The ramen bowl gets ten shrimp, four slices of sirloin, one halved hard-boiled egg, bean sprouts, green onion, and a generous pinch of cilantro. The ingredients, nestled atop egg noodles, are submerged in hot beef broth perfumed with anise and gnarled cinnamon bark like ancient scrolls. When placed piping hot in the servers’ window, the dish smells of spring and tilled pasture.
It’s a lot to remember, the components, recipes, and portions. I often forget the tofu when making pad Thai or serve the spring rolls with fish sauce instead of peanut. But Rachel the kitchen manager is encouraging. She tells me the restaurant is lucky to have me, that I’m making excellent progress in this my third month of working at The Noodle House. As someone who herself was once incarcerated (aiding and abetting a bank robber), she knows how necessary encouragement is for an ex-felon.
I place the ramen in the window and the waiter Billy, who is also an ex-felon (he doesn’t disclose the charge), stares down unhappily into the steaming bowl.
“You forgot the noodles,” he says.
The noodles. Shit.
I dump a shaggy clump of egg noodles in a pot of boiling water, wait three seconds, drain. Negotiating the ramen into the bowl with chopsticks I splash scolding broth on my hand. Billy says nothing, just whisks the bowl away to the dining room.
His silence is an accusation. He must wonder—they all must wonder—what I’m doing here, this kid with no experience, who doesn’t know shit about cooking, working in an Asian restaurant.
They are right to wonder. I myself don’t know what I’m doing here, stir-frying vegetables, peeling jicama, rolling spring rolls. It’s a long way from baking brownies in the officers’ mess. It’s even further from where I was ten years ago working in the tech industry. Sometimes when I’m deveining shrimp or trimming the silver skin from a slab of beef I look out into the dining room at all the well-dressed patrons slurping noodles beneath the lanterned ceiling and think, That used to be me. Thirty-somethings laughing with friends over potstickers, young professionals enjoying drinks at the bar with colleagues.
They have weekend plans, those people, and cars that drive themselves. They have homes with two- or three-car garages or high-rise apartments in the city. They have pedigreed dogs they send to doggy daycare, because they want pets but haven’t the time to care for them. Like their smartphones and gym memberships, their dogs are just baubles in their lives meant to project to the world the kind of successful people they are or aim to be. Their ease and assuredness deflate me. Their laughter, audible even over the belching, heaving dishwasher, goads me.
I hate them. I want to be them.
I’d forgotten how many beautiful people live in the city. During my first time shopping in public, I thought maybe the human race had evolved in the past decade into some new aesthetically-superior breed. A woman purchasing diapers at the self-checkout had the loveliest legs, lean and strong-calved. A man browsing dog collars was the golden ratio born into flesh. My friend and shopping companion noticed my staring at the man and appraised him to be merely average. Maybe he wasn’t the Adonis I imagined him to be, but he was certainly the most handsome creature I’d laid eyes on in quite awhile.
I read a study once which observed that incarcerated people tend to be less attractive than the general population. The authors theorized that pretty people are more often found not guilty than people who are decidedly less handsome. This might explain why I found my fellow shoppers so arresting; I’d been living among gargoyles for the last ten years.
Shopping for that first time I felt like a pebble in a fast moving stream, tossed and pulled by the strange and beautiful crowd. I felt an immense gratitude for their anonymity, for as long as I stayed in their current I too could be nameless, unknown, a man without a past or future. I had to fight the urge to hug every one of those shoppers. Freed of my inmate skin I was overcome by such relief that I had to walk ahead of my friend so he wouldn’t see that I’d begun to cry. I have never felt such love for humanity as I did that afternoon.
Later there came a moment of comedic mishap when at the register I mistakenly swiped my card.
“You have to insert it,” said my friend. He explained that bank cards nowadays come with chips that must be either inserted or tapped. I tried the former but the card reader hissed at me.
“No, no. You have to leave the card in the machine until it tells you to pull it out.”
For a terrible moment I feared my card would be declined, not because I hadn’t the funds but because the computer would know who I was and what I’d done and judge my personhood unsatisfactory. Go away, the screen might read. You don’t belong here among these beautiful, lawful folk.
The machine instead chirped happily; the transaction was approved. I felt an absurd gratitude for the little card reader. It accepted me. Whatever my shortcomings as a person, they could be overlooked so far as I had money.
Back in the kitchen another tiny computer spits out a ticket for tofu spring rolls and beef vermicelli. I dip two rice papers in a pan of warm water and leave them to soften while I sauté beef in ginger marinade. Noodles get boiled and strained. Bean sprouts and pickled carrot get arranged in a Styrofoam clamshell. The meal comes together without incident, and Billy packs the trays in takeout bags without comment. Maybe he’s warming to me.
