Dropping the Soap

by Daniel A. Rosen |

It’s the one thing that even well-intentioned, non-homophobic people will advise you, when they know you’re headed to prison. It’s the joke they’ll all predictably make, perhaps to ease the tension of the moment, or because they don’t know what else to say: Whatever you do, do not, under any circumstances, drop that soap.

It’s not really funny, the subject of prison rape, or an appropriate subject for jokes anymore; I personally know of three forcible rapes that have happened where I was locked up. The victims were brutalized, badly traumatized; there were no consequences for any of the perpetrators. But people just can’t stop themselves from joking about it.

The thing that is kind of funny though: try as you might to heed that advice, soap is slippery. It’s very easy to drop. This is what happened when I did.

Let me explain first about the showers where I was locked up. There were four of them in the open shower area, which took up half of the bathroom of the barracks-style prison dorm I lived in. Just four bare shower heads that hung down from the ceiling about a shoulder width and a half apart, with a little button on the wall you had to push every minute to keep the water flowing. No dividers or curtains or privacy of any sort.

We only used the two showers on the close and far ends – the two furthest from each other – especially if two men showered at the same time. You’d just turn away from the other guy and take care not to see much around you, and make it quick. It wasn’t ideal, but then, not much in prison is. Take-your-time solo showers were an uncommon bonus, and rarely happened, given that 75 men a day needed to get clean. You’d call “next” on either the front or back shower, and wait your turn. There might be four or five men ahead of you, at busy times of day.

And so, one day I found myself in the back (farthest) shower, and as was the custom, the next man waiting for the front shower shouted: “Coming in the front, back shower – you good?” It was a courtesy, and saying no was unusual – it implied you thought the person asking was gay, and was taken as a sign of disrespect.

“I’m good,” I replied back. I never said no to anyone sharing the space, though a few others did if they even thought the person asking was ‘suspect’ somehow. I’d just gone through this same “coming in” routine myself with the man who’d been up front, when I’d entered.

So I had just started, gotten wet and done the shampoo bit, and went for the soap. I was rushing, because it was almost chow time, and I’d come in sweaty from walking the yard in the summer humidity. I went to grab the new green bar of soap out of its plastic holder, got it slick and sudsy under the stream of water – and then watched in slo-mo horror as it squirted right out of my grasp. Flailing to try and catch it, I made things worse, knocking it somewhere well out of my reach. I heard it hit the floor and skitter off somewhere. I’m sure I dropped a few choice curse words.

I opened an eye but saw nothing green on the grey tile floor anywhere around me. This was not good. I thought briefly of ditching the soaping-up part and my new bar, and just cutting my shower short, but I was really sweaty and kind of needed to clean up before I put on fresh clothes.

“Um.” I heard a voice, the other guy. “I think this is yours?” Oh god. Super awkward. Any conversation in the prison shower was really unwanted in my view, let alone this…this transaction that needed to happen.

Especially since the guy in question actually was gay, and he also regularly cut my hair. I wasn’t sure if this was worse for me or him. There we were, two grown naked men, trying to pretend we weren’t having to shower 8 feet away from each other, and neither of us wanted to be having this conversation – about a dropped bar of soap, of all things – given the many jokes featuring this very subject I’m sure we’d both heard. And likely an added layer of awkwardness for him, being gay and therefore always subject to ignorant and hateful attitudes in prison. It just felt fraught on many levels.

“Uh, can you just hand it to me?” I didn’t know what else to say. But his reaction told me he wouldn’t be picking up my slimy bar of soap with his bare hands (fair enough) or handing me anything across the showers.

“No chance,” he said as his water stopped running. “I’m vacating, you come get this.” He stepped out to the sink area on the other side of the wall that demarcated the showers.

So I nakedly hurried over and grabbed my bar of soap – which had been flung to the furthest corner of the shower area, next to him – as quickly as possible, humiliated. I mumbled something to let him know it was safe to come back, finished my shower and he did the same, and we never spoke of it afterwards, even when he next cut my hair.

To make matters worse, later on that evening, my neighbor “Tank” started telling me and the others who bunked around us what he advertised as a funny story, about some idiot who’d flung his soap clear across the showers at another guy – before I stopped him to fill him in that said idiot was, in fact, me. He’d no idea I was the protagonist in this drama.

Which, come to think of it, I probably should have let my role in the matter remain a mystery. Because I had to hear about it for weeks afterward, and they all called me “Irish Spring” for a while – which would be cool if I actually was Irish, and wasn’t just a reference to a really embarrassing prison shower story about doing the one thing you’re never supposed to do.

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