Being Motherfuckin’ Nice
“It doesn’t pay to be motherfuckin’ nice,” my cellmate, LaToya, advised me before she asked to ‘borrow’ (she had no means of repayment) Gatorade, tuna fish, two pickles, a bag of Werther’s candies and my Crest Pro Health Anti-Tartar Rinse even though, without teeth, tartar has no place to call home in her mouth.
And LaToya would know about being nice since her former friend Helen refused to share anything with her. Helen, I learned, was a victim in one of LaToya’s crimes when LaToya stabbed her so deeply that the knife tip punctured Helen’s lung.
“I forgive you for calling 911 that day,” LaToya told Helen as pavement – certainly not payment – into Helen’s junk food storage. “Sometimes people just make mistakes,” LaToya continued to Helen but she wasn’t referring to the stabbing. She was talking about Helen’s ‘mistake’ of calling for an ambulance, a vehicle that brought along with it a police cruiser that carried LaToya to the Hartford Police Department. LaToya was being motherfuckin’ nice by forgiving Helen for arranging her arrest. It didn’t pay for LaToya to forgive Helen because she didn’t take away a stash of food from her attempt at being motherfuckin’ nice.
It rarely pays to be motherfuckin’ nice in here. It’s almost strategic to be an asshole to everyone because so many inmates are looking to get over on someone. But I still try to be nice and help other inmates when I can, even if – especially if – they would never return the favor. I gave LaToya what she asked for. I ‘lend’ things to inmates who can’t afford them. I help them with legal paperwork. I tutor those in college classes. If you look at them closely, my every act of being motherfuckin’ nice has been motivated by guilt – guilt at having advantages growing up that the other women never had, guilt about my education, guilt about having a home when I leave – not because I am nice. My noblesse oblige pushes me forward to help other inmates. I feel more duty-bound than generous.
Part of my guilt trip is helping worthy inmates secure jobs where I work. Food Prep is considered one of the better jobs in the facility and, when we need new workers, it helps the supervisors to know if they are going to reel in assets or assholes.
“You know J. Harrison?” Giants asked me, eyeing a list of potential hires.
“If it’s the Janine Harrison who was my roommate a few years ago, then yeah. She’d be quiet. Won’t cause trouble. Definitely an asset.”
He nodded and called her in. Hired her immediately. I saw her the next day at work.
“I hope you wanted to work here. I thought you might so I said you’d be good. You like it so far? At least it gets you out of the [housing] unit, no?”
“Actually, I do like it so thanks,” Janine said, seeming genuinely grateful.
“You’re welcome.” See? It does pay to be motherfuckin’ nice.
After Janine Harrison worked Food Prep for about a week, I went to change out of my boots into the black Reeboks, the ones that had barely escaped being larceny victims weeks earlier. My New Balance’s had not been so lucky; someone walked out in those but it hardly bothered me because I still had my spare Reeboks. Until someone swiped them, too.
“My sneakers were stolen. Again,” I announced to the supervisor who collared the perp in the attempt on my footwear.
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.”
“Nope. They’re gone.”
“Those goddamnned Reeboks had better turn up quick! No one’s eating ‘till they do!” Green Bay yelled. The shoes didn’t turn up but someone was turned in: Janine.
Janine had already left for the day so the usual theft procedures were followed: supervisors called her unit and told the officers to search her cell. No Reeboks. Nothing.
“Sorry, Bozelko. She probably already pawned ‘em off to someone on her tier and they’re not going to search every cell,” Green Bay said, regretful that he couldn’t get the stolen sneakers back this time.
“I need something to wear then,” I pointed down to stocking feet and was eventually presented with a pair of the despised Skippies in which I padded back to my unit, pissed. The backs of the shoes kept slipping off my heels as I climbed the stairs to my floor.
“Can you unlock E6?” I asked the guard. Usually when you ask a guard to open your door remotely, you’re near the guard and not near your cell. The door stays unlocked for about three seconds so you need to beat feet to catch it while it’s open. I started my little ten-yard dash forgetting the fact that I now tread in Skippies. I’m unsure if I sprained, pulled or tore it, but I did something to my left calf that shot searing pain through my muscle like, well, like LaToya was stabbing it. For days I went everywhere with Tylenol and a limp.
“What happened?” my supervisor, Bengals, asked me when I reported to work.
“Motherfuckin’ Skippies that’s what,” I said, seething. All the supervisors laughed in exasperation. This type of crazy shit happens all the time and, collectively, they have worked for corrections for over 60 years. They reminded me: “You’re lucky you didn’t get really injured.” And unable to work for us.
“And you know what else? I’m lucky that I know what to say when I hear ‘Can you write me a letter?’ or ‘Do you have any cough drops?’ or ‘Can I borrow an envelope?’ NO! Even if I order shoes today, it will be weeks until I get them.” I explained and then yelled to the entire kitchen: “So thanks ladies, you did it to yourselves!” And then to the supervisors: “I’m not going to be nice to any of them anymore. ”
“Good,” said Bengals.
