Community service is brutal. I know that’s the whole point — if it were fun and games it wouldn’t be teaching me the apparently much-needed lesson about not taking a loaded gun through airport security like a goddamned moron — but seriously, I wasn’t prepared for this.
The judge assigned me six months of probation during which time I had to complete 24 hours of community service. The court gave me an extensive list of exactly ONE online option for fulfilling those hours. (In all fairness, they gave me about six pages of in-person possibilities as well but at the time I was making my choice, I was only a few weeks post-Covid and being around a bunch of people seemed kinda Typhoid Mary-ish and I’m not that big of a dick. Besides, the in-person activities all required me to leave my house and stuff so, you know, fuck that. Because of course, I very much am that big of a dick).
The one and only online choice was doing phone surveys for United Way’s 211 hotline. The 211 call center helps people fill out applications for SNAP benefits (they used to be called food stamps). It also points folks in the right direction to get help with housing and finding nearby food banks and the kinds of other useful information that much of the population needs right now thanks to the pandemic. My job is not that. My job is to log four hours a week calling people who have already been helped by 211 and asking them scripted customer service questions to discern whether they are “very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied or very dissatisfied” with the help they received and do they have any suggestions for how 211 could be better.
Four hours a week didn’t sound like much. Then I started making the calls. By my estimates, roughly 99.9% of the people I call think I am a real 211 rep who has the power see their file and to help them with their individual cases and explain why their first month of benefits was $200 but the second month was only $16 and how are they supposed to feed themselves and their kid on $16 when their unemployment benefits haven’t started yet even though they filed for those four months ago? Damn fine questions, all; but I’m not the gal with the answers.
One guy told me he needed both SNAP and disability benefits because he’d gotten his eye shot out by his son’s Nerf gun — the very toy that was invented as a way of preventing the fabled “shoot your eye out” scenario. It was not lost on me that the reason I was talking to this man in the first place was because I took an actual gun through airport security and yet this poor eyeless fucker is somehow the one on the sad side of the conversation because of his kid’s NERF gun.
For the most part, the people I call are friendly and polite, which is astounding to me since I would never pick up the phone in the first place, let alone answer a bunch of inane questions about a service I only used out of desperation to figure out where my next meal was coming from. If my spoiled ass is worried about where my next meal is coming from, it means I don’t know if the gourmet food that will be delivered in a safe and socially distant manner to my front door will be from a Mexican restaurant or an Indian one.
A few of the calls end with people screaming about being unfairly denied benefits and hanging up on me. Some have cried while confessing that this is the most terrifying time in their lives and they don’t know how much longer they can do this. One woman cried with gratitude for the ability to feed herself and her daughter.
A lovely gentleman named Kevin patiently answered all my questions and then asked me to stay on the line while he got his next-door neighbor, Eugene, on the phone to talk about benefits. I explained that I couldn’t help Eugene because I’m not actually a 211 rep but he insisted I wait — it was really important that he help his friend. Kevin had a stroke recently which makes it hard to walk so I could hear him breathing heavily as he shuffled across the hall to Eugene’s apartment and banged on the door.
“Eugene! I’ve got 211 on the phone! Come talk to 211!” He kept knocking and calling out for several minutes but he couldn’t get Eugene to wake up. When he finally gave up and walked away he told me he was very concerned because Eugene’s food benefits ran out a while back and he couldn’t renew them since he doesn’t have a phone.
See, even if Eugene borrowed Kevin’s phone to make the initial call, he doesn’t have a way for Human Services to call back to do his interview or any of the follow up verification – Human Services doesn’t schedule the callbacks, they just get to you whenever they can and if you don’t answer, they aren’t likely to call again. Eugene can’t go to the offices in person because of Covid — he’s 72 and has an assortment of health issues. So, Kevin has been trying to help, sharing his own food as much as possible but he barely gets enough to feed himself, let alone his neighbor.
