I did something I swore I wouldn’t do. I washed my clothes in a toilet.
They sold white cotton undershirts, boxer shorts, gym shorts, thermal underwear, and knee-high socks with three horizontal red stripes along the upper elastic bands. We could buy them at commissary if somebody on the outside sent money to our trust fund account. Fortunately, my parents didmostly my mom. She mailed a stipend from her paltry, fixed income every month so I could enjoy the comforts offered at the prison store: instant coffee, powdered milk, vanilla cookies, cinnamon rolls, corn chips, canned chili, ramen soups, to name a few. And underclothes.
When I first found out we could buy garb, I asked several guys the obvious question: How are they washed? I inquired because they didn’t sell detergent in the commissary and the sinks in our cells were roughly the size of a small mixing bowl.
The first person I asked was a guy slouched next to me on the dayroom bench. His name was Arthur. Ink stained his freckled flesh, the most prominent tattoo being a guard tower on the outer side of his upper right arm. Though he was only in his early twenties, rosacea splotched his chin and cheeks. He wore a plain white t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. It was threadbare, dingy, and yellowed by hard water and lack of bleach. Still, it looked more comfortable than my collared uniform top, and I could smell the faint scent of Ivory soap he’d washed it with.
Although no longer cold at night, I slept in my entire uniform, steel-toed brogans included, scratchy wool blanket drawn over my ears. I was young and new to prison and on the predatory Beto Unit. I was terrified.
But to say I slept is inaccurate. It’s more like I attempted to sleep. I averaged three hours, mostly supine and motionless, eyelids tight as a pit bull’s grip, listening to toilets flush and guys hack phlegm and brass keys clang when guards made their rounds for count. Even though Arthur’s top was scraggly and sullied, I wanted one of my own, but a tidy one with short sleeves.
“They sell those in commissary?” I asked, nodding toward his shirt.
“Yeah,” he said, “but you gotta cut the sleeves off if you don’t want ’em.” He had his brogans propped on the back of the steel bench in front of us, slurp-sipping a cup of oil-black coffee.
“Oh, yeah?” I said. “Where do you wash them?”
He grinned in advance of his answer. “You wash ’em in your toilet,” he said.
“Do what?” I said.
He snickered, his coffee swaying in his plastic cup. “Yeah, man. You wash ’em in your toilet. That’s the only way.”
“You can’t send them to the laundry?” I said.
“Not if you ever wanna see ’em again. First dude comes across ’em’s gonna heist your shit,” he said.
“There’s got to be another way,” I said. “I’m not wearing stuff that’s been in a commode.”
He laughed harder. “Look, man, we all do it. When I first rolled up here I said damn if I would too. Figured you couldn’t pay me to rub my dick against dirty drawers that’d been in shit water. But eventually I did. You’ll get used to it,” he said. “Even had a cellie a while back washed his face in it every morning. Scrubbed it out real good, then scooped water like it was a sink. That’s going too far for me, but I wash my tees and boxers in it. Just gotta make sure it’s clean first. Sounds funny, don’t it? Make sure your shitter’s clean?” He chuckled. “It don’t bother me one bit no more now,” he said.
“Cool,” I said.
Hell, no, I thought. Not going to!
I asked more guys, including my cellie Leonard, and got the same response. Toilet...toilet...toilet. I figured there’s a time to do as the Romans, and a time to stand firm, and this situation called for bullheadedness. I determined not to budge, even if it meant never being more comfortable than the sackcloth uniforms allowed.
There was a turning point, though, and it wasn’t the scratchy blanket or state-issued rags that persuaded me so much as an idiosyncrasy I’ve harbored for as long back as I can remember.
