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Without Understanding and Never Twice the Same

Saturday, 12th May, 2001

The spotlight moves slowly and deliberately across the department store car park. The guard in the tower follows it with his infrared binoculars; he's sure he heard something, but can't pinpoint exactly where. He pans left, right, left again. Ah! There! His eyes trace the journey of the young couple, arm in arm, through the barbed wire fence and up to the door of the restaurant. He sighs and puts down the field glasses. Another false alarm.

Meanwhile, below the servers on the ground floor, one prisoner digs away at the earth with a regular spoon and fork. Nobody had noticed Fred spirit them away two weeks earlier and it had increased the rate of progress fourfold. A drip of sweat trickled down his forehead, not just because of the work but because the tunnel was too close to the stairs and a blind forger wasn't really the best lookout a breakout could hire.

No, Spike Lee isn't producing a modern day shopping mall interpretation of 'The Great Escape'. The fact is that American prisoners are working at the Red Lobster seafood restaurant on day release.

Colour me surprised.

You see, how the world views the United States is not necessarily how the United States is really like. For good reasons or bad, the country has a very bad press on a global level, and no, not just in China but in allied countries too.

Here in England, we've heard about the student rampage at Columbine High, the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult members, the Kansas vote to reintroduce the Biblical story of creation to school science classes. We know about the LA riots, the Ku Klux Klan, the Michigan Militia. We recognise OJ Simpson, Tim McVeigh, Bill Clinton. We know that more Brits died in the Gulf War at the hands of Americans than at those of Iraqis.

In short, we get the bad news: the insanity, the bigotry and the fanaticism. Good news doesn't attract viewers anyway, but it gives us a very one sided view of the world at large.

It also means that our interpretation of American justice might not be particularly accurate. We assume that it is as hard as nails and as swift as the hawk. After all, we have no electric chair in England, no death by lethal injection, no chain gangs. We watch 'Hill Street Blues' in the knowledge that our police don't carry guns. 'Be careful out there' has very different connotations on this side of the pond.

We see Dirty Harry, Robocop or Judge Dredd as the natural evolution of the LAPD: judge, jury and executioner all in one unstoppable armour-plated unit.

So how come prisoners are being let out to work for a living at Red Lobster? I can bring you the inside story, courtesy of the best waitress in the place.

Not just are these prisoners effectively given a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, but they get paid to do so. They also get to screw Uncle Sam on the wages they earn because the American restaurant system works on tips. Tips go into the back pocket and magically avoid tax forms; the prisoners conveniently forget to tell the jail how much they earn and the jail doesn't take it from them. On top of all that, some of them even get laid!

I can't help but remember Eddie Murphy in '48 Hours'. Prisoners are supposed to be locked up for years without 'ever gettin' no trim'. The jail cell is not intended to be a hotel room. How times change. In the 1920s Al Capone got sent to Alcatraz for tax evasion; now young felons get to enjoy backroom trysts with waitresses while pocketing tip after tip for services rendered at the restaurant table. No doubt, they'll soon be getting appointed key employees.

Of course, all this means that if my 'Great Escape' scenario ever became reality, half the prisoners wouldn't want to leave! Free bed every night, guaranteed tax-free work and free sex as a bonus. I can see the next generation of Monopoly players praying to get the card that reads 'Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.' Who needs Go when you can have free sex?

What makes it even stranger still is that the prisoners are getting a better deal than the regular staff. In America that's not something that I think would go down too well. Waitressing is a job somewhat akin to the game of Reversi or Othello. It takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.

Those who make a living out of it have to work long, hard hours and are often mentally and physically exhausted at the end of their shifts. Sounds pretty similar to working on a chain gang, right? One difference: if you want to take it easy, feel free. No whips and Dobermann pinschers here; just be aware that if you don't work many tables, you won't get many tips; and if you don't get many tips you'll end up below minimum wage.

Of course, somehow I think minimum wage at a fish restaurant has got to be somewhat preferable to another day avoiding bending down too far in the prison shower. So the felons get to work long but easy hours, while the regular servers lose their overtime. No overtime, no bills paid. This has got to be the start of a stunningly beautiful friendship.

I'm intrigued as to how this saga will end up. Maybe the bartenders will just go on strike, but that could just prompt Red Lobster to advertise more at the local prison. Maybe the waiters will group together on quiet days and doubleteam the felons, but that could just mean the WWF would find a replacement for XFL. Maybe the regular staff will spit in the prisoners' food, but then they'd get caught on camera when it all turns out to be a Red Lobster sponsored new reality tv show.

More than anything, I'm intrigued as to how many customers know that they've just tipped a convicted criminal; and how many would pull out an AK-47 if they found out at the table. In a state that has a flourishing militia, I'm pretty sure that most Michigan residents would be happy to take part in target practice at the bar.

So why the inconsistency? Why does one criminal get sent to boot camp and the other to Red Lobster? Maybe Jack London had it right in his stories of the goldrush era Yukon wilderness. It's a hundred years since he wrote about 'The White Man's Way' but it seems that it still applies.

'Always does the white man speak true,' says Jack London's Eskimo. 'But the white man speaks true in different ways. Today he speaks true one way, tomorrow he speaks true another way, and there is no understanding him nor his way.'

The story tracks down the reason why two aged Eskimos live a lonely life in an igloo with no food. Where are their able-bodied sons to bring food to them?

Yamikan, from the village, kills a white man, but he isn't killed in return. He is kept in a warm bed and given food, carried away on an iron boat to a land with no snow. He lives many years in California to eventually return and serve the tribe as head man.

So the son of these two aged Eskimos decides to follow suit. He wants to live in California and eat well too, so he finds himself a white man and puts an axe through his skull. Now the white man will carry him away and treat him well.

But no, the white man takes him to an appointed place and hangs him by the neck until he is dead. That is why the two aged Eskimos live a lonely life in an igloo with no food, 'because of the way of the white man, which is without understanding and never twice the same.'

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