Tweed Lion

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper

Serving Time: Where Would Victor Hugo Eat?

My favorite place to eat is the state penitentiary, not in any of the many cafeterias, but just on the other side of the razor-wire and guard-towers there is a cafe open to the public. The Serving Time Cafe is not much of a place, located in a double-wide trailer. The food is good, but not the best. It’s a little out of the way, but cheap enough. But none of that matters; the real draw is that the cafe is staffed almost entirely by prisoners.

And yet the very thing that attracts me seems to be a considerable detriment to others.

You probably don't want to have your rehearsal dinner here.

You probably don’t want to have your rehearsal dinner here.

When I invite friends to the cafe, some decline expressing nervous concerns about being poisoned or stabbed. Others simply give some disgusted or dismayed variation of, “No way!” Either of these reactions really bothers me–partly because of ignorance, and partly because of something much worse.

On a practical level, the attitude of no-prisoner-is-touching-my-food! bugs me because it’s super unrealistic–like new parents who think they can kill every germ. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of it’s population than any other country in the world. (Unless you count Seychelles with it’s 92,000 residents as a valid sample of per capita incarceration.) In 2011 one out of every twenty-five Americans was arrested. (That’s about 12.4 million of us in one year.) About 28% of us have some kind of criminal record. And on any given day about 2.3 million citizens are incarcerated and 13 million are admitted into local jails. The idea that there aren’t former prisoners working in any of the kitchens of the restaurants we like is patently ridiculous. (The only difference is that at Chili’s there likely isn’t a correction’s officer present.)

Those rising lines represent people who are going to have trouble getting a job later--unless we change our attitudes.

Those rising lines represent people who are going to have trouble getting a job later–unless we change our attitudes.

But on a deeper level, I’m bothered by the undercurrent that prisoners are somehow less-than-people or immediately disqualified from our patronage.Let’s look at this issue through the lens of literature. (Since an earlier draft where I tried to look at this through the lens of Mr. Belvedere didn’t workout.)

Talk to anyone familiar with Les Miserables and ask them to make a list of their favorite moments or characters they most admire. In my experience, you are near-certain to hear about the exchange where Bishop Myriel not only forgives Jean Valjean for stealing silverware, but also goes the second mile by giving Valjean the candlesticks. Valjean is encouraged to use this act of grace as a springboard to an honest life.

Contrastingly, no Les Miserables fans I’ve talked to have told me they really admire Javert, the police inspector whose very identity is propped up soley by the unbending rod of justice. He is a pitiable man who has so thoroughly dismissed notions of forgiveness and compassion that when he first encounters them in his own life, it completely wrecks his sense of self.

Before him he saw two roads, both equally straight; but he did see two; and that terrified him––he who had never in his life known anything but one straight line. And, bitter anguish, these two roads were contradictory. One of these two straight lines excluded the other. Which of the two was the true one?

His situation was beyond words.

Dude, lighten up.

Dude, lighten up.

I have no problems with justice as long as it is seasoned with empathy and presented with a full complement of all other virtues. But the proper harnessing of justice seems to disappear entirely when people start relegating others into dimensional categories and stop viewing those around them–even inmates–as fellow human beings. Indeed, it is this very attitude that in part lead Victor Hugo to write Les Miserables.

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine;… so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.”

I love the Serving Time Cafe because it’s the only place outside of my church and home where I regularly get to see the work of salvation. When the inmates first come in, they don’t talk much, they seldom seem to smile, and they often seem dispirited. When they leave they are aglow with something that must be divine.

I’m sure there are lots of reasons for the transformation. Some of the initial timidity might just come from being in a new place and coping with the stress of learning their roles in the kitchen. Most of the glow that overcomes them is probably due to nothing more than the prospect of leaving the prison coming closer and closer. Yet I sincerely hope that some part of the change–even if it’s a tiny part–is due to the fact that people come in, order, smile, say “thank you,” and from breakfast to lunchtime treat these inmates like piers, equally deserving of the respect and compassion due to all people everywhere.

(Tried to think of a Hamburgler joke here, but failed.)

(Tried to think of a Hamburgler joke here, but failed.)

I hope when these prisoners, who have always been nothing but kind to me and my family, return to society they will fall into the company of Myriels, but I fear instead they will be hounded by Javerts. The point is, if I invite you to the Serving Time Cafe, feel free to decline, but it better be because you’re worried about the valves in your heart and not the people in the kitchen. Because there but for the grace of God grills you.

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2 Comments on “Serving Time: Where Would Victor Hugo Eat?

  1. Elizabeth
    January 10, 2015

    Great post. I know where my next lunch outing will be.

  2. Jane
    January 31, 2015

    Ooh ooh! Pick me! I’m a Les Mis fan, AND I like Javert. Did he have any compassion or mercy within him? No. Would he kill one of the greatest protagonists of all time (yet… and most likely ever)? Probably. BUT…. here’s the thing. He lived 100% what he believed was right. Yes, admittedly, everything he believed (correction: much of what he believed… or the application and narrowness of what he believed?) was, in fact, wrong, but he didn’t know any better. And when he did, he was deeply conflicted. And that’s the sad reality for all the Javerts of the world, one day (maybe after this life), when they really see the truth, they will be self-tortured by the choices they made. And, honestly, (let’s get real :)) I know God will judge them perfectly in accordance with the amount of knowledge and accountability they had. Of course, now we could go into ‘He’s an adult. He should know better.’ … and I don’t know. Hugo made him pretty one dimensional.
    Anyway, in the end (I know this seems long-winded, but trust me, for ME, it’s not ;)), how many people do we know (I know, I know, he’s fictional.) who lives 100% what they believe? Isn’t he exactly the kind of person you want on your team? The guy who fights tirelessly for a cause? On the right/my team? 😉 I’ll take a hundred Javerts and a book on brainwashing. Oh, and an inmate/hb fries and burger to go. Please and thank you.

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Published on August 20, 2014 by .