by Michael Arnstein
Otisville Prison Camp Day 1 – Part 5
Yosi looks at me eating the fruit like I'm a youtuber who competes in eating contests, like I was some POW, he has an accent, can't figure out where he's from originally, he's voice is a little scratchy, but soothing tone, he definitely speaks Hebrew in there somewhere, says 'what's wrong with you, you didn't eat today, so hungry?' He's visibly concerned, he says "don't worry, we will take good care of you, you will be fine; you sure you don't want any chicken?"
'no no, thank you, I really appreciate it, I'm very grateful for the fruit – I am very difficult with food, I really just want fruits or vegetables.'
He stops for a second, I think he's considering giving me more fruit, but I catch a concern that it's limited or he can't give so much so fast. I don't want to push for more, I am in a discovery mode and want to lay low, stay under the radar.. I got what I needed for now, I put up my hand as if to say 'stop', I say 'thank you, thank you. I'm going to get a haircut now, I look forward to getting to know you more soon.'
Yosi nods his head, very friendly, he's in a rush it seems, he's back to moving eggs around, kind of like how you see people working in a Chinese take out kitchen, zoom, zoom zoom.
I turn around, step away as to not look like I'm loitering for bananas, I don't want to overstep whatsoever.
If I could, I wanted to be a fly on the wall – this experience of being in the totally full chow hall, it was the most information I could gather at one time – in one place. So many people, so much data, I step back, lean against the wall as if to blend in, look natural, stay invisible while scanning scanning scanning. Who's who, the groups, the seating situation, didn't see a seat open anywhere, I might as well just stand here, I wasn't getting a seat anyway.
I've seen the prison movies, you don't sit in a prison mess hall unless you are completely sure it's an open seat, if you sit with the wrong group, in the wrong guy's seat… you only have one chance to make a first impression.
I see quite a few Spanish guys right in front of me, they are talking a mile a minute, it all sounds the same to me, I never could get Spanish or any other language down, I didn't get that gene-program when I was born, too bad.
These guys have lots of tattoos – lots of tattoos. I look carefully, quickly for any that look super scary, it's all crap looking work, no swastika's – ok good.
Next group, can't miss them, the brothers. Definitely in-the-house here in Otisville. They have a Kosher kitchen here apparently, but this place is not at all all-Jewish. I generally feel ok with black culture, I grew up in a mixed community, these guys have the best humor, athletic performance and if you show them respect they usually respond very well.
The brothers here are classic prison size, they are built like tanks, very intimidating, but to me it's more envious of their psychical abilities, the genetics they have for fitness is so totally impressive. They're all dressed in grey sweat suits, they have big plastic 2 liter bottles on the tables, all filled with some kind of drink. No question that pumping iron is part of their daily life.
I am totally digging it, the scene, seeing the ecosystem in full effect, deep end of the pool no doubt.
Then there's lots of Jews. They are very easy to spot, the yamikah's – and quite a few with long curled hair on the side of their ears, these are the ultra orthodox; I know them well being in the jewelry trade. They stick to themselves generally, no fear of these guys, glad to see them, but also don't want to be initiated into praying 3 times a day.
Surprisingly I hear/see a good mix of Russian guys, they are bigger, generally fatter and stronger than the typical Jews, maybe it's just how they talk, they always come off kind of angry or something, don't really know them well, they live on Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, usually they stick together, but they will always tell you when you are annoying them.
As expected the place is self segregated without question.
So where the heck do I fit in with these guys? Where's the long distance runners, the fruitarians anyone? hello hello, anyone? uh, how about a discount at the Woodstock Fruit Festival? I'm a fruitarian refugee, a POW (Peaches Out the Window) that's me here in Otisville.
I say to myself as my mother would when facing a hapless mess in front of me 'oy vey, I'm not gonna get too far here'.
I didn't see anyone remotely athletic other than the black brotherhood. But they're not running, and I wouldn't dare try to do any weight training in front of these guys, they'd just laugh at me!
I keep scanning, taking in everything I can. I see Mike the barber on the other side of the room. I get a little nervous at the idea that I'm keeping him waiting, I step into action, I say to myself ' mike you gotta just keep moving, put one foot in front of the other, you'll get there…' So I walk back across the room, Mike the barber standing in front of his 7×5 closet-barber-shop, he motions his hand and tips his head towards me, as a gracious 'after you' … and I step inside.
He throws the smock around me, says 'what you want?'
"Um, uh" I think to myself, ok this is getting very-real now. I'm going to cut off all my hair? Shouldn't I wait, I just got here?
