Around 11:30 am or 12:00 we all lined up at the door for lunch. This was another good rule of thumb for prison; just follow the guy in front of you. In jail lunch was brought to us, but here we would walk on our own, freely, to the chow hall. We lined up at the door to the block. Once we were all there the guard in the booth opened the automatic door, we stepped through cramming ourselves into a waiting area, chatting about whatever was on television, or what they had done in processing so far- medical checks, interviews with case-workers, drug-screenings. A few of these guys had been here for months, and had no idea when it would be over, or how long it would take. The prison we were in only allowed one phone call a year. You could call your family at Christmas, but that was it, and there were no “contact” visits. Your family could visit you on weekends, but it had to be through a plexiglass screen over a telephone. They told me that we could not send or receive mail while we were in processing. So, they had been here, completely cut-off from any outside contact. It was easy enough for us, we knew what we were going through, but we worried for our families outside who had no idea what had happened to us. Like me, all of these guys had gone to court, had been sentenced, and that was the last thing that their families had heard of them.
The door was finally opened and we were off. It was a crazy mad dash. We were doing a run-walk to the chow hall behind hundreds of other guys who were all doing this same crazy race to the finish. I would have asked what all of the rush was about, but between the pounding of hundreds of tennis shoes on concrete floors, the many conversations taking place simultaneously, and being nearly out of breath myself, I couldn’t do anything other than follow their knowing lead. Eventually we made it to the chow hall. Once we were all inside, they locked the door behind us, and started serving food.
Prison food is gruel. When they serve broccoli, you only get the stems, and it’s overcooked until it is a brown, messy, mush. Invariably, there is some kind of pasta mixed with; god knows what, something disgusting, or a patty: hamburger patty, turkey patty, veal patty, vegetable patty. But honestly, after jail, I made it my personal rule to never complain about the food. Prison food might be gruel, but hell, it was at least warm, and there was salt. I had just spent seven months eating two scoops of instant mashed potatoes a night, almost every night it seemed, with no seasoning, no salt, no pepper. By comparison, the slimy stuff on my plate right now might as well have come from the Ritz-Carlton and been peronally prepared by Escoffier. There were drink coolers with some kind of drink mix in them and we could go back for seconds on the drinks. There was a cake. Since I am a vegetarian, and because at this point the prison system didn’t know I was a vegetarian, and I didn’t know they offered a substitute, everybody wanted to be my friend. It meant that if they sat with me they could have whatever meat was on my plate.
I had one little moment though at lunch that afternoon. I was waiting in line to fill my drink cup. Some guy had left his tray in front of the drink coolers, and had gone to have a conversation with a guy at a nearby table, so the entire line had come to a stop. I stood there waiting politely for as long as I could, but the people behind me were starting to get impatient. Finally, I grabbed an empty Styrofoam cup, slid his tray cautiously down a few inches and…
“What the FUCK do you think you doin’, motherfucker! You don’t be touchin’ my motherfuckin’ tray motherfucker. What the fuck is wrong wit you. You wanna be startin’ some SHIT?!? Cause I will fuck you the fuck up!” Then to himself, “Goddamn! What the fuck is wrong wit people? Stoopid motherfucker.” I shrugged, not knowing what to say. Filled up my drink ignoring him while he continued his rant, and went and sat down with the almost familiar faces of the guys from my block.
“What did you do?” someone asked.
I couldn’t even explain. “I’m not quite sure…” I answered.
There were two separate chow halls separated by glass walls. Once the line cleared down and we were all fed, another group of inmates were let into the second area. They were all wearing red jumpsuits.
“Death-row,” one of the guys at my table explained, almost with a quiet reverence.
Someone else said, “Would you look at them. They actually look happy,” with wonder in his voice. I looked over. They didn’t look happy, or unhappy to me.
They looked like us.
Some of them were talking easily, others looked more isolated and alone. I saw one guy walking in what looked like some kind of chemical induced shuffle- Thorazine? Haldol? I couldn’t be sure. Other than the red jumpsuits, I couldn’t tell them apart from any other person that was here.
They looked, they acted, like us.