Christmas Bags

Ask Joe how much time he has left and he might tell you 192 burgers—that’s a burger for every Wednesday left in his bid. The math is the same for fish patties, which are served for lunch every Friday. But Joe prefers to measure his remaining sentence not in burgers or fish but in Christmas bags. He’ll see four more holiday goodie bags before his release. I myself have six bags left to serve. (That’s roughly 264 burgers—more jail-grade beef than I care to consider.)

There was speculation over the size of this year’s bag. They trend smaller with each season. One veteran inmate here remembers when the bags used to be this big—he spreads his arms wide enough to wrestle a doberman, which seems exaggerated.

The sacks were passed out by COs from the back of a truck parked in front of the chow hall. Some of the women officers wore Santa hats. To everyone’s relief, the bags were the same size as last year’s, say this big—I spread my hands wide enough to snatch a maltese.

One man missed his bag because he was taking a shit. He stepped out of the bathroom, still drying his hands, to find the whole floor empty. Everyone gone. Poor soul. Someone said he’d been talking about that bag since Thanksgiving. He went to the CO nearly in tears. The CO radioed the Captain, the Captain called the Assistant Warden, a Hispanic woman, whose response was, allegedly, “Well, I guess he chose the wrong time to take a shit.” Eventually he got his bag, after waiting nearly an hour for all the other inmates to be served.

Inside the bags were all manner of treats: cookies, popcorn, M&Ms (with or without peanuts), “fun-sized” Snickers, chips, Cheese-Its, crackers, chewy Lemonheads, and a single cinnamon-raisin bagel.

“Bagel! Bagel!” cried Joe pushing through the rows of bunks, waving the cellophane package. Others swapped their packet of Maxwell House instant coffee for red-hots, chocolate milk for graham crackers. Perez in the lower bunk beside mine traded me his chili-lime tortilla chips for my Frosted Flakes. He said it had been years since he’d eaten his favorite cereal. He even offered to throw in a package of Grandma’s chocolate brownie cookies, but I declined and took only the chips, which were tart and spicy and delicious and burned my tongue so bad that I had to dip into my vanilla pudding cup to cool my tongue.

Meanwhile on the second floor Christmas bags were selling for two “books,” that’s ten stamps or eight dollars. Someone will squirrel away his bag and come February hustle it for twenty bucks. For many, prison is just a continuation of street life.

I’ve always appreciated and looked forward to the Christmas bags, but every year eating from them makes me feel like Blanche Dubois, helpless to the kindness of strangers. The pleasure of licking the salt and sugar from my fingers stings my pride as much as the chili-lime chips burn my tongue. It’s the same sting I feel when I check my account and find that my father, unannounced and unsolicited, has posted another hundred dollars to my books.

But Joe is right. A few Christmas bags ain’t nothing. Another bag down, six more to go.

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