“Sucker for a tomato!” I can’t tell you how many times I repeated that line over and over from 2003 to 2006. I guess I better explain a little. I spent 12 years at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California, where every morning, rain or shine, most of the girls would line up outside of their housing unit, make a single-file line and walk to the chow hall. The walk there was usually pretty quiet. Most women weren’t very talkative after sleeping on a one-inch plastic mattress, sharing a 16×16 foot cell which included 4 sets of bunk beds, two sinks, a shower, and eight lockers, with seven other women and a whole lot of interesting noises during the night. Not to mention having to get out of bed at 6 am to walk in the cold to the chow hall.
When you’re doing time, you either need to get up and go to the chow hall, or if you’re fortunate enough, you can buy enough food on canteen so you can make meals in your room. My girlfriend (who through the journey became my life partner) and I were luckily enough to not have to go. I despised the chow hall and it took almost an act of God to get me up to go. In 2003 I had already done nine years there, and to say I was sick of the chow hall was an understatement. So whenever we could we made our own meals.
As crazy as it sounds, one of my most favorite memories is when everyone except my girlfriend and I went to dinner. She was a wiz when it came to taking whatever they sold on canteen and turning it into the most delicious dish. That’s pretty hard to do when your stove is an old plastic bowl filled with water, the food you want to cook is in a plastic bag, and you boil your food by dropping what’s called a stinger into the bowl which heats the water. Often, when the chow hall was serving something terrible, we would cook for the entire room and have what we called family night. In prison you look for whatever normalcy you can find, and more times than not you have to create it yourself. Cooking dinner was the best you could do.
No matter how much I despised going to the chow hall, there was one thing that could get me to happily get up and go, and that one thing was tomato day. It was very difficult to get fruits or vegetables that weren’t either on the verge of no longer being edible, or were so unripe and hard you couldn’t eat it for a week. So once a week when they would give us a tomato in our lunch, I knew that my girlfriend Teresa would work her magic and make me the most delicious tomato and macaroni dish I had ever tasted. Even to this day, I haven’t tasted anything as good in the free world as the dish she made me in prison.
Now you’re probably thinking that I say sucker for a tomato because I loved the dish she made. However it’s not that simple. When Teresa made me her special tomato dish we needed at least seven to eight tomatoes, which was just about impossible to get being you were only given one. Who in their right mind would give up a ripe tomato in prison? Not many people I tell you. However everyone knew that all the new girls who just came in from county jail would be craving anything sweet. So when we would shop canteen I would buy forty suckers. Then on the way back from chow hall I would stand back a little so the officer wouldn’t see me holding up the line. There I would be holding ten suckers in my hand, arm raised up, yelling, “Sucker for a tomato!” Being that other women also wanted to trade things for tomatoes you couldn’t just quietly stand there and ask someone for their tomato. The key was to imagine those old black and white movies where the guy with the hat stands on the street corner selling newspapers yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” So there I was, hand held high with suckers, yelling, “Sucker for a tomato!” One by one a happy customer would snatch the sucker out of my hand and I would take that precious tomato.
It didn’t matter what kind of day I had on tomato day, because I knew that later that night, even for just an hour or so it would feel like home again.