Jelly for Juice

In jail, food is a big deal. You know the quality isn’t going to be anywhere near good, but at least the chow line is predictable, reliable, and capable of breaking up what’s got to be the world’s most grueling monotony. Very little actually happens when you’re locked up, which is why I’ll probably never write a jailhouse memoir. But then, those memoires are still marinating, percolating…unpalatable but perhaps still brewing. So never say never.

I recall my first meal. I was still at the substation, en route to MCJ, when the call came over the loudspeaker: Line up for chow! We filed into a hallway where a mix of deputies and trustees (inmates working off their time) began hollering at us to grab a sack lunch of what appeared to be an antiquated pallet jack. “Keep moving,” they shouted, herding us down the hall. There was a guy tossing what looked to be cartons of milk. I was suddenly struck with that deep-seated fear of social blunder: being that kid who chokes, bungling the catch in front of coaches and cohorts alike. Thankfully I caught one. I looked at it. It said Cranberry Cocktail Drink.

We assembled loosely down another, even narrower, walkway. Immediately the bartering began. Who want jelly fo-a juice? Who want bread fo-dey apple? It was hard to tell which items were the desired ones. I tried to observe the transactions going on around me, to see if there was any racial component to them. There didn’t seem to be. Finally I yelled, “Anyone want a juice? I’m lookin’ for cookies!” I had no clue whether or not this was a suitable trade. And I was suddenly very aware of how white I sounded. I felt silly until a paisa approached me and said, “Hey man, how ’bout a banana for da juice?” A banana sounded good, so I said sure. Now I had two slices of bread, a packet of peanut butter, a packet of jelly, cookies, an apple, and a banana. I decided I didn’t need all that, so I hollered for someone who might want my apple. Someone shouted, “Yo down here!” I made out a fuzzy figure waving down the hall (they’d taken my glasses). I threw the apple, missing dismally and pegging a black guy in the leg. I pumped a fist into the air. “Sorry ’bout that bro!” I heard myself say.

How I survived that I have no idea.


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