rate, on my second day of baker-duty, I got clever and pilfered some jalapenos from the storage closet and baked them in with the cornmeal. Andy was pissed off at me for “Deviating From The Meal Plan” and he reminded me of an old-time, fire-and-brimstone Depression-era preacher, raving about how we must learn to “submit to the will of Jeee-suuusah!”, or in this case, the will of Aramark Food Services Corporation. I pretended not to notice how after his stentorian homilies and tedious Te Deums were spent, he snuck back into his office with a massive 8 inch by 8 inch chunk of jalapeno cornbread. And I am sure that it was coincidence that a few extra buckets of jalapenos seemed to get ordered every week after that. The Mexicans, at any rate, loved my take on boring cornbread. Roberto quickly proclaimed, “Ay Tomas, now you are officially a true Mexicano.” I feigned concerned, and narrowed my eyes. “Does this mean that I have to start liking the accordion and women with large assess now?”

He laughed. “Pues, the accordion, si. Those women you had better leave for us. We will send you all of the gavachas flacitas, deal?”


And so it went. It was interesting to watch a species of camaraderie form amongst those of us dragooned into service. (Ok, ok, technically we weren’t “dragooned” into anything, but it did feel that way, sometimes.) On the yard, the thirty kitchen workers mostly stuck to each other, unless they were engaged in selling off food which had been “earned” while at work. Sometimes I would stop in the middle of scraping a bakers tray or cleaning the ovens, and just pause a moment to look over our stainless steel kingdom: Oso, ubiquitous cup of coffee in one hand, discussing something in a low and furtive argot with another Mexican who was mopping the floors; Big C and Boxcar and another brother named Trill, all laughing and Talking Mad Game in the dishbay, draped out in rubber boots and aprons; Ray, once again butchering whatever recipe happened to be in front of him, his soul parted in twain, part here, part on a tether spinning on a massive spool, stretched all the way out to his son riding in an unarmored Humvee somewhere outside of Baghdad. All trying to deal with this thing, this justice, this life lived poorly and without understanding, all muddling through the labyrinthine hallways of Gods forgotten ant farm, his discarded science fair experiment. And all of us, somehow, inexplicably, wanting and expecting and hoping for Him to sweep into the picture and pull our feet out of the fire. Somehow, we all managed to convince ourselves that it wasn’t vanity to expect Him to do this. It was love. Or compassion. Or He had some purpose for us, and He was not done with us. All of us drowning, the boat long since sunk, climbing on each others shoulders to get one more gasp of air. Hoping beyond reason.

This bonhomie did have limits, however, and I began to notice cracks in our camaraderie after only a few days. I suppose that such events are inevitable, given the circumstances. I think most of us understood that what little arguments came up on a daily basis were simply stand-ins for much larger issues, the proverbial straw breaking the camels back while it chills on the tip of an iceberg. The cleaning bay workers professed their belief that the tray-loaders were lazy, a feeling which was duly reciprocated. The cooks (especially the line-cooks) thought they were all lazy, and everyone else thought that the cooks (especially the line-cooks) were busy-bodies, hoarding all of the excess food. There was, of course, some small kernel of truth to such claims. The cooks were eating good. The tray-loaders and cleaning workers were lazy. These were hardly arguments large enough to cause real strife in a rational human being, since we all basically volunteered to work. Yet, strife there was. You could see all the in-groups forming, building their fences. It was sad to watch. Echoes of Shia suicide-bombing Sunni in a Baghdad slum, Sunni shooting Shia in response on the streets of Mosoul. Catechistically brainwashed Catholic assassins slaughtering Protestants in the alleys of Belfast, reciprocity as guaranteed as the justifications for these acts to be broadcast from the pulpits and altars of supposed men of peace. Serbs and Croats shelling each other and the Muslims in Sarajevo…Tibetan monks battling Chinese nationalists…cooks versus tray-loaders. All convinced that their way is right, having “faith” in something which gives them that certainty. It is enough to make you cry, or laugh, depending on how jaded you are. (I’m so glass-half-empty, I make Thomas Robert Malthus look like a naive optimist, so you can guess which direction I trend.) In his delightful “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” the late Douglass Adams once wrote: “One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behavior. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical and decided that he quite liked human beings after all, but he always remained desperately worried about the terrible number of things they didn’t know about.” Amen, Mr Adams, amen. The world is a much more dreary place without you.

