“Miss, have you ever seen a big, muscular guy faint at the sight of a needle?” I asked the Italian American nurse when it was my turn for the medical assessment that all new federal inmates arriving at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) Brooklyn, New York, have to undergo.
It was 2am. I had now been waiting in the holding cells at R&D (Receiving and Discharge) for seven hours. There were 60 prisoners in my batch who had all arrived with me on the same bus from Rhode Island.
All of us were split among three holding cells. This meant 20 prisoners to a cell that was four paces long and two paces wide. There was only sitting room for six in each cell so the remaining 14 of us had to stand. We had now been standing for seven hours.
There was one steel toilet in the corner. If you need to urinate you just stand there and do it, in full view of everyone. Inmates usually avert their eyes out of respect.
“Ha! I see it all the time,” the nurse smiled as she replied to me with the typical New York twang. After two years in the United States I was now beginning to distinguish between different American accents.
The subject of needles arose when she pricked a needle inside the skin of my forearm for the mandatory tuberculosis test administered when every federal inmate arrives at a new prison in the United States.
This was the second such tuberculosis skin test I had had in 48 hours. I had lost count of how many medical needles had penetrated the skin of my arms as I entered my eleventh year in prison. I was worried of returning home to my family looking like a heroin addict.
I had asked the same question to almost every nurse in the UK and US that had pricked my skin with a needle. All of them had given the same answer. They were used to seeing big, muscular prisoners go weak at the knees whenever a needle was produced.
“Lobster boys.” I remembered the concept that Khalid had taught me during my first weeks in prison ten years earlier in 2004.
“A lobster’s skeleton is on the outside, so it is hard on the outside but once you crack the shell, it is soft inside,” Khalid used to say. “A human, however, is soft on the outside but under the soft flesh is a hard skeleton.”
Khalid loved to speak in parables to simplify life concepts in a way that everyone could understand.
During the 11 years I spent in prison, I saw many lobster boys, sometimes known as plastic gangsters. The way they would walk and talk, you would think that they were the toughest men on the planet.
They would tell stories about how much weight they could lift in the prison gym, their knowledge about firearms, all the big and bad criminals that they knew and how many [female dogs] they had “conquered.”. This was the talk.
And the walk?
They would walk through the prison with a strut and a bounce, wearing their prison hats in ways that suggested they had swag or confidence.
They would frequently be seen in the federal prison compounds “pumping up” with pull-ups and press-ups before a topless photoshoot to ensure that their muscles rippled for the photographs.
These photographs would be then be sent to a friend to be posted on Facebook, the idea being that they could tell everyone at the dinner table a few days later how many [female dogs] had liked their photograph.
These same lobster boys would then be seen the next morning lining up in the medication queue for anti-depressant pills because they couldn’t handle being in prison.
Now there is nothing wrong with someone taking anti-depressants. The problem is when you act like a tough guy superhero but in actual fact you are nothing like a tough guy superhero.
I met many prisoners, tall, muscular, with “tough guy” tattoos, strutting through the prison as if they were God’s gift to humanity . One of their biceps was equal to both of my legs put together.
But these same prisoners would be unable to sleep at night because they could not handle prison.
“Empty vessels make the most noise,” Plato once said.
When you are empty or weak inside, you try to talk, walk and act in such a way that others think you are actually tough.
But the more full you are inside, the less you need from other people.
The real tough guys in prison were the quiet, humble, respectful ones. The ones who did not jump the food line and did not strut through the prison as if they were on the catwalk at London Fashion Week.
The ones who, instead of telling stories, actually tried to downplay how big they were. You would only hear about these prisoners from others.
“In my experience, the bigger the charge, the nicer the prisoner,” a barrister once told me. (A skilled lawyer, not one who makes coffee, a “barista.”)
The real “Mr. Bigs” don’t have to prove anything to anyone. They don’t need other people’s approval to demonstrate how tough they are, how much confidence they have, how much pressure they can handle.
They have high self-esteem. They know who and what they are so they don’t care what others think about them.
Since being released from prison I see lobster boys everywhere. At the gym, on the streets, on public transport.
For fun, I sometimes like to scare lobster boys out of their shells by going up to them and asking whether I know them from prison. Their demeanour changes instantly. It turns out that they are not really “bad boys”; they are just trying to act as if they are.
Honesty with oneself comes before honesty with others. Be honest with yourself first, and then honesty with others will flow naturally from that.
Being honest with yourself means acknowledging your vulnerabilities. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to acknowledge your vulnerabilities.
Because once you know what your weaknesses are, you can work to turn them into strengths. But if you don’t even accept that you have any weaknesses, it will catch up with you sooner or later and you will fall flat on your face.
You can fool some of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
So be yourself, be a human. Not a lobster.
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