Crime and Punishment, Me Myself and Ty

crime and PUNISHMENT: Helping Hand Mission: Impossible

PART THREE of a three-part series

When he was in college, William Fay got into a scrape of some sort. I’m not really sure what it was, but I choose to pretend it was first degree trespassing and larceny.

After getting through the legal issues, Fay was convinced he wanted to go into criminal defense and went to law school.

But that may not be the coolest thing about his firm: It proudly boasts “Hablamos Espanol” almost like it’s the firm’s ad slogan, choosing to represent members of the Hispanic community in and around Raleigh.

These things (and Daniel Ellis’ suggestion) were what led me to consult Fay about my, uh, “run in with the law.”

He told me that there was a First Offender’s program in North Carolina, whereby I would pay $200 plus court costs and be assigned 75 hours of community service OR I could hire him, do 30 hours in advance of my court date and he could (likely) get the charges dismissed.

It’s important to note that the business that owns the property which was larcenied and trespassed on hasn’t existed in years, meaning any trial wouldn’t hold up and I could have gotten this dismissed through a tiresome and very court visit-filled manner, but I just needed to get that spot off my record.

Fiscally the FO program made the most sense, but there’s just something about having that Get Out Of Jail Free Card in your back pocket that sometimes makes you want to roll the dice, you know?

I hired Will and he hooked me up with the Helping Hand Mission on Rock Quarry Road where I began one of my most interesting and time-intensive solo missions ever.

First, a little about Helping Hand: It’s a warehouse that acts as the flagship distributor for a number of other missions across the county.

Essentially, it’s  a gigantic building with everything anyone in Raleigh has ever donated in it.

Yes, Raleigh. I have seen your unmentionables.


I hope to one day be such an amazing coach that I can donate my “runner-up” trophies to a mission.

There were books by the thousands, another thousand chairs and hundreds of televisions, but here’s the rub: All of it…every last bit of it…is inaccessible.

The “chair room” consists of a three-foot wide path cut through chairs that pile up to the twelve-foot ceilings. My second day, I stood on a mountain of clothes that had my head in the rafters and bagged the clothing in trash bags that I was ordered to throw further up the mountain in an effort to uncover the furniture that laid beneath the layers of unwanted shoes, pants and shirts.

There is furniture on top of furniture, a mechanic’s garage-sized room covered in wall-to-wall washers, dryers and stovetops and absolutely no management.

In chronicling my work at the mission, I considered introducing the characters as you would in a play because the people who work full-time at Helping Hand are worth having an off-broadway show.

Or a criminal investigation.

E runs the place. Or so he pretends. Mostly he sits behind the counter and smokes cigarettes while no where else in the state of North Carolina do employees have the right to smoke indoors. When he’s not doing that, he’s yelling at the community service workers and threatening to “clock them out.”

The mission itself is a pipeline of community service talent. I was never the only criminal working and with all of us working for free and “working” being defined as “whatever the hell we’re told,” you’d think this place could be a money-making machine. No, it’s actually just a soul-sucking place of darkness where E, M and T tell you to do three different things with the same washing machine that was just donated.

Take it inside. Take it outside. Put it on that truck. Get it off the truck.

And even that wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the criticism. I was labeled a “dropper” my second day, but I never dropped anything! That plus the constant training I received from the mission’s finest furniture movers was enough to drive me crazy.

The thing is, I actually enjoyed the work. It was nice to work with my hands and get cut up a little, plus lifting furniture doubled as a workout that left me happily sore afterward.

But being tutored on the proper way to lift a dresser was a little hard for this recent college graduate to handle.

The real problem, though, were the atrocities I committed and heard about  which made my little exploit on Wake Forest Road seem like taking a handful of mints from the candy dish at a restaurant.

For instance, I took a dresser off of a truck from some guy who was donating it to the mission. He took his receipt and has probably already claimed it on his taxes, so he did get something out of it, but that feeling that he was able to give something back to his community? I smashed it. Literally.

Within three hours of the dresser (which I would have loved to have had in my bedroom) arriving at the mission I was bashing it on the concrete because, for whatever reason, it wasn’t good enough to make it into the warehouse. I pulverized it into firewood and threw it in the trash pile.

And that’s not the worst of it. The prices at this “mission” are astronomical. I asked E about a few books I wanted to buy and he told me they would be $2 each. Yes, that’s reasonable, but the fact that there are literally thousands of books lining the shelves of donated bookshelves in a warehouse that no person looking for a book would ever enter should bring down the price a bit. That, or the notion that his mission is supposed to exist to help out those who need a financial “Helping Hand.” (I ended up with the books anyway).

