Officers’ Mess

The floors in the dorms have been waxed, the walls patched and painted. Freshly laid treading in the stairwells still reek of rubber and adhesive. Outside, hedges stand trimmed, windows gleam spotless, and on the rec yard the once threadbare weight benches sit reupholstered in black faux leather. A newly posted sign nearby reminds inmates to wear their hard-toed boots while lifting weights. Indeed the compound is rife with new signage: signs designating restricted areas, signs indicating the nearest fire extinguishers. In response to recently passed legislation aimed at eliminating rape in prisons, each bathroom now has posted its maximum occupancy.

Such vigilance and attention to detail must mean that the suits have arrived for their annual inspection. They sit now at a conference table in the Captain’s office, priming themselves on Diet Coke and banana muffins. Soon they will depart on a tour of the compound, through the manicured rec yard, the orderly vocational training classrooms, and through a few select dormitories that have recently undergone renovations. Understandably, the staff are in a tizzy; every department head wishes the institution, or at least his own department, high marks. Under considerable pressure is Foodservice Administrator Salinas, who, in the hours before the inspectors are set to end their tour at the chow hall, blows through the kitchen double-checking temperature logs and running his hands along the tops of the ice machines and the undersides of the grills’ hoods. He holds up a soiled finger to the nearest inmate worker.

“You call this clean?” he cries.

In no place is Mr. Salinas’s scrutiny more pointed than in the Officers’ Mess Hall, where finally the inspectors will settle to a lunch of roast beef and mashed potatoes. Tucked away at the back of Foodservice, just off the inmate dining room, the Officers’ Mess Hall isn’t so much a hall as it is a single room just large enough to accommodate a galley kitchen and seating for twenty hungry officers. I’ve been working here in the OM now for six months, cleaning and tending to the salad bar, and still Mr. Salinas cannot, or perhaps refuses to, remember my name. When berating me for some perceived inadequacy, he’ll turn to either of my coworkers, the cook or the baker, and ask again for the quiet one’s name. Even then he gets it wrong:

“Mulligan—the lettuce is wilted.”

“Melvin—the table legs need dusting.”

“Milton—when was the last time you cleaned the glass bricks?”

Separating the entryway from the dining area is a wall of glass bricks which Salinas believes, contrary to all my scrubbing and degreasing and bleaching, is dirty.

“Actually, sir,” I say to him now, “I cleaned the bricks just this morning.”

Salinas squints doubtfully at the glass but says nothing. He presses on instead into the kitchen; today he is more concerned with the meal we’ll be serving the inspectors come noon. He prowls past the steam table eyeing the pans of roast and garlic-studded potatoes and the sauteéd squash grown by inmates at the minimum-security prison across the street.

“What’s this?” Salinas says pointing to a tray beneath the heat lamp.

The baker steps forward, dusts his hands on his apron, smiles. “Cheddar-herb biscuits, sir.”

Salinas pops a biscuit in his mouth.

“Needs more herbs,” he says, still chewing.

Not long after Salinas disappears to harass the butchers do the day’s first patrons begin to trickle in. The commissary staff file through quickly, taking their salads to go, while the vocation instructors eat hardy and linger long, praising between mouthfuls of meat and gravy the results of last month’s presidential election. The Laundry Department arrives next. Officer Arms dismisses the roast beef and orders instead a grilled cheese sandwich, which sparks a rash of grilled cheese requests among his cohorts. While waiting for their sandwiches, the officers discuss this past summer’s Olympics, of which highlights play on the television above the cup rack. One CO, snacking on croutons at the salad bar, comments on how compact and lithe those women gymnasts are. I’ll bet you, he says to the others, I can pick any one of them up with three fingers, like a six-pack. Or, says the CO beside him, like a bowling ball. Still laughing, the officers depart with their to-go trays, ignoring the payment machine posted beside the door. Out of the some seventy officers we serve in a day, only about half pay the $2.25 fare for their meals.

The medical staff pay regularly, and they arrive now swiping their cards and depositing their cash at the door. Health Services Administrator Crnkovitch is looking smart today in navy slacks and a modest white blouse. Her back tattoo is well concealed, and she’s removed her nose stud. Understandably she is anxious to make a good impression with the inspectors considering her department’s ongoing run of flubs and embarrassments. Most recently there was the rash that raged undiagnosed for three months in the dormitory. Before that, nine inmates called to the clinic for routine tuberculosis testing were mistakenly injected with insulin. Of course nobody has forgotten the affair between the dental hygienist and inmate dental assistant.

“I’ll take the roast beef,” Crnkovitch says now, sniffing over the steam table. “And put the gravy on the side, in case I don’t like it.”

She takes her plate and settles in between two nurses, both of whom nibble away at their customary salads.

It’s a strange job feeding one’s captors. Stranger still is seeing one’s captors eat, watching them in this most intimate act of chewing and swallowing. The cook and I have a theory that people’s characters are revealed through their eating habits. Officer Arms’s affinity for grilled cheese, for example, reveals a man obsessed with recreating the comforts of his childhood. IT Administrator Harwood’s insistence on sitting at the head of the table indicates an authority complex with, perhaps, misogynistic leanings. Those officers who salt their food before tasting it are impulsive, while those who never season their food, or who complain to the cook that his gravy is too salty, are dull lovers.

