So my buddy and fellow inmate, Christopher Warren, gave me approval to share a story he wrote for his creative writing class. He is in the final year of his 175 month prison sentence for mortgage fraud dating back to the financial collapse of 2008.
He has been incarcerated since 2009 and looks forward to leaving prison having vision and hope for a redemptive life going forward.
Over the past eleven years he has earned multiple college degrees and spoken publicly at different levels of schools in multiple states about the power of positive and negative choices.
The story I’m about to share by my friend Christopher is call “Gifted Table,” enjoy.
Gifted Table by Christopher Warren
The table is small. It is metal. It doubles as my step to get on the top bunk and is about twenty-four inches squared.
One time at around two in the morning I tried to get down from the upper bunk a little too quickly, slipped, and tore a huge piece of my skin off my shin on the edge of that table.
At one point in history the table was white, but now, more like a fancy vintage paint at an uppity hardware store. Maybe something like “century-old barn whitewash.”
It was a place to eat for one, but shared by two – the other person would have to sit on the metal toilet to eat his meal; or if the lower bunk guy was a real philanthropist, he might roll up his mattress and allow me to use his metal slab as a seat to eat there.
There were no chairs for this table, that was for sure. Just those twenty-four inches of vintage whitewashed metal sticking out of the cinderblock wall in the seventy square-foot cell.
The table was like me. Beaten, uneven, with ridges and edges that weren’t coming out anytime soon.
That table would hold my Calculus II book with no covers or spine because prison officials had to remove the book covers and spine (for safety, they said); the now almost loose-leaf text would precariously sag half over the table’s ledge, threatening to separate and turn into 800 individual pages of maddening formulas and theorems.
I tried to learn under miserably low light on that table at one in the morning once while a cop was banging on the cell door next to mine, screaming “one man per bunk,” over and over again; me sitting confused until, slowly, awareness crept over my face, a mixture of trepidation and amusement.
That table would hold my paper pad and my collection of pencils and contraband pens as I would write letters to mom at home, or kites to women in the kitchen, or incessant questions to priests in robes, or essay drafts for schools serving inmates and military members deployed. Each envelope sticking out the cell door, waiting to be picked up by a CO on their next count.
There was power to be found in those twenty four square inches. It was freedom when I was surrounded by walls. It was the vehicle to learning, sharing, feeling, achieving, and seeing.
Sometimes I would grip its solid ledge with my hands, pull my knees to my chest so my butt would come off the ground, and start doing mini pull-ups.
The table took my abuse and offered me access to truths now unavoidable. Once I would put something on that table, a letter, a lawsuit, a plea agreement, an indictment, a newspaper article, it was there. It had to be dealt with.
The table stopped me from running.
It’s where I could read the Wall Street Journal and the Sacramento Bee; Mandela and McCain; Willard and Smith; where I could write pieces printed in an anthropology journal or in a local recovery tract. It is where I could write good essays and dreadful ones; it’s where those essays would land back with professors’ ubiquitous red ink; it is where I would struggle to be original and find only trite or tortured prose.
That table held the paradoxical and mixed bag of my attributes simply, and more truthfully, than my extravagant “L”-shaped desk ever did in that office tower on the thirteenth floor. That jail table held no expectation, it held no judgment, it encouraged no dishonesty, it did not air pretense.
Those metal tables in each cell that I lived in for almost four years, that chunk of metal was there for me, before my hair started thinning and going grey and before the fifteen-year bid started grinding me down, putting lines and cracks on my face.
That table, all twenty-four by twenty-four of it, was my home, my kitchen, my lab, my card table, my step stool, my hiding spot, my photo shelf, my prayer closet; all that I had, it held.
I used to think to myself how horrible it would be, and how inhumane it would be, to be in a prison yard where they didn’t have tables in the rooms that you lived in.
Now I live in a room built for four but packed with twelve and no table in sight.
I sit on a bunk missing, wishing, for that piece of metal that scarred my shin and gave me my first-ever prison scar. A small price I paid for such a powerful table.
Noah here, back again.
Chris is one of my closest friends who I have grown very close to and learned a lot from over the past six months. I thought the “Gifted Table” was a good representation of how stripped down our world becomes as an inmate or a convict, however one might perceive us, or how we perceive ourselves.
When you are out in the real world a table is just a table; some people might just put it in their home for decoration and never use it until they are sick of looking at it and then replace it with the new fad. To an inmate though it can mean so much more, at times it can be our whole world, and once that table is removed from our lives, such was the case for Chris and myself as well, we learn to appreciate what it was and what it did for us.
After I read this story, I thought about back in Milan when I always had a desk in the three different cubes I lived in throughout my time there. When I transferred to Yankton and was put into a twelve man room, the first thing I noticed was the absent desk. Like Chris said that is where we did all our business, dirt, cooking, corresponding, or simply alone time. I thought well just another thing stripped away from the life of an inmate.
Now we have lived out of our lockers for the past several years, six shelves and a coat rack, to contain all our belongings. Some other things stirred up memories as I noticed other similarities between Chris’s story and my own, for one his office was on the thirteenth floor, so was my apartment in 2011 when shit hit the fan for me, and I am sure that office means the same to him as that apartment does for me.
Also, his Calculus book with no cover or spine, and I think back to the first time I was called to the mailroom because someone sent me a hardcover book. They said we can send it back or you can rip the cover off, so I chose the latter, just like Chris must have.
Even though “Gifted Table” might not stir the same emotions or feelings for readers who have not experienced incarceration, it gives a good look into the life of an inmate who is hanging onto and being grateful for the few things they have in their lives, and if more people lived like an inmate, being grateful for what they have instead of being spiteful for what they don’t, the world would be a better place.
Till next time, from the inside,