Community Service in Hollywood
Sentenced to 30 days of community service in Los Angeles, Amy Dresner recounts facing up to the consequences of her actions.
I’ll be going to sleep at 8:30 pm tonight. Not because I’m 80 years old or depressed or tired. But because I have to wake up at 5:30 am to sweep the streets of Hollywood. Every time my alarm goes off and itʼs still dark out, I feel a creepy nostalgia come over me. I remember staying up for days, shooting cocaine or smoking meth and just around 5:30 or 6:00 it would START to get light. You were coming down, running out of dope, the birds were chirping and you were having the teeth-grinding head-pounding blood-stained revelation for the umpteenth time that you HAD to get sober. I mentioned this to a good friend who just said spritely, “I love getting up early when itʼs still dark. It reminds me of hockey practice.” Interesting how the same thing conjures up different memories for different people...
I’m doing what is officially called “volunteer” community service but I’m not sure exactly what we are “volunteering” for? NOT to go to jail? In the same vein, I believe the Chinese Army was referred to as the People's "Volunteer" Army. Anyway according to the courts, I have “volunteered” for 30 long days of “community labor," which is “community service” with a heavy dose of gruntwork.
Dude it’s community service, not a fucking treasure hunt.
All the crew bosses at my place are Latino and most of the “volunteers” are as well. There is a dire shortage of women. I am usually the only white girl and most certainly the only Jew. The majority are there for DUI’s. “Assault” charges like mine are few and far between. There is a sole female crew boss, an angry American Indian woman who I was convinced hated me until I figured out she hates everybody equally. She occasionally refers to us as “criminals” which is inappropriate at best and and illegal at worst. It can be hard to follow directions when somebody is whispering to you in Spanish. Because I donʼt speak Spanish and I canʼt fucking hear you. I am learning though. Iʼm still not sure what all the lasso hand gestures or dog whistles mean but Iʼm getting my Spanish back. I was bilingual when I was two and although I’ve forgotten most of it, I still understand much more than I can speak. I actually understand more than Iʼd like to some days. For instance (if my piss poor Spanish serves me right), “Coco” gives the best happy endings at the Thai massage joint on Vermont. And Cheetahs is awesome because if you’re there for 2 hours, you never see the same girl twice! And “chichinitas” means “big tits”. (Obviously, they were not referring to me.)
I always hope I’ll be put on Estevan’s (names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty) crew. Not only because he does the painting which is a much sweeter gig than sweeping the streets but also because he is happy and hilarious. We spend most days in Glassell Park painting over graffiti. Seems like “Cornejo” has been busy because every wall and garage door has “Cornejo rules," “Cornejo was here," “Cornejo is king” spray painted all over it. You can imagine our surprise (dare I say relief?) when a week later we came back and “RIP Cornejo” was all over. Evidently somebody, besides us, got very sick of Cornejo.
Estevan came to this community labor outlet 18 years ago on a gun possession charge. Actually it was two guns and one had been a sheriff’s. He had a stunning 140 days of community service but the crew bosses immediately noticed his rainman ability at “color matching." They invited him to come work for them when he was off probation. He declined. He had a good paying job at a jewelry production factory. They called again two weeks later, offering him the pay of his choice. And 16 years later, he is still there. So he had been one of us. He understood that plenty of people drive drunk or get in fights with their spouses. We were just unlucky enough to get caught.
I’ll be slaving away with the roller, skinny arms trying to balance the extension pole, paint dripping onto my sweaty face, and he’ll come over and just say, “Tranquilo, Amy. Take it easy. Take it easy.” and flash his big white smile. I go to grab a big pail of paint out of the truck. It’s super heavy.
“You got it?,” he asks.
“Yes.” I smile, bony shoulder drooping under the weight.
“Yeah you’re strong. You beat up your husband.”
“Well, not exactly," I laugh. The other day, Estevan went on to tell us the most disturbing story. He had watched a movie the previous night based on a true tale.
“So this girl. She was only 12 years old. And her uncle take her to live with him and have sex with him in the mountains. She donʼt know. She only 12. But he donʼt want her to get pregnant so he take her to a “bruja”....how do you say? Witch? Yes, he take her to a witch and she put a potato up her bagina.” Bagina is now my favorite word. Even over “pussy” which took me until my 40ʼs to own. But “bagina” is fucking hilarious. I donʼt care if I ever get laid again. Iʼm saying it from now on.
