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My food package just arrived. The New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) allows all prisoners who remain infraction free for a year to order an Incentive Food Package from an outside approved vendor. If you are infraction-free then you can order up to 60 lbs of food. Prices are extremely expensive but that is another story.

I could feel the eyes of my fellow prisoners following my every footstep, as I carried two large boxes to my housing unit on the second level. I smiled knowingly because it is normal for everyone to eye hustle when someone gets a food package.

One of my Muslim brothers yelled out, “Tariq, send them cotton candies down to me, Insha’Allah (God willing).” 

Another brother replied even louder, “Yeah, you can Insha’Allah someone else brother. You know he ain’t given them cotton candies up for nothin!”


Everyone who knows me in NJSP is aware of the fact that I like cotton candy. Cotton candy is a universally understood statement of happiness for me. A sweet treat that automatically places a smile on anyone’s face. Looking at myself in the mirror, I’m smiling! It makes me feel giddy and perhaps even silly.

Growing up in Pakistan during my pre-teen years I remember eating cotton candy. It is called “Luch-aa” in Urdu. I bought it from street vendors who went from door to door in our neighborhood. They would loudly announce their presence as they passed through the alleyway of my home. Like a wolf my ears would perk up. I would dash down the stairs. Charging past the verandas and shrubbery of my house. Often running into one of our beloved housemaids, Preeto Baji. I was on a mission. I crossed the painted white wrought iron door to reach the parking lot and carefully cleared my mother’s blue Nissan Charade. I finally turned left towards the alleyway.

“Slow down, Tariq,” some neighbor or family member would scream. But as I ran I only heard the chirping of sparrows, quails, crows and parrots in Lahore. Ignoring all people and birds, I  looked for my vendor. As always, I found him under the shade of a poplar tree at the mouth of the alleyway. He stood there with his makeshift straw made dais upon which he had a clear plastic box containing the colorful stacks of cotton candy.

“There you are, Haneef,” I said smiling. I reached into my pocket to pull out two rupees to make my purchase.

“Only for you, Tariq Bhai (Brother),” he said with his sincere smile. I then took my colorful bundles of happiness to enjoy one pinch at a time. Standing on the second story veranda of our house I watched people go and birds fly by, wondering if heaven’s clouds might be made of cotton candy.

Good days!

A time, etched in my memory.

Years later, in my late teens in New York, I went to Coney Island often. I remember riding the Cyclone. The best rollercoaster in the world! Then I walked down the boardwalk with my friends from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Long island. We did what boys of that age do best, gawk at beautiful girls and then we looked for something to eat. The boardwalk had many food options from Nathan’s hot dogs to ice cream. It would be a hard choice to make. But, for me, it was always simple.

“You want some pizza or hotdogs?” someone would ask. I would look around to find my colorful puffs of joy that looked like hanging rainbows. They beckoned me to come. I followed as if I were floating in the air under a spell.

Just like my days in Pakistan, Coney Island boardwalk was also full of people, seagulls and other birds. Once again ignoring all people and birds, I drifted towards the vendor. And just like Haneef in Lahore, the vendor in New York greeted me with, “Only for you, Tariq,” and also a sincere smile. I then took my potpourri bundles of happiness and enjoyed them one pinch at a time. I sat on a wooden post watching the people on the beach, the waves lapping on the pier, and the cargo ships in the bay and wondered again if heaven had cotton candy for clouds.

Good days!

Another time, etched in my memory.

In prison I open my food package boxes and put away all my goodies. I crawl next to my window and look at the bright blue sky, the pigeons, the sparrows and the hawks of Trenton. I enjoy eating my heavenly clouds one pinch at a time. Thoughts of days past, hoping, and praying for yet more good days to come. And perhaps another good memory.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Tariq MaQbool is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. His work has been published in The Marshall Project, NJ Star Ledger, Slant'd magazine and The News Station.