Dayroom 7B (Hong Kong)
30 December 2016
Dirk and I were eating our books alive. I couldn’t read it fast enough.
I had started reading Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” yesterday and was almost done – nearly a 900 page book - and selfishly I was reading to get to the parts about his eighteen years of imprisonment.
I was reading to find empathy.
Dirk was reading an action novel about conspiracy and military style killing. Occasionally he would look over his book and ask me in his South African Afrikaans accent, “Have you gotten to the part where he is a terrorist?”
I laughed. “Yes. I am in the chapter where Nelson is in North Africa being trained as a military rebel. He wanted to be trained in China but was denied.”
Dirk put down his book and smiled. “See that’s something that most people don’t know about Nelson Mandela. He was a terrorist before be became the world famous Nelson Mandela that everyone knows.”
I let him talk and smiled.
Dirk and I had become quick friends when I was brought into Dayroom 7B.
He was from a small city an hour above Johannesburg and worked most of his life as security guard in a diamond mine. I had lived in Cape Town for four years but on business frequented Joburg. So it was great for him to have someone he could talk to about where he was from who had some reference.
Everyone in remand or waiting for sentence or Dayroom 7B talked longingly about real ‘prison’. Real ‘prison’ was when you changed your prison clothes from gray color to green. Green color means you are an actual prisoner with a release date. Something to write on a calendar and start to cross off the days, weeks, and months, and years.
If you were an inmate, you never measured prison by hours. Maybe the officers did, but being a prisoner, hours would drive you mad. It was a like a casino. You didn’t need a clock on the wall – to remind you of the life you were losing.
Everyone longed for real ‘prison’.
Real ‘prison’ had great food. You got to work to pass the time and actually earn money to buy things – like snacks, a razor, hell even a radio to listen to music from the outside.
Dayroom 7B wasn’t real ‘prison’. It was limbo.
Dirk was in for drug trafficking. Apparently they picked him randomly – Dirk always used air quotes when he said the word ‘randomly’ - when he was connecting from Dubai to Thailand via Hong Kong. He had never seen the city. He only saw the inside of the airport and the inside of prison.
They found a kilo in his duty free bag. The duty free bag was sealed and unopened until immigration security opened it. He said he had bought sweeties for his mother and brother while in Dubai and the bag with the cocaine was switched with his. He said he had the receipt to prove it.
Dirk had caused a little bit of panic when they apprehended him – as one of the police started jabbing a gun in his face when they found the drugs – and because it was getting on his nerves them pointing the gun and hitting him in the forehead, and as he was trained as a security guard for a diamond mine, he yanked the gun out of the policeman’s hands, dumped out the ammunition clip, un-cocked it, and handed it back to the policeman handle first.
Dirk said he yelled, “Stop fucking hitting me in the head with this gun!”
The policeman was embarrassed, took the empty pistol and cowered away. Another policeman came up and apologized to Dirk for the other policeman’s behavior.
Then they handcuffed him and led him away for questioning.
As Dirk had no money, he had no legal representation and was waiting for Legal Aid to assign a lawyer to him. His trial had been pushed back nearly a dozen times.
His brother died of cancer while he was waiting. He showed me pictures of his brother’s grave that his mother had sent him.
He had been sitting in the same spot at the same table for nearly 8 months.
No trial. No sentence. No verdict.
He said they were trying to pressure him into pleading guilty so everything would speed up. If he plead guilty, they would cut the 15 year sentence down to 7-9 years.
But as he said he didn’t do it and the drugs were not his, why should he say guilty just to get out of prison in a decade?
So he fought on – without a lawyer – and no local lawyer wanted to take a foreigner who was accused of drug trafficking – unless it could be a quick case – by saying he was guilty.
So Dirk was stuck in purgatory of Dayroom 7B.
Dayroom 7B – seventh floor, tower B – which was meant for first offenders. In tower B, the floor you were on determined your statistical recidivism or how virgin you were to the prison system.
First offenders who had not been sentenced were put in Tower B where the non-violent convicts went – theft, work visa issues, wounding, assault, and drug trafficking.
Tower A was where the violent prisoners who hadn’t been sentenced were kept – rape, murder, or other sexual crimes.