Estevan continues, “So for two years she donʼt have no baby. But she get sick. Really sick. And so her uncle take her to the doctor. And he look up into her bagina and see the potato. It had grown roots. And the roots go into her stomach. And then she dies. Lucky for her she was not in Mexico because there they eat ʻyucasʼ and yucas are very big.”
I laugh uncomfortably. Iʼm the only female in the truck.
“Okay, breaktime!” He says. “10 minutes guys!”
We pull into the McDonaldʼs and Iʼm shocked when two of the guys come back with hash browns. How the fuck could they eat potatoes after a story like that?
After doing manual labor for eight hours, I am totally exhausted. Occasionally I fall asleep during the day in the back of the pick up truck only to be awoken by a heavily accented “good morning!” I am so tired I can’t think. It’s a peaceful stupidity that I have never known before. My fatigue is so deep that I’m too wasted to even listen. I don’t want to hear about your fucking diet or who blocked you on Facebook or that your spray tan is too dark. Like a hard working man, I want a blow job and a sandwich and silence. My feet are black from street soot and I have blisters on my hands from the broom. I’m sweaty and sunburnt and everything is throbbing. And all this just to stay out of jail. I’ve never worked so hard for free...or my freedom. After eight hours of sweeping the streets of Hollywood, I smell like an underground NY nightclub: like sweat and latex. I do a Silkwood-style scrub down, eat everything I can get my hands on in the sober living, massage my own feet and pass out by 6:30 pm.
You learn a lot sweeping the streets. For instance, did you know that Sunday August 1st was the 14th Annual Festival of El Salvador’s Independence? And more importantly, did you know it was also “Latin Labor Day” at Club Papi? Hours of sweeping up used syringes and empty whip it cans or seeing homeless people chugging cheap beer at 8 am will make you grateful you’re sober and work your biceps, if nothing else.
Iʼve been listening to HOT 92.3 a lot lately. Itʼs late 70ʼs jams and it reminds me of my days as youngin', rollerskating at Flippers, dreams and hopes still intact. I dance around badly in the driverʼs seat, sucking violently on my e-cigg, driving down the empty quiet streets of Hollywood. I pull into my usual parking lot. Itʼs run by an old Iranian guy whoʼs always parked in his minivan, listening to Christian radio. Today he’s asleep. I tap softly on the glass. He wakes up, tears off my orange ticket, takes my money and tells me to “have a good day." The first day I parked there I asked him how much it would be.
“7 dollars,” he said. “Today.”
“What do you mean, ʻtodayʼ?”
“Tomorrow might not be $7. Might be more.”
“Great. But it will never be less, right?”
“Uh huh.” Yeah praise the lord….
I check into the community labor joint. Estevan is off, celebrating 27 long years of marriage so I am stuck on street sweeping with Gerardo. The good part of Gerardo is that heʼs a lazy fuck so we get a lengthy hour lunch break and then if we finish early, we get to sleep in the truck for a bit until itʼs time to head back to the center. The bad part of Gerardo is that heʼs lecherous (“you so flaco and flexible…why your husband get rid of you?” followed by unwanted shoulder massages) until I finally asked him what “sexual harassment lawsuit” was en español. Gerardo only does street sweeping......on Vermont.....which is a long fucking street. We cover it from Hollywood Blvd all the way down to the 101 and back. It’s probably four miles roundtrip.
Thereʼs a new kid on my crew this day. I accurately guess that heʼs 27. I smell money. We spoiled kids can sniff each other out. Heʼs also newly sober. I smell that too.
“What you get busted for?” I ask as we take our morning break outside McDonald's.
“DUI and possession of Xanax,” he says, wearing stupid looking oversized yellow raybans.
“Party on!” I say and wink.
“I was totally done with my community service for my last arrest, finished the DUI class, was going in to see the judge and have everything dismissed.”
“Well, I put on this jacket I hadnʼt worn in a while and...”
“Oh I already know where this is going.”
“And I set off the metal detector in the court building. They search me and find some foil with heroin trails on it. Bam. A whole new charge of felony possession. Not just a violation of probation.”
“Yeah...” He takes a drag of his cigarette. “We just sweep all day? That doesnʼt seem bad...”
