By Chris Dankovich
I met Santa Claus in state prison. Big, round, jolly with a beard that happens to be more gray than white, with matching hair kept in a traditional institutional crew-cut. He's one of those men who grew up out of his teens straight into late-mid-life, skipping all the middle, looking exactly the same for decades. Perpetual...timeless...ageless....
I never was a great gift-giver growing up. My first few attempts at making and giving thoughtful gifts failed, and I guess I just sort of gave up after that. I lacked insight into what people I cared about really wanted on any deeper level than superficiality. I'd jump at the chance to get something they desired, but most of the time they got a Hallmark card (albeit a funny one).
Emotionally dyslexic when it came to relationships, getting locked up taught me in a way I could begin to understand. All of a sudden the principles of economics opened up the sky for sunbeams to shine through (who knew the dismal science could open up such emotions?). The scarcity in jails and prisons breeds value, and with it, desire and meaning. Juvenile detention's (the aptly named children's village) communist policies (no personal belongings allowed no sharing, trading or borrowing of any item, everything provided by the state...) led to a kind of delinquent version of the tearjerker comb and watch-chain story: I had hid my own graham crackers and pilfered some more – the nightly snack being our only source of trade other than prescription pills -- which were my favorite, to trade for some peanut-butter cookies, which were two of my good friends' favorite. On Christmas, when I went to give them the cookies, they had a surprise for me...they had traded their cookies, their favorite thing there, for more graham crackers because they knew how much I loved them.
Coming to prison, despite all of the negatives, I was at least able to do more for those who had shown their friendship to me. To us children on the Youthful Side of the prison, tobacco (before it was banned throughout the prison system) was a valuable commodity, especially among those who were too young to buy it. My friends, at least good-hearted, always kept me with a supply of it, never taxing me. So on Christmas the first year, still too young to buy any myself off the commissary, I contracted with a friend to buy a bag of roll-it yourself tobacco equivalent to 300 cigarettes, for each one of my friends, spending my entire month's paycheck on it. A couple years later, as they phased out tobacco products before eliminating them completely I bought a surplus, all the way back in July, for all of my friends, knowing how much they would value it by Christmas time, when we'd be allowed to possess it but no longer buy any. For my smoke-free friends, I found other gifts. To Nick, who wanted to start getting in shape, I gave my only pair of running shoes. To Country, who had some trouble with the ladies on the outside, I gave the book, banned in prison by this time, The Art of Seduction.
I was hardened when I transferred to the adult part of the prison at 19. Away from the friends I had just grown up with on the youthful side, I was now around grown men, many aggressive, some the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger or seemingly so to me, and some sexual predators I had to look behind my back for. Months in, the tension upped in an environment I felt out of place in, that I didn't understand, that I was realizing was going to be the rest of my life or most of it. I was becoming bitter, tough, a little punk. If Santa Claus updated his list from year to year, by now forgiving my past mistakes, I would've earned my way back on the naughty list in just a few short months. Having dealt with a couple sexual predators, I was suspicious of everyone, particularly those who acted nice. I was trying to avoid being transferred to another prison because this one was close to my family and outside friends, but I was constantly preparing for war. Christmas was coming around, and this was the first year in my life that I wasn't going to do anything for it. It meant nothing to me, and I felt that I meant nothing to it.
I had been in the unit with Gene for about two months by the time that Christmas came around. A hulking guy, round, with a gray beard and matching short hair, I didn't know what to think about him. He was a nice guy, at times almost too nice, but also pretty quiet. One day he asked me if I'd be willing to help make some burritos for a Christmas party he was putting on. I almost said no, but he said I'd be making them with Tony and Eric two of my few older friends. So I agreed, and he sent me to Tony and Eric for the rest of the information.
I hadn't agreed to make a few burritos as I had imagined. That night, Tony, Eric and I woke at 1 in the morning and cooked in the microwave for about 7 hours, making over 250 burrito-filled with ramen noodles, chili, refried beans, cheese, summer sausage and pickle wrapped in a tortilla shell. Tired, covered in liquid cheese grease and chili, we went to bed at about 8 in the morning, having bagged the finished burritos and taking them to Gene. He gratefully took them from us, and handed us a homemade ticket for later.
At about five that afternoon, the hundred or so inmates who locked in our unit made their way to the base level, where the annual Reindeer Games began. Drug dealers, killers, and thieves giggled with laughter as they competed in Holiday Pictionary, push-ups, and honey-bun eating contests. Guys redeemed their tickets for a hoard of food: everyone got two burritos, however many chips they could hold in two hands, a row of either knock-off Oreos or random-brand chocolate chip cookies, and a soda pop. Winning teams from the contests got an extra burrito each.
The truly amazing thing came later, when Muslims, Christians, Odinists, Atheists, and even a self-proclaimed Satanist got together and listened with the utmost respect and silence as Gene explained how his relative and a church on the outside made this all possible. We all let out a giant cheer and thanked him profusely. Gene, in his humbleness, simply thanked us for attending and claimed that he was just the vessel through which the events could be made to happen. He then revealed another surprise: a raffle of gift bags he had assembled from commissary items, worth between $10 and $30 (an entire months wage in prison). Everyone got something, and it actually seemed as if there were divine hands making the most expensive bags go to the guys who had the least amount of money.
Gene had renewed, if not my belief in God, my belief in Christmas. I volunteered to help in every way that I could for the next three Christmas parties. Unfortunately, Gene was unable to do it again after this due to stricter staff. I ended up moving to another unit as well.
The Christmas spirit that Gene had returned to me didn't leave me though. Every year since then, I have made paper stockings, painted red and with cotton balls on top for realism, and have taken stocking stuffers like ramen noodles, bags of peanuts, Kool-Aid mix, candy, and some homemade fudge. I paint a little fireplace on some cardboard and lean it against the wall on my desk, and surround it with stockings with the names of all of my friends painted on them. The ones who can, come to my door, and I deliver the others to friends outside the unit.
I've been given all sorts of food from my friends for Christmas, tobacco when we were allowed it, once some drugs and a gorgeously made necklace constructed completely out of threads pulled from a cotton blanket. The greatest gift I've been given in return on Christmas came the first year I delivered my homemade stockings. I had my friend Red, a hulking, bald Irishman covered in tattoos, who also happens to be a juvenile lifer incarcerated since he was 16 years old, come outside so I could give him the surprise. He came out with a smile on his face, asked what it was, and when I gave it to him he just stared at it for what almost turned into an uncomfortable amount of time. Just when I was about to say something, he grabbed me and gave me a hug. He said that what had taken him so long was that he didn't want to look like a bitch to everyone out on the yard, because he was about to break down and cry. No one had ever given him a stocking before.
|Chris Dankovich 595904|
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer MI 48446
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