Little Children and the Chow Hall

Little Children and the Chow Hall


When I first got to the Michigan Reformatory I got into a little trouble at the chow hall. At that time, September of 2010, no food whatsoever could be taken back to our cells. Now we can bring one piece of fruit back, but back then I was caught with a banana in my sock by the eagle-eyed guard standing just outside the doors during every meal.

Up until then I’d had good luck with smuggling food in my sock, but this time he motioned me over and found the banana during his pat-down. I pled guilty to a charge of theft and received ten days L.O.P. (Loss of Privileges, which means you can’t leave your cell except for a shower early in the morning, and to eat). It was a harsh punishment for such a minor crime. The c.o. in charge of our floor at the time took me aside, told me she thought the ticket I got was “bullshit,” and said she wasn’t going to enforce the punishment. Soon after that, the prison changed the rules to allow one piece of fruit to be removed at each meal.

The key to sneaking food from the chow hall is to not look suspicious, and part of not looking suspicious is hiding the food smoothly in the first place. If a guard sees you sticking food in an empty coffee bag (my smuggling container of choice), he will often radio ahead to the eagle-eyed guard, and he’ll be waiting. That sort of open theft is called “fronting off” a c.o. It is an act of disrespect, and they feel as if they simply can’t let that pass.

Just last week someone gave me their Polish sausage, and while I knew concealing it was risky since I was at a front table, I wasn’t going to pass up a free snack for the Tigers’ game later. In its bun, I stuck the sausage in the coffee bag along with some chopped onions, then stuck the whole thing in my right pocket. Evidentially it wasn’t well-hidden because the lieutenant came up behind me as I was preparing to leave and said, “You going to hide that better before you get out the door?”

“Hide what?” I said. Professional criminals—which I am not—never admit to anything.

“Hide what. Come on, it’s sticking four inches out of your pocket.”

“Oh, that. Yeah, I was going to before I got outside. I suppose I’ve got to give it to you now.”

“Yup,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Come on, I was going to eat it during the Tigers’ game.” I appealed to his sense of Americana. Who, I thought, could deny an American’s right to eat a hot dog while watching baseball? I think it’s in the Bill of Rights. He was unmoved. I handed over my ill-gotten bounty with a roll of my eyes.

The biggest problem I’ve ever had in a chow hall took place just this past June. It was a Saturday at lunch: pizza, I remember, because I like the pizza, and since I eat slow I always bring half of it back. About ten feet before we pick up our tray there is a computer where a c.o. swipes our ID’s in a swiper to prevent double-dippers. That particular pizza day, the guard was chatting cheerfully with a female sergeant (the conversation was not flirtatious, as the sarge is pretty obviously a lesbian). They were having a good old time, so when I handed him my ID it slipped through his fingers and fell to the floor. He told me to pick it up and hand it to him properly, which pissed me off. “Why don’t you do your fucking job and then nobody would have to pick up ID’s off the floor,” I said. What followed was a brief, heated exchange as to who was in the wrong for the fallen card. The sergeant told me to step out of line and follow her.

After removing the chair for some reason, she placed me in one of the two holding cages in the quartermaster area in the control center. The floor space of these cages are, I guarantee you, smaller than your bed, unless you sleep on a cot. She locked the door and left me alone to ponder how I’d gotten there. After about twenty minutes, a bushy-haired Latino was put in the other cage for, he said, talking too much to men in line while he should have been eating. I was brought lunch in a plastic bag: two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple, two packets of graham crackers, an orange juice and a milk in plastic bags, which were hard to drink without a cup. I offered the Latino man one of my graham crackers, but he was full, having nearly finished eating before he was put in the cage.  I finished eating, gazing intently at the man’s plastic chair. At least he had a seat. “Why’d she take out my chair?” I asked him, but he had no answer.

After two hours, the lunch-rush was over. My fellow cage-man and I were released. The sergeant said we were supposed to have been released earlier, but apparently no one got the message. I now see the sergeant and her talkative fellow-c.o. every day without a problem or lingering anger.

I wasn’t reading Little Children at the time of my engagement, or perhaps I would have made the connection then, during my time-out (really, all of prison is a societal time-out), between the title and the shenanigans in the chow hall. After finishing Perrotta’s novel—a very enjoyable satire of suburban life—I began thinking about the meaning of the title, coming to this conclusion: We are all, in varying degrees, little children, but with better clothes, real houses, and more problems than actual children.

The book reminded me most of The Last Picture Show, that classic about actual kids and adults each trying to become the other. In the present novel, Sarah, an aging wallflower and new mother, acts impulsively at the playground with a group of mothers she dislikes, by going up to and kissing Todd, a blond god the women refer to as the Prom King. They carry on a summer-long affair, and things happen.

I generally dog-ear a lot of pages of the book I’m reading, highlighting many good and not-so-good sentences and ideas, but with Little Children I only bent two corners. The first was to mark a sentence spoken by Sarah’s chatty neighbor, Jean, before venturing out on their nightly walk: “There’s a supernice breeze out.” “Supernice” struck me as exactly right. Perrotta’s dialogue throughout is like that—funny, absurd, true.

The other page I folded so that I might remember this maneuver regarding Sarah and the Prom King’s first romp: “. . . he thrust himself into her with a vigorous yet artful corkscrewing motion that she would soon come to recognize as his trademark sexual maneuver” (125). What? Corkscrew? I could not picture that at all. Was he twisting on his way down somehow?

And that was the extent of my page bending. I just enjoyed the ride. It was a complete joy, despite the seeming unrealistic words the three-year-olds use when they talk. The only other work of Perrotta’s I was familiar with (besides a short story in a recent Best American about some parents of Little Leaguers) was Election, the movie, with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. If you haven’t seen it, watch it soon. It’s a memorable trip.

If I ever get to take a memorable trip out of prison—and I’ve always felt like I will someday—I’m going to find a big tree somewhere in a forest in the country. I’m going to build a house up in the tree, and while I may not make it my primary residence, I’m going to spend a lot of time there writing, painting pictures, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, looking out through the trees. People build extravagant tree houses now. There is an entertaining show on Animal Planet called Tree House Master. These are not your half-assed, childhood decks nailed between limbs and called tree houses. You could raise a secret family in these structures.

There is something about putting your house up in the air that is conducive to living a meaningful, delightful life. Children know this. Almost everyone has built, or dreamed of building, a “house” in a favorite tree. In some ways global warming may not end up being such a disaster if it raises the oceans enough to cause all the survivors to take to the air, building fun homes in the trees. Perhaps if we lived closer to the ideals of little children, we’d all end up acting more like adults.


About the Author

Curtis Dawkins is BULL's chief book reviewer. He earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan. His short story collection, Prison Ink, is the first release from BULL Books.