On the morning of my third shift in the kitchens, I was once again rifling through the inventory room, looking for…something…which would spice up a breakfast biscuit. After failing to find inspiration, I began dejectedly walking back to my station when I paused to watch a line-cook dump crate after crate of eggs into one of the two massive gas-heated vats. Everyone called this cook Space City, for multiple reasons, not the least of which was because he really was a space cadet, having smoked “wet” in the world. The fact that he was from Clear Lake, Houston (home of NASA), was only of secondary consideration. I could never conceive of the logic behind making Space a line-cook. This is easily the most complicated, hurried job in the entire kitchen, and he very obviously did not enjoy it. He suffered under Andy’s yoke, and anyone who ate Space’s food suffered as well. He would often wander back to the cleaning bay to hide out. Andy had a truly stethoscopic mind for detecting sloth, and he would soon storm out of his office, eyes aflame, and would drop on the cleaning bay like a laser-guided and locked smart bomb. We all smiled, watching Andy drag Space back to his now burnt and unrecognizable chicken patties. You learned to ignore Space pretty quickly, however. He just wasn’t on the same plane of existence as the rest of the world. What had caught my eye on the way back from the inventory room was not the fact that he had dropped at least half a dozen eggs on the floor, but rather that of the 600 or so eggs which had been dumped in the vat, 30 or 40 of them were floating on top of the water. He didn’t seem to notice or to care about this, so I approached him. He quickly snapped to attention, I guess thinking I was Andy, his nemesis. After recognizing me, and deducing that he was not about to get yelled at for something, his eyes dropped down towards his shoes. He looked sort of like a puppy who had just peed on the rug – that was pretty much how he always looked. It was enough to make you hate yourself for ever laughing at him. I softened my voice.

“Hey, Space.”

“Oh, hey T. What’s up?” Still looking at his shoes, or maybe seeing the broken eggs under his feet for the first time.

“What do you do with the floaters?”

“Uh, I serve ‘em, man. Why?” Had he just peeked up at me?

I started to explain to him that when an egg goes bad, it takes in air, and its density changes, making them float. I caught myself before any words had escaped from me, because I really didn’t think he would be interested in such data. Now, I think that I might have done him a disservice.

“Any of those supposed to go to ODR (Officers Dining Room)?”

“Yeah, man, like a few dozen.”

“Hey, Space?” He looked up at my eyes, for the first time.


“Give ODR the floaters.”

“Oh, ok.” He suddenly got a big smile on his face, as he connected the dots, figuring out that there must be something wrong with them. Mischief. The great equalizer.

“F- them hoes, right T?”

“Indeed, Space. Indeed.”

I clapped him on the back, and went back to my biscuits. The next time I looked up, he had acquired a metal stirring spoon, and was batting at the floating eggs, pretending to drown them. He seemed to be either talking to them, or maybe imitating the voices of a drowning egg. It didn’t take long before he got carried away and accidentally (and predictably) dipped a few of his fingers in the water, which earned the offending eggs a colorful stream of invective. (“Oh yeah mother f-? You’re gonna get eaten for that s-!”)

You have to take your humor where you can get it in jail. I was still recovering from the raw nastiness of my first trip to Limestone, not knowing that I was destined to return there in a few short weeks. After the nearly omnipresent miasma of violence that infected “life” within those walls, the relative peace of the IAH facility was a tad unnerving. You very quickly become accustomed to the presence of violence, so that when anyone approaches you (or even looks at you), your body tightens up and your mind starts racing, calculating angles, readying for the counter-strike. You would call it paranoia, and you might be half-right.

You wouldn’t call it that, though, if you had spent any time inside.

You would simply call it prudent planning.

