When I say that my cellie Ray was a shameless, filthy, unrepentant dirtbag, rest assured that I’m telling the truth.
When you live in a tiny cell, everything is compounded, made exponentially more aggravating or disgusting thanks to the simple fact that two grown men are essentially inhabiting a closet with a toilet. I don’t expect much from my cellies; as long as they’re respectful and clean (meaning both good hygiene and relatively tidy), I can get along easily. Ray was a good enough guy; we met on common ground with some movies and TV shows. At times we could carry on an intelligent conversation—a true rarity in prison. What made Ray so rough to live with, though, was his utter lack of awareness of his deplorable hygiene.
Being a fairly plump guy, Ray would sweat more than the average person. His natural odor was a heady musk that would probably attract a moose in search of a mate if Ray were to ever head into the wrong stretch of northern territory. He washed himself thrice a week as shower facilities were made available to us, but on the days in between, Ray wasn’t a big fan of the bird bath. He would come in, fresh from lumbering his way up and down the basketball court, and jump his sweat-slicked, naked-from-the-waist-up body onto his top bunk. The sheet that covered his mat quickly developed a yellow stain.
Besides not-so-slowly turning his sheets dingy with sweat, Ray also had an alarmingly abundant supply of sores, scabs, and burst pimples all over his body. Lying in his rack, topless, as was his wont, provided nasty red accents to the dirty yellow that was already coloring the canvas of his sheet. The longer he persisted in not putting his sheets in the laundry, the more varying hues of dried blood appeared with browns and maroons adding themselves to the tapestry of filth.
When Ray wasn’t lounging partially nude, he was dressed in long pants, a thermal long-sleeved top and a sweatshirt—going from one extreme to the other, as if he was afflicted by alternating flashes of hot and cold. He would live, sweat, bleed, and sleep in these clothes, which held in his incredibly aromatic funk. That B.O. seeped into the sheets and mat and, it seemed, into the very walls of the cell. The fact that Ray was spectacularly flatulent only added more noxious fumes to the mix. Remarkably, I became largely immune to it, except when I would walk back into the cell after being gone for a while and be assaulted by the odor anew. As a young adult, I’d once had a pair of dwarf hamsters whose cage I rarely ever cleaned to refill it with fresh bedding. That same damp, musty, pungent, fecal fragrance is what Ray created, and it’s what filled every cubic inch of the cell.
People came to the cell to check in or talk to me, and they were immediately chased away by the foulness emanating from within. I tried gentle nudging and encouraging in an effort to convince Ray to alter his habits of wearing the same clothes for days without changing and never washing his sheets, but nothing I tried ever yielded positive results. In the seven months we lived together, Ray only washed his bedding once, and that was only because the C/O made him do it.
On that occasion, the officer handing out mail had to key open our door to pass through a particularly thick envelope that wouldn’t slide under the door. As soon as he swung the door open, his nose scrunched up in revulsion. The resulting look on his face made him look like he’d just swallowed a mouthful of something truly grotty. He met my gaze, and I just shrugged and rolled my eyes upward to where Ray lay in his bunk above me. The C/O surveyed Ray in all his bare-chested, bloody, filthy glory and was struck momentarily dumb. His mouth worked up and down as if words were meant to be spilling out, but for a long time nothing came. Finally he looked back and forth between Ray and me a few times before motioning to Ray and saying, “Step out here for a minute and talk to me.”
I wasn’t privy to their conversation, but a grip of minutes later, Ray came back in, grumbling and cursing under his breath as he stripped his mat. The C/O closed our cell door with the parting words, “I’ll be back in a bit for them, and I’ll see if I can’t find some bleach.” Ray wasn’t happy, I was hopeful, and it was a nice thought by the C/O. It didn’t help.
The laundered bedding came back with spots and blotches of dried blood intermingling with the yellow-brown sweat streaks to culminate in what could pass for a lost Jackson Pollock work. Beyond that, the stench was too terrible in its amazing power to be dispelled by something as simple as laundry soap and bleach. It had seeped into the pores of the concrete. Nothing short of burning the place to the ground would ever be able to exorcise Ray’s odor from the premises. It was a lost cause, and despite some outside input from the C/O, Ray remained a filthy dirtbag until the day he went home. I was blessed with a reprieve from the wretched filth after seven months when I had a court writ and was temporarily shipped to another joint. Wherever Ray resides in the world right now, I imagine it greatly resembles a pigsty. After all, being a hardcore, unapologetic dirtbag is a tough habit to kick.