I went for a tour of a prison this week, as part of a chamber of commerce leadership training class thing I'm doing. It's a weird industrial kind of faded sadness the place evokes. Everything in the architecture and décor is spare and metallic and rote, but there's a feral smell wafting through the air, a smell of sleep and old socks and sore throats and rainy afternoons in trailers. It's the smell of an Arby's uniform after work, a stink that goes undetected mostly because it's never allowed outside of its vicinity, its distinct zone. You are trapped with that odor if you have any connection to it though. It's yours. And the prison pods I toured with other professional types had that stink but it was captured so you could breath it in without having to live through it, so it almost becomes a sort of souvenir, a sense memory, a joke.
But I've lived with that smell many times in my life. I'm from lower-income stock, have lived in Section 8 apartments, have worked a number of really crappy jobs. I know what that smell is, and it really made me feel connected to something you don't really want to be connected to, but you have to get used to because its who you are, not so much a destiny as an element, a chemical vapor.
When we toured the pods, you could see a few prisoners waiting out our visit in their cells. We even were told we could look into a cell or two, and what we saw was what you'd think we'd see. A silver metallic sink and toilet, bunk beds, linoleum, cinder-block blankness. It was not horrifying in anyway, just routine and drab and on the edge of total disappearance, that exact moment before everything gets taken away.