The speakers called a meeting in the dorm. All inmates of every race and affiliation—blacks, whites, Hispanics, sex offenders, Native Americans, the one Asian—was encouraged to attend. Over a hundred men crowded into the largest of the living quarters, squeezing between bunks and lockers, spilling over into the bathroom, pressing together so tightly that not one of us could turn around without bumping elbows with his neighbor. Behind me a man risked this very maneuver and knocked an alarm clock off a locker and onto the floor. The commotion attracted the gaze of the meeting’s emcee, the Speaker for the Blacks, whose massive head protruded from the dense canopy of bunk beds at the center of the room like an herbivorous dinosaur’s. I’m convinced size is a prerequisite to being elected speaker. They are all giants, Gullivers among Lilliputians. The one exception is the Mexican Speaker. Victims of cold immutable genetics, the Mexicans were forced to waive the height requirement. They might have chosen Peña as their representative, who is, at six-foot-three, the outlier among his race. But Peña is serving an eight-year bid for child pornography, thus the sex offenders claimed him for themselves.
The alarm clock righted, the room settled, the Black Speaker opened the meeting with a recap of events past. Two weeks ago renovations began on the ailing dormitories, displacing inmates and causing massive reshuffling and overcrowding. Our own dorm almost doubled in load. Space is tight, tensions are high (particularly among the blacks and Mexicans). And so in formalizing the facts of our weary existence, the Speaker arrived at the basis for the meeting, which was to reiterate old house rules and establish new ones in an aim to ease friction.
“The first thing—”
The Speaker paused. Beyond the locked door the keys of the law jangled. The room stiffened. Organizing is illegal. The Speaker waited for the officer to pass before continuing.
“The first thing we need to address,” he said, “is the noise. I’m speaking especially about the late-night talking and card playing at the ironing board.”
Imperceptibly, all eyes shifted to the Mexicans. I leaned into Jack’s ear. “I hope someone’s translating this.”
“Now, nobody likes to be woken up while they’re trying to sleep. We’ve got guys complaining about the noise as far away as the back of the room.” The back of the room nodded. “If we have to live with one another, we have to learn to respect one another. When the lights go out, we go out.”
Jack stood in front of me with his arms crossed. He hates these meetings, hates prison politics—the alliances, the frivolousness, the self-importance. He resents speakers and reps and shot callers who speak on behalf of others. He sees gangs and affiliations as bullies slinging around their collective weight while playing refuge to the weak and stupid who would, on their own, amount to nothing for all their lack of sense and respect.
Respect: the only law among the lawless.
“Now, about the shitters,” the Speaker said. “Historically the first two stalls have been pissers and the other four shitters. But with all the newcomers and overcrowding and such, the line to take a shit has been out the door. We’ve decided to change this. From now on the first stall will be for pissing and the rest for shitting. We’ve added one more shitter, you see.”
The crowd murmured approvingly.
“Speaking of the bathroom,” the Speaker continued, “this pissing on the floor needs to stop. If your dick can’t reach the urinal, sit on the toilet. Now, I hear some of you laughing in the back. I’m not trying to be funny. There’s no excuse for that stuff. It’s disgusting, and it isn’t right that these orderlies—your fellow men—have to mop up your mess.”
Jack, whose job it is to clean the bathroom, nodded vigorously.
“This next problem isn’t directed toward the newcomers necessarily; we’ve been having this issue since before you all got here. But to be fair, I think now would be a good time to remind everyone that toilet paper does not belong in the urinals. That shit don’t flush.”
Jack has complained of men throwing toilet paper, sweetener packets, and other trash in the urinals. He suspects the Mexicans.
“Toilet paper goes in the toilet; not in the urinals, not on the floors, not in the sinks. This is our home. We need to treat our home and each other with respect.” The Speaker took a breath. “Now,” he said. “About the showers.”
The crowd shifted from one foot to the other. The showers have long been a contentious issue. Only four serviceable stalls exist in a dorm of over a hundred men. It was a disagreement over the showers that kicked off the riot years ago between the blacks and Mexicans. Someone was accused of jumping the line. A fight erupted and spread across the compound like a flame set to dry brush. Shitters and pissers aside, the showers were the crux of the meeting.
“From now on,” the Speaker said, “there’ll be no more saving places in line. You’re only in line when you’re standing in line.”
The Speaker swiveled his great head between all four corners of the room. The men said nothing.
“And I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me no forty minutes to shower. I understand some of you like to shave and wash your clothes in there and whatnot. But we’ve got too many men and not enough stalls to be doing that. Let’s try to limit ourselves to ten minutes. I think ten minutes is long enough to get cleaned up, don’t you?”
A Mexican man near the ironing board raised his hand to object. Still sore from having been pinned the source of late-night noisemaking and seeing the shower stipulations as yet another subtle accusation, the man said to the Speaker, by way of a translator, that he didn’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to wash his clothes, or do anything else in the shower for that matter, so long as he finished within the allotted ten minutes.
The Speaker nodded sympathetically. Yes, he agreed. A perfectly valid point. What a man does in the shower is his own business. And then, sensitive to the frustrated histories between his and his dissenter’s respective races and aware also of an inmate’s natural prickliness towards authority, the Speaker softened his tone and added diplomatically that the rules, argued and agreed upon by all the speakers, were not meant to “come down” on anybody but to ensure a smooth and peaceable coexistence under these less-than-desirable circumstances.
The Mexican, buoyant from having his voice heard, pressed on. And another thing, he added. He didn’t appreciate the guys outside the showers playing clock and chiming out the minutes. He didn’t like to be rushed and he was perfectly capable, thank you, of telling time.
“Yes, of course,” said the Speaker. “That’s all in fun, I’m sure. At any rate, remember, men—respect gets respect.”
In the days following the meeting, relations in the dorm improved. People said “excuse me” and “thank you” and held doors for one another. The bathrooms were kept reasonably clean, and the line to the showers shortened. The Mexicans put away their card games at lights out. Jack said it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. When the sting of the switch fades, old habits return. It wasn’t but a week before the litter piled back up on the bathroom floor and in the urinals. Nighttime merrymaking resumed. Peña, the Speaker for the Sex Offenders, was called on to confront one of his constituents for having spent an hour in the shower, a scandal that led to hours of gleeful speculation into what obscenely terrible things the man might have been doing to himself. And Jack, who’s now considering a job change, pledged bodily harm to whomever has been leaving behind Ramen and other bits of food in the bathroom sinks.
He suspects, of course, the Mexicans.