And so E tells customers who are already down on their luck that the television they want that I just dug out of a mountain of televisions in the “furniture room” will be $65. He told another couple that the washing machine they were eyeing would be $425.

And it gets worse. G, who seemed to be the only employee that had any sense (plus some actual warehouse experience) said that Sylvia (the actual owner of the missions) sets prices that E and Co. often raise so they can pocket the excess.

Suffice it to say that I will hesitate before donating goods to thrift stores and missions until after I investigate them a bit.

But there were some times when I wasn’t so incredibly cynical and angry about the mismanagement of the mission.

Since I was usually the only caucasian person in the place, I often found myself as the victim of a little bit of racism, which was quite a rush considering I’ve been the white majority for most of my life. No matter what us “guys” were doing, I was always singled out to be the one pulled away to do something else that was harder and suckier.

But that worked out my first day, as my friends Buster and Jerome picked me for a delivery job. We hit the road for Clayton and I was able to notch a lot of community service hours just by riding in the truck.

The three of us got together again my second-to-last day and with my new nickname of “badass white boy” I actually let myself have some fun with them. For instance, you know those people that just kind of sit in the gas station parking lots with their sweatshirt hoods on and watch everyone entering and exiting while speaking to every female? I was one of them for a while.

My most exciting times, however, came in my final two days at the mission.

W runs the Helping Hand Mission marching band and dance team. Yes, a band and dance team. Tuesdays and Thursdays were my favorite days at the mission because I got to lug dressers and refrigerators around to the awesome beats of an inner city drumline while picking up some sweet dance move ideas. (The next Ty Johnson dance routine is scheduled for whenever I hear Ke$ha. Ke$ha, if you’re reading this, I grew out my beard for you).

Anyway, W needed a ride downtown one day and since I was the only volunteer with a car, I was the chauffeur. We were heading to the governor’s office so we could get a letter formatted congratulating the marching band for the program at the banquet. I drove slowly and with little deliberation to buy more time, but it was unnecessary because W had forgotten his ID.

The security guard wouldn’t let him in to talk with the lady in charge of the letter, so it was up to me to convince her to turn a letter out in two days bearing Gov. Bev Perdue’s signature.

So in my working man’s sweatshirt, I was walking the halls of the governor’s office. I got the letter taken care of (“I’m basically asking you to beg,” W told me.) and we headed to the New Bern House for a quick stop before we went to KFC. I ate slowly to eat up some time and went back to work.

But I was intrigued by how easily I had left and returned. E had no idea where I had been and likely assumed I was “working” the entire time. This information I could use.

So my final day came and I decided to put it all on the line. I hadn’t had lunch, so I snuck to my car and left about an hour after clocking in. I went to Bojangles, bought a newspaper and went to the bank to deposit a check. I ate slowly and read the paper and it was such a rush to skip work, I filled up in no time.

I returned about an hour later and worked with G, who unofficially assigned me to clean up the back room. G was a good guy, along with Moo (No idea how to spell it, but if you made a cow noise he turned his head) and offered us a retreat from E and Co.’s watchful eyes. At one point, we were all standing around talking when G handed me a broom and dustpan to give off the illusion that I was working.

That’s the kind of strategy that allowed me to graduate in just 4.5 years!

I ended up in the back alone widening an aisle for about two hours before M found me on the phone and accused me of hiding out and doing nothing. He told E and I found myself two days from my court date with the risk of getting “clocked out” involuntarily with three hours remaining.

But then W needed me again, so we went to church. He needed something from the pastor, but they were in the middle of a service.

There was no gospel choir because it was just a Bible study, but the reverend called me “brotha,” and thanked me for coming. Best church experience ever.

We hit the road again back to the mission and I finished my hourly requirements out by walking around with a broom and dustpan.

I turned in my paperwork to Fay and received a call on the day of my courtdate announcing that my case had been dismissed. Now I’m awaiting expungement, meaning that on June 24 this madness will finally be over.

By the end of my time at Helping Hand, I had accepted the fact that the entire community service experience was really just a sociological experiment. I observed everything from a journalistic distance. People would say things about me and I would just ignore it.

I sometimes felt like I was doing an investigative piece, but in the end what I gained was a blogworthy story and some more insight about me and my place in the world.

I learned that everyone has a story worth telling and that even expertise in lifting furniture can be expertise enough for a happy life.

But most of all, I learned to park further away.


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