Sunday 28 April 2013

Street cred = Eating spaghetti with a spoon in jail?

What is street cred?

I don’t know how to describe it. All I know is Justin Bieber doesn’t have it.

And based on what happened to local cartoonist Leslie Chew last week, it seems one way to get street cred is to get arrested.

After he was arrested and released on bail, "Chew and his work have automatically gained far more street cred than they would have otherwise", according to one online commentator.

Hey, I want to get me some of that delicious street cred too.

How can I get arrested?

I know! I can spray-paint the words "My grandfather war memorial" on the Cenotaph.

No, wait. I just realised I don't know what a Cenotaph is.

I know! I can bite the arm of a football player from the opposing team during a match for no good reason.

No, wait. That would just get me a 10-match ban.

I know! I can get into a fight and get thrown in jail for a night.

No, wait. I already did that in 1992 when I was living in the US.

Does that earn me any street cred?

I don’t recall much about that night, but I later wrote a review of the food for the special restaurant and bar issue of my college newspaper.

The article was called "Jail grub not bad but service lacking".

I managed to dig out the old newspaper and here is a reproduction of that article from 21 years ago:

You’ve heard the jokes. You know the routine.

Everyone ritually makes fun of cafeteria, airline, hospital and army food.

I’ve sampled them all, including prison food recently, and frankly, they aren’t as terrible as they’re often made out to be.

Granted, the Dane County Jail, located on the top two floors of the City-County Building in downtown Madison, can hardly be considered a prison. But it's about as close as I ever want to get. For now, anyway.

I’ve also learnt that, like the food, local law enforcement officers aren't as bad as their reputation may sometimes suggest.

But then I was arrested only for disorderly conduct that Sunday night and was extremely cooperative, almost to the point of ingratiating. (I had to practically beg them to cuff me. They wouldn’t.)

I was treated with the same professional politeness I get from restaurant hostesses (which may or may not be saying much).

Service in the jail, however, was almost non-existent. Promptness left much to be desired.

After an early pre-sunrise breakfast - that was a little too prompt - of a piece of toast, a pat of butter, Rice Krispies, coffee and lots of milk (in Wisconsin?), my fellow inmates and I were soon impatient for our next meal, hungry for sustenance and something to alleviate the boredom of incarceration.

Like most good restaurants, beverages were served before the main entree. Unlike most good restaurants, the beverages were served way, way, way before the main entree, like maybe half an hour.

It could’ve been longer. Who knows? They took away our watches.

Anyway, more milk!

When the food finally arrived - brought in by other more permanent guests of the county wearing cool white T-shirts with "DCJ" stenciled on the back - it was served hot (but not too hot) on round compartmentalised metal trays and passed through a convenient slot among the beige iron bars.

On that Monday, lunch was spaghetti in tomato sauce mixed with what we were told was ground turkey meat, accompanied with boiled broccoli and diced pineapple, probably from a can.

Although some of my new cell pals found the combination unappealing, I thought it was both creative and nutritious.

On the minus side, the broccoli was slightly overcooked and the pasta resembled the instant noodles I usually get from the supermarket at 19 cents a packet. I could hardly taste the turkey, which might have been a blessing.

On the plus side, the portions were generous and the spaghetti sauce brimmed with hearty tomato chunks. Overall, the meal was filling as well as tasty.

But all the inmates, including myself, had one common complaint. Spaghetti is a dish that is awkward enough to eat when armed with a whole arsenal of utensils. All we were given was a small plastic teaspoon.

Talk about cruel and unusual punishment.

Fortunately, the noodles were flaccid enough to be cut into small, more manageable pieces and then scooped with the spoon.

After the meal, it took a long time for the empties to be cleared away, making an otherwise neat jail cell look rather cluttered. If forced to rate the jail’s ambiance, I’d give it a fair.

When I was released from Dane County Jail a couple of hours later on a signature bond, I was kinda disappointed I didn’t get a T-shirt, but was grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the hospitality of the county.

In fact, I enjoyed myself so much, I returned to the Dane County Jail less than a week later, this time for alleged violation of a restraining order.

And who says there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch today?

- Published in The New Paper, 28 April 2013 and The Daily Cardinal, 14 October 1992