I haven't had a buzz cut in at least 6 years, been keeping my hair longer since I moved to Hawaii, I like how it makes me look more conservative, more my age being in my 40's.
But this is prison, and you know what they say, When in Rome…
So I gulp and a small invisible sweat-vapor drop is seen evaporating off my forehead, I say, "cut it all off, let's go with a number 3."
Just like that, I was getting circumcised again.
Mike the barber gets to work, I think he's loving the simple order from the haircut menu, and that he knows I'm a first timer here in prison. He clips on a number 3 extension on his electric machine and starts to buzz.
Sure feels like I just joined the Army, I got the clothes on, mess hall, bunk 52, it's nearly zero degrees outside, and I'm in the middle of nowhere. I might as well have been on the moon at this point in my life. Did NOT see this one coming! Oh well, gotta go with the flow right!? bzzzzzzzz, the hair drops to the ground fast. Long strands everywhere; Mike hasn't had this much hair on the ground in his shop in god knows how long. He starts asking me questions. I'm worried I shouldn't be answering anything, I'm supposed to stay super low profile, just get the time done, get out of here, don't tell anyone anything right? Well I cave pretty fast, I figure what the heck, I'm here might as well just make the best of it.
'So how much time you got?'
I reply, but a little worried my response is wimpy.
'oh man, that's a coffee break, you'll be out of here in no time. Where you from'
"New York, Manhattan, I live in midtown in the 50's, how about you?"
'I'm from the Bronx, near the Whitestone Bridge.'
"You got any advice for me? This is my first time locked up."
'this is a good place, you'll have no problems here, just do your time and get out. Let me know if you need anything, I been here a while and know who's who – you know, I can help you navigate.'
Mike the barber seems like a good guy, his tone of voice, body language, his personal grooming, his little shop in good order, he's a nice guy. I'm usually pretty good with radar and gut feeling on people pretty fast. So I dig in for some more conversation and advice. I get right to what matters most, my running and the big problem with the shoes I'm wearing.
When I went through the self-surrender 'check in' at the main prison, they took all the clothes I wore from home (I made sure to wear throw-away clothes, old race-tshirts), they take everything, including my socks and shoes. They gave me these sad sad excuse for a 'shoe'. Hard to describe these things; if you know what a 'chuck' is, those super old-school canvas top shoes, with a 1 inch slab of rubber bottom. ratty, just worthless footwear, not footwear, they'd be better off just saying go barefoot, but it's freezing outside.
"Mike, these shoes, what's the deal with getting some real shoes here? All I want to do is run, I'm a long distance runner, need some shoes as my highest priority right now"
'I got you. When I finish cutting your hair you come to my cube, I will hook you up.'
"wait, I don't understand, you're the shoe guy here too?"
'ha ha, yea, I am the shoe guy here too. I help you out, then you help me out; that's how we get things done inside.'
Now I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into now, I voluntarily just accepted a lot of services and products from a black guy that I just met in prison. Maybe I should have kept a low profile, I sure wasn't following that logic at this point.
Mike finishes up my buzz cut; oh my goodness, it sure is a different look. I think I look younger, definitely more tough with my aged crow's feet lines on my eyes and a scruffy budding beard starting to grow on my face. I purposefully didn't shave for the last five days, trying my best to look as tough as I can for my prison debut. Probably not doing much, but hey, I'm trying!
Hair is all over the place. Feels like the air conditioner is blowing on my head, oh wait, I just took off a hat of hair, this is what it feels like, ah, kind of nice.
'ok, follow me, just look natural, we're cool, but we don't want the CO following us too'.
We head down the linoleum floor hallway, 20ft later we transition from the mess hall to 'cubes'. I walked through here once already when I first got into the Sub. Mike stops at his cube, he bends down reaches far under his lower bunk bed and pulls out a really old, heavily worn pair of dirty-white high top basketball shoes.
I immediately think to myself, oh god these are not good, not my Hoka ATR-4 trail shoes with 2 inch foam support and breathable upper mesh, oh jesus, this sucks man.
'here, you can have these, they should be ok until you order a new pair from commissary. They have some running shoes that are alright, you'll be ok Mike.'
"Thanks Mike, ok, how much do you want for these?"
'Na man, you don't owe me nothin, just give them to the next guy who needs some help, we're good like that here.'
Just like that, Mike gives me a pat on the back and walks away, I turn to look at him leaving me, like he just gave me a life jacket and walked off into the sunset, his gait swinging slightly to the left and right as he coolly walked off into the horizon.
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