Funny how the convicts in Tower B talked bad about the convicts were in Tower A. Convicts in Tower B were bad, but they didn’t kill or rape anybody.
The floor determined how many times you had been to prison before.
So top floor – the best view of Lai Chi Kok – was first time in prison. Second time in prison for assault? You go to Dayroom 6B. Third time in prison for overstaying and haven’t been given a sentence? You go to Dayroom 5B and on and on.
So it’s pretty understandable that in Dayroom 3B and 4B is where most of the fights happened. Lot of past rivalries from previous stays manifested there.
When a fight broke out, the loud siren would blare unceasingly until the fight was broken up by other inmates and/or more guards arrived.
One Saturday afternoon the fight alarm went off four times in a row. It was like 3B, 3A, 4B, and 4A exploded into violence like a well synchronized symphony.
If prison was a night club Dayroom 7B was the VIP.
We were thrown together – all 90 or more of us into a single dayroom where you simply sat, talked, wrote letters on free flimsy paper, read, and/or watched television. The luxury item was a local Chinese game that used pool cues that was a cross between snooker, pool, and checkers. You took a pool cue to knock checker pieces into holes.
I never tried and never learned the rules. And obviously, never learned what it was actually called.
One side of the room had a Chinese language television and on the other side of the room – near to where we sat – was the English speaking television. But to fuck with us sometimes, either a guard or one of the Chinese prisoners would switch our television to Chinese by swiping the remote control that sat on the security officers podium.
We sat six or seven people per table. And you could count how many people sat at each table even when they were walking around or in the bathroom by the plastic measuring cups that you had to keep at the end of your table with your prison number facing out. You found someone who had a black ink pen and you wrote as legible as possible your prison number – so no one would steal your cup.
Having multiple cups in prison was a sweet, sweet luxury. Why?
You were only supposed to have one. And this plastic cup was issued to you on day one when you were processed in. You never got another one.
This plastic cup was your life.
You drank with it, you bathed with it, you kept stuff in it, you ate with it, and sometimes you shit with it and in it – because you had no choice. So at all costs, you kept this plastic measuring cup clean as you possibly could. And because we didn’t have dishwashing soap or any soap for that matter, we washed rigorously with the tube of Chinese toothpaste they also gave us on day one when you were processed in.
Toothpaste in prison was everything: You brushed your teeth with it, you washed your body, hands, and extremities (which made your balls tingle); you washed your clothes and plastic cup with it. We even used toothpaste to wash floors, walls, and your cell toilet which was the floor kind – not a commode.
It was not a full size tube of toothpaste. It was one of those travel sizes and it looked almost identical to a Chinese version of Darlie toothpaste except there was no shadowy black man with a top hat on the green and yellow packaging.
But even though it was travel size you had to act like it was a full size because – you only got one until you could get enough cigarettes to buy another one.
Two security officers protected the room. They sat in high chairs in the middle of the room and mostly looked bored, smoked, or talked with the inmates. Occasionally they would walk around the room during an eight hour stretch just to joke around or stir things up. Normally it was two Chinese guards but there was also occasionally a Pakistani guard who spoke fluent Cantonese.
On other floors it was probably more dangerous, but on our floor – we all got along. There were no issues between the Mainland Chinese, the Hong Kongers, the Nigerians, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Columbians, the Vietnamese, the one Polish guy, the one Philippine guy – who was my cellmate who we called Philippines - and the one Korean, Mr. Park.
There were only five white guys out of 90 inmates. And actually we had the biggest concentration of white people in the entire tower. There was one or two in the floors beneath us. Mostly Russian.
When you are brought into Dayroom 7B, the security officer sits you with your kind: white with white people, Indian with brown people, Nigerian with black, Hong Kong with Hong Kong, etc. So it wasn’t destiny that introduced me to Dirk - it was apartheid – literally. Dirk and I got the irony.
“Well Mandela talks about that. He explained he didn’t want to resort to violence but felt it was the only way. They had gone down every possible path.” I paused a second. “But yes, he says in the book he regretted that decision.”
“Well,” Dirk began, “he put that in at the end – to make himself look better.”
