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 Attorneys 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.
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.
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."
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
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
dont have to worry about that," she responded.
"You just write about how they feel and what they talk
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.
did, only to encounter the incredulous stares of the nurses.
Why do you want to see the patients, they asked a little
suspiciously. "Because Im a friendly visitor.
Im 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. "Im
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.
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.
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
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