An Imperfect Mix

DSC_0715Israel had to steal. I had been working in the prison kitchen for about 3 months before I requested the position as baker. There were a few advantages to being the baker in the kitchen. One of the main ones was that the baker had his own little room in the back of the kitchen. Privacy was such a huge commodity, just the ability to be alone on any given day was an absolute luxury for those of us in prison. It wasn’t a large room. It was about the size of a medium sized bathroom. It had two stainless steel tables in it and a floor mixer. Under one table were three, white plastic bins. One of the bins had flour. One had cornstarch, and the last one had sugar. The sugar bin was supposed to be locked all the time to keep people from sneaking in to the kitchen and stealing all of the sugar to make “Buck” (prison wine), but this proved impractical to the kitchen corrections officers who didn’t want to be bothered with having to unlock it at any given time, and so they usually just left the padlock on it unlocked. Sometimes the sugar would get stolen. The other advantage that the baking room had was it’s own radio. It was nothing fancy, just a standard, mono-speaker old thing from the 1980’s, with a broken antenna that had been wrapped in aluminum foil, but it was nice to be able to listen to music without having to wear the standard headphones that we wore for everything. Even the televisions could only be heard through headphones (believe me, we were ALL thankful for this).

I first learned to bake under an older man named Friends. No kidding that was his real name. He was a round, little man who always wore a brimmed toboggan, and never wore his teeth. His southern drawl was so thick that it often was even hard for me to understand him and I grew up in the south. It bordered on a kind of Creole musicality. I had asked Friends once how he had gotten his name, and he responded by saying that he really didn’t know, kind of shrugged it off as if to say, “I never really thought about it.” Friends had told me that he had learned to bake years ago when he was much younger because he had noticed on his numerous stints in prison that the bakers on the camps always had something to sell out on the yard. “I figgered if I learned to bake I’d always have SOMETHING.” Friends had been in and out of prison for most of his life. He told me once that for him it had been “that Crack” that had always led to his downfall. He also liked to play cards, and I got the feeling he wasn’t too good at it, which was one of the other reasons that he learned to bake.

Friends got out a year or two before me. I had heard that he had died not long after getting out, which hardly seemed fair, but I had also heard that he had died sober…so there’s that…

Israel was a Rastafarian friend of mine. Truth be told he wasn’t exactly sane, but that was true for a lot of the prison population, and he was a nice enough guy, not really threatening or anything. He had the longest dreadlocks I have ever seen. He told me once that he had been dreading his hair for his entire life, and he was my age. He said he had never had a haircut. Not once. He usually wore his dreads wrapped up in a large spiral under his “Crown” (the colorful knit hats that so many of the Rastas wear). These were pretty common around prisons, along with Muslim kufis and even a few Jewish yamakas. The states had to allow inmates to practice their religions. In fact this even helped me a little: I’ve been a vegetarian for since I was about 19 years old and when I didn’t know how to get a vegetarian diet in jail, before I went to prison, someone told me that if I could justify it for religious reasons they’d have to supply me with a vegetarian diet. I filled out a sheet of paper saying that I was Buddhist and that I needed a vegetarian diet, and that covered it. I ate pretty much beans and rice everyday from that day forward, but I was able to maintain a vegetarian diet. Of course the funny part about that is that there really isn’t a requirement that Buddhists be vegetarian, that and at the time I really didn’t know the first thing about Buddhism, but I figured that whoever was up there governing what was right or wrong in the universe would understand and forgive my motives; It was, after all, an attempt to do less harm in the world.

Anyway, Israel had been in and out of prisons most of his life too. He had originally been locked up in New York, and had hit just about every prison he could on his journey south. I’m not sure what he was locked up for; what I do know is that he absolutely HAD to steal. I learned this the hard way.

About once a week I would have to make cookies for the camp population. Initially, I had hated making cookies. They took forever. It was such a repetitive process. It was messy. What I really liked baking were biscuits, fast, fun, and instant gratification. I liked cakes too, when we had the right ingredients. There was something really magical about cakes, mixing this liquid batter and then popping it into the oven to have something of a completely different form come out later. I also liked the powerlessness of the oven; once something went in there was nothing else that could be done. The oven took away all of the choices; that was both damning and freeing all at the same time. If there was something wrong with the mix, well, there was nothing that could be done. If it was a perfect batter then that was a happy accident too. This was true no matter what was being baked that day. The oven only had so much say in the final outcome. It was each step of the mix that was what defined us.

Cookies on the other hand, well, I had to make hundreds of them. I think on any given day I would make about three hundred cookies. I’d make enough for the general prison population, and then more for the poor bastards in disciplinary segregation (“the hole”). I’d make extras for the guys I worked with in the prison and then some for them to take to their close friends or to sell out on the yard for whatever they could get, but somehow I STILL always came up about thirty cookies short.

Every time!

I actually reached a point where cookies became one of my favorite activities. I turned them into a meditation practice. I started turning off the radio, and trying to be present with each, individual, cookie that I rolled. It was calming. I would practice counting my breaths while just being with the cookies, pondering the rain that fell to the earth to provide the water for the chickens that created the eggs, and thinking about the fields of wheat that were grown to create the flour. It was a nice time.

I don’t remember exactly how I learned that Israel was the person stealing my cookies. I think I set a trap one day, by putting a bunch of them in the storeroom to set and just waited and watched. When I did catch him at it I didn’t call him out on it or anything like that. Later, I did finally ask him about it, but not in an accusatory way. There really wasn’t any reason to; it wouldn’t have done a damn bit of good.

The odd part about it was that Israel worked in the kitchen, which means that whenever I baked cookies, I always offered him some. He would just smile and say, “No thanks, man, but thank-you” in the kindest, most heart-felt way. He really meant it.

Then he would steal them from me later and this would leave me short about thirty cookies at lunch or dinner.

It was a simple solution.

I started baking an extra batch of cookies for Israel to steal. I’d cook one extra sheet and leave them in the back of the storeroom on top of the sacks of flower or cans of tomatoes.

One evening when Israel and I were in the chow hall eating before they called the general population in Israel and I talked about stealing, and I asked him why he insisted on stealing cookies that I had offered him for free.

He said, “I don’t know, man.” He smiled his big, gold-toothed, Rasta grin. “They jus’ taste better when you steal them.”

“Really?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah, everything tastes better when you steal it.”

Israel had to steal.

I’m not sure when he got out. Maybe he’s still in there; somewhere haunting a prison kitchen storeroom. Maybe he’s free right now, contemplating his next unsuccessful hustle. I don’t know what the batter was that went in to pouring Israel; one thing I know for sure though is that no matter where he is right now, Israel has a lot of hard days ahead of him. Poor guy.

I hope he gets all the cookies he wants.




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