Smoke Day

“I really don’t think we should be in here,” I said, hoping for someone in authority to agree with me.

“What?” Officer Medet replied, a mixture of confusion and fear as evident on his face as the huge swath of scar tissue that covered his neck and cheek. The marks were the results of him being badly burned as a child. As I watched him starring wide-eyed and impotent with fear at the smoke filled corridor I could only guess at what horrors his paralyzed mind was conjuring. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford the luxury of being sensitive to his psychological peculiarities. I felt sure that if I didn’t do something soon everyone in the building would die.

Chilly Beauty

It was a brisk winter morning. The sun shone brightly in the cloudless sky, plumes of vapor evacuated my body with each exhalation as I walked to work. My closest company was over one hundred yards behind me and the stillness of the morn hadn’t yet been shadowed by the bustle of man bristling against their confinement. There was beauty, solitude, peace, contentment. None of them lasted for long.

Low Visibility

Upon entering the building my eyes immediately registered how dim it was, but I had just been reveling in the sunshine glowing against my closed eyelids and assumed that I only needed a moment to allow my peepers to adjust. I went about my usual routine. I entered the office, said good morning to my supervisors, gathered my box of supplies, then went back into the hallway. There was no smoke in the office area, but in the minute and a half that I had been in there a definite and undeniable haze had developed in the hallway. The corridor was long—about seventy yards—but every other day I’d been in the building I could see the entire length of it with zero difficulty. On this day I couldn’t see beyond twenty feet in front of me.

Automatons

My coworkers and some of the regular visitors to the law library were all going through the motions like it was business as usual. There were a few grumbles of complaint, but none of the alarm I was beginning to feel was evident in any of them. It seemed like no one wanted to upset the usual balance of another day of predictability.

Certainly Smoke

I could now clearly smell the encroaching fog for what it was. Smoke, the result of something somewhere burning. My eyes itched, nostrils burned, and throat echoed with a scratchy distress of its own. Correctional Officer Medet was the only authority figure present but wasn’t projecting any kind of authority. He kept looking around for assistance and direction, but the other officer that was usually posted to the building with him hadn’t yet arrived. Each new arrival asked about the obvious smoke situation and was reassured by CO Medet in a shaky and unsure voice that everything was fine. It wasn’t.

No Help

Finally the second officer walked in. He was an hour later than he should have been. He looked tired, confused, and possibly severely hungover. Not an uncommon occurrence. The two officers conferred with one another out of my earshot for a while until I could hold my tongue no longer. I expressed my opinion that we shouldn’t be in the building. From Medet I received mixed up terrified confusion. His coworker was nothing but a useless blank stare.

Drastic Measures

Rules in prison are made to be enforced, no matter how idiotic or asinine they may be. Once I’d signed out in my housing unit and entered my work building I wasn’t allowed to just leave again, not without permission. Even if the building was so obviously on fire. Even if I could be considered to be in the right, I’d still be wrong and face the consequences. After a dozen years of being programmed to follow the rules and toe the line (sometimes literally) it was no small feat to rebel. “I’m leaving, Medet. I’m not staying. You can’t make me stay. This building is on fire.” CO Medet and I had seen and interacted with each other five days a week for over a year. We had built an easy rapport and mutual respect. He only stared at me in disbelief. The other officer hadn’t been working in the building long and I didn’t know him well. He only scoffed at me with a noise of disdain pushed past his lips and a look which let me know that he had less regard for me than he had for the leftover smudge of viscera stuck to the bottom of his boot after having squished a bug. There would be no voluntary help from him, but I could force him. I pulled rank on him.

Reinforcements

“Well call the lieutenant then. Maybe he can see the smoke. He can call the emergency code himself.” The other officer looked around, blinking like he had only just woken up, and as if he was seeing the cloud of smoke for the first time.

“Yeah,” he declared, “I guess it is kind of smoky in here. Yeah, uh, go ahead and call the code Medet.”

“What?”Medet asked. “But you just told me . . .”

“No, forget that. Call the code.” He finally put some power in his voice and straightened his back to better project a sense of being in charge. Medet obeyed.

