I meant to pay the speeding ticket right away; now I owe 50 hours.
I really did mean to pay the ticket on time, but when both extensions I’d requested were granted, so much time passed that I marginalized its importance. When I finally faced the music, the Traffic Commissioner was happy to suspend my hefty fine in exchange for 50 hours of community service at a local Goodwill Donation Center.
March, 2014 – Goodwill Donation Center, Monday
Ten feet inside the door, a 20-something young lady at the counter took one look at the yellow triplicate form in my hand and rolled her eyes. Turning to a tiny Asian woman helping her stock sunglasses, I heard her say, “typical community service,” as she walked off.
The Asian woman, though, threw out her hand, shook mine, accepted my paperwork, and started walking backwards toward a pair of beat up, swinging metal doors. “I’m Julie,” she began, “and I’m afraid you can’t work in those.” She pointed to my 501s. “Do you have black pants and a white business shirt?”
“Not that I can work in, no,” I admitted. “But thrift store clothes and I go way back, so I’ll just buy something now. That cool?”
Through the double doors we went, past several other indentured service workers who were organizing the morning’s donations. Though they were practically shoulder-to-shoulder no one spoke, and they all kept their heads down as though wearing invisible headphones (presumably real ones don’t fly with Julie). Not exactly depressing, but not too cheery, either.
“That’s fine,” she responded, “but you can’t shop while you’re working off your hours. Will you be working today?”
“Just the paperwork today. But I’ll buy clothes before I leave and see you tomorrow.”
A man with a clipboard approached in an official Goodwill uniform just like Julie’s. Scanning a form as he walked, he banked left to continue around us but glanced up to excuse himself as he passed. Every inch of his skin –arms, hands, and from his collar up– was covered in bubble-like tumors, small and large.
I smiled when he looked my way and said “Hey” as un-self-consciously as I could. In an instant, though, every physical freedom I have, everything I own, every privilege I take for granted, and everything I can afford to be sarcastic about in the way that I do became goddamn priceless.
The guy’s disease, Neurofibromatosis, if my guess is correct, is something I actually became familiar with in prison. It’s genetic and affects about 1 in 3000 people. Suddenly I find myself once again interacting with someone who’s probably tougher and stronger than I could ever hope to be in every way.
I sat with Julie in her office to review and sign various documents, like the one that releases Goodwill from providing insurance coverage or the sorts of benefits known to its regular employees. Another form was intended to confirm I’d seen and signed the first, and a third listed rules of conduct for court referred community service personnel. I read that long list more thoroughly than the other paperwork. Number 35: “No starting gossip or spreading rumors,” I pointed out to Julie, was my favorite. I was glad to see her laugh a little; although she seemed pleasant enough, she was definitely guarded.
But when I asked for a copy, her demeanor changed. “Oh, I don’t think I’m allowed to…” she hesitated. “I don’t think I can give you a…I’ll have to check if I can give you a copy.”
I hoped she hadn’t felt challenged, but I sensed that explaining why I’d wanted a copy –because corporate HR interpretations of human behavior are always entertaining to me– would risk insulting her. And pointing out that I’m entitled to a copy of anything requiring my signature definitely wasn’t the way to go. Besides, when people see you surrender a sticking point, they sometimes follow your lead.
But while starting off on an adversarial note isn’t too smart, I did let about 5 to 7 seconds of awkward silence pass. Only the banging of the double doors could be heard, at which point Julie offered to get me a copy of the form upon my return (should she be allowed to).
I smiled. I have every intention of holding her to it.
Next up: “Where Pleated Pants Go to Die”