My nose was my downfall. I’m a sniffer, and an inveterate one at that. I’ve been a lifelong connoisseur of most things to which I could get my nose close enough without drawing too much attention to myself. Books. Candles. Jewelry. Photographs. Pencils. Ribbons. Receipts. Batteries. Stereo speakers. Dollar bills. Loose change. Wood-paneled hallways. Bubblegum wrappers. Spatulas. Staplers. Hair brushes (used as well as new). Andmost embarrassinglythe blouses, trousers, silk ties, and evening gowns adorning the unwary mannequins in all major department stores within the Austin metroplex. (I know, a tad peculiar, but we all have our quirks. One of mine happens to be exploring the olfactory qualities of the world’s miscellany. Don’t judge. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.)
So, seeing as how we weren’t assigned socks and boxers as we were pants and shirts, but rather got a different pair every day we showered, it should come as no surprise I snuffled every one they tossed my way. I’m persnickety about my feet. Sliding on a pair of socks I knew somebody else had worn stressed me out as bad as going to the dentist as an elementary school kid.
My apprehension back then was well-warranted. Our family dentist, Dr. Bromloff, had wiry eyebrows which jutted like tentacles over the black plastic rims of his antiquated glasses. When he pried around my pre-pubescent teeth with his stainless steel hook and mirror, he invariably lilted in a nursery-rhyme voice, “Let’s look at the upstairs. Now let’s look at the downstairs.” His breath oozed antiseptic, and he huffed it directly into my mouth. Also, on one of my sister’s visits, he filled her wrong tooth. Poor Becky. She was a mere two years older than me. I still remember her look of dismay, mouth pouty and puffed with cotton swabs, as Dr. Bromloff apologized to my mom for “the little mishap.”
Back to the socks. They were gross. I held each one an inch from my nose and inspected them for cleanliness. They failed, my spirit deflating another smidgen at each inhalation. With all the difficulty on Betothe relentless clamor, the strip searches, the predators, brawls, beat-downsit was wearing socks stained with the rancid stench of others’ sweaty feet that demoralized me to a state of capitulation. They smelled like a month-old gumbo of mildew and fungus. I winced every time I pulled one on. They were gray cotton, some with holes in the heels, others with clefts you could poke your big toe through. Most were uneven, one clamped at mid-calf while the other barely topped the ankle. All but the newest had stains even I wouldn’t reconnoiter.
One day, while dressing after a shower, I plunked down on a concrete slab smack dab in a haze of husky voices and body odor, inspecting the socks I was just issued. They were supposed to be clean. They weren’t. I held them at arm’s length, a safer distance than normal, and scrutinized them by sight. I couldn’t stomach a whiff. One was completely without elastic and had been cut diagonally across the toes at a forty-five degree angle, then stitched with what resembled kite string. It had so many stains it could’ve passed for a camo pouch. The other, actually, was the one that defeated me. From twenty-four inches away it reeked adamantly of its last occupant and held in stiff repose the arch of that man’s instep, the undulations of all five of his toes, and the poignant protrusion of his exaggeratedly misshapen metatarsal. I got the distinct sense that his trudgers throbbed.
My head slumped, my eyelids collapsed, and what a moment earlier was my obstinate will lay limp in my abdomen like a flaccid jellyfish in a dented pail. I was conquered. I put my brogans on my bare feet, tromped the long hallway to my cell block, and immediately added undergarments to that week’s commissary list.
Three days later I confessed to my cellie that I’d purchased clothing at the store. He whooped and roared. You’d have thought I was George Carlin on stage. I didn’t know whether to feel insulted by his glee or beneficent for occasioning him such joy. I abandoned the quandary and instead asked for the skinny on how to wash one’s clothes in a toilet. He was kind enough to go through the motions for me.
Later that night I did my first of what would, over the years, amount to uncountable loads. I waited for my cellie to go to the dayroom to play dominoes. I didn’t want an audience. I didn’t want a single person to witness what I deemed willful self-degradation.