Four lieutenants, a major, two wardens, and a dozen officers descended on the building in droves. Some arrived on fleet feet, others poured from vehicles that came screeching to a halt outside the entrance. Everyone was evacuated and made to stand in a line fifty feet back from the building. We endured the cold while even more staff members showed up to help. They each adopted the task of counting us to be sure no one was left behind. So many COs walking up and down the line of inmates, I lost track of how many times we were counted. Eventually we were allowed to go back to our various housing units and had the rest of the day off.

Revisionist History

It turned out to be an electrical fire in the ceiling. Wires had been smoldering and producing a copious amount of smoke which was then sent through the ventilation system. This made it appear worse than the situation actually was. Still, given enough time, the heat could’ve found a better avenue to conduct its destructive capabilities and sent the whole building up in flames. Officer Medet was commended by the Warden for his quick thinking and decisive actions which controlled a dangerous and potentially deadly set of circumstances.

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Butterball

Initial Impression

When I first saw Butterball he was wearing only his tighty-whiteys and a bath towel casually draped over one shoulder as he walked from the shower to his cell fifty feet away. His pronounced belly drooped over the distressed elastic waistband to such a degree that it was perfectly clear where his nickname came from. His resemblance to a rotund Thanksgiving bird was more that passing.

Butterball had to be told by inmates and officers both to put some pants or shorts on when coming from the shower, which only left him perplexed. He had been behaving as though he were in some kind of communal bathhouse or oversized locker room where certain degrees of undress were accepted if not unavoidable. While his characterizations did have merit, he quickly learned the requisite portion of shame and modesty. Regardless, based on these actions alone, I had him pegged as a supreme weirdo.

Mistaken Opinion

Several months later I found myself constantly in close proximity to Butterball—a nickname he embraced and to which he answered. The fact that he accepted this unflattering name, as well as the generally accepted prevailing opinion that he was indeed a weirdo, went a long way to proving that he was one. Similar to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, enough people believed it until it was accepted as gospel truth. While working with him in the chow hall, however, I soon realized that I had made a terrible mistake in my understanding and assessment of him.

Reevaluation

Intelligence, politeness, and good manners are so foreign to the prison environment that exhibiting such traits will make a person stand out from those around him and inevitably be labeled as odd. Such was the case with Butterball.

He was perpetually upbeat and kind. I never heard him speak harshly, raise his voice in anger, or use profanity. Having never before spent time incarcerated, his forays from shower to cell in only his underwear were due to naiveté not idiocy or mental illness.

The truth was that Butterball had been a mechanical engineer before his arrest. More often than not once he got to talking I could barely keep up with him. His technical awareness aside, topics ranging from history, to politics, art, music, literature were all areas in which he was well versed. I modestly count myself a fairly intelligent fella, but Butterball routinely put me to shame. He was never mean-spirited about it, but in speaking with him I learned a lot, not the least of which was finding out how severely lacking I was in my own education.

Revelation

Butterball’s wit, intellect, kindheartedness, easygoing nature, and high work ethic (another rarity in prison) all conspired to make me wonder just what exactly he was locked up for. Often smiling, jovial, quick with a laugh—that’s the guy I knew. Never did I glimpse or see any shades of the man who had bludgeoned a family of four to death before fleeing across state lines and leading authorities on a week’s long manhunt that traversed a half-dozen states before culminating in a standoff in which, rather than having a shootout with police, he attempted to take his own life. Once he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds he was returned to his state of origin to stand trial for his crimes.

After I discovered his story I didn’t stop speaking to Butterball, but knowledge of his crime did change the dynamic of our relationship. Too often I’d catch myself trying to see beyond what was in plain sight and looking for signs of that other guy.

Abnormal Appetite

“Hey! Stop that! Cut it out. You better leave it alone before it falls off.” CO Bogey grinned to himself at his consummately clever witticism. He believed he had caught an inmate masturbating. He was wrong.

