Arts and Crafts

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.

The first time that Cee asked for the plastic wrapper that encased my cookie, I thought he wanted my cookie in its entirety, like he was trying to gangster it. To be fair, I hadn’t been down long and was still learning that not everyone was out to get me, or trying to get over on me. I also wasn’t too well-versed in the new language of prison—I was still getting acquainted with the rhythm, patois, and terminology.

So when Cee, whom I had never spoken to, leaned over from the next table in the chow hall and said: “Let me hold that sleeve when you through,” I was at a loss. Eventually, from observing how other inmates reacted, I determined that Cee’s statement was, in fact, a question that translates thus: “Can I please have that empty cookie wrapper once you’ve eaten the cookies?” Even though I’d deciphered the slang, I had no idea what he could possibly want all those wrappers for.

Over the next several months, I’d watch as Cee gathered all he could from people’s trays in the chow hall and scoured the trash for emptied bags of chips. It baffled me. Even more confounding was that he was picky with his litter. Cee refused the offer of any refuse that hadn’t been opened perfectly along the seam of the packaging.

It wasn’t until I got a porter slot that I finally discovered his hustle.

Being a porter afforded me fairly free rein of the deck after the C/O let me out of my cell to clean. The trick was to make my activities look legal by keeping a push broom in my hand and to keep moving. This allowed me to talk to convicts and to pass items between cells, provided they were small enough to slide under the door. It was in performing this illegal act that I was dispatched to Cee’s cell, which gave me a chance to see just what he was making with all that trash.

After cleaning any residue from his scrounged garbage, Cee cut and folded the materials into sturdy strips so that the clear plastic cookie wrappers were thick enough to be practically opaque. He turned the chip bags inside out so their shiny metallic interiors were displayed. With these two distinct but complimentary shades and textures, Cee created some legitimately beautiful and undoubtedly unique pieces. His technique was that of a basket weaver—but making a small decorative basket would have been child’s play for him.

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Cee made a decent living by making picture frames for guys to display a photograph in their cell. However, his real money came from items people bought to send home to their families. The cutest product he had was a pair of decorative baby booties—a thoughtful gift for a new mother, which some guys sent to their young daughters. His other top seller was another perfect present for a girl or young woman, and the first time I saw it I marveled at its ingenious design and stout craftsmanship. It was a jewelry box, complete with a hinged lid in which was recessed a 4×6-inch plastic mirror purchased from commissary.

When I held one, I was impressed and amazed by the painstaking and time-consuming intricacy of the work put into it, as well as its heft. Though the materials used to craft it were meager at best, the jewelry box was surprisingly heavy and solid, not fragile at all.

Cee charged ten bucks, but his clients had to provide a new mirror, which brought the price up to $13. Around Christmas, he couldn’t keep up with the number of orders he got for his unique wares. Making masterpieces from people’s castoffs is not only a rare gift, but also a lucrative hustle. It’s a talent I wish I possessed. Unfortunately, when I look in the trash, all I see is garbage.

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Master Craftsman

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As a consummate entrepreneur, DJ managed to turn a profit making trinkets and baubles whose only real appeal was in their uniqueness. All of his toilet paper flowers and decorative pillows were quite beautiful, but beyond that they had no practical value whatsoever. While DJ recognized that he had a lucrative business in place, and he certainly enjoyed spending/eating the profits, he was also perfectly aware of how ephemeral and ultimately useless his products were. This knowledge eventually led to a degree of dissatisfaction on his part, which was only countered when he had the opportunity to call upon his master craftsman capabilities.

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The Artistry
Both skill and talent were certainly required for creating DJ’s pretty presents, but he was capable of so much more. When he could get his hands on the proper materials, he excelled. His passion projects were tediously time-consuming, but he reveled in the real artistry and true craftsmanship of them.

Repurposed
A pair of old leather boots, which had been discarded as trash, were gold to DJ. He would take a razorblade that he had removed from its plastic disposable casing and use that to slice the leather into pieces and strips appropriate for the works he intended to create. To prepare the tough leather, he would rub Vaseline into it everyday for as many days as it took until it was soft and supple.

Meticulous
Once the leather was ready for his nimble fingers, DJ would commence to crimping and folding the edges, manipulating them and preparing them to receive his stitches. I have no earthly idea where he procured the nylon string that he used to sew his material, nor what he used to dye the white nylon black so that it matched the boot leather. He fashioned his pieces into bifold wallets that could be sent home as gifts by inmates or a more simple holder designed to carry an Inmate ID Card.

The latter was also seen as some kind of silly status symbol. Wristwatch bands were his other specialty and when he was finished, his products looked as professionally produced as anything on display for sale at a retail store. As a sewer myself, I marveled at the tiny stitches and how intricate yet uniform he managed to keep them.

ab3a017ea97ea90959d180b2a9e699d7Ingenuity
Since wristwatches are prominently displayed on one’s wrist (go figure), they are also something of a status symbol in prison. The watches generally cost about ten to twelve dollars, so it doesn’t really make sense, but that’s how it is, and most guys like to trade up the factory watchband for a prison-made replacement. DJ’s leather bands sold well and lasted for many years, but leather can be hard to some by. Shoelaces, on the other hand, are routinely thrown away, or else are available for purchase in commissary. DJ would deftly slip the outer cloth covering from the rounded shoelace, leaving behind a braided rope. The liberated material he would flatten and, using those astonishingly subtle stitches, he’d sew the two strips into a band approximately three quarters of an inch wide. Using durable plastic pieces that he scrounged from somewhere and Velcro he’d sliced from shower curtains, DJ formed a clasp for these original works of prison art. For an additional fee, using brilliantly colored thread, he could stitch a person’s initials into the band to distinguish it from others of its ilk.

Witnessing DJ’s finished masterpieces, I couldn’t help but be supremely impressed by his enormous skill. There was, however, also a touch of wistful sadness to my impression, as I couldn’t help but wonder why his talent and clockwork intellect were being squandered, locked behind prison walls.//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/adsbygoogle.js //