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“I was a ball boy at the US Open- I got school credit, and a front row view of Maria Sharapova.”?
“I work at a soup kitchen after school, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”
?“I spent last summer building huts for impoverished Tahitians. It was great, but I’m still picking bugs out of my ass.”?
At my school, in order to graduate, you need to fill a quota of community service hours. In my city, this translates into a contest of one-upmanship to impress college admissions.?But this is not yet another anguished tell-all about the trials and tribulations of being an NYC teenager. It is nothing more or less than one girl’s story about blurry lines: those between sin and crime, indulging and enabling, and perhaps between America and Mexico. This summer, I’d traveled around Europe, then spent three weeks at theater camp, and now it was time to buckle down and start working off my 120 hours. My assignment, identified by my mom, (who had dutifully over-hyped my Spanish speaking abilities) was to sort and distribute donated food and clothes at the local Catholic church (oy vay.) Armed with a Poland springs in my purse, and butterflies in my stomach, it was time to go. Let’s do this thing.?
I found the Coordination office door, and knocked. A kindly looking woman in her mid sixties came out.
?“Hi, I’m Phoebe? I think my mother spoke to you about me?” I up-talked nervously.?
“Oh, yes,” she said. “The fluent Spanish speaker? That should definitely come in useful around here. Follow me, I’ll take you up to the pantry.”?
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say ‘fluent’,” I said as I shuffled in her wake.?
“Here we are!” she said. “Have a nice day.”?
“Thanks,” I said weakly, and opened the door. The room was about the size of a tennis court. In the front was a card table, a microwave, and a crowded bookshelf. The back portion had tables, shelves, and racks, all brimming with clothes.
?“Oh, we got anotha one,” came a raspy voice with a distinct Long-Island accent-- Think Fran Drescher meets Harvey Feirstein. An enormously fat woman in her forties emerged behind a rack of extremely flamboyant blazers.?“Damn,” she said, taking in my appearance. “How old are you?”?
“Fifteen,” I said. “Hi, I’m Phoebe.”?
“Damn,” she said again. “Alright. Follow me.” She led me to a desk in the corner of the room, and opened a file cabinet. “Alright. How many hours ya got?”
?“About 120.” I smiled winningly, but withered under her glare.?
“Hoaly crap!” she yelped. “And ya 15? Whadja do, rob ya country club?”?
“I…what?” I stammered.
?“Alright, well, when’s ya court date?”?
?“When do ya hafta be done by?” she snapped impatiently.?
“When I graduate?” I was back to up-talking.
?“What?” she said.
“What?” I said. A long silence ensued. “I’m doing this for school. I’m a volunteer,” I volunteered.?
“Oooooh. You had me awl confused!” she said jocularly.?
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly.
?“Don’t be. I can tell you’re a good kid, Country Club.”?
“Well, thanks, I-“?
“And where the hell is Bob? Baaaaaahb?” she bellowed.?
“I am here,” said a girl in a heavy Spanish accent, who came in pushing a beat-up shopping cart. She was pretty, dark skinned, and looked to be about my age.?
“Hi… Bob,” I said. “I’m Phoebe.” I was relieved that it wasn’t going to be me alone with this woman, who seemed to need both bipolar meds and a bypass surgery.?
“Hi,” she said. “Actually, it is Barb. My name is Barbara.”?
“Well, that makes much more sense,” I said, and we both smiled at each other.
?“Alright, well, Bahbie Doll, go show Country Club what to do. I’m gonna go smoke me a stick o’ cancer.”?
“Ees really seemple. You jus take the clothes out of the bag and fold them. If dey are…” and she pulled a face to demonstrate ‘gross’, “Then you put them in this cart. That woman is so scary!” she said, lowering her voice. “She treats me like I am criminal!”
?“At least we have cool nicknames,” I said consolingly, and we both laughed, (after I explained ‘nicknames’ to her.)?We began to unload the endless bags of clothes with a robotic efficiency, and as we did, we got to talking. Barb was, in fact, not my age; she was 23. Nor was she Hispanic; she was Portuguese, and was spending the summer as an au pair in East Hampton to pay her way through business school.?
“That’s so cool! But why are you doing community service, Barb?”
?“Ay! It was a stupid ticket. I was speeding very tiny, and den de cops thought that I no had a license, but I have a license from Portugal, and…”?I took her story with a grain of salt, but her speeding infraction had only earned her 14 hours of community service, so I knew that it couldn’t have been that hardcore of a criminal.?“Oh my god!” she exclaimed. “Look how cute this shirt is! Yea, dis is going in my pile.” And with that, she folded it up and put it on a pile, I now saw, that she had been steadily adding to over the past hour.?
“What are you doing?” I yelped. “You can’t do that! That’s for the poor!”
?“You think I am not poor? I am here because I cannot pay for a $100 ticket! Besides, the loud lady told me that it was okay to take things to home before.”?
“Well, I just hope that you know that you’re going to hell, and that- Hey! Cute shoes!” And a new pile was born.?After we had sorted and folded enough clothes to give us Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome, we felt that it would be a good time for a lunch break. The basic principal of the pantry was that, hey, it’s not a prison, and as long as you complete your hours before your court date, you could come and go as you pleased. After a brief game of rock-paper-scissors to determine who had to tell the loud woman, I found myself clambering into the backseat of Barb’s open Jeep.?“I’m sure my mom would be thrilled that I’m getting into a car with a girl assigned to community service for a traffic violation,” I joked.?