Not Just Another Day

Bogey was doing his rounds and checking the cells which housed inmates with especially serious mental health issues. These individuals were the most disturbed, which inevitable led to aberrant behavior that necessitated disciplinary action taken against them. This combination mental health and segregation housing unit was the most high risk assignment for an officer, and one that many dreaded.

Bogey had spent two tours in Afghanistan fighting for the US Army so he had a different perspective on the assignment. He felt it was rarely boring, always kept him on his toes. He liked that.

This particular day as he walked past cell 19 he saw the inmate inside with his back to the door, his shoulders hunched and head down with no hands in sight. Catching inmates in the act of masturbating was so common that it had become routine. It’s not exactly illegal, but it is discouraged, especially amongst the mentally ill populace who can be prone to turning an act of self-pleasure into an act of self-harming. In his initial assessment CO Bogey believed he had walked up on the former, but soon learned it was the later.

Not Stroking

Huddled near the back of his cell, the inmate’s head, neck, shoulders and upper back all shivered with exertion. His head was bent forward at an extreme angle which Bogey didn’t understand, but neither did he spend any time pondering it.

“Hey! I said quit stroking it. You hear me? Cut it out.” There was no response or change in his behavior to indicate that he had in fact heard the officer. Bogey sidled the few steps to the cell door and banged on it with the flat of his hand. “Hey!” The offender spun and bared his bloody teeth with a feral growl. Bogey instinctively recoiled half a step while cursing voluminously and involuntarily. Despite his numerous and brutal experiences during his time in the army as well as his years as a correctional officer, Bogey was momentarily dumbstruck. Then it got worse.

Macabre Meal

The inmate raised his arm to his mouth, this time remaining erect so he could maintain eye contact with Bogey as he gnawed at the soft flesh of his inner forearm. He managed to tear a chunk free from his body and gulped noisily until he had succeeded in swallowing it. This was a new one for Bogey. He had witnessed self-mutilation too many times to count, it being an even more prevalent pastime than masturbation amongst those inmates with severe mental illness. He had never before, however, seen another man eating himself.

At A Loss

It took a few moments of watching the surreal scene before Bogey finally snapped back to some semblance of his senses. “Hey, stop it,” he voiced weakly with zero of the booming authority of which I knew him to be capable. The inmate continued to chew unabated. Bogey took a breath and regained a bit of his backbone. “I said stop!” The inmate merely slowed, his efforts at self-mastication losing some of the previous gusto. Bogey keyed the button on his radio to transmit. There was a burst of static and Bogey opened his mouth to send out a call for help, but said nothing. There was no code or protocol for what he was seeing. Finally after several eternal moments of dead air, he spoke.

“Ah, Lieutenant . . . I’ve got a guy, he’s . . . ah, eating himself?” His voice went up at the end to form it into a question. In truth Bogey was still having trouble putting a label on exactly what was happening. The real trouble though was that Bogey had a well-deserved reputation for being a joker and smartass. This meant that his call for help went unanswered.

Assistance At Last

After yelling at the biter again Bogey finally got him to stop chomping, but only after he had swallowed another piece of himself. Anger and frustration put a razor’s edge to his voice when next he keyed the radio. “I need a lieutenant and assistance. This is a medical emergency. I have an inmate, he’s, he’s bleeding a lot. He’s hurting himself.” There was a pause pregnant with silence and dread before a crackling static response came along with a voice which was purely professional, nearly to the point of seeming bored. To Bogey it was the sound of salvation.

Inside of a minute two lieutenants and five COs arrived to assist. The inmate was swiftly cuffed and subdued so he could no longer harm himself, and medical staff was on their way. With the situation under control, the officers stood around cracking jokes about Bogey’s initial call for help when he said the guy was eating himself. Apparently they had all heard it and thought it was a hilarious hoax.

The bloody and bizarre incident became just another story they could add to their repertoire of crazy tales in the life of a Correctional Officer.

Losses

In five days I will lose my best friend. Or, at least, my current best friend. I’ve been through more than a few.

