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  • Doin’ Time Chapter #16 ~Ruby…or the dangers of eating from the jail kitchen…~

     Anonymous updated 6 years, 10 months ago 2Members · 2 Posts
  • esselcue

    August 16, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    (Or the dangers of Eating from the Jail Kitchen
    and Other Misadventures of a Cook)

    It is the people who are often referred to as “characters” that seem to be the ones we remember most in our lives. It isn’t the most beautiful or handsome ones. It isn’t the cleverest or the most intelligent or the wealthiest. No, it doesn’t seem to matter what other traits a person may have, if he or she is a real “character” they seem to end up being remembered by those people who have the fortune or misfortune to cross their lives’ path.
    I had a neighbor once, some years ago, who happened to be the owner of the local radio station. In most ways he was a fairly normal, middle-aged man who enjoyed playing elevator-type music and a bit of country out over the airwaves of Big Bear Valley, where I called home. For purposes of this writing, we’ll call him Frank.
    Frank loved Hawaiian music, Hawaiian food, Hawaiian shirts, just about anything Hawaiian, and so, once a day, every day, for one hour in the afternoon, Frank would play Hawaiian music over his radio station’s airwaves. He owned the station, he was the boss, so who was there to stop him? Don Ho, Hula Hattie, the Kamioke Brothers, the list of singers was long and distinguished. Most people enjoy a bit of Hawaiian music now and then and the choices Frank made to air on his radio station were excellent selections. That was not the problem. The problem came in because Frank always sang along.

    There is a time and a place for singing duets with the radio. I’m famous for doing just that. Over the years I have sung some really fine harmony with John Denver, Neil Diamond and even the Kingston Trio while buzzing along in my car. I’ve never received a penny in wages for this, even though my rendition of Rocky Mountain High exceeds that of any highway singer known today. I am even very good at humming in the places where the words escape me, or taking the plunge and making up lyrics of my own. But this was where Frank ran into trouble.
    Had he confined his vocalizations to times when he was alone in his car, no one would have cared. He could have sung in any key and made up all the Hawaiian words he wanted and it would have gone unnoticed. But Frank did not do that. Frank sang right along with the music from his little studio office, live, over the airwaves, at the very top of his lungs. Whether or not he knew the words did not matter to Frank. Who understood Hawaiian anyway? And the fact that he could not carry a tune in a bucket was no deterrent to Frank either.
    It got so that people in the Valley would tune into the little radio station at three o’clock every afternoon just to hear Frank singing along with his Hawaiian talent line-up. It soon became not so much an annoyance as it did a comical interlude to the day. Frank was a “character”: one of those people that other people laugh at and chuckle about but inevitably remember just about forever. I have not heard Frank sing along with Don Ho for almost 20 years now but I cannot hear an Hawaiian song without thinking briefly about Frank’s off-key baritone coming across my car radio in sync with the song he was playing. That’s what “Characters” do. They stick in your memory, good or bad, and turn up throughout your life at the oddest places.

    Our resident Character, Ruby, the jail cook, had come with the building, or so it was said. Initially the Federal Government had constructed the building that now is home to the Yavapai County jail in Prescott, and when they no longer needed the use of the facility they turned it over to the county for a jail. Ruby had been hired by the Feds to run their jail kitchen and so when the county inherited the building, they also inherited Ruby.

    To put it simply, Ruby was a “true character”. I have not seen her in twelve years but I cannot walk into the jail kitchen even today without a brief, fleeting thought of her flitting through my head. She was a cartoon character unto herself, from head to toe and everywhere in between.
    To begin with, I never knew what the true color of Ruby’s hair was but I assume, by her age, it was probably gray. She dyed it brown, however. I cannot say exactly was shade of brown it was because it changed weekly, but it was somewhere in the vicinity between raven and southwestern red dirt. The problem was that she had very little of it and so she wore a hair-like creation on top of her head to give added height and volume where Nature failed. I know no better term that “creation”. It was not what one would call a chignon, although it may have started out that way in the beginning, nor was it a wig nor a toupee nor a “fall” as we referred to them in the Sixties. Actually, it was more like a dead cat.
    Somewhere along the line, Ruby had begun ratting and styling this glob of hair herself. Notice I did not say she began washing it, because I doubt the thing had ever seen shampoo or water in its entire life. It was roughly the size and shape of a five-pound coffee can and the color had once been a rather attractive chestnut hue. By the time I met Ruby, however, years of dirt and hairspray had taken its toll and the radiant chestnut was now more of a dead grasshopper tan. It in no way and at no time ever matched the ever-changing color of her natural hair. Neither did the enormous hairpins she used to fasten it to her skull. When Ruby got to walking in her slightly lopsided gate, that glob of hair would begin to bobble and sway in rhythm and everyone in her path would watch in horror as they waited for it to catapult from her head and bounce off the jail walls like a berserk bowling ball. Amazingly, it never quite did that.

