This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.
The first time that Cee asked for the plastic wrapper that encased my cookie, I thought he wanted my cookie in its entirety, like he was trying to gangster it. To be fair, I hadn’t been down long and was still learning that not everyone was out to get me, or trying to get over on me. I also wasn’t too well-versed in the new language of prison—I was still getting acquainted with the rhythm, patois, and terminology.
So when Cee, whom I had never spoken to, leaned over from the next table in the chow hall and said: “Let me hold that sleeve when you through,” I was at a loss. Eventually, from observing how other inmates reacted, I determined that Cee’s statement was, in fact, a question that translates thus: “Can I please have that empty cookie wrapper once you’ve eaten the cookies?” Even though I’d deciphered the slang, I had no idea what he could possibly want all those wrappers for.
Over the next several months, I’d watch as Cee gathered all he could from people’s trays in the chow hall and scoured the trash for emptied bags of chips. It baffled me. Even more confounding was that he was picky with his litter. Cee refused the offer of any refuse that hadn’t been opened perfectly along the seam of the packaging.
It wasn’t until I got a porter slot that I finally discovered his hustle.
Being a porter afforded me fairly free rein of the deck after the C/O let me out of my cell to clean. The trick was to make my activities look legal by keeping a push broom in my hand and to keep moving. This allowed me to talk to convicts and to pass items between cells, provided they were small enough to slide under the door. It was in performing this illegal act that I was dispatched to Cee’s cell, which gave me a chance to see just what he was making with all that trash.
After cleaning any residue from his scrounged garbage, Cee cut and folded the materials into sturdy strips so that the clear plastic cookie wrappers were thick enough to be practically opaque. He turned the chip bags inside out so their shiny metallic interiors were displayed. With these two distinct but complimentary shades and textures, Cee created some legitimately beautiful and undoubtedly unique pieces. His technique was that of a basket weaver—but making a small decorative basket would have been child’s play for him.
Cee made a decent living by making picture frames for guys to display a photograph in their cell. However, his real money came from items people bought to send home to their families. The cutest product he had was a pair of decorative baby booties—a thoughtful gift for a new mother, which some guys sent to their young daughters. His other top seller was another perfect present for a girl or young woman, and the first time I saw it I marveled at its ingenious design and stout craftsmanship. It was a jewelry box, complete with a hinged lid in which was recessed a 4×6-inch plastic mirror purchased from commissary.
When I held one, I was impressed and amazed by the painstaking and time-consuming intricacy of the work put into it, as well as its heft. Though the materials used to craft it were meager at best, the jewelry box was surprisingly heavy and solid, not fragile at all.
Cee charged ten bucks, but his clients had to provide a new mirror, which brought the price up to $13. Around Christmas, he couldn’t keep up with the number of orders he got for his unique wares. Making masterpieces from people’s castoffs is not only a rare gift, but also a lucrative hustle. It’s a talent I wish I possessed. Unfortunately, when I look in the trash, all I see is garbage.