My food package just arrived. The New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) allows all prisoners who remain charge/infraction free for a year to order an “Incentive Food Package” from an outside approved vendor. If you are charge free then you can order up to sixty (60) lbs, otherwise they slash the weight. Prices are extremely expensive but that is a subject for another day.
Carrying the two large cardboard boxes from the center bubble of my housing unit to the location of my second level cell, I could literally feel the eyes of my fellow prisoners following my every foot step. I smiled knowingly as it is a norm for everyone to “eye-hustle” when someone gets a food package.
One of my Muslim brothers yelled out, “Tariq, send them Cotton Candies down, Insha’Allah (God Willing).” Another brother replied even loudly, “Yeah, you can Insha’Allah some-else brother. You KNOW he ain’t givin them Cotton Candies up for Nothin!”
Yes, everyone who knows me well enough in NJSP is aware of the fact that I like Cotton Candy. And I am OK with that. You see, Cotton Candy is a universally understood statement of happiness. A ‘gesture’ that automatically places a smile on everyone’s face. – Look at yourself in the mirror, you are smiling RIGHT NOW! – It is a ‘feeling’ that makes you giddy, and perhaps even silly. In it as much that if you went out for fun and had Cotton Candy, you can bet your bottom dollar, that you will forever remember that outing.
Growing up in Pakistan, pre-teen years, I remember eating Cotton Candy, called “Luch-aa” in Urdu, from the street vendors who went from door to door in our neighborhood. They would loudly announce their presence as they passed through the alleyway, referred to as a “Gully” in Pakistan. As if a wolf, playing my Atari videogames in our drawing room, my ears would perk up and I would dash down the stairs, past the verandas and shrubbery of my house, running into one of our beloved housemaids, Preeto Baji, then crossing the painted white wrought iron door to reach the parking lot, there after carefully clearing my mother’s blue Nissan Charade and my aunt’s white Suzuki 800 hatchback, I would finally turn left towards the Gully.
“Slow down Tariq,” some neighbor or family member would scream. But, as I ran, or floated in the air, I only heard the chirping of birds as there were so many sparrows, quails, crows, and parrots in Lahore. Ignoring all people and birds, I would look for the vendor. And as always, I would find him under the shade of a Poplar tree at the mouth of the Gully. He would be standing there with his makeshift strewn-straw made dais upon which he had that plastic see-through box containing the colorful stacks of Cotton Candy.
“There you are Haneef”, I would say smiling as I reached into my pocket to pull out the two rupees to make my purchase.
“Only for you Tariq Bhai (Brother),” he would say with his sincere smile. I would then take my colorful bundles of happiness and enjoy them one pinch at a time, standing on the second story veranda of our House watching people go and birds fly by, wondering if Heaven had Cotton Candy for clouds.
A time, etched in my memory.
Years later, in my late teens in New York, I would go to Coney Island often. I remember riding the Cyclone – The best rollercoaster in the world – and then walking down the boardwalk with my friends from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long island. We would do what boys of that age do best, gawk and mess with the beautiful girls all around, picking fights, and then look for some thing to eat. Among all the food options, from Nathan’s and the ice cream on the boardwalk, it was a rather hard choice to make. But, for me, it was always simple.
“You want some pizza, or hotdogs?” Someone would ask and then I would look around to always find the colorful puffs of joy up ahead as if a hanging rainbow. They beckoned me to come, and I followed and floated in the air as if under an enchantment.
Just like days in Pakistan, Coney Island boardwalk was also full of people, seagulls and other birds. Once again, ignoring all people and birds, I drifted towards the vendor. And just like Haneef in Lahore, the vendor in New York also received me with the, “Only for you Tariq,” sincere smile. I would then take my potpourri bundles of happiness and enjoy them one pinch at a time, while sitting on a wooden post watching the people on the beach, the waves lapping on the pier, and the humongous cargo ships in the bay, wondering if Heaven had Cotton Candy for clouds.
Another time, etched in my memory.
Nowadays, in prison, I open my food package boxes and after putting away all my “goodies”, I crawl next to my window and looking at the bright blue sky, the pigeons, the sparrows, and the hawks of Trenton, I enjoy eating my Heavenly clouds one pinch at a time, thinking of days past, hoping, and praying, for yet more good days to come. And perhaps, another good memory.
– By Tariq MaQbool