On the Art of Having Nothing

The Wild Word magazine
6 min readJan 29, 2021

By Ryan M. Moser — FROM THE INSIDE

Thirty inches long. Twenty-two inches wide. Eighteen inches high. Stainless steel with two hinges and seven cubic feet of storage space. Rusted. My prison footlocker holds every possession I now own, but nothing from my past. When it dawns on me that I can fit my entire life into this metal box, I get depressed. I open the lid to see my dull reality many times a day: Ramen noodles, the Tao-te Ching, a picture of Jennifer Lawrence, books of stamps, my tablet and headphones, state-issued t-shirts, Playboys, packages of refried beans and tuna. All of the conveniences of prison and necessary holdings of a convict.

Most inmates will agree that the items in our footlockers are valuable far beyond explanation. I had a cellmate who has kept a four-leaf clover he found on the rec yard for ten years now, and he would be heartbroken to lose it. It’s his connection to the wonders of nature and a reminder of freedom. Another acquaintance inventories his food items from the canteen with a daily religious fanaticism, convinced that his self-worth is somehow dependent on the amount of peanuts and chips and Crystal Light packets he owns; these are his only belongings and he covets them with zeal. My best friend is a harmless stage-four hoarder — he refuses to throw anything away and can barely close his locker lid. It’s overflowing with Q-tip boxes, property receipts, five-year-old magazines, and poorly packed mementos; he breaks out in a sweat every time he’s forced to toss something in the trash, as if he’s losing a part of himself. Very aware of the psychological deficiency, we joke about it all the time; however, when you own so little, the little things mean so much.

These army-gray footlockers hold our only assets while incarcerated — the Department of Corrections passes out hygiene, socks, and boxers, but prisoners have to buy or hustle up whatever else we need or want. Families can send money to purchase extras like playing cards, reading glasses, vitamins, or sneakers, and we store these accoutrements in our tiny boxes, stowing them away like the treasure of Monte Cristo. Some of the inmates have empty lockers, unable to fend off the wolves and keep their things. The drug dealers rent five or ten lockers, filling their illegal safety deposit boxes with goods that make them feel rich again.