A few weeks ago I posted about my day at the administrative hearing I requested after I got ticketed at a red-light camera
at Lomas and Eubank. The administrator of the hearing upheld the verdict, and I had a choice: either pay the $100 fine or do community service. The administrator sincerely hoped that each of us requesting a hearing would choose community service, and so I did. Not only did I want to do something for the city, and avoid paying $100, but I was fortified by a recent article
in the Albuquerque Journal
that reported the difficulty faced by area services when Mayor Chavez threatened to shut down the red-light program. Those services were concerned because they got a lot of valuable help from people who performed community service to pay for their infractions. The Journal reported people were assigned interesting service like working at senior centers, animal shelters and the like. They were assigned various activities such as filing and feeding the puppies and kitties. The article interviewed one person who began volunteering regularly at the place she did her community service, because she liked it so much. It all sounded good to me. I marched down to the office and filled out the community service form. I was told that I would be contacted within 10-14 days about where and how I would serve.
In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn't have left the "Do you have any conditions that would prevent you from doing physical work" item blank. About two weeks later, I got my appointment from the city. No puppies and kitties. No filing at the senior center. I was to report to the city's facility on Pino and serve on Weed and Litter Cleanup
. Even though I had to report on the day they specified, I could still opt to pay the fine. But, $100 is a lot of money for a newly minted but unemployed PhD, so I decided to stick through my commitment. It will be an experience, I told myself.
I arrived at the facility at 7:30 am. When the city writes that you are to report promptly at 7:30, they mean it...people who showed up after were not allowed to work. There were a bunch of guys hanging out front of the nondescript Building D to which I was to report. Inside, there were more guys, and a couple of women hanging around. I was told to go into an office. A big guy with mussed brown hair told me to wait in a chair behind a filing cabinet, then got perturbed when I didn't know when he was talking to me. He told me that after that day's service I would be good to go. I went out into the main room and waited.
About 7:45 he came out and shouted "Community service let's go." We all filed outside where other people were waiting. "Women go in that van, everyone else get on that bus," big guy shouted. We filed onto the bus, which was a beat-up off-white old thing with some barely decipherable words, "Metropolitian Sanitation District" or something, painted on the side. It was towing a trailer with a bunch of tools and weed eaters, and two port-o-lets. I took a seat near the back. I realized that I was the only person who brought anything - I had my backpack with a spare shirt, some water, and some sunscreen in it. Another guy, the job foreman, got on, took a head count, and then gave me an indication of what the working environment would be like when he said "Today we're going to UNM
, to the well-site. Leave the women alone!!!!" It reminded me of the days when I worked in a lumber mill - you'd think that men never saw women before. The foreman further joked, "we have 26 men and one woman on this bus," and laughed and pointed to one guy, "so hey, I guess you have to get off - only men allowed." Someone else said, "what about you?" He laughed again and said "okay, so two women on this bus." He then warned us again. "Seriously, today is the mayor's cleanup day. You all have to wear a vest, and you need to leave the UNM women alone. People are watching us today."
The bus was filled with mostly Hispanic young men. Some were very tattooed, and I wondered if they were associated with gangs. There were a sprinkling of older guys. There were three white guys, including me, and one African-American. As I listened to their conversations, it became clear that many of these people were doing community service to work off more serious crimes than me. Some were there for DUI, others were there because they had served some jail time and had additional community service to perform. I was not too intimidated because I've had some experience in working with people in the correctional system, but I was not used to hanging out and working as one of them. In such company, I felt like a complete wuss in putting on sunscreen, so I surreptitiously applied some, squirting it on my hand in the backpack and rubbing it on my neck and face.
"Hey, can we smoke on the bus?" one guy asked. The foreman considered this. "Just wait until we get off the facility property," he said, standing in front of the "Absolutely NO Smoking on this Bus" sign. "Hey, the water is really bad. Refill it, bro!" another guy demanded. "When you're hot and thirsty, you'll drink it," the foreman said.
The foreman drove the bus over to UNM
. The guy in front of me lit up almost as soon as we left the gate, and his smoke blew back into my face. We drove to that unremarkable low flat-topped building on near Yale and Central. I had no idea that it is a holding tank for water, or a well of some kind. We filed off the bus. I was handed a grimy, unwashed reflective vest with the words "Mayor Marty's Clean Team"
on the back. We all donned our vests, and the foreman told us what we were to do. The building is bordered by a sloped verge of large river rock. In those places between the river rock had grown all kinds of weeds and trees, and trash had accumulated there. A couple of guys were given hacksaws, another two some loppers, and three some weedeaters. The rest of us were to rake up what was cut.
I learned very quickly the dynamics of working community service on Weed and Litter
. Some guys were very good at looking like they were doing something when they were in fact doing very little. Other guys were openly not working - they sat off to the side on benches calling their girlfriends. I figured that my best bet was to always look like I was doing something, and that strategy paid off when a bunch of guys were sent back to the bus for standing around. It didn't matter that I was raking the sidewalk to very little effect - as long as I looked like I was doing something I was okay. About six of us were left at the original site while the others were taken away on the bus. I think they were taken someplace on Central to clean up a vacant lot there. The assistant foreman said to another guy in our remaining group. "Just look like you're doing something," he said, "and it doesn't matter. Those guys were standing around way too much - even if there wasn't much for them to do." Eventually, they were brought back.
