My first day on the job began with a twenty minute orientation. Actually, a twenty minute speech in a single breath. It was pretty impressive. Father Joseph H. Priestley met me at the door of his office and dove right in:
"OK, first things first. First, about the name: Yes my name is really Priestley and I'm really a priest. I have a dentist named Dr. Payne and a proctologist named Dr. Ashe. I've heard them all and they're not funny. Priestley is my name. Get over it. Second thing: You will not bring drugs, tobacco, alcohol, weapons or mechanical tools or any means of escape into this office at any time, ever. Third thing: No you may not use my fax machine, my xerox machine, my phone or my desk for anything related to personal business. You will use them only on my instruction for tasks that I've assigned to you. If I catch you doing any business---personal or physical---in my office you will no longer be my cadre worker. You will not have sexual contact with yourself or anyone else in my office at any time, ever. Finally: would you autograph my book?" He thrust a copy of my own novel at me. It looked brand new like he had bought it just for the occasion. I signed it and gave it back, stifling an urge to whimper. I was sorry I ever started that thing and I never wanted to see it again.
"I think you're a terrific writer. Now here, take this," he shoved a stack of about fifty or sixty inmate request forms into my hands. "These are all the inmate requests for emergency phone calls. They all have relatives who are sick or are dying or are dead, or both sick and dead, or maybe dying or maybe not dying they don't know because they can't get a phone call home."
I shuffled through the stack and my confusion must have been obvious. The priest opened his mouth first---I eventually learned he was very good at this---and said, "You're thinking, 'what the hell am I supposed to do with all this?' Welcome to my world." The skinny man with the bulbous nose broke into a big grin. "That's exactly what I ask myself every day. What the HELL do these people want from me?"
The chaplain's office was not a quiet, contemplative space. I spent the entire day shift in a constant flow of chaplain verbiage. I stayed zen, like a rock in the middle of the rapids. I eventually figured out that what I was supposed to do was call each hospital to confirm the inmate's dead or dying relative report with the hospital chaplain's office and give each confirmed report back to the chaplain. Each unverified report got returned to the inmate with a rubber stamp "unconfirmed emergency" denial stamped on it. At first I felt a little uncomfortable with what he wanted me to do.
"Will the hospital chaplain talk to me? Don't you have to be, like, somebody official? Are you telling me to impersonate a priest?"
"Son, I can't possibly make all those phone calls. I'm only human. Impersonation is only when you steal someone's identity to do something nefarious. You're doing this to help someone."
"So you just want me to lie about being a priest."
The Anti-Chaplain sighed---the longest space of silence since I walked into the room. He put his left hand on my shoulder and made the sign of the cross over me with his right hand. "Son, I absolve you. Make the calls."
I made the first call. The voice at the other end of the line sounded official but bored. "Uhn, this is Father Priestly from the Charm City Correctional Facility. I'm calling to confirm a report of an inmate's relative who died at your hospital."
"Sure, no problem," said the man. "You sound a lot younger than the last Father Priestley."