It doesn’t matter who a person is or how much money he may have on the books, there will come a time in prison when his stomach’s in his back and he’s feening for just about anything to quell his hunger. It may be because commissary is so far behind schedule that he hasn’t hit store in over a month, and all that’s left in his box is clothes and hygiene. It could also be because he’s in the process of a transfer from one joint to another, and his property hasn’t caught up with him yet—a common occurrence and cause of stress. Either way, it results in the same thing: fierce hunger. It’s a constant presence, always pestering and nagging. As the hour approaches for the next chow, minutes drag themselves out as if time itself has a personal vendetta against inmates.
Sometimes, even after every morsel, scrap, and crumb of food is devoured at chow time, it never satisfies. At the time, we’d been enduring a steady diet of nothing but slickmeat sandwiches along with a snack-size bag of chips and an apple, orange, or brownie. This is a reasonable portion for a child’s lunch, but a grown man needs something more substantial—and slickmeat shouldn’t be inflicted upon anyone.
On a diet consisting solely of chow hall food, maintaining any kind of workout regimen is impossible. All one can do is lie down and try to burn as few calories as possible, which helps, mostly. Still, the yearning for sustenance comes: it’s as inevitable as death and taxes. Hopefully, one’s paltry portion can keep the need to feed at bay for a few hours rather than a handful of minutes. Unfortunately, slickmeat is more likely to turn the stomach than satisfy it. First, the smell has to be surmounted, then the texture, followed closely by the actual taste. It’s a feat just to choke this stuff down, no matter how famished a person is or how badly hunger is tearing at his gut. After the disappointing lunch comes hours of anticipation and hope for something more substantial, even tasty.
After a particularly brutal hiatus between meals, during which my stomach gnawed on itself until I felt like it was chewing at my spine, I went bounding from my cell like I had springs in my heels. Running on the walk would’ve gotten me booked, but I stretched my long legs to their max and moved faster than an average trot to ensure I’d get a spot near the front of the line. My belly ached for the forthcoming food; my pulse quickened for it. I shuffled from foot to foot, ready to be on the move, angry and frustrated at the stragglers taking their time and dragging their feet to line it up and pair it up. My stomach had no patience for their lazing. Finally—after what was maybe a minute and a half tops, but which felt like a tiny eternity—we headed to the chow hall. I couldn’t get there fast enough.
As soon as I entered the chow hall, my nostrils flared with pleasure at the warm smell of chicken, and saliva flooded my mouth in involuntary anticipation. A lurching growl grumbled in my abdomen, and though it sounded like an angry cur, the noise was joyful—food was on its way! I’m not sure what the day’s meal was—either chicken stir-fry, chicken-a-la-king, chicken soup, or chicken stew. They’re all basically the same assortment of frozen vegetables and pieces of chicken bathed in a sauce that varies in color from lemon yellow to muddy brown. It definitely wasn’t the dish known as Mexican stew because, while it may contain the same ingredients, it’s dark red (and also vaguely racist, I think).
Whatever the dish was, it came on a bed of rice along with a dinner roll and pat of butter. Steam rose from the tray, a rare occasion since chow hall food is mostly lukewarm at best. Logic and experience dictated that I eat it slowly, let it cool for a moment and check for bones, but it was all I could do to make it to the table without shoveling the tan slop down my gullet. Neither logic nor experience could stand in the face of my extreme hunger.
A spoonful, chew twice, swallow. Repeat.
A dim voice in the back of my mind urged me to slow down, to chew more, to make the food last longer, but it was wasting its proverbial breath. My fourth convulsive swallow posed a problem, as a chicken bone as sharp as a splinter lodged itself into my throat and dug securely into the soft wet flesh. My hunger instinct dictated that I just force the whole thing down, but I was able to cut that impetus off quickly. I tried to regurgitate the partially-swallowed offending agent. I coughed and made choking noises, but I only felt the bone dig in deeper.
Breathing through my mouth and around the obstruction became difficult, making an unnatural panic leap within me. Horrible thoughts of a bloody end to my situation careened through my mind. I sat straight and tall in my seat and tried to calm myself. Then everyone at my table watched as I carefully, delicately, reached the index finger and thumb of my right hand deep into the tunnel of my gullet to pull out a cluster of bone and cartilage the size of a Ping-Pong ball. It had enough spiny offshoots to rival the proudest of porcupines. Revulsion rippled my middle as I inspected my would-be killer and noticed a speck of blood that had been pricked from the intimacy of my throat.
My voracious appetite had evaporated, but my body’s need for fuel remained. As I stared at what remained of the meal that had almost been my demise, conflict raged within me. I knew full well that I had a long night ahead with no prospect of food. A tentative swallow of lukewarm water informed me that my ravaged throat couldn’t take much more abuse.
Images of a painful, bloody, gurgling, choking death tickled my mind and turned my stomach, but I closed my eyes against them (which didn’t help) and teased another trickle of water past my wound (which hurt like hell). Opening my eyes, I glared at the wad of spiked chicken with an intense hatred and found the resolve to finish my food. I refused to let the porcupine chicken defeat me. So, after depositing the disgusting and dangerous clump on the edge of my tray, I inspected each bite carefully before placing it gingerly on my tongue, chewing it thoroughly, and forcing it down my injured esophagus.