This was not a good time for me. I was very happy for the work, because it would at least distract me from some of my thoughts. As I reconnected with my dad (or, connected with for the first time, to be more accurate), the immensity of the ocean of pain that I had brought to him was becoming clearer, as well as the thousands of faulty perceptions that had caused that rift to begin with. I had no experience in how to deal with grief and guilt in these amounts, besides shutting down inside. On top of that, I was fanatically devoted to a God that would not speak to me, and I viewed this as my fault. The Christian community was sending me ugly letters on a nearly daily basis, and this made me question whether or not I would ever be part of a fellowship of like-minded believers. I had finally (and painfully, gloriously) reconnected with “Her”, only to have her letters suddenly cease, sans explanation. My whole life was one massive, festering aporia, and I began to wonder if any of the evolutions I had painstakingly wrought while in Mexico counted for anything. No matter how much someone deserves punishment, we are all human, and the mind cannot deal with certain things logically or even rationally without training. An environment where most everyone wishes you violence and death is one of these, certainly. My world was fractured into a million jagged pieces, and I didn’t know how to fix any of it.

It would be years yet before I learned how to deal with most of those issues. I’m still dealing with some of them today, but I think that this is a good thing. I have converted the evil done to me in the name of Justice to another account. Every time that a guard pushes you into a wall, or you lose books or letters or photographs during a shakedown, or you have to stand naked in front of a whole group of guards, or a pen-pal disappears, or your ex-attorney writes an affidavit full of lies and contradictions, because he is trying to ensure he isn’t labeled as ‘ineffective,” or you feel like your world has contracted because a good friend was just murdered, it all goes towards the balance. You have this thought – silly, perhaps – that one day, all of this will add up to the point that you no longer have to feel hatred when you look at yourself in the mirror. You just take it all inside yourself, hoping for that day, decades in the future. For now, this stoicism gives birth to a sort of indifference, which many take for coldness. And that is ok, because you know that you could never explain to anyone how this shell keeps you alive and sane. If an immense intellect like David Hume couldn’t persuade people to understand how indifference to the evil of the world was the greatest possible good, then you certainly aren’t up to the task. It takes two people to build a bridge of understanding, and that is far too rare these days. It is easier to break and smash, than to fix. Yahwehs pattern for dealing with the antediluvian world, preserved and mirrored across the millennia: don’t like the world? Destroy it in a childish rage and start over. If you are wondering how such actions were morally acceptable for God, but not for the rest of us, then you are starting to ask the right type of questions. They called it “autistic cleansing” when I did it. I call it imitation.

By lunchtime, Space was asking me to take his station. The egg incident had convinced him that I would make a better cook and Andy seemed incredibly relieved by the idea. He quickly shuffled Space to the tray-line, and chose one of the cleaning crew for my old bakers spot. The Mexicans seemed happy to have me (or maybe they were just glad to be rid of Space City), and I enjoyed the responsibilities. (The extra food didn’t hurt, either, as I had little money in my account in those days. My time at IAH saw me reach almost 200 pounds, the heaviest that I have ever been in my life, only a few pounds from officially being a fat-ass.)

It didn’t take long for me to sabotage the trays. Nobody bothered with eating the oatmeal in the mornings, because it was blander than Al Gore on Prozac. I solved that problem by increasing the sugar content by a power of ten, and the butter content by several times. In addition, I pilfered cinnamon and brown sugar from the storage room to plop in there every few days. Since such a concoction would put a diabetic directly into a coma, I also mixed up a small pot of infinitely blander gruel for them. I knew that at some point, all of this meal-plan tomfoolery was going to blow up in my face, so I started paying attention to just how much food was wasted. I made lists of how much food returned to the kitchen, and by what wings of the prison. Andy was seriously lining his pockets, of that I had no doubt. Probably, many people were lining many pockets, and I decided that if they were doing it, then so could I. After all, they were stealing the government’s money; I was just feeding my people. I began to make less of certain items, and eventually managed to reduce the amount of trays returning to the kitchen with food down to an astonishingly small number. Andy began to look flustered every time he looked over his inventory lists. He couldn’t put his finger on why he was suddenly saving mountains of money on all manner of goods…and then losing it on others. Poor guy. He began to look at me sideways, and would follow me around as I measured things. Occasionally, he would give a loud “ah-huh!” when I under-measured something, and I would simply pull out my charts on returned food, and his eyes would bug out, and he would slink back to his office. I soon caught him smiling as he did his end-of-the-day balances, and he would often make little comments like, “Hmm, I wonder how many extra bags of sugar I should order this week?” And I would just look at him and make my recommendations. It wasn’t long after that that I started getting called down to the kitchens about an hour before everyone else, in order to be his clerk. He often brought me breakfast burritos from Whataburger, or Subway sandwiches. I guess that meant I was officially on the graft team. Whatever. Those burritos were good.

