The Time I Did Community Service – Planting Carrots
A short time after my reading to the blind fiasco, my mom got a packet in the mail from the United Way.
Inside were phone numbers for various volunteer organizations, though when we began to dial, we discovered the packet was woefully out of date. Most calls went to disconnected numbers, or completely unrelated companies. Many had gone out of business, never to be heard from again. So it was exciting to finally find a human being at the end of the line, even if it sounded like we had woken her up. At 3 pm.
Her “organization” was called something like “Fighting for Animal Welfare,” but it soon became clear that the group had disbanded several years before. But she was old, and had an overrun garden, so would I mind terribly coming over and tending to her carrots?
I argued with my mom that this was not actually community service – this was just helping a single woman. Wasn’t my service supposed to benefit the whole community at large? But I was overruled, and my mom arranged for me to show up that weekend.
I was still too young to drive, so my mom shuttled me over to the opposite end of town, passing by projects and burnt out churches on our way to this lady’s house. “Just be nice and SMILE, for Christ’s sake,” my mom urged, hoping that I wouldn’t run screaming from this opportunity, at least.
She dropped me off in a nondescript driveway, then sped off, promising to be back in two hours or so. Alone, I hesitantly rapped at the woman’s screen door. I heard a violent burst of coughing come from within the dim house, followed by a guttural spitting noise. An ancient-looking woman emerged from the darkness, supporting herself on a cane and covered in at least three layers of clothing.
“Come on in,” she croaked, “and don’t let the cats out.” Each cat was named after a different racial slur, which was charming. I pet “Wetback” uneasily as she settled back into an armchair that had shaped itself to her sagging body.
“I got a pretty overgrown garden back there, so there’s a lot of work to do. You might be wondering about all these clothes I’m wearing.” I nodded warily, eyeing the exit in case she decided to start stripping. “I’ve got all this on since I’m deathly allergic to bees, and they are just EVERYWHERE back there. I think there’s a hive, but I’m not sure…” She trailed off into another prolonged hacking session, which she wrapped up by spitting into a bowl she kept by her armchair. “Do you know what an EpiPen is?”
Indeed I did, if only because my brother is allergic to everything on earth. Essentially, it’s a compact spring-loaded syringe that injects epinephrine straight into a patient suffering from a severe allergic reaction. Remember that scene from Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman’s character is overdosing, and they stab adrenaline straight into her heart? It’s kind of like that.
She gestured to her thigh with hands that were covered in 3+ pairs of gloves. “This is where you’ll need to aim if I get stung, okay?” And without further ado, she hobbled off to the back door, nudging “Kike” out of the way with her foot. I meekly followed, wondering if one of her neighbors would take me in if I started pounding on their door.
In moments, we had arrived at the garden. It was surrounded by a rusty chainlink fence, and calling it “overgrown” was an understatement. Briars tangled everywhere, choking the tiny rose bush that must have been planted well over a decade ago. She pointed to various plants, giving me their scientific names, then finally shuffled over to the carrot patch. Which looked just like the rest of the garden, and had bees buzzing angrily in the vicinity.
“Yeah, this is where I want to put them. You’ll have to clear out all these other plants, though.”
The other plants in question were thick, thorny vines that had inexplicably been coated in six inches of manure. The stench on a hot summer’s day was overpowering, and I wrinkled my nose with distaste. The woman caught my expression, and warned me not to be so “uppity.” She told me to set to work, but mentioned that she couldn’t spare a pair of gloves. “I need them all to protect myself from the bees.”
She had me set up a lawn chair so she could watch me work, and I began to dig amongst the manure with my bare hands. The thorns pricked my skin every time I grabbed for a briar, but without gloves, I had no choice. Soon my hands were covered in blood and cow shit, and sweat was pouring down my face. The woman began asking me questions about my eating habits. I revealed that I ate meat, and her face became so red and puffy that I thought maybe she had been stung by a bee without me noticing.
“How could you eat poor defenseless animals?!” She wrenched herself from her seat, and huffed back into the house. I kept digging, hoping against hope that somehow two hours had already passed. She came back a few minutes later, and thrust into my face graphic pictures of animals being tortured and butchered. “This is what your diet has caused! All this suffering!” She rambled on like this for the next hour or so, comparing me to Hitler during the Holocaust. I wondered how “Kike” the cat would react to all of this, but he was safe within the confines of the house.
I finally cleared away all the brambles and weeds, and she handed me a tiny packet of carrot seeds. I was to plant them into shallow troughs, then water them. That seemed simple enough, and I was starting to get hopeful that I would soon be out of the hot sun. I dropped the seeds into the furrows, but then realized that there was no hose. Or a watering can. Or even a bucket. How was I supposed to water these?
The woman had an answer. She disappeared outside the chainlink fence for a time, and I began to worry that she was going to make me pee on the carrots or something. But I eventually heard a shout, and the next thing I knew, I was completely soaked with freezing cold water. She had gotten hold of a hose that was attached to the side of the house, then had turned the thing on full blast and aimed the stream so it would go over the 6-foot fence and into the garden. The water had hit right on top of my head, and I could hear her screaming at me to tell her when the water hit the carrots. I directed her over to the patch, and my troughs were instantly overflowing with water, with seeds floating away towards the bees. I yelled at her to stop, but decided to keep the escape of the seeds to myself.
By the time she came back into the garden, the water had soaked into the earth, and everything appeared fine. I was ushered inside, but told not to sit on anything since I was still dripping with water.
She was trying to convince me to play the keyboard during an animal rights parade when I heard a car finally pull into the driveway. I lept over a meowing “Spic” in my eagerness to climb into the car, and that’s how my mom found me. Soaking wet, my hands covered in blood and shit, and an unmistakable look of fear and desperation in my eyes.
She thanked the woman from the rolled-down car window, then screeched off. “What in God’s name happened to you?” I relayed the story, and it was decided that we would no longer use the United Way packet for volunteer opportunities.