Commissary

I wish the rest of my hair would hurry up and fall out. Shaving is a chore, even if only a weekly affair. This past week, the commissary mistakenly gave me a depilatory called Magic Shave instead of the shaving cream I normally buy. I wasn’t paying attention. I assumed anything with the word “Shave” in its name must be shaving cream. So as I was massaging it into my scalp this afternoon, I kept thinking how remarkably similar this Magic Shave smells to the Veet depilatory I used on the street to groom my chest. Both stink like singed cat. I looked at the tube: “Better than a Razor,” it read. “Now With Shea Butter.” Oh, shea butter. That sounds nice, I thought. I’m so dumb. I picked up a disposable Bic and set to work, beginning along the sides of my head, above the ears. By the time I reached the back of my head, the razor had become clogged and my scalp was beginning to tingle. And then Rod Walked in.

“What the hell are you doing?”

I turned from the sink in mid stroke, my head all moussed up. “I’m shaving.”

“With that?” He pointed to the Magic Shave sitting on top of my locker. “That’s for black people.”

“It is not.” I picked up the tub, agitated because I thought he was being his usual racist self, and read the back: “The Number One Depilatory for Colored Men. Do not use with a razor.”

Later, after I had aired the room of the noxious fumes, I donated the Magic Shave to the blacks in the cell next door.

Before coming to prison, I had this quaint idea of what the commissary would be like. I imagined something akin to a college bookstore: roomy aisles lined with travel mugs, T-shirts, and stationary; a rotating carousel of sunglasses; and cash registers manned by friendly sales clerks waiting to help direct you to the “We Got Spirit” baseball caps. My naivete is sometimes astounding.

In reality, the commissary is nothing more than a waiting room with benches and flies. There are no shopping baskets, postcard racks, or reusable totes; there is no shopping in its traditional sense. Instead, you mark the items you want to purchase on a legal-sized shopping list of over 450 items, hand the list to an officer, and wait–sometimes up to an hour–for your order to be processed in a back room. When your name is called over a loudspeaker, your items are rung up by an officer behind a Plexiglas partition who then tosses them to you through a chute. Inmates bag their purchases in either their laundry bags or pillow cases. Consequently, it’s easy to overlook the things they throw at you. Magic Shave can look a lot like shaving cream.

The commissary sells a wide range of products, everything from toiletries–shaving cream, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, cotton swabs, nail clippers, deodorant, hair spray, dental adhesive, razors, insoles, aspirin, eye drops, cough drops, laxatives, vitamins, and antacids–to food and beverage–candy, Pop Tarts, cereal, instant oatmeal, cookies, squeezable cheese, mayonnaise, peanut butter, honey, hot sauce, soy sauce, mustard, tuna, mackerel, salmon, chicken, sausages (both beef and turkey), artificial sweetener, coffee, Tang, Coke Arizona Tea, minute rice, dehydrated beans, creole seasoning, olives, chips, pork rinds, Blue Bell ice cream, and six flavors of Ramen. There are a few surprises, too. I was elated to see my favorite face wash, St. Ives Apricot Scrub, on the list. The commissary also sells eight different colognes “inspired by” designer brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Ed Hardy. Ironically, one of the scents is Guilty by Gucci.

What’s funny is how the inventory is specifically tailored to meet the needs and tastes of inmates. For example, you can buy sweat pants and T-shirts ranging in sizes from medium to eight-X. And in addition to stocking the “Number One Depilatory for Colored Men,” the store also sells Royal Crown Dressing, Dark & Lovely Relax, African Crown, Murray’s Beeswax, afro piks, and religious headgear for Muslims and Rastafari.

There is only one similarity between a prison commissary and a college bookstore–exorbitant prices. An AM/FM Walkman radio that might cost $15 at a drugstore costs $40 in prison; headphones that cost $10 on the street cost $30; Ramen noodles that are normally 10 cents a piece cost 30 cents. Last year I spent a total of $2,701.65, while my salary as a tutor amounted to only $459.17.

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