One thing the world didn’t understand about South African Afrikaners especially those who are millennial – they grew up after Apartheid – and was drilled from daycare through adult hood what they did was bad. And finally millennial Afrikaners get fed up for apologizing for something they themselves had no control over or didn’t do – prior to them being born. So this passive aggressiveness towards South African greats like Nelson Mandela – doesn’t necessarily mean they are racist. Or they want apartheid to return.
They just want to be proud of who they are – and not be ashamed of it.
It’s the very thing that Nelson Mandela said in his book that he spent his whole life seeking – to be equal with everybody else.
That’s when a rolled up paper ball hit Dirk in the face.
Carlos turned his head quickly to the window as if he was looking down at the recreational area – the joined basketball and volleyball court secured with high fences and barbed wire. Carlos tried to hide a smile.
Dirk took the paper ball now resting on the table in front of him and threw it back at Carlos – laughing. Carlos pretended to be confused but finally broke into a huge grin.
Carlos was our cigarette banker. I called him the ATM. He always sat against the wall next to the window. He had a big plastic container of all the things we as a table had purchased with cigarettes and most importantly he kept everyone’s cigarettes safe and allotted to the people for whom they belonged. When someone wanted to buy something or trade food or barter, they went to Carlos and made a cigarette withdrawal.
Carlos was seen as the worthy one to do this – and everyone in Dayroom 7B trusted him. And he had been in remand for four months and never did anything to lose that trust.
He spoke Spanish but knew very little English. But funny enough, he was very easy to communicate to and laugh with. He only stopped making people laugh when he was asleep with his head on top of the table.
Carlos was from Columbia. He was inside also for trafficking and also duty free from Dubai – with drugs inside. He too was picked out randomly. Luckily for Carlos, the amount of drugs was a quarter of the size of Dirk’s kilo. But he was also waiting for a lawyer to take his case and a court date to be set. The difference was – Carlos was going to plead guilty. He just wanted to go home. Pleading guilty he was told he would only spend three to five years inside.
A Chinese man walked up behind me and started talking to Carlos in broken English, “What food today?”
Carlos opened up a notebook he had stacked on the table and thumbed to a page. On the page he had drawn a homemade spreadsheet that had each day of the week broken into Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. And beside each, he had written the type of food served – for Western meal with pork, for Western Meal without pork, Chinese meal, Halal meal for the inmates who were Muslim, and Indian meal.
Carlos pointed down at the page so the Chinese man could read.
The Chinese man leaned over, read it, and nodded. “Thank you.”
Carlos laughed. “No problemo.” Then closed the notebook and threw it back on the stack of books and magazines.
Ricardo, always shirtless, walked over to the table and handed Dirk the newspaper. He was also Columbian – also for drug trafficking. But his circumstance was a little different – he was asked to pick up a package at the Hong Kong Post Office. He was paid five thousand Hong Kong dollars just to go check the mail. The police were waiting for him when he walked outside.
The package he received contained two kilos of cocaine.
Ricardo had been living in Hong Kong for two months prior to him getting caught – and he was fluent in English and Spanish. He was also going to plead guilty – but even with the cut, cut – he would spend nearly a decade or more in prison.
Ricardo already had a lawyer but he was just waiting for a court date. He had been in Dayroom 7B for five months already.
“Do you think Donald Trump is going to win?” Ricardo asked me pointing to the front page article talking about the upcoming election.
I shook my head. “Impossible. Hillary is going to win in a landslide.”
Ricardo didn’t look convinced. “I am not so sure. The article says it’s a close race.” He ran his hand across the stubble on his chin. “I don’t understand why Americans like him.”
“Well I don’t know if its that they really like him or they just hate Hillary.”
“But all politician are corrupt. Hillary is just as bad as all of them around the world. So not sure – why they wouldn’t vote for her…”
Dirk spoke up, “The debates are tomorrow morning unless –“ and Dirk turned to the Hong Kong tables behind him – “the fuckers turn the English channel to Chinese.”
Tomorrow morning was going to be the final debate.