It wasn’t difficult finding work in a kitchen. The foodservice industry is fairly friendly to ex-felons. During a phone interview for a dishwashing position at a bar and grill, midway through explaining my felony the manager stopped me and revealed he’d once been the biggest crack dealer in Dallas. “You don’t need to explain anything to me,” he said. “We all deserve a second chance.”
While getting hired wasn’t difficult, finding and applying for jobs was made terribly difficult by Internet restrictions placed on sex offenders by probation and the halfway house. I’m not allowed to own a smartphone or to use a computer or other device that connects to the Internet. The policy prevents sex offenders from accessing hundreds of thousands of online job postings or from even typing their resumes. The policy also bans sex offenders from working with computers or in industries which may indirectly involve the use of a computer, such as sales, marketing, and collections, since these positions require employees have access to e-mail and customer management software. I turned down two such positions.
Combing for jobs in the foodservice industry seemed the surest bet for avoiding any use of a computer. I learned of an opening at The Noodle House from a flyer posted at the halfway house. The ad promised full-time hours, health insurance, and a free dragon tattoo after one year of service.
Being an ex-felon and having once lived at the very halfway house in which I now reside, Rachel was familiar with the restrictions I faced and was happy to accommodate. But Even then the hiring process was rigged with obstacles, beginning with the job application itself which was entirely online. Then came the tax forms, benefit enrollment, and direct deposit setup, which were also online. Even my weekly work schedule would be accessible solely through a smartphone app.
Such onerous computer restrictions have a profoundly detrimental impact not only on a sex offender’s ability to find and maintain meaningful work but to perform even the most rudimentary tasks necessary for sustaining a productive life. Banking, apartment hunting, and scheduling an appointment to obtain a driver’s license are all done online. Taking the mandatory driver safety course required by Texas law is done online. Scheduling an appointment to receive the COVID vaccine is done online. Obtaining the food handler’s certification required by The Noodle House is done online. Quite nearly everything expected of a successful adult is performed online.
I’ve been fortunate to have a wide and loving support system. I have a manager who is kind enough to send me my weekly schedule by text. I have friends who are willing to schedule my appointments online. I have a father who is able to conduct online for me all the necessary financial transactions that keep my life afloat. When I got lost walking to The Noodle House on my first day of work, my brother stayed on the phone with me for a half hour relaying directions from Google Maps.
As fortunate as I’ve been to have the support necessary to meet the demands of even a modest life, I can’t help but think of the many sex offenders, and ex-felons in general, who release from prison having no resources at all, no friends or family. How do they find work? How do they find housing? How do they sign up for health insurance or find a doctor or schedule a COVID shot? How do they enroll in school, invest their savings, or check their bank balance? Who do they call when they make a wrong turn walking to work?
Rachel asked me during our interview, the two of us sitting on stools at a table across from the bar, what my charge was. She’d insisted that I eat something and ordered me a plate of Asian tacos and a Vietnamese iced coffee. The glass perspired onto my resume, which my father had typed for me.
I told her plainly, as I had with all perspective employers, that I’m a sex offender. My crime was downloading child pornography.
Rachel leaned in over the sriracha and hoisin sauce bottles and confided that her ex-husband and best friend are both sex offenders. “We all do stupid shit when we’re high,” she said. “Just don’t tell the GM. She has two daughters.“
Two weeks later, after I’d gotten the job, Rachel and I again sat across from one another, this time outdoors on the patio so that she could smoke a cigarette while we went over my responsibilities.
It was only my third time being out of the halfway house, my third time outside of an institution. To the west the sky had turned cornflower blue and splotches of a darker gray were just beginning to appear on the worn picnic table between us. Rachel dragged on her cigarette, detailing to me the number of times the Jasmine rice should be rinsed and to what temperature the egg rolls should be fried. I heard very little of what she said though. My mind was being pulled by the welling storm, the smell of wet porch dust, the feel of the warm breeze, and by the pregnant silence that precedes a late afternoon rain shower. It reminded me of something, not of a specific moment but of a feeling I’d felt long ago. I would have enjoyed staying the evening on that patio trying to recall that feeling, refamiliarizing myself with its size and shape, its weight and taste. But the rain soon began to come down in earnest. Rachel stubbed out her cigarette finally and we headed back inside.
“Did you get all that?” Rachel asked.
“No,” I said honestly.
She laughed a raspy smoker’s laugh. “You’ll do fine.”
From behind me now I hear an angry hiss and turn to see my pot of marinade boiling over on the stove. I cut the gas, grab a whisk, drop the whisk on the floor. Shit. Thankfully the marinade, with its many pounds of brown sugar, hasn’t scorched. It’s a small victory.
I pull off the rest of my shift without any major hiccups, and Rachel even compliments my fried rice with Chinese sausage. “Looks delish,” she says peering into the wok. I slide the rice onto a square plate, top it with a damn-near perfectly fried egg and hit it with a pinch of chopped lemon basil.
Billy says nothing when he picks it up in the window, which, in his gruff way, must mean I’ve done well.