My first impulse was to get Eugene’s address and deliver a month’s worth of groceries and a pre-paid cell phone to his doorstep. But I didn’t. It would be against the rules, of course, but I obviously don’t believe the rules apply to me – hence the community service – so what stopped me?
I thought, ‘He had SNAP before so clearly he knows how to navigate the system; he’ll be fine.’ Worse, I thought, ‘He shouldn’t have let his benefits expire in the first place; I mean, if he can’t be bothered to help himself, why should I?’ And maybe worst of all, I thought, ‘Somebody Else will help.’
But what if I am Somebody Else? How do you know when it’s your turn to be Somebody Else?
On my next shift a few days later, the three-minute customer service survey turned into a twenty-four-minute counseling session with a 75-year-old woman who had a question for me: she’s having her one remaining breast biopsied in two days and did I know anyone who had been through this recently? Beatrice has had biopsies and surgeries before but that was in 1986 and again in 2011 and maybe things are different now; what’s it like today? Will it hurt? Actually, she doesn’t care if it hurts, she’s more concerned about the needles — she has an intense fear of needles. She’s certain the biopsy is going to come back positive for cancer and wishes they’d just skip the biopsy part and go ahead and remove her whole breast since surgery requires her to be knocked out and that’s way less scary than the needles.
“The last time I had a biopsy was in North Carolina in the 80’s and my niece went with me to hold my hand but they said she couldn’t come in the room because of hospital policy. I got too scared, being alone. I started crying and got panicked and I ran right out of the building and went home. The hospital called me the next day and said they’d make an exception for my niece. So, she came and sat with me and I nearly broke her hand, but we got through it.”
This time, thanks to the pandemic, no exceptions will be made. No niece. Plus, the nurse told Beatrice she should get the Covid vaccine while she’s there so that means another daunting needle.
“Should I even get the vaccine? Some of my friends say it isn’t safe yet, maybe I should wait. What if I have a reaction and then they can’t do the surgery? Maybe I shouldn’t even do the surgery at all? I’m 75, I’ve had a good run. Now I’m mostly just a burden to my family since I can’t work anymore. If I don’t get the surgery, there’s no need to do the biopsy in the first place. What do you think? What should I do?”
Let me remind you, I am a total stranger who has called Beatrice to find out whether she is “very satisfied, satisfied, dissatisfied or very dissatisfied” with the help she received from 211 when filling out her application for food benefits. I have most definitely not called to help her make a host of life and death decisions nor am I in any way equipped for such an undertaking. But I have the distinct impression that I am the only person she feels like she can ask such questions — precisely because I am a total stranger. I don’t know her, I don’t have any skin in her particular game, I am as close to a neutral opinion as she is going to get in the next two days leading up to the biopsy.
It might be my turn to be Somebody Else. I took a deep breath and said, “let’s break this down,” and for the next seventeen minutes we did just that. We swapped stories of friends and family who had been through biopsies and cancer and she told me her survival story. I didn’t give any outright advice (except for the vaccine question — yes, Beatrice, get the goddamn vaccine). I tried to ask questions to help locate the obstacles, the monkey wrenches, that were preventing her from making her own choices.
She decided she would get the vaccine because a possible allergic reaction beats the hell out of a possible death sentence from the virus itself but her bigger questions went unanswered. By the end of the conversation, she felt calmer but was still a bit unsure of whether or not to get the surgery if the biopsy came back as cancerous. It’s an impossible choice that has no right or wrong answer, only what’s right or wrong for her.
I’ll never know what she decided or the outcome of the biopsy. I’ll never know if Eugene has food or whether Kevin was ever able to wake him up. Maybe Eugene is gone. And here is the mind-boggling thing: the uncertainty of how their stories will play out is the worst thing that I will have to endure as a result of my breaking the law.
That’s my level of privilege: the biggest difficulty I have right now is being court ordered to listen to other people’s difficulties. For a few seconds, I feel their pain, I share their fear, and then I transfer them to Someone Else, hoping that maybe, possibly, Someone Else can help them, and I move on to the next call. It’s brutal.