On Christmas of 2011, I got into a pretty gnarly argument with my then-husband. I was high on Oxy and angry and I pulled a knife (a sourdough bread cutting knife, by the way, but the law doesn’t differentiate) and was arrested. While I narrowly missed becoming a felon, I did get slapped with a misdemeanor offense, one year of domestic violence class, a three-year restraining order and 240 grueling hours of “community labor” which is “community service” but more humiliating and even more exhausting.
I was given 14 months to do the community service but was in treatment for seven of those and having a pretty severe nervous breakdown for the rest of the year. So, a month before my court date, when my other fuck up friends told me, “You have to at least start the community service if you want to get an extension and not go to jail,” I decided to suck it up and start.
I was hopeful when I went to the volunteer center in West LA to sign up because I’d heard there were plenty of options for community service and that if you were lucky, you could score a stint at a local thrift store where you could just sit on your ass and rack up all the good clothes before they hit the floor.
“No, this is the only one you can do,” a 30-something compassionless Hispanic woman informed me. And with that, she and her two-inch glittery nail pointed to a sign that said HBT—which, I learned, was short for Hollywood Beautification Team.
“What’s that?” I asked, still hopeful.
“Yeah I’m not great…at that kind of…manual labor in the hot sun with active drug addicts kind of thing,” I explained. “There must be something else.”
“No. Not for you. Because of your offense, you have to do hard labor. Only this. Sorry.”
“My offense? Excuse me?”
“Yep. That’s all. Next!” And with that, she handed me my sign-in papers, with their endless lines of empty dates to be filled along with instructions for HBT. I looked at the paper, which said, Bring your ID. Arrive at 7 am. Don’t be late. Wear work clothes. And bring a sack lunch. Jail was starting to look pretty inviting at this point.
The next morning, I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard at 6:45 am. The air was full of morning fog and the stench of stale urine. I was wearing sweatpants, hair in a messy bun, with not a stitch of make up on my pale, sleepy face. I was carrying my “sack lunch” of girly nibbling food: pretzels, nuts, fruit, Pirate’s Booty, three cans of Diet Coke. There were a few homeless dudes shuffling down the sidewalk and some annoying perky girls running. I saw a solemn bald man look longingly into the window of a man’s wig shop.
I turned onto Cherokee Street. A bunch of Mexican men in hoodies were perched on the curb of the sidewalk. I sat down. Nobody said a word to me. I smiled awkwardly. Right at 7, the doors opened. We all filed in. I was one of three girls and the only white one.
“If you’re only working four hours or have paperwork, get in the blue line,” a thick, mean-looking Mexican woman with hair down to her ass barked. “Everybody else in the green line.” I was given the low down, my ID was copied, they took my paperwork and I was off.
“I’m going to be cleaning graffiti, right?” I asked a man.
“No, today you are sweeping the streets.”
“You’ve swept before, right?” the guy asked me.
“Well, I’ve swept privately,” I answered. “I’ve never swept publicly. I’m more of a private sweeper—like the Tina Turner song.”
My joke was lost on him.
“Okay, here,” he said, handing me a disgusting broom and a huge crusty dustpan. “You want gloves?”
“Uh, yeah. And a hazmat suit if you have one.”
Again, no response.
I spent the next eight hours sweeping up dirty diapers, syringes, whip it cans and cigarette butts off Santa Monica Blvd, broken up only by a 10-minute break in the morning, 30 minutes for lunch and another 10-minute break in the afternoon. If you were caught on your cell phone at any time other than during a break, you were sent home. If you didn’t wear your seat belt while in the truck, you were sent home. If you copped an attitude or slacked, you were sent home. You get the picture.
At lunch at Jack in the Box, where I ate my hippie rabbit food and drank endless sodas, one of the girls on the chain gang asked me, “What’s that tattooed on your finger?” She was referring to my ex-husband’s name, which now brands my ring finger.
“Oh, this? Just stupidity and optimism.”
At 3:30, we were released for the day. I had never been so tired in my life. My back had seized up, I was sunburned, there were leaves in my hair, my feet were throbbing and I was limping. As I made my way home, I decided that I’d basically learned four things from my first day of community service: 1) My back hates me and hates sweeping even more; 2) I need to learn Spanish immediately; 3) There are a lot of condoms east of La Brea and south of Santa Monica Boulevard and 4) I look truly awful in a tan Dickies shirt that says “Clean Team” on the back.
Once home, I hobbled into the kitchen and wolfed down everything. I made my way to the bathroom to take a long, hot shower, moaning the whole time. Then I slumped onto the bed and immediately fell sleep, so tired that I had no time for any drama. I had become a typical working man. And I had a newfound respect for people who do manual labor that isn’t court ordered.
For the next two days, I stayed in bed, so fucking exhausted and sore that I couldn’t move. My best friend took me to get an inexpensive massage at a local mini mall. For the next month, it was all about cheap Thai massages and Tylenol. They are a lazy princess-turned-felon’s best friends.
The next time I went, much to my relief, I was put on graffiti removal, which consisted of spraying some stinky yellow liquid onto the pavement. The crew leader then pulled out a pressure hose and a violent jet of water washed away all the gang tags. I asked to wield the hose but was not allowed because they’d had problems in the past with people getting hurt and suing. The day was boring but not exhausting.
The next few times, I was back on the street sweeping crew again, making my way from Hollywood and Vermont all the way down the 101 and back—easily four miles in the blaring sun. I quickly noticed that not many people talked to us. In the mornings, the homeless people, already drunk, bid us good morning but everybody else ignored us. Once in awhile, some dumbass would thank us for our “environmentalism” and “volunteer work” but most people knew who we were. One ratty black homeless guy yelled, “Keep doing what you are doing! I know it sucks but it beats the pen! Stay out! Stay free!” We all laughed.
“So how much time you got?” some rocker guy with tattoos and a nose ring asked me. He was one of the very few people that spoke English.
“30 days,” I answered.
“Jesus Christ. What did you do? Rob a bank?”
“Uh, I see some poo to sweep. Be right back.”
I quickly learned that most people were there for DUI’s and that a “driving when wet” got you 10-15 days. Some semi-infamous girl from a TV show called The Bad Girls Club was also there for domestic violence: she beat the shit out of her trainer boyfriend but because she didn’t use a “weapon,” she only got 15 days. After hearing her drone on about her Playboy party and her Playboy radio show and her many sequined outfits, I couldn’t resist Googling her. Apparently she was famous for her fake tits, fake nose, fake lips and bitchy personality.
I’ve only done seven of my 30 days and I’m already getting muscles from sweeping. (I’m not sure which part of that sentence is scarier.) I’m developing an ear for Mexican radio, which blares most of the day, and a decent work ethic. I used to feel guilty about what I did to my ex—really guilty. There were many nights I cried in remorse. But I certainly feel like I’m paying my dues now. And I no longer use utensils—even to eat. I just use my hands. Everybody feels safer that way.
I go back to court on September 11th. I’m hoping they grant me my much-needed extension. If they don’t, please come visit me in County.