By far the officer with the most bizarre eating habit is Crnkovitch.

“Here she goes again,” says the cook. Crnkovitch pushes away her plate and makes a calm yet resolute beeline to the bathroom. “Maybe she’s allergic to gluten.”

“Or maybe she’s bulimic,” says the baker.

“No,” says the cook. “She’s much too fat to be bulimic.”

Moments later Crnkovitch returns puffy-eyed to her seat and resumes eating. Her coworkers are careful to pretend as though she’s never left the table. What’s most disturbing isn’t that Crnkovitch purges once or sometimes even twice at every meal but that she chooses to do so in the bathroom’s waste basket.

“The toilet is dirty,” the cook once reasoned. “She’s afraid of getting splashed.”

“And yet she,” I countered pulling on rubber gloves, “a healthcare professional sees nothing dirty with someone cleaning her vomit out of a trash pale.”

By noon the dining room is filled with officers. Captain Rule saws through an open-face roast beef sandwich beside Education Administrator Brammer who stirs into his iced tea a sixth packet of sweetener. Seated across from them is Mr. Jones, the head of Recreation, and his wife, Mrs. Jones, the Case Manager. Strangely, the couple rarely sits together, and seated between them now like a child caught in the middle is Trust Fund Supervisor Ms. Enriquez, whose empty plate I whisk away silently, covertly. I sometimes imagine that the officers live in an ecosystem of their own, one with which I must interact but influence as little as possible. But Enriquez is sharper than most others of her species; she detects my small wake and thanks me.

Back in the kitchen I rinse stacks of plates and load them into the dish washer. Food scraps get tossed into a blue barrel beside the sink. Every day we throw away heaps of uneaten food: burritos, burgers, chicken fried steaks, French fries smothered in ketchup, cakes, cookies, muffin stumps, pizza crusts, fried chickens stripped of their skins, boiled eggs stripped of their whites, soups, stews, beans, greens, green beans, plates of salad, saucers of pickles, bowls of peppered but otherwise untouched cantaloupe. All waste gets tossed into the blue barrel, which is then emptied into the digester, a great burbling, belching machine that stands sentry at the back of the building beside the vegetable cooler. On some mornings its tank overflows spreading a sweet-stinking bile across the tile floors.

The cook says waste is rampant throughout the foodservice industry. But for correctional officers to throw away food seems especially tragic when so many inmates in prisons leave the chow hall hungry. Many would surely jump at the chance to devour the scraps that get so mindlessly thrown away by the officers.

“I don’t get it,” I say to the cook, holding out a plate on which rests a lone cherry tomato. Mr. Rice’s habit is to eat everything save for one morsel—a single crouton, a sole French fry, a solitary macaroni.

The cook gets to theorizing: “Maybe he has an aversion to gluttony. Maybe he’s a recovering anorexic. Maybe he has Asian ancestry who believe it an insult to the host to clean one’s plate.”

“Or maybe he’s a dick,” I say flicking the tomato into the barrel.

It is quarter past noon when the inspectors arrive. Four men, faces stony like moai statues, sling their jackets over the chair backs at the only open table before ordering plates of meat and potatoes and gravy. The eldest helps himself to a side of cantaloupe from the salad bar.

The room, once the men have seated themselves and begun eating, resumes its former buzz, and I, invisible, weave in and out of the various conversations, whisking away dirty plates and crumpled napkins. Officer Brammer is telling Officer Enriquez about the maintenance costs of his truck while the Captain talks sports with Mr. Jones. Chief Psychologist Tubb regales Mrs. Jones with stories of her dog, and Crnkovitch is complaining to the nurses about the new dentist when she succumbs suddenly to the hiccups and has to excuse herself a second time to go vomit. Officer Teters is telling Rice he is wary of working any more overtime for fear his ex-wife will take him to court to demand more money. I swoop in and take his plate.

“Did I say I was done with that?”

“I’m sorry, sir. Excuse me.” I set the empty plate back down. I imagine, while collecting abandoned cups and utensils, my captors clocking out at the ends of their shifts and taking their trucks for oil changes before heading home to their collie-mixes and Tivoed sports. I expected my captors’ lives to be somehow bigger than my own, but in truth we all live so small.

At the inspectors’ table a spoon has fallen to rest beside one of the men’s feet, and I stoop to pick it up.

“The sex offenders present us with a particular problem,” the eldest inspector is saying to his colleagues. “They create mountains of paperwork for us, what with all the complaints they like to file. Sex offenders are, as you know . . . “

I stand, delinquent spoon in hand, in time to see the inspector tap his graying temple with one finger.

Back in the kitchen I throw the spoon into the sink. Into the blue barrel I dump an entire mound of uneaten mashed potatoes, followed by a congealing clump of sauteéd squash, wilting romaine, and sopping croutons. Three boiled egg yolks bounce off the sides of the barrel like yellow Ping-Pong balls.

When I get to the inspectors’ dishes I see that the eldest has eaten all but one piece of his cantaloupe.

“Oh, he’s one of those,” I say to the cook.

But the cook doesn’t hear me. He is rummaging the shelves for coffee filters, and the baker is pulling tomorrow’s bread dough from the cooler. Nobody sees me when I grab the cantaloupe off the inspector’s plate and put it in my mouth.

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