Thursday, December 30th, 2010
“Kerman, what do you think about being on the snow crew this winter, drive one of the plows? Pays forty cents an hour!”
Thinking of all the thousands of people out clearing snow up and down the East Coast this week, I wanted to share an “outtake” from my memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison, which was cut from the manuscript in the final pass. Because work was so vital to maintaining my sanity in prison (and because I love the snow), this passage, “Snow Crew,” has always been close to my heart.
I had one great diversion to take my mind off of pervasive going-home anxiety and my personal worries about Chicago: the weather. Specifically, snow.
At some point during my November fugue state, I had been approached by the correctional officer who ran the Garage. He was generally surly towards me—he was one of my hated ex-boss DeSimon’s pals—but this time he was sweet as my bunkie Natalie’s flan.
“Kerman, what do you think about being on the snow crew this winter, drive one of the plows? Pays forty cents an hour!” Forty cents was Grade 4, top dollar on the Federal plantation. It was odd that this request was being couched as a question, something about which I had a choice. I said that sounded good, but I would think about it. Then I went to consult with my guru on all things prison.
“Hah!” Said Pop. “He’s asking you all nice because your boss has to agree, and he knows Mr. King won’t unless you want to do it, and maybe not even then.” Why was that?
“Because, snow crew usually gets called out to work overnight when there’s a storm, and then you don’t have to go to your regular job, you can get some sleep. So King won’t have you for regular hours if we get bad weather.”
The prospect of doing something different was irresistible to me, just the pure novelty of it. Plus, I would finally get to wear my heavy white cotton flight suit that the Garage girls had given to me. I went to talk to the Marlboro Man.
“Mr. King, can I be on the snow crew?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t know, something different, I think they’re hard up for people with licenses. Plus they pay Grade 4.”
I didn’t really mean this as a dig, but Mr. King had never paid me above a Grade 3, thirty-two cents. If you had a high school diploma, your pay scale was completely at the discretion of your boss, and was generally decided on some calculus of seniority, effort, and whether he liked you or not. Every workplace had an inmate “clerk” (in our case me) who kept attendance records and did payroll, so who got what was often an open secret. This was the source of backbiting, gossip and “office politics”, even in the joint. Only the most evil prison overseer would deprive an inmate the opportunity to earn extra money. Mr. King was in no way evil.
His denim-blue eyes gazed off into space. He looked like he wanted a cigarette.
“Thank you, Mr. King.”
“But Piper, watch out for Mr. Ryan. He’ll be running the night crew this year.”
This gave me pause. I knew who Officer Ryan was, he worked for Construction & Maintenance Services inside the high-security facility. He seemed like a decent guy, sort of funny.
“Why, Mr. King?” My boss scowled at something imaginary on the horizon, then got up.
“Sometimes he takes the whole correctional thing too seriously, that’s all.”
This was unnerving. Still, I went and told the Garage boss I would do it. He said “You’re gonna need a second to ride with you.” I knew if I didn’t pick someone who I could stand to spend eight hours with in a truck, I was screwed. So I talked Maria Carbon, from the Carpentry crew, into doing it, selling the concept on the merits of pure boredom-relief. Maria had changed in a year from the almost-catatonic new girl I met while in my first housing assigment—the dreaded Room 6—into someone feisty and funny, plus she was hard-working. If I was lucky she’d help me with my prison Spanish, if it ever snowed.
The first snowstorm of the year was a big one. It was unusual so early in the year. Because I never, ever watched the news, it actually came as a bit of a surprise when the snow crew was called to the officer’s station after dinner.
“They’ll probably call you around midnight. Better get some sleep now.”
Jama poked me awake at 11:30 pm. “They’re going to come get us at midnight!” she whispered. I climbed down from my bunk, and staggered into my thermals, uniform and then slid into my white jumpsuit. I had replaced the standard-issue itchy green wool hat with a white acrylic one. I pulled on two pairs of tube socks and my friend Camila’s boots. I thought of her, hopefully sleeping peacefully down the hill in the high-security facility.
By the time we got down to the CMS Garage, there were several inches on the ground. The wind was gusting heavy snow in our faces as we staggered from the prison van to the building. Maria looked at me as if to ask, What have you gotten me into? We had been trained on how to ready our equipment. There were two snowplows: an enormous dump-truck that I did not know how to operate, and a standard pickup, my vehicle. Both were equipped with plows, and also with sanders. We all struggled together to put thick chains on the massive tires of the dump truck.
Then it was time to get out there. Maria and I took up our positions in the pickup. Loaded down with sand, off we went. By now I had driven around this prison hundreds and hundreds of times, but I had never been out of the Camp at night. In the swirling eddies of snow, it was like another world. It was so dark, pierced by the floodlights around the perimeter of the enormous fence, and so quiet. It’s not that the prison grounds were usually noisy, the only things that ever shattered the air were the recall siren and gunshots from the firing range. But the typical quiet was nothing compared with the silence that snow brings.
Inside the truck Maria and I were warm. “I can’t believe I let you get me into this!” She laughed, and looked out the passenger side window.
“We gotta get you your license, or you’re going to be bored,” I replied. She flipped the radio to one of the Spanish stations, and started to sing along. We cruised around the prison grounds—up to the warehouse, around the Camp, back behind the FCI, through CMS, by the back gate of the main prison, down the hill and through staff housing, where our jailers slept, and by the little inmate graveyard, a holdover from the old days. The grave markers had a thick white icing of snow. The plow scraped, and sometimes the sander jammed and we would have to get out and knock it loose and whirring again. Maria tried to teach me the lyrics of the reggaeton songs.
Esto va pa’ las gatas de to’s colores,
Pa’ las mayores, pa’ las menores,
Pa’ las que son mas zorras que los cazadores,
Pa’ las mujeres que no apagan sus motores,
This goes for the babes of all colors,
For the older, for the younger,
For those who are more foxes than the hunters,
For women who don’t turn off their engines,
A ella le gusta la gasolina!
Da me mas gasolina!
Como le encanta la gasolina!
Da me mas gasolina!
She likes gasoline!
Give me more gasoline!
How she loves gasoline!
Give me more gasoline!
Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” was in heavy rotation, so I could sing along to the chorus by the early morning, with Maria just shaking her head and laughing. We plowed all the way down that long sloping hill that Larry had brought me up the day I surrendered. At the bottom, we were at the front gate. I hadn’t been back here in almost a year. We could have driven out onto Route 47 right now, turned right or left and just gone, two gals and a snowplow. We would not have been missed for hours.
I felt as if I was watching our little pickup from a distance, the headlights carving a short path in the swirling darkness, the boom of “Gasolina” inside the cab no match for the huge stillness that surrounded us. It was like there was no-one else for miles and miles.
Photo of the author by Sam Zalutsky
BUY Orange is the New Black.