To Anyone Thinking of “Borrowing” a Handicap Placard Not Registered to You,

I know you’re tempted. You’ve been driving your aged or invalid relative around and come to feel as though it’s your handicap placard as much as theirs. In fact, you’re no spring chicken yourself, and being a primary caregiver has taken a toll on your back, your hips, your knees. Would it really be so bad if you borrowed the placard just this once? Just for a minute? Especially, if you’re reasonably sure you wouldn’t be displacing anyone who actually had a legal right and need to park there?

Trust me; it would. I made the mistake of using my husband’s placard in the faculty parking lot of the university where I teach. It was five minutes before class time and there were still five empty handicapped spots. Little did I know my school was one of two in the city where sting operations are regularly conducted. Now, obviously taking a handicap space if you’re not disabled is wrong no matter what, but did you know that parking illegally in a space is just a simple parking violation? It’s hanging the placard up that elevates it to a misdemeanor.

When I got to court, all the people there for “misuse of handicap placards” were herded together by an advocate appointed to advise us of our rights and (limited) options. The advocate had a disability, which did not bode well, since the crime was potentially punishable by six months in jail. To my relief, I learned that, by paying $1501 in fines and penalties and doing 16 hours of community service (knocked down from the usual 24, due to my 60+ years), I could have the misdemeanor expunged from my record.

I was assigned to the local animal shelter. Sounded good. I pictured myself walking the dogs and spending quality time with lonely cats. But, when I arrived, I was presented with a long list of rules, which included not drinking on the premises, not doing drugs before showing up for work, not parking in the customer parking lot, and not interacting with the animals! I guess they thought my criminal tendencies might rub off on the innocent creatures. I was to wear suitable clothing for cleaning and a “community service” vest at all times, so that I would not be confused with customers, employees or volunteers. Then they told me to come back another day because they were full.

Apparently, the shelter is a very popular place with those repaying a debt to society. No matter when I went back, they were already full and you cannot schedule your hours in advance. Finally, I asked the shelter for my paperwork back so I could get a new assignment. While waiting, I heard a plaintive meow from some nearby cages and found a black and white kitten stretching its forepaws toward me. I didn’t dare touch it, let alone consider taking it home. They probably do background checks on prospective adopters and I would never pass. I’m probably lucky they’re letting me keep my own two dogs and cat.

I took my paperwork back to the courthouse and, decided to pay the fine while I was there. After half an hour in line at the “General Traffic” windows, I was turned away and re-directed to the other side of the building, where I found a sign that said “Criminal Windows.” Luckily, criminals aren’t as plentiful as traffic violators so the line wasn’t as long.

My new community service assignment was at a Latino church that operates a food bank on Wednesdays. I showed up to find a large, dark rec hall full of folding chairs and shopping carts, with a little raised stage at the front and kitchen at the back. I asked several people where I could find Jonathan but no one understood me. Finally I found someone who spoke English. She explained that Jonathan was on vacation, but I could help unload food from the truck while they heard The Word.

The Pastor gave a sermon about Robin Williams (it was in Spanish but I understood the words, “Robin Williams”) while we hauled boxes of canned goods and vegetables. Another English speaker and fellow con, Tina, instructed me on things like how to scrounge through mountains of onions to locate the ones that weren’t rotten. Tina was very well-informed. For instance she knew that, though the pastor was black, he spoke excellent Spanish because he came from South Africa. I asked if she meant South America. She said, “No. South Africa. They speak Spanish there.”

When the service was over, the congregants retrieved their supermarket shopping carts, which were parked at the side of the nave, and got in line for the groceries. After that, we workers each got to grab an empty box and fill one for ourselves. I got some onions, oranges, tomatoes, red peppers, Starbucks fruit sodas, potato chips, tortilla strips, zucchini, two kinds of cranberry sauce, some power bars and a baguette. Who says, “Crime doesn’t pay?” I thought, convinced that the remaining 13 hours wouldn’t be so bad.

I was wrong. The following Wednesday, I arrived at the The Church of the Holy Shopping Cart at 9 AM and was told to scrub the restrooms. Fortunately, they couldn’t find a scrub brush, so I was reassigned to lining up the metal folding chairs for the church service. When that was finished, I was sent to wash the tall windows at the front of the building.

Getting to the windows entailed climbing from the sidewalk onto a three-and-a-half-foot wall (no easy feat with arthritic knees) and carefully navigating flowerbeds filled with tall thorny rose bushes. Every time I bent over to wash the lower half of the windows I would get stabbed in the backside. Then, it was time to unload the food truck. It had been hot outside, but the kitchen was hotter. There were wet bags of half-rotten potatoes to be hauled in, picked over and washed. I was just getting ready to have a little break before the service ended, when a man I hadn’t seen before called all the community service people together.

“We’re going to pray,” he announced. Everyone stood around the big kitchen island and bowed their heads. I closed my eyes but opened them when I felt Tina pushing my stomach back from the table. I thought perhaps I’d broken some Protestant prayer protocol, but then I saw the bugs crawling on the table’s edge. “Roaches!” Tina mouthed silently.

Our leader did not bother to translate the prayer, so I have no idea what we were praying for. Perhaps it was for an exterminator. Afterwards, he asked how many of us had to leave by 1 PM. I did, so instead of staying in the food line, Tina and I were led to the church office by a woman who said we would be much better off. The officina was air conditioned, unlike the rest of the church, and it was one of the hottest days of the year.

Turns out we were in the office just long enough for Jonathan to give us a roll of trash bags and some latex gloves. Then we were taken outside, into the 90-degree heat, where a storage closet was unlocked and thousands of dirty cans and bottles came tumbling out. There, we were left to separate smelly, garbage-covered cans, plastic, even broken bottles, into separate bags.

After ten minutes, Tina declared she’d had enough of rotting onions, rotting potatoes and rotting garbage. She was going back to the high school where the trash was clean and criminals could work off their sentences by picking up wadded-up class notes and lost homework from a shaded lawn. She said she was never coming back to the church. I thought she meant once the day was over, but she suddenly disappeared and something told me I’d seen the last of her.

The other criminals and traffic violators were all inside the church, which now seemed a cool oasis to me, even without AC. I normally don’t advertise my age, but today I wanted everyone to know and to feel very sorry for me. How dare they make a senior citizen climb walls to wash windows and sort cans and bottles alone in the blazing midday son. Don’t they know elderly people can die of heat stroke? (And, if I died, you better believe I’d sue them for every Starbucks soda they had!)

After four hours. I took off my gloves, washed my hands, and said a heartfelt prayer of my own: “Dear Lord, Please let me live through Community Service. Please let me keep my sanity and deliver me from flesh-eating bacteria. If You grant this request, I swear I will never so much as tear off a mattress tag as long as I live. Amen."

I intend to go straight from now on. I hope you do too.

Nancy Hendrickson