“I don’t blame you,” said Giants.
“Right on, sister,” said Green Bay.
I limped away and for the following four days. Every day I kneaded my calf in my cell and massaged my conscience. I knew it wouldn’t be easy for me to rebuff the pleas for help once I heard why something was needed, so I stopped them before they could even get a shot off.
“Do you have -?”
Every week at mass Deacon Dolan reminds me that people who do good must expect that bad things will happen to them. The bad’s not a probably. Not even a maybe. For people who do good, it’s a buckle-up-and-make-sure-you-have-clean-underwear-on-because-eventually-you’re-going-to-get-hit. If there were no downside to general Samaritanism then everyone would be good and the world would be different: no lawyers, no bullet-proof glass, no revenge porn. But you can get slapped with a civil suit for helping at the scene of a car accident, you can get shot on your way into the inner-city HIV clinic where you volunteer and pics of your caboose can still appear on some fringe revenge porn website even if he dumped you and you’re the one who deserves some get-back. You can also get someone a job and she can turn your workplace into a crime scene when she steals your shit.
You can also give up, quit being good to others to reduce the risk of being victimized assuring that, if no good deed goes unpunished, then you will go cold turkey on good deeds. But bad deeds get punished, too. So do deeds of omission, those times when you knew you could help but you flaked. Getting fucked is inevitable no matter what you do.
BAM. BAM, BOOM. BAM came the banging on the tier’s glass wall. The last time I heard these uneven thumps a woman was jerking in a seizure at the end of the hall so I hobbled out of my cell only to find everyone on the tier slamming on the glass and shouting to the lobby below.
“Bitch, run them motherfuckin’ shoes up here now!”
“Yeah, this is how E-tier roll! You don’t fuck wit one o’ ours!”
“Fuckin’ with Chandra like that! Our Chandra? What’s wrong with you?!”
People assume that prison riots resemble Attica melees but the riot standard is actually pretty low. The commissioner can label any organized effort by prisoners as an attempt to start a riot. Circulating a petition for better food or complaining that a certain counselor fails to arrange legal phone calls in a timely manner is, technically speaking, starting a riot. Riots are very unlikely in here because organizing and uniting the women is next to impossible. In a collection of a thousand women who suffer from emotional problems, there will always be one – at least one – who will sabotage group, either by informing the authorities or fomenting dissention. If a petition could be a riot, then the riot label would surely stick on an incident where fifteen inmates pounded on glass and screamed. An incident where my name was in the middle of it.
“Whoa! Whoa! Stop! What are you doing?” I shouted and dragged my injured leg to the glass only to find Janine standing silent witness as two guards dumped her property on the lobby floor, searching for my Reeboks. Janine was moving out of the unit when one of my neighbors spotted what she thought was Janine’s getaway. She banged to get the guard to stop the move. Others joined in.
“Listen! Stop! They’re going to say you’re starting a riot. Wanna go to seg?” I screamed.
“Yeah, ma. I’ll go to seg for you. You help everybody. And that bitch is with the bullshit stealing your shoes,” said a black woman from cell four.
“We can’t just let her get away with doing that to you, of all people. Uh-uh,” said cell three’s bottom bunk.
Janine still didn’t have the Reeboks so all the ruckus was for nought. But this un-unifiable group of women united to return my property to me.
I was touched, so touched that I told my family about it. They didn’t understand but I finally did: it might pay to be motherfuckin’ nice but I was waiting on the wrong currency. I wanted Krugerrands and all the inmates have to offer is wampum. Being motherfuckin’ nice might not pay on time or even in full but it won’t leave you totally in the red, despite the fact that you may need to buy another pair of black Reeboks.
Later on an inmate who was not an architect of the quasi-riot pushed my cell door open and dropped three pairs of sneakers – grey Nikes, some strangeness called “V-Force” and white Reeboks.
“These aren’t mine,” I said.
“I know. We took up a collection.”
“I ordered another pair. I won’t need them,” I declined.
“Then do what you usually do with stuff. Help someone else out.”
I juggled all six shoes on my walk to work and left them in the communal clothing cabinet. All three pairs vanished by the end of my shift. I hope they cushioned the feet of someone who understood how motherfuckin’ nice the other inmates were to me so she could snag a new pair of shoes.
Still only a handful of voters but we press on…
Will we ever look back on Freddie Gray's death and the Baltimore riots as not being about race?
- No. Whenever we talk about poverty, prisoners or police, race will always be part of the discussion. (80%, 4 Votes)
- Yes. The violence in Baltimore was really about economically disenfranchised people taking to the streets. I didn't see any rich black folks throwing anything. (20%, 1 Votes)
- Yes. Freddie and the Baltimore riots are about law enforcement's limitless power and how we treat prisoners. (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 5