That doesn't mean that work wasn't accomplished. By the time lunch rolled around, the verge at the building was completely devoid of those pesky Chinese elms, and the weeds around the rocks were trimmed. A garbage truck full of weeds and trash was removed from the site. In fact, we did such good and quick work that most of those guys were standing around because they didn't know what else to do.
About 12:00 we were allowed to go get some lunch. A bunch of guys made a beeline to McDonalds across Central. I went down to Frontier,
got a burger, fries and a Coke and brought it back to the site. A young blonde woman jogged by, and despite the earlier warning one guy shouted to her that he would be back there next Saturday, to the laughter of the other guys. I talked to one guy, who evidently was working off a DUI. He was older, white and had the "wow, dude," kind of speech of an older, counterculture kind of guy. He told me he couldn't wait to get home to feed nectar to the orioles, which were just appearing in town, because he and his wife liked to watch them. He was assigned 24 hours of community service, and would have to come back the next two weekends.
After lunch we were directed to get back on the bus. Before we left, the job foreman told us the next job was easy. "Sometimes we have days like this where we can take it a bit easy, especially when you guys bust ass on a job like you did this morning." The bus drove away from UNM and over to the West side, just off Central and Old Coors, where a vacant lot sat behind one of the cookie-cutter developments, filled with weeds and trash. On the way, a few of the guys were regaling each other with stories of their arrests. "When I was arrested, they took me to MDC
...Oh yeah, well when I was arrested I was taken to the Louisiana and Gibson substation. I mean, what the fuck?" A lot of four letter words tended to pop up in conversation among these guys. When a nice truck for sale was spotted in a parking lot, it became a hot topic of conversation, leading to talk about the best type of truck. This in turn led to talk of gas prices and how difficult it was getting to maintain a vehicle.
"You guys don't have to wear your vest over here," the foreman said when we got to the site, drawing some derisive comments from the back. "Oh, yeah, now that we're not around good looking women we don't have to embarrass ourselves," one guy said. We filed out, and were told that we needed to weed, trim and rake the property, including the pathway to the adjacent street. I was assigned to a weedeater, but it wasn't working so I ended up with a rake. We spent about an hour on the site until the garbage truck came up and we were able to fill it with weeds and trash, including two mattresses.
It was about 2:00 and we had done what we needed to do. We headed back to the facility. On the way, on Coors, a car with three young women pulled up beside us at a stoplight. A young guy in front of me - very tattooed - noticed the woman in the front. "Oh yeah, I'm going to flash you," he said, and pulled his shirt up exposing his bare chest. He then indicated that it was her turn, while other guys crowded to the window. She looked at him questioningly and pantomimed pulling up her shirt. He nodded and said "Yeah!!!", and at that point the light turned. She blew him a kiss while another woman in the back seat smiled and made a sign - two fingers together turned down - and they drove off. "She wants the chalupa," another guy said. "I'll give HER the chalupa."
We arrived back at the Pino facility. I had called my wife to pick me up, and I noticed that she was following our bus into the property. The foreman said we had to make sure the power tools got put back in their storage shed before we could sign out. After I got a weedeater into the shed, I went into Building D where I signed out. I asked the beefy guy if I was done, since I had agreed to do 10 hours of service and we only got in about seven. "Yep," he said. "I got a big 'C' here next to your name which says you've completed."
I walked out to my car, where my wife joked to me about seeing the bus, saying it looked like a convict bus, then realized that must be the bus I was on. I was tired and a little sore. "How was it?" she asked. I'm still thinking about it. It certainly was an experience, and the money saved will come in handy this month. And I'm no stranger to hard work and I know my way around weedeaters and saws and loppers and yard tools. But I think that most of the people that I was working with to beautify the city have seen jail time, will probably see more jail time in their future, and will perhaps spend a lot more time on Mayor Marty's Clean Team.
While it's good for the city to have work like this done, and I feel that we accomplished a lot in ridding a section of UNM and a vacant lot on the West side of weeds and litter, I'm not sure I want this experience again. I don't think that my red-light violation warranted being on a crew with people with more serious offenses (though from some comments on past discussion on red-light cameras on this forum I know that a few readers consider a red light violation almost a hanging offense). If "scared straight" is the goal of the community service, then fine, they didn't scare me but they got my attention. However, I think that the city should be a little more forthcoming about what kind of service people will do and who they will be doing it with before they encourage it, because some might be intimidated by an experience such as mine, or be uncomfortable or offended by the work environment. As for myself, if I happen to slip up again, (which is not habitual - it was my first traffic violation in over 20 years) I might think about just paying the fine, or at least claim that I have a back problem and ask for the puppies and kitties assignment