One practice that I was never able to stop was cooking the vegetables in animal lard. This is a calorie trick used in all prisons. By adding lard, you make the caloric value of an ounce of green beans skyrocket, so you don’t have to give anyone as much food. I was vetoed by the other cooks on this, as they liked the taste of veges soaked in fat. I thought it was a cheap move, but I guess you have to give the people what they want, sometimes.

There was no saving some of the trays. You can only do so much. The corn, for instance, and the beans, were awful. (How do you screw up corn?) Both of these foodstuffs came from a company whose trademark was “Diamond Brand.” And the Mexicans would often joke about this, extending the label to other clearly deficient items in prison life (diamond brand mattresses, diamond brand officers, etc etc). I actually thought it was fitting, because nearly everything you know about diamonds is propaganda. They are not intrinsically valuable or rare. They are not the hardest substance on earth; both lonsdaleite and wurtzite boron are harder. They are most certainly not forever: diamonds are flammable and will burn off in a wisp of CO2 during a house fire. You will be sifting though the rubble, and will come across little melted puddles of gold, but the diamonds will be long gone. (In fact, cubic zirconia will survive, as they are made of refractory metal oxides that can withstand the same heat… so take that, De Beers.) Roberto once tried to spice up the corn by cutting up some tomatoes and throwing some salt in there with them, but that only made it worse. He had cooked up a small portion of this to taste it, and was busy cutting up more tomatoes when he called me over to take it for a test drive. I choked it down, barely. I tried to put a positive spin on things. “Wow, Roberto. That is…um…yeah…well, it’s not that bad.” He looked at me angrily, as if my tastebuds were at fault for his failure. “I mean, I’ve tasted worse crap than this that came out of your station.”

He laughed, and waved the knife in the air towards me. “Ay, Tomas, Tomas…you always say the nicest things to me when I am holding a 16 inch knife.”

Andy was not amused by this comment, but he just rolled his eyes and went back to hiding in the office.

One evening, Big C chose not to go to work. He had received a letter that night, and I assumed it was from his girl, the mother of his son. He went to bed after reading it, and when we woke him up for work, he cursed at us to leave him alone. I really didn’t think much about it during work, to be honest with you. When we were released for rec, I decided to head back to the penthouse and take a shower. When I arrived I noticed that Big C was ignoring me, and didn’t seem to be really watching the television, though he was staring in that direction. Goldilocks Man was sitting on his bunk, reading the Bible, as usual. The program had to do with some crazy pilots testing out a solar-powered airplane, and they were coasting over a large body of water, several thousand of feet up in the air. I paused to watch for a moment on my way to the shower. From that high up, the water looked flat as glass, but I knew that if you got closer to the surface, the waves would be quite dangerous, almost rough enough to be lost in. Same with people, I mused as I washed off 12 hours of accumulated sweat and kitchen grease from my body. After I was finished, I made two cups of coffee and plopped myself down on the other side of the table from C. He looked at me once, and then the coffee, before moving his eyes back to the television. I didn’t say anything, just sipped my coffee. He kept looking down at me every few minutes, and I just sat there, quietly watching over his right shoulder towards the hallway window, enjoying breathing air that was not pregnant with disinfectant and cooking oils and burnt bread. He finally broke, and angrily sputtered, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I didn’t say anything, just nodded. It has been my experience in life that when someone says that they don’t care what other people think, they usually care far more than the average person what other people think, and when someone says that they don’t want to talk about something, that is usually the exact opposite of what they need to do.

After a few more minutes of the silent treatment, I was ready to give up. What the hell am I doing? I asked myself. I am not a f-ing babysitter. He doesn’t want to talk, fine. I started to stand, but he reached out and grabbed my arm. With his other hand, he produced a letter from his shirt pocket. Sure enough, it was from his girl, and she was cutting him loose. He read it to me, choking up in several sections. Her most recent letters had been full of “I'm going to stick this out with you” type nonsense, and he felt blindsided by the speed with which she was removing him from her life. How could this have been love, he questioned me, eyes wet. I didn’t know what to say to him. My situation was nothing like his. I deserved to be alone far more than he did, but some of what he said struck a harmonic chord with my own fears and loss of love, and I tried to just listen to him, but I noticed that my hands were starting to shake, something that has come and gone for me my entire life. I’ve never understood why. As he continued, the misery of the human condition was flooding my head, and my teeth started to grind together. I felt taut as a piano wire, and I didn’t know when it had gotten so damned hot, so f-ing hot.

