Coming to prison at a young age, holidays still have a bit of that magic quality; that can almost feel sickening when you know it’s lost. Having what you never had a chance to grow out of ripped from you – while still connected to your being – sometimes hurts to the point where you despise what you once loved. Just as often, a holiday, even a once-beloved one, disappears; camouflaged by the environment, until it’s simply just a day like all the rest. After the day is almost completely over, you realize what day it actually is, and that it once would have meant something to you – like the birthdays of past lovers – but no more.
Sometimes the day is what you make it, or how it’s made for you. What made Christmas special when I was a child was the way my grandmother started decorating her house almost two months in advance, the way she smiled and wore Christmas sweaters and talked about the beauty of the lights… the way she hated the snow because of how it made the roads and her sidewalk, but how she longed for it anyway. It was the joy when everyone got together that day, the one time I felt loved and couldn’t deny it.
Despite me abandoning my family, they stayed there for me. I’ve never spent a birthday alone; never a Christmas in 13-years without a visit within a week of it. I have nothing but gratitude for that, but still, especially at first, those holidays (and for me in particular, my birthdays) were incredibly hard.
I had some bad birthdays growing up, the worst of which was when I was beaten badly enough to wind up in the hospital the night before my birthday, by someone who was supposed to my love me. I went through a depressed phase, where I lamented that I had been born. But getting me through the suffering, the self-pity, and everything negative, was one thing: it was one-week until Halloween…
I loved Halloween. The smell in the air of Fall, the leaves crunching beneath my feet as I ran across lawns I would’ve normally been yelled at for, the artistry, and (as I had weighed the same at nine-years-old as I had when I was locked-up at 15…) the candy. But more than anything, I loved the anticipation, which was all my birthday was… feeling just like my grandmother had felt before Christmas. I saw the decorations go up, the thought put into costumes and dances, the little smirks people gave…
Barring the fact that my life seemed over, and that I had let down everyone I cared about, my first birthday locked-up, when I turned 16, felt like a day that had come to life just to mock the rest of them. While certainly much of that was from the trajectory in life that I had put myself on earlier that year, a not-to-be-overlooked-part of it was that, in one-week, for the first time in my life, nothing was going to happen. My birthday, separated from its tether, now just floated in the sea of days.
The year I turned 17, I held out a bit more hope. With the initial shock of prison over (though, by no means, the whole feeling of it), I was determined to try something as Halloween approached. I bought ten bags of candy on commissary, and let the word be known that any of the youth (ages 13 through 21) locked-up with me who came to my door wearing anything to commemorate the day would get food; with the best improvised costume getting $10 worth of items. I made my hair blue with Kool-Aid and painted two sets of eyes below and above mine, like I had seen Jack Sparrow do in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie I saw a commercial for and anticipated seeing in two-years when it reached television.
Finally, our cell doors broke open for unit time. I walked out to show everyone and award whoever came with anything on as well, and… “What the Hell?! Get back in your fucking room and TAKE THAT SHIT OFF!”
The worst officer, making his rounds at exactly that moment, saw me. His eyes were more wide open, glaring at me for the audacity of drawing those eyes on my face, than the eyes I’d drawn were open on my own face. I had dealt with him before, and knew it was useless to argue. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mouse, dragging a paper ball-and-chain, and Bulldog, with half a pen glued to one temple and the other half to his other side, quickly run back into their cells before the officer could see. I, for my part, had my door slammed shut by said-officer. No costumes for me. No rec for me either.
Two more years went by before I could try anything again. The maximum-security nature of the children’s prison is not conducive to much individuality or celebrations of any kind. At 19, after a series of riots in the youth section prodded me to request a transfer, I was transferred to the adult, medium-security side of Thumb Correctional. But that year, I decided against doing anything for Halloween; my choice for the first time.
My first adult cell-mate was a serial killer, who had killed a bunch of people with an axe on Halloween night. Now, the fact that he had committed some horrible crimes on that given day didn’t specifically concern me… he had been locked-up for 16-years – 16 Halloweens without incident. But his nature, in general – the fact that he would obsessively-compulsively clean the room floor-to-ceiling every single day, along with hours after I had got a tattoo in the room and cleaned up afterwards, his wide-eyed statement that he “can smell the blood”, coupled with the Halloween trigger – made me decide against pressing the issue. Sixteen-years without incident, and I didn’t feel like tempting a break in that streak.
I couldn’t drink for my 21st birthday… couldn’t smoke, couldn’t drive. But I had a plan, a simple one, but a plan that was just as important to me. All I needed was a roll of toilet paper.
