Thomas Spent 19 Years Cooking for Inmates on Rikers Island; I Just Knew Him as my Reservoir Running Pal

Thomas Garcia and his favorite ginkgo tree. Photographs by Allan Ripp.

By Allan Ripp

“Yo, Jeff. Jeff!”

As always, it took a few moments to realize the call-outs were for me. I am Jeff – but only to the polite, pencil-thin man stretching against a ginkgo tree inside the West 90th Street entrance to Central Park. He is Thomas Garcia – dedicated Reservoir runner, jailhouse chef, happy bachelor, and my park friend for the past 38 years.

Thomas somehow misheard my name years ago and although I corrected him it never stuck. And so, I answer to Jeff whenever we see each other, as I did this particular morning in late October, when Thomas had news to share.

“I did it, Jeff! I’m free!” he shouted, raising his fist in the air. I knew instantly what he meant. He had retired from his job as a longtime cook for the city’s Department of Correction. For the past 19 years he’s worked at Riker’s Island, preparing turkey and beef stew, chili con carne, baked chicken, plus countless mounds of potatoes and meat patties for inmates confined at New York’s largest jail complex located in the East River between the Bronx and Queens.

“I feel liberated,” Thomas told me. “I have all the time in the world. I’m not obligated to be anywhere for anyone. I can run anytime, go anywhere. This is it!”

You can go your own way.

It seemed like forever since I’d been hearing Thomas’s retirement countdown. We first met at the Reservoir in the early 1980s, when the track was still a pockmarked, puddle-filled obstacle course mostly for hard-core runners. Then as now, Thomas preferred to go clockwise against the flow and I thought, who is this show-off whizzing by with such perfect strides? And did he ever put on a T-shirt? But we soon started chatting and running together – more accurately, Thomas kindly downshifted to my pace for a lap before pushing to higher gear for one of his speed workouts, leaving my knees coated in cinder dust.

Thomas has lived on the Upper West Side for 50 years, arriving in 1971 at age 11 with his family from Santiago de Los Caballeros, the Dominican Republic’s second-largest city, located in the north. The Garcias initially settled in a brownstone on Amsterdam Avenue between 89th and 90th (it’s now the fancy 18-story Sagamore residence). His father started as a factory worker but then ran a travel agency; his mother toiled in a clothing factory. In 1988, they moved to a walk-up on 95th Street west of Columbus, where Thomas has resided ever since. Speaking zero English when he arrived, he attended IS 44 on West 84th Street – “survived is more like it,” he says, though he never got into a fight. From there he went to City College, where he majored in political science and ran cross-country, competing in middle-distance races.

“My thing was the 5,000-meter, but I also did 10,000-meters,” he says. At one CUNY championship event he clocked a 4:30 mile. “Sounds great, but it put me in fourth place – there were guys from Ethiopia who beat me with 4:10 and 4:05 times.”

They called him “Macho.”

Thomas landed his first job with Corrections in 1989 as a dietary aide at the medium-security Bronx House of Detention near Yankee Stadium. “Mostly clean-up detail and helping the line cooks with food prep,” he recalls. “It was a rough place – there were a lot of hard-core types but I kept my head down and never had any trouble.” By 1995 he graduated to cook and then moved to Rikers in 2003. Despite his lean-cuisine build and gentle manner, he was given the nickname “Macho” by one of the kitchen managers.

His cooking used to feed more than 7,000 prisoners daily – but in recent years the number dropped by half, as Rikers reduced its population. He primarily served inmates at two of Rikers’ eight facilities: the George R. Vierno Center in Elmhurst, a giant holding pen for those awaiting transfer to more permanent lock-up; and the Anna M. Kross Center, a 40-acre site housing accused individuals as well as convicted felons awaiting sentencing.

Thomas saw plenty of showdowns during his time at the big house. “The inmates are always fighting,” he says, “and finding creative ways to make weapons and hurt others. They’ll use anything – plastic, shanks, utensils, glass. Some get their hands on actual weapons.” Prisoners also kept getting “younger and younger,” he adds, raising the level of tension and acting out. “You got all types at Rikers – Black, Chinese, Jewish, Caribbean, Muslim. No one’s left out and someone’s always mad at somebody.”

And yet, he says he never felt personally in danger, even during frequent alarms when all activity was frozen and the corridors echoed with screeching. “First of all, the kitchen is a safe zone,” he explains. “High-risk prisoners aren’t allowed to work around knives or escape routes. But no one ever messed with me – hey, I’m the guy who makes the food.” He also wasn’t nervous having to work during Covid, noting that all kitchen employees were tested regularly, along with the inmates.

“I’m a decent cook, yeah,” he admits, describing his talent for Lyonnaise potatoes, white fish and various beef patties, including Jamaican and Cajun. “And we cut back on salt,” he says of the DOC’s evolving nutritional practices. “We do a lot more now with black pepper, paprika and garlic to keep it flavorful. Whatever we cook is for everyone – guards, officers and civilians,” along with those in detention.

His schedule remained steady for years – Tuesday through Saturday from 10 AM-7 PM, which is why I frequently saw him on the late side Monday mornings doing windmill warm-ups under his favorite tree. “For me, Mondays were the best,” he says. Otherwise, he’d be at the Reservoir by 6 AM to get a full work-out in. Not surprisingly, he rarely cooks at home. “I don’t eat a lot to begin with, but the last thing I want to do at night is mess with another potato or piece of chicken.”

It’s hard not to marvel.