The Early Ones

My first best friend I met on day one of kindergarten when I helped him stop crying. He missed his Mommy. That lasted through third grade. A Greek kid came next. His Mom let me eat pizza from their family restaurant/bar for free. After a couple of years a Little League baseball buddy of mine took the top spot followed in about nine months by an adopted Korean guy adrift in a Midwest sea of cornfields.

High school witnessed me becoming more of an extrovert and I had many acquaintances and good friends, but only one was deemed best. He would later go on to date and nearly marry the woman who was my first real love. For a long time this felt like a betrayal, but time tends to dull teenage ire and I harbor no ill will.

Burgeoning Adulthood

Onto college with the inevitable cusp of being considered an “adult”, and I had two buddies who were holdovers from high school. I grew closer to one than the other and on the day of my arrest, after knowing him for close to six years, he held the distinction of being my longest continuing friend relationship. A few days after my arrest I talked to him on the phone and he seemed full of concern, support and caring. He said he would visit on the weekend and drop off some books for me. It has been fourteen plus years, and I’ve yet to get those books or see his face. I’ve reached out to him, and some of my other friends, but to no avail. My best friend track record is disastrous at best.

Heightened Circumstances

Friendships found in prison are somewhat different. The elevated stress levels behind prison walls create a kind of permanent foxhole situation where bonds are formed swiftly and are deeply felt. There is common ground, namely the pain and shame of being excommunicated from family, friends, and civilized society. It can also be said that we all feel like we were abused in some way by the criminal justice system.

Having been entrenched in the system for going on a decade and a half I can attest that it is a broken system. Whether an individual is completely guilty, wholly innocent, or caught somewhere in the gray area spectrum, which includes varying degrees of culpability, it is true more often than not that abuse on the part of authority has most certainly occurred. This reality tends to breed an attitude that it is us against them. Inmates versus all authority. However, for my friend BD and me, it was a mutual love of the music of a certain Mr. Robert Zimmerman that both instantaneously began and cemented our friendship.

Dylan Fans Unite

I haven’t come across many Bob Dylan fans during my incarcerated years, and certainly like BD, who could converse with wit and intelligence on the life, times and genius of Bob Dylan. This topic turned out to be merely a foundation for a deepening relationship. Brick by brick we added to it with a shared passion for an abundant and diverse amount of musical tastes as well as common levels of both reading and creative writing.

Our personalities meshed rather wonderfully, and we each became the person the other could go to if any baggage or psychological garbage needed to be unloaded. We grew to depend on each other. What began as a tentative talk around Bob Dylan designed entirely to gauge one another’s degree of devotion to the enigmatic troubadour eventually blossomed into a full-fledged and fully invested friendship. BD could always be counted on for a thoughtful and intelligent dialogue on a wide array of subjects. This is a rare and precious quality in the environment of a prison. I have seen and spoken to BD nearly every single day for the past four years. Now he’s leaving me.

My Back Pages Revisited

I’ve had several good buddies while locked up. They all leave me. Most go home. It’s bittersweet to say the least. I can’t be sure if it’s due to the depth of our connection, or an accumulation of each and every loss I’ve endured, but this time it’s more keenly felt.

When someone goes home I have no contact with him. Can’t call. Can’t write. To do so would be a violation of his parole agreement which could land him right back in prison. Sometimes rumors work their way around that are of dubious veracity at best. There’s a strange dichotomy which occurs because I’m happy to see him get out, and wish my friend all the best, but I’d like to see him again. Unfortunately the only way to see him is if he gets in trouble and comes back.

I must therefore languish in the land of incommunicado and move on with prison life, trying all the while not to let these losses create a callous over my heart which prohibits me from caring about the next person who comes along. Whether he’s a Bob Dylan fan or not. Although that could be a deal-breaker.

After all: I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

Best of Intentions

Tooks was a black kid from the inner city, and like so many others he joined a gang at a young age, before the changes of puberty even had a chance to take hold. The gang life included drugs, violence, and eventually prison. This is a reality that is so epidemic it nearly appears to be an inevitability. It is an immoral cycle of mass imprisonment perpetuated against the poor and uneducated which should be the shame of every upright and ethically sound citizen.