Halloween night, my bunkie thought I had lost it. I stepped on the end of the roll of toilet paper, like a mistake coming out of a public bathroom, but then I started winding it around my leg. I cuffed my pants, got to around my knee, and did the complicated task of switching to the other leg as he looked on in bewilderment. To him, Halloween meant nothing… he didn’t even realize that it was today. “What the fuck are you doing?!”, he asked. Me, half-covered in toilet paper, looked back at him like he was crazy. “Well, what does it look like I’m doing?”
He didn’t respond, but the way he stared at me, with one eyebrow half-raised until I was done, suggested he was very curious as to the answer. And, by the time I was done, leaving only my eyes exposed, and raising my arms with an “Ugggghhh”, I had him laughing so hard that our neighbors knocked on the wall in protest. And they were the first ones at their doors when count-time cleared and we were allowed back out. Turning my door handle (medium-security prisons in Michigan have keys to their cells), I grabbed my mesh laundry bag and stepped out with my hands extended, grumbling as the Mummy.
Nearly the entire unit came out as word and laughter got around about Dank doing something crazy. As I walked down the hallway, tottering side-to-side with my arms extended holding my laundry bag, other inmates came out of their cells and quickly ran back in, returning with ramen noodles and candy, toothbrushes and (suspiciously) some tacks. I stumbled by, cell-to-cell, excused from looking in (a big no-no in prison, looking into other peoples’ cells) because of how ridiculous I looked. Normally having to ask permission to go to the upper-level of the unit, the officer, cracking up at me, just waved me to go up before I could even ask.
That day, I got about $12 worth of goods from the people who “sponsored” my costume; most of whom were old-timers, who applauded, saying they had never seen anyone do anything for Halloween in prison before. Others were laughing about the “jackpot” I had hit, seeing my bag full of commissary goods. And I knew, at that moment, I had to do it again next year, upping my game…
By the next Halloween, I had taken up painting. Taking my new modicum of skill with this, I stepped-out of my room wearing a sweatshirt that had turned to rags, my face and arms painted in the decaying flesh tones of The Walking Dead (also the best show on TV). Trying to score, a couple of guys who had seen me last year went around saying they were dressed as convicts for Halloween… but slick comments were no match for creativity. That year, I pulled in almost $20 worth of stuff, which, not needing it, I gave to a few of the poor guys in the unit who had nothing of their own. I wasn’t doing it for the money… with people now actually telling me they were betting on what I was going to do next year, it had become something of a minor sport to me. And one that I enjoyed, it gave my birthday some meaning again, as the lead-up to the most artistic holiday of the year. I had to one-up it.
My birthday the following year, my new bunkie (who had just moved to the unit), looked at me like I was crazy (though I was used to this by now), as I constructed a papier-mâché flat-top skull cap, which I painted green with black feathered brushstrokes. I twisted some toilet paper, and painted it metallic silver. Then I spent about 20-minutes ripping the arms off a bunch of staples that they used to staple our mail back shut after searching it.
Halloween night, I put on the skull cap and got to work painting my face with a greenish pallor, with a few purplish splotches. Holding one of our small plastic mirrors, I put a red slash across my forehead, and I blended the black of the hat into my hair. Then I got out the glue, and glued the metallic “bolts” onto each side of my neck, and the 30 individual staples without arms across the red swatch on my forehead. As count-time ended, I took my laundry bag and assumed the same extended-arms trot and groan that seems common to characters of the undead, and I went out.
Everyone had been waiting. People had actually taken bets. The officer allowed a few guys to come over from the other connected unit (provided they bring something). Trudging along, door-to-door, I collected donations to our unit’s poor as Frankenstein… but with glasses. I soon took on the name “Dankenstein”.
Though I never asked, merely shuffling by, nearly every one of the hundred or so people in the unit donated something to that laundry bag, which I turned around and gave to the guys who had nothing of their own. Officers from other units, working on the other side of the prison, came to see it. Five-years later, I still get comments about it.
Since then, the prison has changed around a lot, security has tightened and, with more cameras installed, I was informed that anything covering our faces could now be considered “constructing a disguise”. So, the past few Halloweens have calmed back down; boring, but my spirit is still revived from the few years I did get to do something. And some of the birthdays in-between have been special on their own.
This year, I’m thinking about reviving the Mummy, albeit after he’s unraveled a bit and has his face exposed. That way, instead of potentially saying I’m up to something illicit and coming to get me, the worst they can do is think that I’m out of my damn mind…
Oh well, out of my mind, but with a bag full of food and candy.
|Chris Dankovich 595904|
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446