“I wish I hadn’t written my name so large.” She has her back to me, scrubbing the wall of the public convenience, in the park. Two other girls are doing the same thing. They are sound. I like them, They’re not gangsters, crooks or nutters. They are just three naughty kids who got caught putting graffiti on the walls. Pointless, aimless stuff. Their words, not mine. The punishment is community service which I am supervising. They have to remove their own handiwork. It is cold, A harsh grey winter in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Civil war grey. They finish and we leave. There is a complaint later from the parks supervisor, about the mess we leave behind – paint particles, dust, that kind of thing. You can’t please everyone. Cut to summer, hot, steamy, 100+. I’ve learnt a lot since the winter. Firstly that the title “Community Liaison” covers a lots of bases and secondly where to buy some brushes to tidy up the mess we leave behind when the graffiti gets scrubbed off. Started covering it up as well. Tidier.
Some of the people I take on graffiti community service are youngsters who have committed various crimes, involving gangs, drug use or getting into fights or stealing. Some have not done anything like that but are excluded from school for other discipline issues, such as swearing at a teacher. Community service is part of their programme. That is common, here in the U.S.A. I also take out prisoners from the jail. Eyebrows were raised when I started. People thought it was a risk to me to be on my own. Any number up to a dozen. What are they going to do to me? Eat me? Really. I discovered they were happy to come out on work detail and…..work. Painting over the graffiti or scrubbing it off. They have a sense of community service too. “I’ve always been a bit of a bad boy – it’s good to do something which people really appreciate and does some good too. I’m a bit tired of doing bad all the time. It’s good to do some good.” He is very large, with no neck but a gentle voice. He is with seven others from the jail as we paint over the building near the High School. It is covered with “Crips” “Blood” and all the rest of it. Rumour has it that the people who did it are very dangerous and very near. They don’t take kindly to people interfering with their paint jobs. He squints at me in the burning sun. He knows what I am thinking.
“What are they going to do to us? Really?” Bit like what I was thinking about them. Everything comes around. They finish painting. It is a very good job. All gleaming white paint. All covered up. It didn’t do any harm that one of the guys from the jail was a professional painter and decorator, before he got locked up. He takes a real pride in the afternoon’s work, giving instructions and advice about the mixing of the paint and the density before it is applied and the temperature. It is a real art and he takes a lot of pride in it. The Community Police Officer drops by as we are packing up. I go out with him, in the patrol car each week. We give books to kids that are hanging around in the street and talk to them about education and literacy and how it can help you get on in life. He is a good man and the prisoners relax in his company despite the traditional culture of mistrust of people in uniform.
I give them all a drink from the supplies I brought with me and we load up into the van. A dog barks loudly in the distance. We drive off passing a really good looking young man leaning against the corner of the next block of buildings. The prisoners all talk quietly amongst themselves. There is a moment’s silence before one of them speaks to me. “Do you want to know what’s going on?” I nod. He sniffs before continuing. “The good looking dude hangs around the school until kids gravitate towards him cos he’s cool and nice looking. After a while he will introduce them to the ugly one – the one with drugs, who won’t be far away. They never are.” I look at him in the mirror as we pass the gas station (petrol in Blighty!) “Just thought you might want to know” I nod again. I tell the police about it.
I drop them back at the jail and they are checked to make sure they are not bringing anything back into the jail which they shouldn’t. Some are picked for random drug testing. There are rules about going out with me, applied by the jail. One of them is no contact with people on the outside. I find out the first time how easy that it to infringe. A car pulls up beside us at the lights. One of the men tells the one sitting next to him that the car is there. The man looks across to see that it is his wife and child in the car. “Do you want to stop and talk to your family” The first prisoner asks. There is a pause before the other man replies. “Nah. Don’t want to get Mr Robertson into trouble.” I don’t say a word. They are not allowed to ask me personal questions about where I live, that kind of thing. I return the favor – I don’t say “So, you’re doing time in Virginia but you’re from Texas. Why’s that?” It makes for very tranquil sessions. I am starting to think everyone should be banned from the small talk. Hadn’t realized how much I enjoy not having to do it. They are doing good too.
There is graffiti on a building. “If you are not from here, fall back.” Rumour has it that it has been there for years, not months, Now it is gone. I go into the bank to get a few dollars. The lady serving me starts crying when she talks about it. It has bothered her for years – seeing it on the way to work and back and so on and so forth. She sniffs as she counts the last dollar. “Tell them, thanks.” I nod. I’ve learnt a lot. Human spit mixed with baking soda can remove some paint. Early mornings are not a good time to paint. Spraying on is easier than scrubbing off. Shapes cut out of pizza boxes make great templates when painting. I really enjoy seeing the images and the messages of hate, territory and violence gone. People, generally like to do good. It makes them feel good. Learnt something else too. The prisoners are afraid of one thing – my driving. I am used to the British roads. This could take a while…..
Dirk Robertson (Virginia U.S.A July 2011)