Bring the Hot Sauce

The trick to making friends in prison is simple: bring the hot sauce.

Technically, outside condiments are not allowed in the chow hall. But this rule, like so many others, is not typically enforced. Inmates regularly sneak in all sorts of contraband: pill bottle of hot sauce, shakers of sazon, packets of Ramen seasoning. A few of the Mexicans even make their own salsas using ingredients bought from commissary and pilfered from the kitchen. Only once have I seen an officer bother to confiscate something—"If they wanted you to have chili garlic sauce, they'd have given you chili garlic sauce?"

I abstained from bringing in outside condiments for the longest time because, as crazy as it sounds, I thought it might ruin the authenticity of the prison experience. Indulging in luxuries while incarcerated would be like driving to a McDonald's in the middle of a camping trip. It's cheating if you're not utterly miserable. And like a monk devoted to his vows, I liked believing that these seemingly trivial rules might lead to some kind of enlightenment, a more humble, do-more-with-less existence. Chili garlic sauce? None for me, thanks. I'll stick to my orthodox salt and pepper.

But then, one day, there was no salt. Nor was there any the next day. Or the next. And after seven days of eating unseasoned beans and canned vegetables, I finally caved. I live in a six-by-twelve-foot bathroom, share clothes with 1,800 other inmates, and masturbate to cologne ads. Salt was my last refuge. So I filled a pill bottle with hot sauce and stuffed in down my pants. To hell with enlightenment.

Of course, whatever sauce I didn't use, I offered to the rest of the Christian table. And as the pill bottle exchanged hands, a miraculous thing happened: people started to like me. They began saying hello, wishing me a blessed day, and calling me "brother." People I had never formally met suddenly knew my name. They offered me food—a piece of fried chicken or an extra hard-boiled egg. An older man sitting beside me nodded to my pill bottle and said, "Let me know if you need any more of those. I get about ten of them a month for my heart," and I said, "No need. I get four of them a month because I'm crazy." He laughed. I was only joking. "It's a shame they're for my heart," he said, "and not for a good high.

"I realize now what my problem has been, not just in prison, but for most of my life. I've been so closed off, so suspicious of people, so afraid of being taken advantage of, and so hell-bent on maintaining my independence that I've often alienated people before they could get to know me. Classmates considered me a snob; coworkers believed I disliked them. And I offered no incentive for them to think otherwise. It took me twenty-five years and a trip to prison to learn how to give and how to receive, to learn the value of sharing.

Hot sauce isn't the only means of making friends while you're incarcerated (I'm using the term "friends" loosely). Homestate is second only to race in determining where loyalties lie. Each state is its own affiliation—Texans ride with Texans, Mississippians ride with Mississippians—and every state/race combination is a subset affiliation—white Texans ride with white Texans, black Mississippians ride with black Mississippians. Geography is so intertwined with identity that prisoners commonly refer to one another by homestate: "Wassup, Carolina?"

—"hey, Alabama. Where yo cellie at?"

It amuses me how much emphasis is placed on race and origin. I had been bringing hot sauce to chow every day for nearly a month when I caught the attention of a fellow Christian at my table, a particularly angry-looking black man twice my size (I mention this because the juxtaposition is humorous), who up until then had never paid me any attention. It was the hot sauce—and perhaps my fondness for beans—that led him to ask if I'm Mexican. I said no, I'm white.

"What kind of white?" he asked.

"Italian—well, my mother's Italian.

"He squinted. "Oh? So yous Italian? Where you from?"

I told him I was born in Brooklyn, and suddenly his demeanor—I kid you not—went from angry black man to Bill Cosby.

"Oh! Yous from Brooklyn? You never said yous from Brooklyn! How come you never said yous from Brooklyn? I'm from Brooklyn!And we were friends just like that. No. Better than friends. We was brothers.

"You need anything? You want some of my chicken? How's your cellie? You need a cellie?—Hey, T-Rex! This guy's from New York!—If you need anything, just holla. Us New Yorkers gotta stick together, you feel Me?"