Volunteering

In which our heroine does the crime and does the time. Sort of.

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Last summer I got a ticket for riding mass transit one stop outside of Fareless Square without fare. I went to court hoping to use the “I was wearing my iPod and didn’t hear the announcement” defense, but when I came before the judge he was pissed at the big group of defendants, and he just scolded us and gave us the choice of paying a $90 fine or doing eight hours of community service. Someone had carved “This judge is a fucker” into the bench I stood by, and that made the scolding bearable. I was also glad the fucker was offering us the eight hours of community service, because I didn’t have $90.

When I got to the used clothing store I’d been assigned, the manager was already exhausted with me. She told me not to hide, and that she could tell “when you guys try to hide.” I was a little insulted that she thought I was the kind of person who would hide from a manager at my court-mandated volunteer job.

So, at first, I wanted to impress her. I hung and color-coded used bath mats, dickies, tube tops, and bedding to prove I was a good person. But then my back began to hurt. I’m not really suited for physical labor, or any kind of labor, and although I had planned to stay away from the other convicts, I soon found myself in their aisles with questions: Was this Dutch-boy-and-girl figurine, with handles, a vase or a mug? Was this blouse, with bell-shaped sleeves, a men’s or a women’s blouse? Why did people own plastic flowers? Who would pay $2.99 for a Taco Bell Chihuahua that had been Free with Purchase? What would have to happen in your life to make you stoop to buying used underwear?

After a few hours I decided to ask everyone why they were there, just to see if anyone had tried to run from the transit cops. I asked one guy who looked like he was at work on casual Friday (khakis and short-sleeved polo), and he said he didn’t know anything about transit cops. He’d been caught stealing from Microsoft. He’d sold everything using his Microsoft work account, which was first then last name at Microsoft.com. Really dumb, he confided. “If you ever need a lap top or anything,” he said, and gave me his card, which had a Yahoo address on it. “Nothing stolen anymore,” he assured me.

I came up to the next guy hanging holiday sweaters, and I felt a little weirder about prying. He was scruffy, yes, with scabby hands, yes, but handsome. “So why are you here?” I asked.

“I got drunk and broke into a car and stole some CDs.”

“Oh,” I said.

Hesitantly he asked “And you?” suggesting he had slightly more respect for my privacy than I did for his.

“Murder,” I said.

He struggled to normalize it. “So they just like gave you a lot of community service hours?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.

Then I asked a girl sorting worn-out, old lady shoes what she had done. “I shanked a dog,” she said, smiling. I stared at her poofy bangs and suspiciously long hair while I struggled to match the verb with its meaning. “I was living on the coast,” she said, as if that explained everything. And it did explain some. “Shank,” I thought. “To shank?” Then: “Oh, Jesus.”

“I was at a party and this dog came after us so we got a sword out of the trunk and shanked it, and then poured gas on it, but the police got there before we could light it on fire, and the police had to taser me ten times. They said they have never had to taser anyone that much.” She kept smiling and sorting whitish collapsed church shoes while she talked.

A volunteer work buddy sorting with her nodded and bragged, “She has more than a year of community service left to do.”

“Wow,” I said, and walked away.

I found the scabby/handsome guy in the book section, along with an 18-year-old boy who was given eight hours of volunteer work for possession of meth as well as a woman’s stolen checkbook. We decided to arrange the books by category, and then alphabetically.

Most of the books were about golf, fondue, cats, Jell-O, Bible trivia, early-90s politics, debt blasting, and losing weight while eating more. My back hurt so I sat down and read a little lesbian erotica and a book about using hypnosis to quit smoking.

Scabby/handsome had read a lot of the Oprah Books, including The Lovely Bones and Lucky by Alice Sebold. I admitted I hadn’t murdered anyone. He hid some books by Sean Hannity. Then I told him that the girl sorting shoes had shanked a dog on the coast “Oh, Jesus,” he said.

After a while the boy who had been caught with meth came back to the book section with a buzzer from Scattergories and used it to disagree with us about how to shelve books. “Maybe you should think about giving up meth,” I suggested, and he laughed, exposing a missing front tooth.

“No, really,” Scabby/handsome said from the ladder.

We had just sorted the self-help shelves and were feeling bold. The manager came back to the book section — no doubt tipped off by the Scattergories buzzer and the anti-theft mirror — and said she didn’t think it took three people to organize the books. Because I was doing the least I went back to hanging the yellowing, overpriced T-shirts.

In the last hour of my job, the boy who was caught with meth abandoned the books and followed me (me, a woman without $90, a woman who spent the day hiding from a manager of a used clothing store) and tried to make sexual innuendo about every mundane task I was involved in. When I picked up a shirt off the ground and hung it, he said slowly, “I can show you how to hang that.” As I laughed at his clumsy meth-affected lines, he leaned over and whispered into my ear, “We could get a six-pack of Pabst and go back to that couch in the warehouse.”

“Maybe you should stop doing meth,” I said.

“We can get a six pack of O’Doul’s,” he countered. “I don’t care. I can drink O’Doul’s.” •

When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily’s World appeared weekly on The Smart Set. She can be reached at emilymaloney@yahoo.com.
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