“You be quiet, and just make sure de cops aren’t around. I am only joking! You like McDonalds?”?
Thirty minutes and an Asian chicken salad later, (surprisingly delicious!) we were back at the pantry, and to meet two new additions.?
“Country Club, meet Night Club,” said the loud woman (named Betty, apparently) by way of an introduction.”
?“Hi, I’m Phoebe,” I said to a tall, thin guy who could have been a poster boy for my generation. Shorts under tuchas: check. Gang-banger sneakers: check. Vacant expression: check. In spite of this, I must admit that he was vaguely cute.
?“Joshua,” he said. “Wuzza?’?“Okay,” cut in Betty. “You three, go three, keep folding. Javier, you’re comin’ with me, and get ready to do some heavy lifting.” She gave a little ass-slap to the hunky Latin boy she was addressing, and they both left the room.?
“I talked to him a bit earlier…” whispered Joshua, as we got to work. “He has 400 hours. He just kept saying, I did something really stupid,” and he let out a surprisingly high-pitched giggle.?
“Why are you here,” I asked.
?“I have like 70 hours.”?
“Why?” I had a guess. He gave that same wheezing giggle.?“
The cops found 2000$ of weed in my car.”
I laughed.?“It feels like we’re in the Breakfast Club,” I said.?
“Oh, yes!” said Barb. “I haf seen that movie!”?“You know what we should do after we get off, guys? We should see the Bratz movie. I have a perverse fascination with dolls that turn into people.”?“Oh, come on,” said Joshua.?“You have to come!” protested Barb and I.?And that afternoon, the three of us, with six hours under our belts, (Barb and I with bags of loot in tow) went to the movies.?
The next day was a clothing giveaway day. About 200 people (mostly Hispanic) would come, in a mad rush for as much as could fit in their black garbage bags.?
“Just help ‘em if they need it, clean up so everything looks nice and purdy, and if ya see them takin’ more than they should be takin’, call me ova, and I’ll kick their ass,” surmised Betty?I was curious to see how much of the clothing would be taken, and what would be popular, because, to my mind, it looked like the eighties had thrown up in this basement. My sentiment seemed to be shared by many of the patrons.?
“What do you think of this,” I asked, proffering a tasseled blazer with shoulder pads to an endearingly feisty black woman named Rhonda.?
“Honey, I think Halloween ain’t till October.” Point taken. I felt terrible that these people had to suffer the indignity of taking free clothes and food, and then had to settle for such pitiful merchandise. I put all that I had taken back.?There were a few scuffles; one woman slapped Betty, and a man had to be escorted out for sexually harassing a young woman, (me, actually) but for the most part, the people seemed to be good natured, and I enjoyed interacting with them. Almost all spoke primarily Spanish, and after watching a young pregnant woman, who was toting a toddler, struggling to communicate with a comically Gringa Betty, I decided to intervene.
?“Puedo ayudarte?” I asked. (Can I help you?) “She’s wondering if there are any cribs and strollers, and she also needs bedding,” I relayed to Betty.?
“Damn, Country Club! You’re just full of surprises, aren’t ya?” I glowed with pleasure.?Once people began to filter out, I helped them carry their bags up the stairs. (I soon found out, much to my mortification, that it wasn’t safe to assume that they all had cars. This was a different side of Southampton than I had seen before.) I was pretty pleased with myself, as I had managed to help many people who, had I not been there, wouldn’t have received service. (Barb and Javier actually only spoke Portuguese.) It was while loading a woman’s car that I finally got a chance to really talk to Javier.?
“Okay, fine,” he said. “Grand larceny. I held up Intermix with a gun and looted it. I’m not proud of it, okay?” Much to my surprise, I found that I wasn’t alarmed or ever wary of Javier. He had proved himself to be a hard working, fairly descent guy in the past two days, and I was more struck by the tragedy of his predicament than by his actions.?
“Well, obviously it was stupid, but I actually really respect you. You’re a cool guy, Javier.” He seemed really surprised at that, but we just smiled at each other.?
Epilogue:?I continued to go to community service over the next three weeks, and all in all, I racked up about 60 hours. Though the three others only attended sporadically, (“I just really needed to get away from my parents,” said Joshua vaguely, after a week long absence) I continued to meet more people who all grew to join our motley crew. I spent six hours in a cellar, sorting cans or beans with a 40 year old caterer named Tammy (DWI.) We both vowed to never eat a bean again, be it pink, red, Spanish, Mexican, Greek, chickpea, giant or string. I was offered a free haircut by the man who was mopping the floors. I cut my hand, ripping apart 200 chickens, which had all been frozen in a block of ice. (I soon upgraded to using a pickax.) I improved my Spanish exponentially, and gained a new understanding of destitution. I still have nightmares about Betty, but by the end of my time there, she was offering to set me up with her son. And it won’t end here: I’m determined to continue volunteering and donating, because I’ve experienced the reality of how much I can help. There are limitations, but also possibilities. So to sum it all up: I learned about dignity. I learned about poverty. But mostly, I learned about beans.