During my numerous years of incarceration I’ve heard the same story and seen the same scenario unfold too many times to count. Young men are locked up over and over because they go home from prison with the same mindset and pattern of behavior that originally landed them in prison.

If I were more of an unabashed cynic I might claim that my experience provided me the insight and ability to sense, see and predict the dire course set out before Tooks without potentiality for deviation. Tooks, however, was a bit different. Tooks had a plan.

Proper Preparation

Tooks had served nearly five years for drug possession with intent to deliver. That means he had a large enough quantity of drugs that he couldn’t claim it was just for personal use—which would have been a lesser crime. All things considered, his sentence could have been much worse, and Tooks was keenly aware of this. He had been removed from the block and gang life—the entire world as he knew it—and had experienced some of the horrors and deprivations that are part and parcel of prison life. He knew a change was needed.

Tooks earned his GED, taking advantage of what few (or only) educational opportunities that remained available to him. He made stringent mental determination that this would be his first and final time as a guest of the Department Of Corrections.

Tooks was neither the first nor the last man to make such a resolute vow, but he’s one of the few who I have seen actually take steps to make a concerted effort to be proactive about reentering society into a better situation than the one he had left. For all the good it did him.

Terrible Assumption

Six months prior to his release date, Tooks got a notice from Field Services—the department with the DOC which deals with the logistics for all inmates leaving on parole. Tooks was understandably confused because two months previous he had already sent his mother’s address and indicated his intention and desire to parole to her house in a different state from the one where he was incarcerated.

Paroling out of state isn’t unheard of, but neither is it a common occurrence. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. All the many obstacles is why Tooks took it upon himself to send in the address early. Nevertheless he complied with the notice from Field Services and once more sent his mother’s address along with a note explaining that he planned to parole to her home out of state.

Within a week Tooks received confirmation that Field Services had received his information and would contact him as needed once his release date grew closer. Tooks heard nothing beyond that. He assumed that all was well and on track for him paroling to his mother’s place. It turned out to be a terrible assumption.

Scrambling

Two weeks prior to his release from prison Tooks was called to the Field Services office and informed that he had nowhere which to parole. His mother’s house had been denied as a parole sight, and he was given no rationale for this denial. One of his cousins had kept in touch with Tooks over the years and had recently extended the invitation to use his home as a parole site if needed. This too was a place out of state, which still appealed to Tooks since it would keep him from returning to the city where he had learned to sell drugs, shoot guns, rob and assault people. These later crimes were all ones he had never been caught for, and had no desire to repeat. His old neighborhood fostered that type of behavior, and the foul mindset that led to said behavior. It was the last place to which Tooks wanted to parole.

No Help

Tooks was informed that even if his cousin’s home was a viable parole site there was no way it could possibly be vetted and approved in two weeks. The options of halfway houses and/or homeless shelters was raised by Tooks, but the counselor in Field Services made it clear that paroling to those places also required a lengthy bit of paperwork and maneuvering which would make his current release date an impossibility. The counselor impressed upon Tooks that those places were usually used by individuals who have absolutely no family, friends, or other options. Surely Tooks had someone he could stay with, didn’t he?

Tooks was angry, and asked why they had waited so long to tell them that he couldn’t stay with his mother out of state. If they had given him more time he could’ve provided his cousin’s address earlier and possibly gotten it approved. Or, barring that, he could’ve tried to find somewhere else to go. The counselor’s answer was little more than a shrug of the shoulders and zero acceptance of blame or accountability.

Callous or Inept?

The individuals who work in Field Services are responsible for finding a place for inmates to stay who are leaving on parole. Which means every single inmate. Their job is usually done for them by the inmate who provides the address of a family member or friend where they intend to stay. If an inmate has no address to provide it is the incumbent on the counselor in Field Services to find some kind of temporary housing for the inmate. From what I’ve seen this rarely happens. Whether it is attributable to callousness or ineptitude, I don’t know, but by and large these counselors do nothing. If an inmate has no family or friend to take him in, then he stays in prison even after serving the prison term to which the judge sentenced him. This type of tragic injustice isn’t infrequent.

