Thursday, July 24, 2014

Be Careful What You Wish For

From Cutting Grass to Cutting Onions

Faithful readers may recall a few wimpy complaints in past posts about my job weed whacking at the nearby air force base. But now I'm wondering what all the fuss was about as I reminisce about the benefits: plenty of fresh air, views of trees and fields, contact with civilians. It seems I've forgotten the brutal work, the flying rocks, the relentless sun. You see, I happened to have received just what I wished for: a change of jobs. Not that I had any role in selecting the new job that would be assigned to me through some mysterious process. Little did I know that the new job would be much more difficult. 

Now, instead of boarding a bus at the late, late hour of 7:15, following a leisurely breakfast of grits and chicory coffee in the chow hall, I'm the one slaving away in the hot kitchen preparing those very grits and coffee. For the privilege of feeding my fellow prisoners, I now wake up at 4 a.m. to be at work by 4:15. 
Despite inmate complaints - hot dogs again!, the coffee's cold!, enough beans already! - food really makes this place go round. In a place of many rules and rituals, it's one of the highlights of the day. Meals follow count and are awaited with great anticipation. Although they're typically rushed (we workers want to get everyone in and out as quickly as possible) it's a chance, just like on the outside, to catch up with friends. Which makes this job important, one of the few truly important jobs where "make work" is the typical approach (and its inevitable result: "pretend to work").

I'm embarrassed to admit that I may have been one of those complaining inmates before my little job switch. Ok, maybe the food is institutional and not exactly made up of the highest quality ingredients. For example, today I read the ingredients list for the American cheese and was surprised to learn that it contains no milk. Apparently, palm oil takes the place of dairy in our dairy food. And most of what we serve comes straight out of boxes. But I've come to see that an incredible amount of work goes into churning out those under-appreciated meals. That and, surprisingly enough, some love and dedication. Some of my colleagues put incredible effort into their jobs, going above and beyond the call of duty each day.

As for me, I guess you could say I'm still adjusting, stuck on the hard work part of it as opposed to the love and dedication. Cooking for so many hundreds is an incredible grind, busy and stressful. Today, for example, I spent hours feeding onions into a shredder - my eyes still hurt.  It's not that I'm lazy or mind a good onion cry. Rather, it feels like strange, full-circle deja vu. My very first job in high school was serving food to patients in the local hospital...and cleaning trays when they were through. This new experience is almost identical, yet much earlier (at the hospital, I worked the dinner service after school) and much more stressful.

In addition, working in a prison kitchen carries with it some unique aspects. For example, the knives are carefully guarded by our guard in residence, who watches over us with an eagle eye. As are the rags. As is the food. The knives, perhaps unsurprisingly, are in fact locked to large metal rods with huge padlocks. More troubling, soap is also in short supply as is training on hygiene. You get the idea.

But I have a tendency to complain when presented with new challenges. Check back in a month or so and I'll let you know how it's going. Given how it's been going so far, I suspect I'll be reminiscing about the joys of the kitchen as I adjust to my new the wastewater treatment plant down the road.

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