Dispatches | April 25, 2014
Literature on Lockdown: Eighty Square Feet
By Alison Balaskovits
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Tim Boland.
Eighty Square Feet
This is an excerpt from a letter written on June 4, 2011, to my brother, who at the time was in the state prison at Rush City. I had just spent the previous three years of confinement in a single cell, and was scuffling with the new and extremely perverted concept of sharing eighty square feet of living space with another grown man…
I got spoiled in that single cell. All was lush, beautiful, and my business was my own. Living in a cage is strangely tolerable when you live there alone. But as soon as another breathing body is thrust into the equation, the whole thing goes up in smoke.
Here at this joint, everybody’s double-bunked, and there’s no choice in who you get as a cellie. Instead of a test drive, it’s trial-by-fire. I was hoping to get a cellie who would at least meet some basement-level criteria: One who didn’t talk; one who didn’t snore; one who didn’t steal; one who didn’t smell like a loaded diaper; one who didn’t keep lunatic hours; one who didn’t have a dangerous crush on bright lights and bad noise.
But If I’ve learned anything in prison, I’ve learned to expect the worst. And that’s what I got. The worst. Three hundred and twenty pounds of train wreck, to be exact.
You can learn a lot about a man just by his hustle. Some take the hustle to a high art, some to the depths of depravity. Either way, a man’s got to make some hay. My cellie makes his by snorting lines of hot sauce. No joke. He’ll even do a line of dirt if the price is right.
It goes down like this: He rounds up a few marks (mostly new arrivals), sells each a ticket to the circus for a buck of two with a promise to perform a feat beyond the bounds of reason, a feat unfit for public consumption, a feat declared a capital offense in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Then, with the eyes of a captivated crowd upon him, he hoovers up a giant line of hot sauce with a homemade straw. Then he crumbles to the ground and rolls around all floppy and demented, partly for theatrical effect and partly because he’s in serious pain. Then, miraculously, he bounces back to his feet like nothing ever happened. The spectators go away with their minds blown and he goes away with his nostrils blown and a few coins in the bank.
This past week, however, has brought a temporary hiatus to the snorting sideshow. He got a Ben Franklin dropped on his books. Somebody from the streets actually loves him. I’m guessing Mom.
So, predictably, this gifted hondo provoked a ballistic canteen order. The contents of the haul were your average fifth-grade staples: cookies, candy, Kool-aid, chips, Ding Dings, etc. He lugged the giant sack into the cell Monday. It was smash-and-dash till Friday. His entire diet for four days came straight from the trashfood cache. Having never seen such a gluttonous rampage, I was prompted several times to mumble F-bombs and blasphemy.
Last night at 12:33 am, I was awakened from a sound slumber and the cool, clean drift of darkness by a riot of snack-bag rustling. The cellie was hungry, so, operating strictly on an animal impulse, he went full speed ahead and trampled my sleep with a moonlight feeding orgy. Then, after a good half hour of madness, and just to put an exclamation point on his supreme idiocy, he raked all the crumbs off his bed and onto the floor.
When I climbed down from the bunk this morning, empty wrappers were strewn across the landscape like a cellophane graveyard, and the soles of my feet were greeted by a gang of chocolate chunks and Cheeto dust. The first thing that came to mind, after I chiseled the shrapnel off of my sock bottoms, was paying him five bucks to snort a line of anti-ignorance powder. Industrial strength.
But instead I chose to embrace my inner pacifist. I swallowed my tongue and swept the floor. Which turned out to be pointless, because when you live with a savage, a clean surface lives fast, dies young, and leaves a dirty corpse.
I also thought about sitting him down for a come-to-Jesus chat, but there’s really no point in delivering a how-to-live primer to a 40-year-old child. It’s impossible for such a creature to approach anything with the slightest degree of civility or moderation or outright sense, so telling him this cell isn’t his personal pigpen is like going on a picnic and telling an ant to stay the hell away from the potato salad.
Hold on, it gets even better…
Not only is my cellie a serial hot sauce snorter and epic slob, he’s also a small talker, a tidbit guy. A constant stream of jackass drivel spews from his mouth. I’ll be buried in a book or writing or maybe just thinking about how pathetic my life is, and he’ll throw some mindless chatter into my ear. A full recap on his private restroom functions. A comment on the weather, like that’s somehow relevant to something. Or he’ll let it be known that he just tried to call his ex but she didn’t answer but he never liked the bimbo anyway but they might still get back together and so on and so forth. Now you’d think after about six thousand consecutive times of getting no response, he might catch on and take the hint, but he has a sociopathic lack of regard for the fact that I don’t want to hear a word he has to say. About anything.
He’s probably a cannibal too, and I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. And if he’s a cannibal, he’s clearly a thief. And if he’s a thief, dammit, then I have to start setting booby traps. And we all know booby traps are bad business. Even if the trap goes unsprung, the atmosphere will reek of suspicion and I’ll have to subconsciously worry about my Jolly Ranchers getting finger-fucked every time I leave the cell.
Here’s the deal: I’m not trying to turn this cellie thing into some hip domestic enterprise. I’m not looking to take a new pal on-board, nor am I trying to incite a civil war. I just want to do my time and for him to do his time. If that too much to ask? I want there to be my realm and his realm. Two separate realms. Mind is red. His is blue. Whenever the two overlap, the world becomes purple. I loathe purple. Despise purple. Annihilate purple. Purple is my poison. Purple is my nemesis. Purple is my agent of imminent death.
If I sound a little frazzled, Brother, it’s because I am. With each passing moment, I shed another layer of sanity. So don’t be shocked if my next letter is from a mental asylum… or from somewhere other than my eighty square feet of Hell. I hope not, but you just never know.
Anything is possible when a man’s at the end of his rope.
Tim Boland is known as Convict #232240. He is the editor of the Lino Ledger, the newspaper at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Lino Lakes, where he writes a series of essays on prison life. He is, in his own words, “not a thug or an ice-cold menace or a career loser but a once-promising kid from the suburbs who went to State on a baseball ride and majored in creative writing and wrote for the campus paper and chased tight skirts and noble dreams but then one day drifted off and got reckless and lost in a cocaine smog and ended up arriving at a colossal achievement in idiocy.” He’s scheduled for release in 2015.
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