All For Naught

All of his best efforts and intentions were for naught, and in the end Tooks paroled back to his aunt’s apartment in the city. It was on the same block where his gang claimed control. In a twisted case of life coming full circle for Tooks, he’d be able to look out the window of the apartment and see the segment of sidewalk where he had lain face-down in submission and been arrested for his crimes. I pray Tooks can somehow transcend his surroundings and history, but it is difficult for me to envision that possibility.

Misfits

Weirdo Factor

Feeding time in prison is always accompanied by the dividing up into factions as the line begins to wind its way to the chow hall. The most obvious criteria is the racial barrier, and to a large degree the blacks, whites, and Latinos all do tend to gravitate to their own kind.

However, there is also plenty of racial mixing together, and it is almost entirely accepted. The less obvious but far more important factor to consider is where the weirdos are. There is a lengthy list of less-than-desirables who you don’t want to get stuck beside while trying to eat the already barely stomach-able cuisine. Some guys stink, others talk and spit food, some chew loudly. Aggravations abound to create an atrocious dining experience. It all starts on the walk to chow where you must maneuver as best you can so that you’re surrounded by a decent group of guys.

Miscalculation

On this particular occasion I was distracted by a conversation with my buddy Brady who was in line next to me and consequently I miscalculated our proximity to the group of weirdos who all tended to flock toward the front of the line. I preferred leaving a buffer of five to ten people just to be safe, but there was no space at all between myself and them. Once we reached the chow hall the order was set because several lieutenants and sergeants bark at inmates to prohibit them from changing their position in line. There are eight seats to a table, and upon performing a quick count I discerned that I was right on the cusp of disaster. I was side by side with Brady, so I slowed imperceptibly, but just enough to put him in the lead and place him in the last seat with those ahead of us while I would breeze by to a new table. All if fair in love and war. And prison chow time.

Trickery

We grabbed our trays and headed toward the table, but Brady never slowed as instead he breezed right past the empty seat and headed toward the next table. I was a half-dozen paces behind him, and while his deception had gone unnoticed, the sergeant on duty was paying attention as I tried to sneak by, and I was instructed to fill in the empty seat. As I took my place at the table of misfit toys I shot a withering look at Brady who was grinning wide and guffawing over the misfortune he had fostered upon me.

A Motley Crew

A quick glance at my de facto companions let me know that I was in for a decidedly unique dining experience. Starting at my left and moving clockwise there was Bankie, a bona-fide crack-baby all grown up. He wore a perpetually dazed grin on his face with vacant eyes. He mumbled to himself incessantly, that is, when he wasn’t laughing at whatever he was mumbling about. Bankie put no premium on personal hygiene, so he smelled incredibly ripe. He also had no sense of personal space so he crowded my tray as I tried to eat.

Angie and Hyena were next, the former about six and a half feet tall and stout; the later barely five feet and pushing seventy years old. Where one went the other followed. Angie was big and dumb ala Steinbeck’s Lenny, and Hyena spoke little to no English and talked with a high-pitched amused chortle when he wasn’t whistling an unending, unidentifiable, tuneless tune.

Then came Paprika, and he was the epitome of a dirty white boy. Broke, scheming, two-faced, grimy, thirsty. Beside him was Rosy, and compared to Paprika, Rosy looked downright normal and well-adjusted, although he exhibited many of the same aforementioned dirty white boy attributes. Rosy also talked constantly, usually about cartoons, mostly Japanese anime. Life of the party he was not.

Scraggles looked exactly, and I do mean exactly, like the character Shaggy from the old Scooby Doo cartoon. In fact “Shaggy” would’ve been a much better nickname, but that’s not how it went. Scraggles was a young, dumb, know-it-all who wasn’t even yet old enough to drink legally. He also talked constantly, often complaining, mostly about inconsequential nonsense and trivialities. Lots of macho posturing from a guy slim as a popsicle stick and just as brittle.