The other two debates were the hottest thing in prison. Everyone in Dayroom 7B was mesmerized. It was like watching a sporting event. The English television hung over the Nigerians table and they were the most vocal. And I would sit or stand with them watching it. And as I was the only American in the room, actually as the US Consulate representative had told me during a recent visit, the only one in Lai Chi Kok at that time – I was bombarded by questions.
Everyone in Dayroom 7B wanted to see my reaction to the debates, get my opinion of what Donald Trump said, of what Hillary said, and most importantly, they wanted context of what the debate questions were about. It wasn’t just the inmates – it was also the Security Officers would come up and stand next to me to ask me things while the debate was going on.
Which was aggrevating because it was the only thing I wanted to do to get my mind off my circumstances was to hear news about home. I felt like I was connected to my family while watching Trump say, “Stamina.”
We were actually using each US Presidential Debate as a measurement of time. We were cancelling weeks off our sentence from one debate to the next. So this final one was bittersweet. There was nothing to look forward to afterwards– that meant we were closer to getting out.
Suddenly Poland walked by as some of the convicts were walking up and down the Dayroom to get some exercise. The Muslim inmates would walk back and forth for hours – discussing everything, smoking, and they would walk three or four side by side. But now, they were at afternoon prayers just outside the Dayroom – so with more floor space – others were pacing back and forth.
Ricardo turned to Poland, “Say banana.”
Poland knew very little English but had a very funny accent. One of the reasons his accent was amusing was because he had no teeth. He had done so much crystal meth prior to coming inside that his teeth had rotted out. All the guys were getting him to speak because he sounded like a Minion from the movie ‘Despicable Me’. But Poland had never seen the movie.
He stopped and smiled – exposing the black of his mouth. “Banana!”
The table roared with laughter.
Poland laughed too and continued walking.
And suddenly, I heard something I hadn’t heard in weeks. It was on the English television behind me. I turned quickly. And saw it.
It was a music video of Chris Brown’s song, “Grass Ain't Greener.”
I jumped up immediately and went straight to the television. The Nigerians were already on their feet. I stood beside them and we listened – we sucked in the music like a sponge. And then I suddenly became over come with emotion – almost like I wanted to cry.
I missed music. Especially hip hop.
More than that I missed dancing to hip hop.
The television show didn’t show the entire music video – the Cantonese host started talking over the music and then quickly cut away to a Canto Pop song that was also top of the charts.
Sugar, one of the Nigerians who was standing beside me, asked “Where do you come from in the States?”
“I lived in New York City for a little while.”
I smiled. “I wondered about that. You have an American accent.”
“Really?” he puffed out his chest. “That’s good.”
“Well if Trump wins, maybe not.”
He reached into my front pocket of my prison uniform and pulled out my prison ID without asking. “Why are you in here?”
I didn’t answer and let him read it.
He put my prison ID back in my shirt pocket. “How long are you going to be in here?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“When is your court date?”
“October 24th. How about you?”
Sugar eyes became a little sad. “February of next year.”
Then I suddenly felt ashamed that my court date was so soon.
Then I heard Dirk’s voice, “Which fucker turned the English television to Chinese again?” And Dirk went to get the remote to change it back.
I couldn’t afford another drink and was about to leave when the couple who was standing at my table inside MINE began putting on their coats to leave. They were both Korean. The man looked in my direction and said, “Have fun.”
“You too.” I said.
Then they started walking outside. There was a crowd on the dance floor. There was a lot of drunk people tonight jumping up and down and twisting their bodies to the rhythm.
I noticed the drinks on the table that the couple had left. One was a half drank beer and the other looked like a gin and tonic that only had a couple of sips missing.
I looked at Jamie, the cute bar maid, who was busy with other customers. I moved my empty plastic cup next to where the gin & tonic was – and picked up the gin & tonic pretending it had been mine all along.
And suddenly, I heard something I hadn’t heard in weeks. I turned quickly.
The DJ was playing Chris Brown’s song, “Grass Ain't Greener.”
I downed the gin & tonic and as the crowd only danced to standard favorite, crowd pleasing music – they started going back to their tables. I instead went to the middle of the dance floor.
And I felt the music.
And I felt the alcohol.
And I danced. I danced hard.
Holding my empty plastic cup.