    Ruby’s face reminded me of pieces of putty that had been arbitrarily assembled at the whim of some pranksters. Nothing really matched and yet everything went together, from her squinty eyes with their heavy, overhung lids, past her replica of WC Fields’ nose and on down to her malleable, bee-stung-red lips that were always wrapped around the soggy end of an unfiltered cigarette. I could not carry on a conversation with Ruby without watching her lips move around that cigarette. They adjusted and readjusted like two slugs doing a sort of primitive dance as they did their best to form words without losing the grip on her smoke.
    Not long after I came to work in the jail, the County passed a rule that there would be no smoking in the jail at all: not the inmates and not the staff. This was actually a blessing, coming from someone who has never smoked, because there is almost no ventilation in the enclosed world of a jail and at times the secondhand smoke got really unbearable. This is another digression on my part, however.
    Ruby smoked like a tenement chimney and before the rule banning cigarettes in the jail was initiated, she used to hang out in the break room with the officers for a smoke whenever she could venture away from the kitchen. I have often wondered if Ruby was finally pressed into retirement by the loss of her smoking privileges. I have no proof of this but I have always been suspicious.
    At any rate, the break room was the place where the blue-gray haze hung thickest and where Ruby would sit and exhale her smoke. Along with that she exhibited the typical hacking cough of any long time smoker. When Ruby got to coughing it sounded like the floodgates of Hoover Dam were about to burst. She would inhale in a long, slow, quaking gasp, hold it for a second, and then exhale in a nerve-shattering explosion, which sent everyone in the vicinity diving for cover. One never knew what would accompany that cough from the depths of Ruby’s lungs. It had once resulted in her false teeth rocketing across the kitchen landing in the pancake batter that was subsequently served for the jail breakfast.

    Then came the evening shift when several of us were sitting in the break room after dinner and Ruby wandered in to join us. I was not a smoker but if I wanted any company at meals I had to sit with the rest of the officers in the break room. That evening I was there with one of the nurses, two floor officers and Sarge. Ruby took a seat in a chair across the table from Sarge and let out a sigh that suggested she had been working for seventy-two hours straight.
    I don’t know what started her hacking, there was never any warning when Ruby was seized with a coughing fit, they just erupted. That evening the five of us had been involved in a very nice conversation, as I recall, enjoying some after-dinner coffee, when the first stage hit: the rolling, gasping inhalation:
    Dive! Dive!
    But it was too late. All eyes turned towards Ruby as her hair glob started bobbing back and forth while the gurgling cough erupted its way up and out into the open. We gripped the edge of the table and set our jaws, our toes curling in our shoes while we waited for the inevitable. Everyone wondered who would be the brave person who might come to Ruby’s rescue if she ever stopped breathing from her agonized horking, and that evening it appeared that just might be necessary. Ruby’s face turned purple, her eyes watered, the cigarette slipped from her red, puffy lips, and with one final, liquid burst of air, she spewed a missile of phlegm across the table and directly into Sarge’s coffee.
    I have known Sarge for nearly fifteen years and this was the one and only time I ever saw him struck mute. It was as if he could not believe what he had seen. Five pairs of eyes stared at the ripples in his mug as the glob sunk briefly to the bottom and then drifted back to the surface of the coffee, bobbing there like a small, greenish-gray log-jam.

    The nurse and one of the officers, who were near the doorway, fled the room, gagging. The other officer and I both scrambled backwards to the end of the table, trying to contain our own dinners. Sarge, who was a Vietnam veteran and had seen just about everything there is to see, just sat and stared, speechless, at his desecrated coffee. What could he say, after all?
    Ruby picked up her cigarette and stuck it back between her rubbery lips, totally unaware of what had just occurred. “Somebody fart?” she asked nonchalantly.
    Sarge blinked and frowned, “What?”
    Ruby shrugged, “Ever’body just jumped like a pack of rabbits. I figured somebody musta farted to clear a room like that.”
    Sarge gave me one of his don’t say a word! looks, so I didn’t. Ruby finished her cigarette, coughed and horked a few more times and then made her way back into the kitchen to finish whatever she was involved in before she had decided to take a smoke break.

    Ruby’s title of true “character” was not limited to her lungs and hairstyle, however. Somewhere along the line she had developed a real problem with her bathroom abilities, or I should say, lack of them.
    There are certain things a mother teaches her daughter when it comes to using a public, or semiprivate bathroom. Among them is to always use a seat protector (when available) or at least to cover the seat with bits of toilet paper to avoid contact, and if neither of these is a viable option, one should bend at the knees and sort of hover over the seat – again in the attempt to stop contact contamination. In retrospect, this had to have been what Ruby attempted to do. There could be no other explanation as to why she had so much trouble hitting the target, which is normally not that difficult for a female to accomplish. It’s not like we stand in front of the bowl and aim like a man. For a woman to miss her target takes a good deal of effort, but Ruby was the Queen of Bathroom Disasters.

    No one would even follow her into the ladies room if she were seen exiting. You never knew what you would find, but you always knew it would be unpleasant. And it didn’t stop when she exited the room, either. More than once Ruby made her way back to the kitchen with her smock top tucked into her pantyhose or a streamer of toilet paper trailing along from her pant leg. We won’t even get into the supposed “coffee stains” on the back of her pants.
    I find myself, even now, wondering if Ruby knew how her fellow employees, and even the inmate workers, made fun of her. I was guilty myself, at times, because every so often, such as in the case of Sarge’s coffee, the event was so funny even in spite of the gross-out issues that surrounded it, you could not help but laugh hysterically. It was not Ruby we laughed at, it was the Character within her. Beneath her bumbling and often disgusting ways dwelt a very good heart. The hard shell of red lipstick and cigarette stains disguised a kind soul who had raised her abandoned grandchildren and cared for her disabled husband with never a complaint. She grouched and grumbled about the jail in her coarse, nicotine-ravaged voice, but I never heard her say a bad word about any person. She was so unassuming and unobtrusive that I sometimes believe if she had not been such a Character, Ruby might have been almost invisible.
    That might be said of all the Characters in the world. We all need to be remembered by someone for something, and if we don’t have the physical appearance or the Wall Street ingenuity to make ourselves memorable, we might just have to invent our own personal Character.

  • Anonymous

    March 31, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    This was lovely love Niel Diamond

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