Old Man Chevy (pronounced like the car) was the final of the not-to-magnificent seven. He was sitting to my right and creeping up on eighty or death—whatever came first. He wore several layers of clothes, including two hats, nearly year round and carried a musty smell with him wherever he went. Characterizing it as “old man smell” would be an affront to elderly males everywhere. Chevy had concocted and festered an odor all his own. An amalgam of dried sweat, urine, and feces with a hint of soap and a sprinkle of talcum. Then there was me, wishing I could scarf my food and get out immediately.

An Assortment of Annoyances

Angie asked if I was going to eat my Sloppy Joe before my butt had even grazed the seat. After my “yes’, Angie then had to translate Hyena’s broken English and wild gesticulating to ask if I was planning to eat my mixed vegetables. Paprika asked after my Sloppy Joe, then my bread, then my mashed potatoes, and finally my two pats of butter. Rosy wanted my bread. Chevy wanted to know if he could have my orange, he didn’t even bother inquiring if I planned on eating it. I hadn’t yet picked up m utensil to begin eating. Scraggles complained about the mashed potatoes, then the Sloppy Joe, then the bread, then the water, then the plastic spork, then the cracked tray. Bankie chuckled at what I’m assuming was some hilarious observation from one of the voices inside his head. I took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh, and set to the task before me.

Weirdos Galore

I nibbled at my food unenthusiastically and kept a keen eye on the odd eaters all around me. Bankie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, oblivious to what he left sitting on his bottom lip or dribbling down his chin. Angie stared straight ahead, shoveling food into his mouth, chewing mechanically, not a morsel of food was missed or wasted even between bouts of yammering to Hyena in Spanish. Paprika and Rosy blabbered about cartoon bare-breasted babes between bites while bits of spittle and food flew back and forth between them.

Chevy packaged his food into different little containers and baggies, disappearing each one into his multiple layers of clothes as they become filled. Scraggles only stopped complaining long enough to toss in a comment to Paprika and Rosy’s twisted conversation. I just wanted to eat my terrible food in peace, but with the dual pungent foul fragrances of Bankie on my left and Chevy on my right that was clearly too much to ask. Then Hyena suddenly began screaming in fast-paced Spanish to someone behind me, sending half a mouthful of food splattering across the table right in front of my tray.

Everyone erupted into uproarious laughter except me. I found it to be more revolting than hilarious. Throughout all of this I had maintained a passive, noncommittal look on my face, not wanting to engage with any of the weirdos. However, once the laughs subsided, Scraggles turned to Old Man Chevy and said something that, after all that I had seen, heard and endured was the final straw of stupidity for me.

Momma’s Boy   

“You want my orange?” Scraggles asked Chevy, holding it aloft for him. “What, you don’t like them?” Paprika asked, sticking his nose in business that had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Chevy snatched the fruit and wordlessly stuffed it in his coat pocket before the offer could be rescinded. “No, I like oranges,” Scraggles said. “I just can’t peel them. I don’t know how to peel them. My Mom peels my oranges for me.”

My hand stopped halfway to my mouth with a spoonful of food suspended in mid-air. I was entirely dumbstruck. I did a double, then a triple take at him before finally being unable to control my outburst.

Flabbergasted

“What? What!? Are you freaking kidding me!?” I waited for a response. “Are you?” Everyone at the table was looking at me as if I were the loony one. The fact is, at the weirdo table, I was the misfit.

I snorted out a sound of derision and disgust before turning my back on the lot of them and leaving my tray picked over but largely uneaten. After about a minute Angie spoke up. “Are you going to eat that?” Paprika tried to lay claim to the bread or Sloppy Joe or both. I stayed out of it and waited impatiently for rescue.

