Community Service
George Szamuely
New York Press


Last June 12 I was at Manhattan Criminal Court entering a guilty plea to the charge of "petit larceny." I was fined $4000 and sentenced to 200 hours of community service. This was a deal worked out in advance by my attorney and the District Attorney’s office. Four thousand dollars is not a huge sum of money, but it was well beyond my limited resources. With jail time looming as a distinct possibility, my friend Taki was forced to step in to help me out.

In the end, it was not a bad outcome. I have a criminal record now, but "petit larceny" is a misdemeanor, not a felony. As for the 200 hours of community service, that did not sound especially burdensome. I was sure to be done with it by the time of my next court date in September.

There was one problem, though. I had to find the nonprofit institution for which I would work by myself. Naturally, I thought of the most interesting places first. What about the museums? I called MOMA. They were not looking for volunteers. I called the Metropolitan. They welcomed volunteer applications. But there were no openings at present. Perhaps in a couple of months. That was no good. How would I explain to the judge why I had put in so few hours? That I was waiting for an interesting job to turn up? I could imagine the response: "Community service is supposed to be punishment, not a source of enjoyment."

So museums were out. What about helping children? I called a few places. There was a possibility of tutorial work. But that would only be, at most, two hours a week. One day I passed a local community center. I went in and asked to see the volunteer coordinator. "Yes, there is work to be done here," she explained. "Cleaning out the swimming pool. Cleaning out the toilets. Does that sound interesting?" "Well, can I get back to you on that?"

With the September court date now looming, I was getting desperate. Then someone suggested I apply to a hospital. I made an appointment at Bellevue and was offered the position of "friendly visitor." My job, it turned out, would be to visit patients and chat with them. Afterward I was to write short reports about the people I visited. "Write what exactly?" I asked my immediate supervisor. "What do I know about their medical condition?" "You don’t have to worry about that," she responded. "You just write about how they feel and what they talk about."

Still somewhat baffled, I showed up on my first day expecting to be issued a list of patients to see. Instead, my supervisor left a note, informing me that she was not in and would not be in for a week. She told me report to the nurses’ stations and ask to see patients.

I did, only to encounter the incredulous stares of the nurses. Why do you want to see the patients, they asked a little suspiciously. "Because I’m a friendly visitor. I’m here to chat with them." I was given a few names, along with the bed numbers where they could be found. One was asleep. One could not speak a word of English. And a third was far too sick to see anyone. Back to the nurses’ station to ask for a few more names. The next batch was no better. One was with his family. Another seemed to be on medication, for he was mumbling gibberish. A third wanted to know why I was so anxious to talk to him. "I’m a friendly visitor, here to help make you feel better," I replied, trying to adopt the cheerful, upbeat tone of the professional hospital worker. Without a word he returned to his tv. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he was not interested. I had only been in for half an hour and had already worked my way through six patients.

I was now in a quandary. I could go back to the nurses and ask for more names. But I did not want to annoy them. They, unlike me, had real jobs to do. I could go home. But my shift was supposed to last three hours. So I opted to patrol the corridors in the hope of finding a patient who appeared to be well enough to speak, and speak in English.

Soon I felt like some kind of a predator pouncing on poor, unsuspecting sick people – who would much rather watch television than talk to a complete stranger – just so that I could get my community service time done. Twice a week I would go through the same routine. It got to the point that I was happy if I could sit with a patient and watch Judge Judy with him. After about three weeks the head of the volunteers’ department left a message asking me to call her back immediately. She had just returned from her vacation and she sounded annoyed. Was she appalled by my inane reports? Had the nurses complained that I was a nuisance? Was I depressing the patients, rather than cheering them up?

No, she was agitated that I was signing in and out at the hospital front desk, not at the volunteers’ office. She needed to keep track of my movements, she told me. Why I could not fathom. She had no dealings with the court. Evidently she suspected that I was not putting in the hours I claimed to be putting in. As a matter of fact, I had been scrupulously honest. But this was the last straw. It was time to move on. As the September court date drew near, I rehearsed in my mind the excuses I would offer the judge as to why I had fallen so woefully short of the 200 hours. The judge was not very interested, and merely set another court date for December.

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All articles reprinted with permission from the New York Press


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