September 26, 2016

Christmas in the Can

Holiday cheer comes in many different forms and many different places.

Each day in jail is the same.

The cell doors open at the same time. The meals are delivered at the same time. The shaving razors are distributed at the same time. The count is taken at the same time. The cell doors close at the same time.

The sameness becomes a comfort, a security. The time passes as one day seamlessly blends into the next. Until one day, almost magically, it became Christmas. The holiday snuck up on us. Nobody talked much about it. Those few who received cards from “the world” passed them around. But it was hard to generate enthusiasm for a holiday of red ornaments and green trees when all I saw were grey walls and orange jumpsuits.

When Santa appeared, there were not any reindeers or sleigh bells. It was just the day-shift guard wearing a red cap and pushing a meal cart loaded with two-litre bottles of Coke. “Line up. Line up for your Christmas present. HoHoHo.” Nobody thought we would get a thing, so a bottle of jail-issued soda came as quite a surprise.

My mates and I cradled our bottles and walked over to the pod dining tables. Since Santa did not bring any ice, we just slugged back the warm Coke and called it good.

Except for Ibrahim.

Ibrahim was an African-American Muslim who took his bottle back to his cell. For the most part, Ibrahim kept to himself. He read the jail-issued Koran and prayed using a set of prayer beads made from wads of paper tied together with a thread from a towel. He joined the rest of us mostly when a game of chess started. He played lightning fast and always, always, won.

After the door slammed behind Santa and his sleigh, life returned to its same sameness, only with a few carbonated burps of unexpected pleasure. Then the door opened again. A fresh fish appeared carrying his jail-issued sleeping pad and blanket. He looked like five miles of rough road – a blackened eye, stitched head and bandaged arm. Winding up in jail on Christmas Day is a helluva note. Was it from a brawl? A DUI? Nobody asked. Nobody cared. We watched the guard lead him to an empty cell. He plopped his gear down and sat on the concrete bunk, head buried in his hands.

Several minutes later we saw Ibrahim walk to the cell carrying an unopened bottle of Coke. I was too far away to hear what transpired, but my friend Jerome later told me Ibrahim gave the man the bottle and said, “My brother, this is for you. It is not my holiday but yours. Blessings be upon you. Allah be praised…Merry Christmas.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi. – O Henry