It’s hard not to marvel at Thomas, all 125 pounds of him on a sinewy five-foot-10 frame. I gave up running years ago, as my aging hips, ankles and other body parts retired from the sport. But at 62, Thomas is still at it, even with his own nagging injuries and strains. So what if he’s not logging the 100-125 miles per week he did in his prime? He can still cover 25 miles most weeks and out-sprint many of the young bucks loping. And I am certain a few of the bridle path trees lean a little further after so many years of his forceful resistance stretching.

Along the way, he bought a condo back in the Dominican Republic, where I knew Thomas would be spending a lot more time post-retirement. His parents, both of whom are still alive, are more nervous about him returning and would prefer he stay on the UWS. “It can get a little sketchy down there,” Thomas says. “Last May of 2020 I was in Santiago checking out my running stats on my phone outside my apartment, when two guys came by on motorcycle. The guy on back jumped off and demanded I hand over my phone – he pulled a gun so I had to give it up. I should have been more careful – you can’t be brandishing your phone or wallet or any jewelry. I’ve seen other neighbors robbed at gunpoint.”

Still, the prospect of running in 80-degree weather all winter is too appealing. He also plans to train up-and-coming Dominican track athletes for the American Games in Santiago. His sister and niece will remain in his UWS apartment and he’ll come back in May or June to hang out. “I’ve always been single – I love that lifestyle,” he says. “My independence is important. I love the freedom of no commitments.”

Although Thomas and I have never socialized outside the park – not even for a coffee – our enduring Reservoir bond has been an important touchstone. Having the pleasure of seeing him in the same fixed location for nearly four decades not only connected me to my younger, nimbler self, but brought welcome continuity in a city awash in change and forgotten names and faces. His absence will make my New York just a little more faded and less familiar.

Spotting him this week on yet another brilliant late fall morning, I asked Thomas if he’d consider delaying his exit because of the mild weather. Or the spread of the new Omicron variant. He told me he has to stick around till the New Year, only to get all his financial affairs in order – but his plan is still to vamoose. “I’m ready to go, man. My time’s come,” he answered. “But don’t worry, I’ll look for you next spring sometime.”

By then, I’ll be all ears for the park’s birdsong, and the sweet call of “Jeff.”

Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.

COLUMNS, FOOD, NEWS, OUTDOORS | 13 comments | permalink
    1. Alison Curry says:

      What a lovely article! I too have seen Thomas many times. I often write backstories for the people whose paths I cross. I am very glad to know the real story.

    2. Warren says:

      Great article.

    3. Deep THought says:

      What a great story Thank you WSR for writing it and sharing

    4. Sarah says:

      We should all look so good at 62!

    5. Nelson says:

      As a 58 yr old devoted (but slowing!) Park runner, I especially love and appreciate this piece. Thank you for sharing it with your neighbors!

    6. Mark Moore says:

      Good for Thomas. He’ll have a nice pension if he started at Department of Correction (it’s not Corrections, sorry) in 1989.

      He also eats well. A guy who ran for public office many times, who is one of the fathers of the NYC Marathon and who upon his death the NY Times called a “civic gadfly” in the headline of his obituary once told me that the secret to a long healthy life is to only eat what you need to eat to avoid being hungry. George Spitz was still standing straight and slim when he died at age 92. And look at Thomas there.

    7. JC says:

      I need more of these positive reads in my life. Good luck Macho!!

    8. Rosa says:

      Is a beautiful story I’m empathetic with Allan Ripp knowing a man for decades and never socializing but made a big impact for this man’style Trough the years without trying to develop a friendship I believe this feeling has already anchored in both strongly and silently.Very moving story of a strong- bond of friendship without the intention of created it.

    9. John Kenney says:

      Allan: This is a terrific article about one of the many wonderful members of the NYC running community. I have also said Hi to “Tomas” while running around the Reservoir for the better part of the last 40 years. He always brightens your day. Thanks.

    10. Tired of it says:

      Running clockwise isn’t just against flow – it’s against the clearly posted rules for the Reservoir track.

      Yes other people do it. Other people doing it doesn’t make it okay. Just like it is not okay to ride your bike the wrong way, ride your throttle bike on the sidewalk, thrust yourself into the subway car before letting people off, let your dog run in the Ramble or in the clearly market no dogs sections of Teddy Roosevelt Park.

      I’m not saying Kevin is a selfish person. I’m saying running clockwise is selfish, anti-social behavior.

      Who’s Kevin? Well…who is Jeff? You can go your own way. We are free to do wrong. That doesn’t make it right.

      • Nani says:

        Tired of it : I agree. I felt I was in people’s way the other day when I only walked a few steps the wrong way in the reservoir on a cold day with few people. In the summer it’s really busy and all runners should go counter clock wise including jeff, Susie or Joe Schmo. Good for him to be in shape though but it can be achieved by being civil by going with the flow.

    11. Rodrick says:

      Amazing story, I also work at Rikers Island but as a guard. I enjoy my daily runs when I get time along a reservoir, track, or hike. Just like Thomas I ran cross country and track as well with a time of 4:30 in the mile and 1:57 in the half mile. Running brings so much joy and sanity to my lifestyle. Yes it hurts but the feeling of completing the task once started words can explain. Good luck to Thomas and his retirement. 100 percent great article to the writer.

    12. Clockwise Running Guy says:

      Good to finally put a name to the “running in the wrong direction guy”!

      Saw him the park warming up just the other day. Just another one of those New York City characters that makes this such an interesting place to live.

      Thomas, congrats to you on your retirement. Now that you have all this free time, can you run around the track counter-clockwise like everybody else? Thanks.