Alone in my cell, I sat on the metal seat the size of a bucket lid welded to a trapezoidal steel arm bolted to the back wall. Then I did as my cellie had explained. I leaned toward the toilet, flushed, waited for it to fill back up. I took a wash rag and a bar of Ivory soap I had bought at commissary, and with bare hands whipped up a lather in the aluminum basin. Then I scrubbed its walls, the upper rim, the undersides of its lip, and as far into the drain hole as I could wedge the wash cloth wrapped around my straightened fingers. Then I flushed. The bowl filled back up. I rinsed and wrung the cloth, wiped the toilet clean, flushed again, then held the wadded washcloth in the drain hole while the basin filled higher than its norm.
Into the toilet water I dumped one new white cotton t-shirt, one new pair of white cotton boxer shorts, and six new pairs of white cotton knee-high socks with three thick red stripes encircling the upper elastic bands. I swished the clothes around to get them drenched, then rubbed them from hem to collar with the soap, from placket to seam, from toes to tomato-red bands. I let them soak for twenty minutes while I listened to dominoes slam against steel-top tables, men yell from cell to cell, radios churn out a cacophony of Tejano, hip hop, and classic rock.
I wrung, then flushed. Rinsed. Wrung. Flushed again. Then rinsed and wrung one last time. I tied the ends of three shoelaces together and strung the line from the steel plates bolting my cellie’s upper bunk to our side wall. I draped my wet undergarments over the improvised clothesline to air-dry overnight.
Odd thing is, when I was up to my forearms in sudsy toilet water, I didn’t feel the sense of disgust I had anticipated. With both fists full of foamy shirt tails and sleeves, socks and shorts, and while dunking them over and over again, I felt thankful. Not the indignity I had expected, but rather humility. I thought of all the doctors peering into backlit X-ray images at barely perceptible hairline fractures of fibulas. I thought of attorneys in their high-back leather chairs at their polished mahogany desks reviewing briefs for the next day’s court appearances. I thought of families gathered in backyards on the Fourth of July to barbecue sirloin steaks and chug raspberry punch.
I paused mid-scrub and gazed into the muddle of foam and water and underwear, and thought, This is where I got myself. Some people become doctors, some become lawyers, and some move into four-bedroom houses and shoo their kids to school with tummies full of blueberry muffins and milk. But me, I wash my clothes in a toilet. Of all the things I could have been, of all the lives I could have lived, this is where I got myself.
Then I pictured my dad driving my wistful mom to the bank in his miles-worn pickup truck. I imagined her delicate hand signing the money order she’d mail to my prison trust fund account so I would have money to buy instant coffee and vanilla cream cookies, ramen soups and white cotton t-shirts, boxers and socks. I thought of how she did without so I could have sweets to eat before I laid my head down on a hard, lumpy pillow in the closet-sized cell I shared with another man who snored on the bunk above me.
I knew I was where I was because of the decisions I had made, and felt lucky to have people in my life who hadn’t forsaken me, who cared for and believed in me. I knew that some guys on my unit didn’t have a single person who sent them cards, assured them they were there for them, made them feel human. I knew they wished they had a plastic jar of peanut butter in their lockers to spread on Nilla wafers first thing in the mornings and t-shirts to wash in aluminum toilets so they could sit in the dayrooms and smell like Ivory soap instead of the skunky armpits of their state-issueds.
The next night, after my new clothes had time to dry, I lay on my hard, knobby mattress. Overhead lockers squeaked and clanked as they opened and shut. Toilets flushed. Brass keys jangled on metal hoops hanging from guards’ leather belts. My uniform was folded and set atop my dirty brogans under the head of the bunk. I donned a pair of new socks, new boxer shorts, and a new t-shirt. The wool blanket muffled my ears. I lay with my eyes closed, still as a stalled clock, enveloped within the cozy fragrance of Ivory soap, gut-level-grateful for such improbable blessings of which I felt not the least bit deserving.
John Langenfeld entered the Texas prison system at the age of twenty-one and served fifteen consecutive years. He has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Sam Houston State University and a master's degree in literature from the University of Houston at Clear Lake.