King Pong

Tipping the scales past three hundred pounds, with much of it settling in an unsightly mass around my midsection, I was far from the picture of athletic prowess. With a dome that was kept gleaming by a razor’s removal of any stubble once a week, and my skin unnaturally pale from nearly a year without the sun’s warm kiss, I resembled a bloated and deranged Casper the Friendly Ghost more than anything else. My appearance made all challengers think they could defeat me with ease. They were mistaken.

pingpong2Sole Recreation
The county jail that was my defacto home for over three years had what they termed MP. Multi Purpose room. It was approximately twenty feet by forty feet, although that may be a bit generous. Its multiple purposes included library, law library, TV room, recreation area, holding pen for prisoners directly before or after a court appearance, chapel, school classroom, attorney visiting room, clergy visiting room, and temporary holding area for particularly violent or troublesome inmates. Each cell block of the jail was afforded one hour per day in MP as our sole recreation.

Oasis
In the center of the room, looking entirely out of place because of the sense of normalcy and joy that it engendered in everyone who saw it, was the device which would be responsible for my only exercise for the better part of a year. The green top was marred by scratches and scars, and parts of it were cobbled together with strips of cloth torn from a bedsheet, but amidst the harsh stresses of imprisonment it was a glorious vision of escapism and fun. The ping pong table became an oasis of sorts, and one hour with it was never enough.

Reality Check
Of course I had played ping pong on numerous occasions prior to my incarceration, and I thought that I was pretty good. Better than average. When I first stepped to the table, paddle in hand, I was a cocky loudmouth bragging about my abilities. I had both overestimated my talents and underestimated my opponent, Pates.

Grizzled, gray-haired, mid-40’s, he seemed ancient to my naive 22-year old eyes. Pates trounced me handily, without mercy, and called the next victim to the table. I felt demoralized, emasculated, but my own private pity party only lasted as long as two pong matches before it was my turn again. I craved vindication. It turned out that Pates had in fact been taking it easy on me after all. The second match I didn’t score a single point. He skunked me.

pingpongLearning Curve
Pates and I battled every day with few exceptions, and while I did get better, he still defeated me without much difficulty. It was a steep learning curve, but I was learning, improving. After several months of me challenging the King of the Table, and getting multiple victories under my belt, I was finally worthy for him and our matches became epic in scope. It wasn’t enough just to win anymore, but we were working out trick shots and putting spins on the ball to make it drop or swerve in mid-air both to impress and confound one another. As a byproduct of our competitive encounters, or perhaps as a natural extension of such, Pates and I became good friends.

New King in Town
Once Pates left the county jail (he was convicted of a crime that I believe he was genuinely innocent of and sentenced to around 85 years in prison) I was crowned the reigning King of Ping Pong. My new title made me a target for all inmates who thought they were pretty good. I repelled each opponent, some more easily than others, and my crown was never in jeopardy. Due to a lack of worthy challengers, I eventually adopted a semi-retired status and was only coaxed into defending my title and proving my prodigious pong skills every once in a great while.

Blast From the Past
It was a decade removed from my time spent in county, and my period as pong royalty was but a distant memory, when my name was called out by a stranger as I walked on the yard. I turned to face him, and he acted as if he knew me. Turns out he did know me—as King of the Table.

kingHe described my appearance at the time (in the intervening years, I had lost over one hundred pounds, grown my hair a little longish, and actually spent some days in the sun) and spoke of my amazing ping pong abilities. He talked about different guys who we’d been locked up with and some of the officers who had been in the county jail. He even knew some details of my case because mine was a particularly brutal crime that the smallish county was unaccustomed to and this made me somewhat notorious. Despite all of this information, which served as proof that this stranger had, in fact, served time in county jail with me, I had no idea who he was. It was a surreal sensation, but when I sent a query into the database of my brain, the search engine came back with “No results found.” Due to the sheer volume of his fairly intimate knowledge, I had to conclude that my memories of him had merely been lost to time. I’d known hundreds of men while in county, some maybe only for a day or two, and surely I couldn’t be expected to remember every one.

Lasting Legacy
My new/old friend told me that he only played ping pong against me twice, and both times I defeated him easily. He said he wasn’t very good, but enjoyed watching me battle others because the matches were always so thrilling. He also informed me that my name and tales of my astounding talents were spoken of long after I’d left, and always told with the requisite awe.

Gone, but not forgotten.

King Pong—long may I reign.