When one comes to prison—and in saying I in no wise mean to suggest that you, the reader, ever would, or should, travel down that unfortunate path, but shit does, in fact, happen—one likes to have a few comforts with which to pad one's person in defense of the various indignities so casually and cavalierly visited upon one. A bit of savory nutritive sustenance to augment the daily pile of starch, offal, and floor sweepings that passes for meals is helpful in maintaining morale. A few of your gentler, sweeter-smelling emollients and cleansing agents with which to pamper one's dermis are a boon and a blessing after having lost several layers to the caustic properties of CDCR soap. Being able to procure some undergarments which are designed specifically to provide comfort to the wearer and not, like prison scanties, engineered to accommodate the needs of rigid Catholic penitents who bemoan the dearth of good hair-shirts in the modern sartorial catalogue, goes a long way in making one feel more or less human. Because The Man, in the particular guise of the CDCR, is definitely not concerned with either our humanity or our comfort. One may survive on the bare minimum that the system provides, but I wouldn't call it living.
In the prison socioeconomic hierarchy, I place myself solidly in the lower middle class. I have enough cheese to provide myself with the rudiments of comfort and a few luxuries, but I'm no bailer, and frankly, I wouldn't want to be one. Not in prison. I will leave the ostentation and flair to those who find the potential benefits of donning mating plumage in a single-sex environment a viable and desirable reason for doing so. 'Nuff said.
We inmates, or our loved ones or agents on the outside, procure our consumer goods through a system of quarterly packages purchased from one of a small pool of companies contracted to CDCR who freely engage in illegal price-fixing and criminally exorbitant markups. These companies ensure a reasonably equitable division of market share by variation of loss leaders and necessity items, as in one company offering great deals on coffee but gouging you on toiletries, and another reducing on the hygiene but cranking up the toll on ramen noodles, a substance of which most inmates are about 85% composed.
A few months ago, I tried a new package company in order to try an exotic brand of coffee and some inexpensive bonus ramen (extra flavor packs), but was shocked and dismayed to find that the only shaving cream they carried was more than twice the price of the Barbasol I usually used—a serviceable, simple, scent-free, reasonably priced product.
Made by Neutrogena, a brand I'd always been suspicious of, it came in a sleek, understated black tube, in contrast to Barbasol's cheerful barber-pole motif. What the hell, I thought. I guess one time I can be the guy who spends 8 bucks on shaving cream. Not really my style or speed, but what would life be like without the odd irresponsible splurge? I'll tell you: like a meeting of the Lake County Society for the Advancement of Cultural Enrichment, Mannerly Behavior and Not Doing Meth. In a word, empty.
I was struck first by the smell, which, absent context, I would never associate with shaving cream or indeed any ablutive aid. It smelled like a big pile of hundred-dollar bills sitting on top of a teak desk in the study of a billionaire who was having sex with a Brazilian supermodel on top of a leather couch. Wow, I thought, impressive. That was nothing compared to its effect on skin, though. When I slathered that stuff on my bristly mug, it felt like my face was being gently cradled in the freshly moisturized hands of a teenaged Polynesian princess welcoming me to the island as a hibiscus-tinged tropical breeze washed over us. It felt so good I thought it'd be a crime to scrape it off and run it down the drain. After shaving, I stood there for a moment reveling in the invigorating sensations wrought by the wondrous cream. I looked in the mirror and I was glowing like a pregnant ingenue. I was at least 14% handsomer. One of the big bailers of the dorm, who'd previously never spoken a word to my plebeian ass, took the sink next to mine and gave me a nudge. "So, how do you like that Neutrogena, huh?"
Seriously? I thought. This is all it takes to gain entree to the upper echelons? Upscale toiletries?
"Nice," I said "Little out of my price range, but I thought I’d try it." Whoops. I saw the change in his eyes as I went from a potential peer to a hopeless pretender with one casual comment. Lesson one. Act like you've been here before.
It wasn't as if I had the scratch to maintain the illusion anyway. Where does it end? Shampoos with accents in their names, clear soap bars, supernumerary razor blades… I've no intention of trying to penetrate that jungle.
For the rest of the quarter I carefully husbanded my classy unguent, shaving only every other day and eschewing weekends entirely. I tried not to let it go to my head, but if my stride acquired a touch of the cocky or my gaze an element of steel, it was only the confidence born of finally having my face receive the sort of treatment I'd always felt it deserved, but never got.
When the quarter drew to a close I was perusing a catalog I was considering patronizing for their generous promotional items, and saw that they carried a brand of shaving cream that went for only $1.80. It was a brand I'd never heard of and featured an image of Dan Dierdorf on the otherwise clear tube, which fact led me to think this was a product made specifically for the prison market. The clear tube, not Dierdorf. Using him as a promotional tool led me to conclude that the marketing department at Pro-Tection Inc. were all 100 years old, since no one currently alive has any idea who Dan Dierdorf is. Excellent, I thought. I'll buy two, get my head out of the clouds and escape the fool's paradise I've been living in.
Package day — an occasion for jubilation — rolled around, that four times yearly mini-Christmas which, along with my distant parole date, keeps me getting up in the morning. I popped the top of my new shaving cream and took a sniff. It wasn't so much evocative of elegance and luxury as much as a chemical spill, or maybe a burning dog. My sinuses did feel immediately clearer, but I think the cilia of my nares took a little singeing. Well, I thought, no worries. I'm trying to ease the removal of my beard, not smell like something I'm not. Let's take this stuff out for a spin, see what she can do.
I prepped my phiz with a thorough soaking, slapped on a generous coat of Pro— why is my face burning? This can't be right. I was all a-tingle, and not in a good way. It felt like an ill-advised joint venture between the Tabasco and Palmolive companies in the field of shaving cream. I applied the razor with alacrity and extreme caution—no telling what would happen if this stuff got into an open wound.
When the deed was done, I inspected my red, raw, visage. I was clean-shaven, but at what cost? I felt like I'd just gone three rounds with a belt-sander. This is not how you treat your face, I thought. This is how you remove stubborn stains from grout, or barnacles from a ship's hull. Most injurious was the scene I imagined at the offending firm.
CEO (hands behind head, reclining expansively in huge leather chair and puffing an enormous cigar): Boys, how we doing on that shaving cream?
Toady: Well, boss, we turned Dierdorf loose in the lab with a bunch of chemicals, and he came up with something that looks like shaving cream, but…
CEO: But what? Out with it, son!
Toady: We tested it on some monkeys and it drove them insane.
CEO: Bottle it and sell it. They're only inmates, after all! Bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah!
I suppose the pampering I'd given myself over the previous three months could be partly responsible for the extreme reaction, but I still think there's no way this product could've been approved for use by the general public. It's one thing to flay the hide off of inmates, quite another to decorticate the flesh of taxpaying citizens with access to lawyers.
So, another cliché (you get what you pay for) pays its rent for space in the collective consciousness by proving sound and reliable. I should probably begin ordering my life around their advice and instruction, and there's no time like the present to strike while the iron is hot. Why put off til tomorrow what you can do today? It is, after all, the first day of the rest of my life, and life is what you make it.