No one likes getting traffic tickets.
I know because I deal with them every day as an intern in the traffic court section of our legal services department at Homeboy Industries. The story of Homeboy is well known. Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle started the project in 1989 in East Los Angeles. For over 25 years, Homeboy has provided counseling, job training, and schooling for men and women formerly involved in gangs and/or previously incarcerated.
I talk with homies (our clients) who have exorbitant traffic fines and suspended licenses. It’s always one of two responses:
“Yeah, I did it.” Or, more likely, “That cop was whack!”
Whether it’s fair or not, they always have to pay the fine.
* * *
You knows those days where you wake up late, miss breakfast, and forget to fill your coffee mug? You knowAnger from Inside Out? That was me two weeks ago on Tuesday. With my mind on the 17 things I needed to accomplish before lunch, I frantically rushed into the office, not pausing to greet anyone. I barely heard the legal assistant inform me that I had a traffic court client waiting in the meeting room.
Sure enough, Eric, a 24 year old Latino, was sitting by the window. Armed only with his traffic tickets and his Huichol slinged bag, he expressed worries about paying the fines and completing the community service.
Just give him the traffic spiel and be done with it, I thought to myself. There’s so much to get done.
I cut off his story to inform him about the traffic amnesty program that reduces ticket fines. He looked at me like I just didn’t get it: “I have two problems. I’m homeless… and undocumented.”
So much for that idea. “Ah, well amnesty doesn’t apply… No pun intended.” I replied.
The joke fell flat.
I told Eric that the best he could do was to have a meeting with the clerk to explain his situation. He would need an official letter from the homeless shelter as evidence. In L.A., an errand like this is far from simple, especially if you’re homeless or you don’t have a car. Forty-five minutes by bus from Homeboy to the shelter, and another ninety minutes from the homeless shelter to the court house. How could he accomplish all this and make it back in time to meet with his immigration lawyer?
I was torn. Drive him, my conscience urged. But I fought it. There’s no way I could spend the afternoon driving around town. Not today.
* * *
I found myself grabbing my keys and telling Eric to meet me downstairs in five minutes. A bit surprised, Eric smiled and walked out excitedly, as if his luck had changed. As we rode together down the jam-packed 101, we became less “client” and “intern.” Now, we were just two guys. Friends, even.
As we drove, a remarkable thing happened: unprompted, Eric began to share his life story with me. Born in Mexico, he came to the U.S. when he was less than a year old. Life had never been easy for him. Growing up with an abusive father and uncle, he carried tremendous pain, which caused constant anxiety and depression. As he spoke, he would occasionally pause and look out the window.
“Man, how did you cope?” I asked.
“My art,” he replied. “I learned how to draw from an early age, and I take my pain, and process it on paper. Pencil and paper are my tools to fight aggression. Through the process, I am able to let go and find peace.”
At a stoplight, he pulled out his notebook full of sketches, portraits, and patterns. Wow, I thought. The guy was good — really good.
* * *
After a predictably lengthy journey, we arrived at the traffic court. I dropped Eric off and parked. Once I made it inside, I asked, “Are you finished already?”
“Kind of,” he said, “the clerk won’t reduce the fine.” We had made it all this way. We’re not going down without a fight, I told him.
As soon as we entered her cramped office, I began to explain: “Hi I’m Alex and this is my client, Eric…”
“I can’t drop the fines,” she said automatically.
It looks like someone else is having a bad day.
Irritated, I responded, “I understand ma’am, but you see my client is currently homeless, and he has a written statement stating so. Is there anything you can do?”
She sighed, and said, “Well, I can reduce the fine from $75 to $20, but he has to pay it now.”
How can he pay the fine? He’s homeless! If only she knew his story, she might change her mind.
“I appreciate the reduction, but you see, my client has no income, and is finishing up the community service hours for this ticket. Can he get an extension?” I tried to remain calm hoping that my tone would open some sort of dialogue. Eric looked defeated, and signalled that he was ready to go.
Matching my irritation, she replied, “He can pay the $20 when he turns in his community service hours. If he does not turn in the money, the penalty will not be taken off his record, and he may face additional fines.”
She pointed to a chart with stick figures, showing what happened to people who did not pay: a prison cell. I relented; when you get a deal in traffic court, you jump on it. “I understand. Does that work for you, Eric?”
As I turned to Eric, he looked at her, gently smiled, and said, “Yes. Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate it.”
I looked at him, amazed at how calm he was. He was genuinely grateful. Thrilled with this fortuitous encounter, we quickly packed up our things before she could change her mind.
All of a sudden, the clerk held up her hand.
Uh oh, now what, I thought. What followed totally surprised me.
She looked intently and lovingly at Eric. Her voice cracked a couple of times as she spoke: “I know I have been giving you a hard time about paying your tickets. Every time you came into my office, you always treated me with respect. You would not believe how many people blow up, curse, or insult me. I am just trying to do my job. But you…you always treated me with respect and kindness.”
Eric gave her a warm nod in affirmation, acknowledging her hurt. I could not help but feel sorry for the clerk. My perspective had shifted. She was no longer a combative bureaucrat, but a vulnerable woman trying to do her job.
She continued, “So, this is what I’m going to do. When you come back to turn in the community service hours, I will pay the fine for you. You are so young and kind, and I hope you will have a better life. So please let me pay this fine for you.”
As she made her offer, her shoulders dropped, as if a huge weight had been lifted. Perhaps it was the burden of long, unrecognized day of drudgery. If only for a minute, a kind soul made an effort to understand her.
Eric’s jaw threatened to touch the ground. “Thank you. Can I give you a hug?”
As they embraced, tears rolled down her cheeks. Her arms moved gently up and down his back over and over again, as if to reaffirm his gentle and compassionate nature.
* * *
Eric taught me that day how grace can work through just about anything…even a traffic ticket. On the surface, he did nothing remarkable. He simply listened, treated us with respect, and shared his story. Yet we were witnesses to something special: someone willing to be vulnerable. Eric could have been guarded, embarrassed, and suspicious of others who don’t understand what homelessness is like. Yet Eric showed that vulnerability, compassion, and respect are powerful tools. He turned a casual car ride into a graced lesson about how life’s pain can be transformed — into beautiful works of art. He opened the door to kindness and healing for a battle-scarred bureaucrat.
When I’m feeling panicked and at wit’s end, I do well to remember that the Erics of the world are worth the car ride. When we’re worn down by monotonous days, we do well to remember that a little kindness, like Eric’s, goes a long way to making the world a little more human. Like I said…
The guy was good — really good.
Title image, “Torpedo” is available from Flickr user Ian Sane here.
Rear view mirror image, “Doh!” is available from Flickr user John M here.
“Hug” is available from Flickr user Hernán Piñera here.