He paused for a moment, looking down at the letter, and then looked up at me.

“I used to know her so well,” he claimed, and something snapped deep inside me.

I slapped his coffee cup off the table, and then I was yelling, yelling, yelling, something about how we never know anyone, and that it was all a lie, all of it, every last bit of it and love was stupid and pointless, the biggest lie of all, a chemical reaction, just seratonin and dopamine and testosterone, and that you can’t count on anyone, damn you, but yourself and none of it mattered anyway because it all ended so f-ing fast, just like life, all of it dust in a very, very fickle wind. I don’t know how we got there, but by the time I was finished shouting, I had him pressed back against the wall, my finger pointing at his chest, and he had this insane look on his face, as if he couldn’t decide whether to hit me or burst into tears. As suddenly as the storm had come on, it dissipated. I shook my head, as if trying to clear a fog, and took a step back. Where the hell had all that come from? Big C had his head cocked to one side now, looking at me as if I was some exotic animal he had never seen before. Goldilocks Man was sitting up, his Bible discarded, and he looked as if he was trying to decide where to run if I started in on him.

I took a deep breath, and looked back at C. He nodded to me once, and said, “Ok.” He repeated it again a few seconds later, and then looked me in my eyes. “Her name was Shawna.”

I just stared at him, acknowledging the unsaid bond, something I couldn’t explain to you then, and can’t now.

“Her name was L-.”

“You remember that saying that its supposed to be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” he asked me, with a small smile on his face.

I nodded. “Lord Tennyson. First Baron of Aldworth and Freshwater. Complete and total fucking idiot.”

“Yeah, he got that s- wrong, didn’t he?”

I went to clean up the coffee, which was sprayed all over the floor and wall. I didn’t know where that had come from, but I did know that it was vitally important to find out. Because it felt right, what I had said. Sad, grey, but right. It was obvious that I had miscalculated, somewhere. I had been trying to make myself as tough as possible, as hard as possible. Diamond Brand Thomas. Diamonds burn because they are made of carbon, and carbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. The chemical bonds which hold the carbon in a diamond together form an inflexible lattice in three dimensions. Inflexible, like I had become. And so I burn. There is another configuration for pure carbon, however, which will not burn, called graphite. In graphite. The carbon atoms are tightly bonded into sheets, which can slide against each other, making graphite soft and slippery. I had been so focused on making myself invincible to pain that I had opened myself up to the flames.

I left soon after that and returned to the kitchens. In the reflection of stainless steel, I looked deep into myself. Who are you? What do you want with me? When are you going to stop surprising me, betraying me? When will I ever gain the control that I have been searching for all my life? When will this all end? Where? How?


(Part IV coming soon)

I recently completed an extension course on criminal law. This is a higher level CLEP course, building on the foundation of the general paralegal course I completed earlier this year. You can see a copy of my report card and my diploma here and here.

"Easy to Kill"
by Jackie Ruzas

The door.
I can see its molding if I scrunch in the
left corner of my cell
and peer through the bars to my right.
Each morning I awake
one day closer to death.

The prison priest, a sometime visitor,
his manner warm, asks,
“How are you today? Anything I can do for you, son?”
“Is it just that I’m so easy to kill, Father?”
His face blank, he walks away.

Play my life back on this death cell wall,
I wish to see my first wrong step.
To those who want to take my life,
show me where I first started to lose it.

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.


Digimer said...

Impressive marks, keep it up.

Dorian said...

I hear you. I've read your blog for years. I want to write you, but I don't know where to start. I just wanted to let you know that someone is listening. - D

Ilaria Vesco said...

Congratulations, Good job : )

I just wanted to tell you that I'm in Paris but I'll be back soon.

Keep on doing what you do.

Paul said...

Got your Dad's book as a Christmas present. Read it in a few hours. Was interested in discovering you had a blog....the content is not what I expected...kept me reading for quite awhile.