“Youʼre obviously new,” I say and laugh.
“Yeah.” I lay down some of the rules: donʼt look at your phone while sweeping, donʼt talk to strangers, donʼt smoke while sweeping, make sure you get the gutters and all the cigarette butts, donʼt take your community service t-shirt off.
“God, you could work here. You know everything.”
“Babe, after 20 days of this shit, so will you.”
We are slowly making our way down Vermont. He is skinny, lazy and slow and misses all the fucking cigarette butts. He doesn’t realize it’s a TEAM effort and that what he doesn’t pick up, doesn’t just not get picked up. It gets picked up by the rest of us. It’s just as easy to do a job poorly as it is to do it well. But trying telling that to a 27 year old junkie...or me a few months ago. I finally have a work ethic. Miracles do happen.
“Hey you ever find money or drugs out here?” The kid asks me.
“Dude it’s community service, not a fucking treasure hunt.”
He laughs. Heʼs easy going. Later I try to make him smell my disgusting sweaty hands, finger tips all pruney from hours in rubber gloves. He almost does. I laugh hysterically. If I canʼt haze the new guy, where is the fun in being the old hand on the chain gang?
I occasionally snap a picture of these guys...from the back, of course, to preserve their anonymity. Now Linda, my bisexual bipolar best friend, wants one of the uniforms: a holey paint-splattered t-shirt, or the grimy ones that say “business improvement district” or the tan button downs with “Clean Team” on the back. She collects all the clothes from my bad decisions for pajamas: jail socks, psych ward gown and pants and now a community labor t-shirt. How restful can that shit be? I guess itʼs easy to sleep well when youʼre grateful you arenʼt your retarded best friend. To each their own.
One day, two people asked me if I was the job “supervisor." Granted they were both homeless but I must have looked important or bored. I have a soft spot in my heart for the homeless and we see a lot of them sweeping the streets, especially on Vermont and Santa Monica Blvd. So many of them are stricken with mental illness and drug/alcohol addiction, both things I’ve been struggling with my whole life. If not for parents and friends who continued to support me and never abandon me, I too could have been on the street.
A slim young girl with erratically chopped up hair, smeared black eye make up and rotting chipped front teeth is manically gesticulating and walking up the street. She is obviously a speed freak. She has on stained moccasins, a t-shirt, underwear, no pants, a long sweater and something strange tied around her head. I feel a weird fear come up but then I remember my new motto...see everybody for their humanness, the way you want to be seen for yours. And it is ONLY the homeless people that ever acknowledge us or say “good morning." To everybody else we are invisible trash.
She walks up and smiles and does a twirl.
“Where are your pants, girl?” I ask.
“Some Armenian bitch burnt them!”
“Are you Argentinian?” She asks.
“No I’m from here. Why?” I smile.
“Because your hair up like that...it looks Argentinian."
“Thanks." She is referring to my messy bun that keeps my long blonde locks off my sweaty face and away from the street filth.
Then she goes rambling on about feeling other people meditate and I just smile and laugh and pretend I understand. And then she touches my arm and prances off. My heart breaks a little.
I have eight more days of community labor to complete. And as tiring and humbling as it has been, it has been the BEST thing that ever happened to me…once I accepted responsibility for my actions and stopped feeling sorry for myself. Sure, I never thought I’d have a criminal record for assault and battery let alone be spending a month picking up trash and human feces. But I have made the best of it. I have had a laugh with the guys and learned the joys of “chicharrón." One day I even caught myself singing Steve Winwood’s “Finer Things” while sweeping my little ass off at nine in the morning. The irony was not lost on me.
Nobody is immune to the consequences of their bad decisions. That leveling revelation finally destroyed my enormous entitlement and any last vestiges of false pride. You do the crime, you do the time. All those things that you are convinced could never happen to “you”? Well, I’m here to tell you that they can. From Beverly Hills to Hell can be a short fucking ride. You could easily be in anybody’s shoes under the right…. or should I say wrong circumstances. So try to be compassionate and kind. As Wilson Mizner said, “Be nice to people on your way up because you’ll meet ‘em on your way down.”
Amy Dresner is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about the varieties of self soothing options in recovery, and the joys of the 13th step. As of today she has one day of community service left to go.