“Big Boy Cookies!” shouted the fat Black man through a freakishly wide and beautiful smile. He ambled down the run, dragging a filthy jacket in his pudgy digits and occasionally glancing to his rear in an unconvincingly casual manner. After creaming his product, his voice softened into a musical purr.
“Jus’ one dolla’, gimme a holla’…”
The charming hustler stopped at every beckoning hand, pausing each time to again check his rear, before reaching into one of the sleeves of his dangling coat, extracting an oversized cookie and exchanging it for the “money” that was beginning to fill the opposite sleeve of his jacket. Then he tipped his invisible top hat and sang his way to another customer.
I watched the likable thief approaching through a tiny mirror I held outside the bars. I watched and heaped a bit of scorn upon myself. The last thing on earth I needed was one of those jumbo-sized disks of baked contraband sugar. But oh, how I longed for something sweet. I watched helplessly as my hand started waving of its own accord. And in an instant, his amazing smile was in front of me, lighting up my life. I held up one finger, and he handed me a cookie wrapped in greasy paper. I shelled out four Ramen noodle soups through the metal barrier, and he shot me a wink in return.
I smiled in spite of myself. You had to admire his salesmanship. I waited until he was out of sight, then I attacked that contraband cookie like a starving wolf. The thing is, black market sweets are low-quality junk and never taste all that great. But they are obscenely sweet and enough to comfort the sugar beast within. Relief, however, wasn’t worth the tourist price I paid, and I despised the craving that turned me into a sucker.
In a prison economy where commissary groceries are substituted for most currency, sugar snacks hold their value as securely as illegal drugs. A box of Nutty Buddies may cost the same as a pouch of tuna inside the commissary, but sometime after that box of Nutty Buddies would trade for two of those tunas.
Not once in all of my years within the human warehouse had I heard someone express dire lust for a pouch of tuna, but, oh, if I had a dime for every time some caged soul lamented for something sweet, especially at night. The clever hustlers always wait until late to deal their goodies because for some nocturnal reason that’s when the high fructose corn syrup junkies start howling.
A guy once told me about a lab experiment where researchers developed both cocaine and sugar addictions in rats, testing to determine which craving was stronger. Supposedly, the sugar won out every time. I have doubts about whether a similar experiment with human subjects would yield the same result but, as I licked the Big Boy Cookie crumbs from my cheek, I had no doubt whatsoever that sugar was a formidable opponent indeed.
Like most vices, it seemed impossible to pinpoint exactly when fondness crossed the threshold into obsession, but maybe there had never been a line to cross. Maybe as a fifth generation American, I was genetically destined to crave sugar. Certainly I was tossing back Cokes and popping M&Ms long before I could walk. Heredity or not, I have a pretty fair idea when mild dependency turned rampant.
Base desires do not just disappear into a vacuum when they’re forbidden. Even trapped in a cage, addictions cannot be contained which is why the few alleviations to those desires that are authorized by the state take on a whole new meaning.
The disposable men behind razor wire semed to pine for sugar with a fervency I once thought exclusive to sex.
When I first arrived from society, where obtrusive appetites were expected to be properly concealed, it shocked me to see such undisguised greed among the hopeless men.
In society, it’s easier to hide your warts because there are so many disguises and diversions. But in a penal environment, there’s little privacy or stimulation for the senses. That situation strips away the civil camouflage. There is nothing beautiful to soothe the eyes, and little but rage and violent prison music to fill the ears. There are no pleasant scents to sigh over and nothing soft or comforting to touch. Perhaps saddest of all, scant love or sympathy can be found to warm the heart. There is overwhelming sensory deprivation in every faculty except, of course, taste. If a man had money, his taste buds were the one sensation he could freely indulge.
I remember Nick, an old convict who stayed a few cages over from me. Nick wore a chronic glint of mischievousness in his blue eyes, and you could never quite tell when he was serious.
One day when I returned to the cellblock from work, Nick stopped me. He leaned toward me closely, and in a conspiratory manner asked if I had any commissary cookies. It was like some drug deal scene from a corny movie. I laughed. Nick, however, didn’t even pretend to smile. He had beads of sweat glistening on his upper lip, and his hands stayed in nervous motion. Nick must’ve misinterpreted my laugh as derisive.
“No!” he blurted desperately and leaned in even more melodramatically. “I’ll give you 10 stamps for one pack!”
I moved slightly away because his intensity was a little frightening and seemed completely unnecessary. Commissary cookies were legal even in the police state known as prison. They were cheap and plentiful at our little store. So why the exorbitant offer and exaggerated urgency?
I suspected that Nick may have had some serious issues to deal with, but I soon learned that amongst societal castaways, it was common behavior. They even had their own name for it: fiending. I grew accustomed to the fiending after constant exposure, but secretly assigned it a snob’s contempt. There was no way I would ever lose control like that.
Common sense says everyone fiends for something, whether it’s drugs, food, sex, religion, self-pity, or sniffing stinky shoes. Some addictions are well-hidden, or government-approved, but that only makes them more susceptible to hypocrisy than socially unacceptable habits.
Regardless of their moral rating, dependencies seem innately human and have a potent influence over our behavior. I never thought I’d witness something so insignificant as sugar inspire the same level of fanaticism afforded to alcohol and religion, but I was naive.
The cocaine versus sugar experiment’s conclusion didn’t seem so unlikely anymore. The caged years passed and my own sweet tooth blossomed with a steroid-injected kind of growth. Sugar went from a child’s treat to a powerful nemesis.
I could no longer judge the blatant weakness of men like Nick because I now felt the force of their compulsion. My need to pleasure my mind and senses and the inability to do so escalated grotesquely. It left me torn because I believed in physical morality. To me, maintaining health was a duty, and so I fought my self-destructive habit by refusing to buy sugar snacks from the commissary. Yet, I wondered if I wasn’t just aggravating the monster by trying to deny it.
As I looked down with self-loathing at the empty wrapper from the devoured Big Boy Cookie, I speculated that perhaps my attempts at abstinence were only turning me into more of a fiend. People always seem to want the most what they’re not allowed to have.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.