It's 4 a.m. and I'm looking out from my upper bunk as if peering out from the crow's nest of a ship adrift at sea. From my lookout, variously-shaped and sized lumps - whales, porpoises, mackerel, sardines, blow fish (see below) - are dimly visible flopping in the murk. Snores and grumbles, like the lapping of waves against the beach, ripple through the night. A few wayward souls, their eyes squinted like creatures from the deep, stumble toward the bathrooms.
Maybe my analogy is a bit stretched but this, the most peaceful, quiet time in the barracks reminds me of life at sea on a calm night. As soon as the lights come on at 6 the place will transform into a hurricane, but for now it's quiet. I do my best writing at 4 a.m., my flashlight trained on my notebook. I feel myself a sleepy sailor bravely charting new territory from atop my narrow perch.
Just a few hours ago this place was a beehive of activity, just as hopping as the main drag of an Italian seaside town on a hot summer night. In our world, each row of bunks constitutes a little street and each set of upper and lower bunks constitute a row house with its own little family and ecosystem and character. The rows, just like streets, even have addresses (mine, in case you're wondering is 5C0-001).
As a newcomer, I'm granted the honor of an upper bunk, a narrow, uncomfortable space perched precariously over 6 feet above the floor. Like a crow's nest, I reach this space by a set of tiny round steps that cut into my feet. The only advantage, to which I alluded in the first paragraph, is the view: I like to lay on my bunk gazing out at the sea of other bunks around me. Luckily for me, one radio station manages to evade the blocking system (104.1, Pirate Radio) and I pop in my head phones and lay up there lost in my own little world.
My bunkie (or, as he pronounces it in Spanish, "Mi Boonkie") is a fat, kind-hearted soul by the name of Gordo (which means fat, in Spanish) who plies me with Moon Pies and spicy-hot Cheetos. (To continue a bit with the sea analogy, his friends also call him "blow fish"). He's been inside for ages (going on 7 years) for a minor drug deal but his release date is now approaching. The most pertinent factor about Mi Boonkie is that he's extremely popular: at any given time, crowds of Hispanic men congregate around my bunk like men in the plaza of a village on a hot afternoon. They love to cook and have adopted me as their honorary Mexican. Although I can rarely follow what they're saying (although they joke that I'm fluent because I happened to know the word for soup, my high school Spanish has proven wholly inadequate to the prison experience) I enjoy sitting with them nibbling on Cheetos.
In prison, your bunk is, in essence, your home, with the narrow pathway out front between your bunk and your locker your yard. For those who have been "in" a long time, these distinctions are very important. Just like on the outside, you can't just barge into someone's home without knocking. You must politely ask permission to enter or to pass. Problems arise because the bunks are lined up end to end so that there's a constant stream of passersby who want to cross through to get to another bunk. Etiquette demands that they ask permission. Sometimes they forget. Tempers occasionally flare as a result of these "trespasses".
As a newcomer, I'm not particularly vexed by these traditions. You could say that I have an open door policy where my bunk is concerned. You will most often find me lying atop my bunk reading a book or a New Yorker, or talking with one of my neighbors. You may also find me poking around in my locker, vainly searching for my Moon Pies or Diet Coke. As in life wth my apartment, so in prison my locker is a terrible mess.
Let me just touch on that subject of lockers. In front of each bunk is a gray, steel box about chest high similar to the lockers many of us had in high school. While the subject of these lockers is deserving of its own post, suffice it to say that they take on a huge importance in a prisoner's life. That's because they contain all our worldly posessions: our food, our clothes, our books, and, most importantly, our photos and letters from friends and family. Just like a home, each locker is decorated to the tastes of its owner: some are covered with swimsuit models, some with photos of children. Mine has both pics of my kids (I look at them all the time!) as well as one of Sorbet, my dog (thank you Dawn for sending that!).
I'm running out of time and space but before I go, I just wanted to mention that yesterday evening, one of the old-timers, a calm and collected yoga-master, asked me to move to his neck of the woods, to be his bunky. Apparently this is quite an honor: the equivalent on the outside would be choosing a roommate, an important decision. Typically, they don't let you pick and choose your Boonkie in prison but apparently he has some say in the matter. In any event, his bunky is leaving and he wants someone to his liking to "room" with him. I'll let you know how it goes.
Until then, enjoy your freedom!