Back by popular demand (well, like he’s going anywhere…), our man explains the social dynamics — and outlaw economy — of the prison kitchen.
“Who the fuck are you to tell me I wanna omelet?”
The ungainly Salvadoran former drug runner, now food runner, was flummoxed by this. His eyes went wide, his face turned red. He had been thriving at the minimum security prison camp over the last few months, and I think me raising my voice to him was the first time he even came close to a conflict among the fraudsters, hucksters, and others here at Club Fed.
When he first arrived at the minimum security camp, he was scared. It was his first time in prison. Not a lot of people come here scared. Angry? Yes. Dismayed? Yes. Alone, embarrassed, and distraught? Yes, yes, and yes… but never scared. This was Club Fed! What’s to be scared of?
The Salvadoran was young. Early twenties. More than a bit overweight. He had been sentenced to a couple of years on some drug charge, less than 3 years if I remember correctly. We all assumed he pointed fingers and ratted someone out. I mean, how else do you go from a Federal drug charge to a prison camp for less than a decade?
You could look these things up on the prison computer, but I never did. True, in a normal prison ratting would be a mortal sin, to have snitched on your co-conspirators. But this is Club Fed and the rules are different. And frankly, I didn’t care because, at that moment, we were all equal in the eyes of the law.
“Yeah… umm… Cutlets… I mean, Johnny C., in the kitchen… he asked me, told me to ask you if you… uhh… wanted an omelet. I didn’t mean…” the Salvadoran stammered.
“Get the fuck outta here. I tell you if I wanna omelet, you don’t tell me shit.”
It was all a game. The kitchen crew just wanted to razz the guy a little. Make him feel included. Haze him. I actually wanted the omelet. Johnny had been locked up so long and had been in kitchens even longer, he could make the hell out of an egg.
The Salvadoran left my suite (seriously, it was a suite… with a desk, a bed, a closet, and a nice window with a view of the woods outside) and high-tailed it back to the kitchen. A few minutes later, I hear Johnny Cutlets laying into the Salvadoran.
“Well, what the fuck did you say to piss him off? What the fuck is wrong with you you dumb fuck.”
We put the Salvadoran in the kitchen because he was destitute. Flat broke. No money. No family. No one on the outside to put money on his books so he could buy things from the prison commissary. No one came to visit him. No one wrote him letters. He didn’t write to anyone. Never used the computer. Never talked about his case, or his shitty lawyer, or his appeal. His whole world turned its back on him, so he went to the kitchen.
Because the Club Fed kitchen is where you could make some scratch.
True, like all prisons, there were drugs, booze, and cigarettes that you could buy and sell. Those were high-risk ventures and, frankly, this kid had a lot to lose getting involved in that. He had a short stretch. They catch you with that and you’re going to an awful, awful prison like the ones you see on TV and in movies. You leave those enterprises for folks that have to do serious time — like the people he probably ratted on, who were doing 20 or 30 years. But at Club Fed, you could bring in a couple of bills a month selling vegetables, meat, eggs, and spices out the back door of the kitchen.
The kitchen racket was a good racket. No, the national prison menu wasn’t anything to write home about, but the basic ingredients Uncle Sam provided weren’t all that bad – especially if all the best freshest produce and best cuts of USDA meat went to the prison camp. You wanted fresh veggies a couple of times a week? No problem – for a price. Want it chopped into a decent cobb salad with a hardboiled egg, some turkey bacon, and a dose of bleu cheese dressing? You bet – for a couple more bucks. Omelets on Sunday? You don’t want to know…
Don’t want your religious zealot friends to know you’re not keeping Kosher? We’ve got all the haram Italian sausage, BBQ pork, and biscuits & gravy you could want – as well as a place to eat where no one will catch you. In that case, the food’s free, but the silence will cost you – plenty.
Johnny C. — Cutlets — popped his head around the corner of my doorway and then entered smiling. His toothless smile was way more charismatic than it should have been. He handed me a styrofoam “clamshell” tray with the herb de Provence omelet, some roasted tomatoes, a pork sausage link, and a plastic thermos with Starbucks brand coffee. (The Starbucks had been… unofficially… obtained during a brazen daylight … liberation … from a truck making a delivery to the prison warehouse while I distracted both driver and guard with a paperwork error. I’m so careless with math!)
“No, don’t get up, you lazy fuck,” his low husky voice somehow echoed in the well-appointed, concrete but cozy prison suite.
Kitchen guys work hard and they like to remind you of that at every turn. I was supine, reading something that I’d never read in the real world: an actual novel. My double stuffed mattress (Illegally manufactured in the prison shop by a former Federal agent now doing 20 years for… again, I don’t care) was incredibly comfortable, otherwise, I’d have stood to greet him. Also, frankly, I was looking forward to breakfast in bed which is another thing I’d never do in the real world.
