There is a place where the cinder block walls have been scoured a uniform white and the floors with a long, endless gray. In this place are rooms filled with gray bed frames and gray mattresses. The hard, plastic chairs are all white. The tiles in the bathroom are institutional gray. The old pool table — its felt tattered — is white. The doors are gray, the windows white; the lockers gray, the sheets white.
When you go to eat here you find the mess hall is starkly white, all four walls, the ceiling and the floor, all white. The food trays, though, are gray, like the serving counters and even the food itself: a cold, thin, gray slop. The forks are gray and the spoons are gray but there are no knives here. If there were, they would be gray too. With every tray comes a small box of white milk.
The inmates wear white but their shoes are gray and when they stand still they blend into the walls and the floor. White jumpsuits and white walls, gray shoes and gray floor. There’s the man and there’s the place but who can say where one ends and the other begins?
Sometimes the inmates acquire colorful things: magazines, drawings, photos, a letter from the outside. But then these things quickly turn either to white or to gray. Here white and gray are a wasting contagion, slowly they seep into everything. By the time you’ve been here just half a year you’ve already caught the white and the gray the way other men catch cold.
You can tell who the Corrections Officers are because they wear the gray and shod the white. They’re not safe either. On the contrary, some do long term bids — years and decades — but eight hours, one shift, at a time. You can tell the ones that have turned gray: they become small and cruel and lazy and who wouldn’t? I can’t imagine carrying the white and the gray home everyday, laying it at my family’s table and watching my love turn long, endless and gray.
Here you partake of the white and the gray, you drink of it. Here no one asks that this cup be taken from them. Here we all drink the same.
I remember when I first got out and on the way home we stopped at a New Jersey rest stop. I looked and there was a fruit bar laid with ripe red apples, sun-yellow peaches, crinkly oranges, deep purple grapes and plump ocher grapefruits. I remember I laughed and asked where we could have found such abundance. I remember thinking that the same spread, back inside, would have been stolen quickly. But not for its flavor or nutrition. It would have been stolen to brighten a locker shelf until the contagion swept in. Until white apples and grapes and oranges lay aside gray peaches and grapefruits.
That’s just the way it is inside.