Johnny C. nodded and left after swiping a Hershey’s miniature dark chocolate off the top of my desk. I provided them to all visitors to my suite — like the candy dish in my former 60th-floor corner office in midtown Manhattan, except in those days, the free candy often cost a couple of commas more.
We genuinely liked the Salvadoran. Even though he had arrived scared and alone, we took it on ourselves to take care of him. I’m not sure why. At any other prison, he’d have been thrown to the dogs, the rat (allegedly). But, as I said, prison rules at Club Fed are different.
On his first day in, I was showing him around the place. That was one of my jobs. (I had a lot of prison jobs.)
“There’s no fence, no gate, no bars — the doors on the building don’t have locks. You can walk out any time. But don’t. It won’t end well. So, don’t go past the stop sign at the end of the parking lot or past the big rock at the end of the other driveway.”
The campus (it’s a campus at Club Fed) was enormous, you couldn’t see either landmark from where we were standing in between the tennis courts.
He was confused. He thought he was going to a real prison. With bars and doors and fences and yards and angry guards and even angrier inmates.
“The real prison is a mile down the road. You’re not there, you’re here.” I tried to comfort the fresh fish.
When we got back to his suite, as with most new “recruits”, there was a plethora of items from the prison commissary on his desk. Toothbrushes, soap, razors, shower clogs, socks, candy, snacks, random clothes… all left by other prisoners. When you get to Club Fed, your jailers give you a uniform and nothing else, so it’s up to other
prisoners campers to help the new folks.
“Whose stuff is that?” he asked sheepishly.
“Yours now” I said, proud of my fellow criminals.
“I can’t pay, I don’t have any… one… or money, and I don’t…” He was suddenly terrified. He thought he was being scammed or set up or something.
“Don’t sweat it. It’s ok. We do this for the new guys.”
Almost on cue, Enrique, the unofficial prison valet, popped into the Salvadoran’s suite. He smiled widely in his freshly tailored prison uniform, shined boots, and perfectly coiffed hair. They exchanged greetings in Spanish and chatted briefly. Enrique handed him two packages of albacore tuna. Laughed about something… Enrique patted the Salvadoran on the back and left.
“Yo, who was that guy?”
“That’s Enrique. He’s like the valet. You know, like a helper.” I wasn’t sure he knew what a valet was. “You can hire him to do stuff for you like laundry, make your bed, tailor your clothes so they fit better… he’s a good dude.”
“No, like where is he from?” There was an emphatic tone to his voice that was one part fear and one part anger.
“From? He’s Dominican, I think”
“Yo! No way! I can’t take nothin’ from a Dominican. I’m Salvadoran!” — as if I knew the intricacies of Hispanic cultural nuances.
I put my hands on his shoulders.
“Bro, that shit is a mile down the road. That don’t fly here. Here, we help each other.”
His eyes welled but he didn’t cry.
“There’s no danger here. You’re gonna be fine. More than fine.” I said my goodbyes, told him where to find me if he needed anything, and left.
20 minutes later I was in the kitchen with Johnny C. eating freshly ground steak tartare from Lobel’s with quail eggs, capers and a toasted baguette from Balthazar Bakery.
“What’s with the new guy?” asked Johnny.
“He didn’t want tuna from Enrique because Enrique isn’t Salvadoran.”
I told Johnny what I knew. No reason not to. There are (almost) no secrets in prison — that’s one rule that seems to be universal. Johnny’s toothless grin said it all. He was gonna get the new guy on kitchen duty.
And prison kitchen duty did the Salvadoran good. He worked hard and took his job seriously — even when he started wiping tables in the dining room (it’s a dining room in Club Fed, not a chow hall. Seriously.) He was happy to be on a crew. He was happy that we all needed the kitchen and he was happy to be part of that, to help in a meaningful way.
Most of all, he was happy that, eventually, Johnny cut him in on the kitchen racket. He started having some scratch — money on his books — to buy things from the commissary on his own. He was working out. Dropping weight. Started writing letters to his family…
A few months later, another new recruit arrives at Club Fed. Also a young Hispanic gentleman. Also a drug charge. Also a first time offender. Also a short sentence. After I walk him around and get him situated, I take him to his suite.
The Salvadoran practically bounds in through the doorway – like Enrique did during the Salvadoran’s first few hours at Club Fed. He handed the new guy 2 packs of albacore tuna and exchanged greetings in Spanish. Before he left, though, the Salvadoran said in English, “by the way, I’m Salvadorian and it’s ok. You can take this. I don’t want nothin’ from you. It’s all gonna be OK. More than OK.”
He winked at me and said, “I gotta go get ready. My mom and son are coming to visit in a little bit.”
Kitchen duty did the Salvadoran good.