Yet for years, I was able to avoid parking tickets. That all changed when I left my job of five years, located in the South Bay. My new job was in SF, but amazingly my commute on public transit, door to door, took one whole hour. I could practically drive to San Jose in that time! You know where this story is going – I got lazy and started driving to work a few times a week. At first I was like “Ha ha, meter maids, I can totally move my car every two hours and outsmart you!” Yeah – guess who had the last laugh on that one?
Long story, short: I got lots of parking tickets and had to find a way to pay them, so I signed up for Project 20.
If you’ve never heard of Project 20, let me break it down for you. Let’s say you (cough, cough I) rack up hundreds of dollars in parking tickets or traffic violations, and either can’t afford or don’t want to pay them. March on down to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency office and ask to sign up for Project 20. Otherwise known as “San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project” (don’t let the name scare you), Project 20 is a program that allows you to work off your tickets at a local charity or nonprofit (you get to choose from a large list). You will be assigned a number of hours based on how much you owe, and given a set period of time to work those hours off – usually around two-and-a-half months. If you dillydally, you’ll end up having to pay the tickets anyway, so don’t do the crime if you’re not ready to do the time, man.
I choose to volunteer with PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) in the Mission for half of my total hours, about 43. I pick PAWS because I generally like animals more than people, and volunteering with them or the SPCA was one of those things I’d “always meant to do.” PAWS is unique because it isn’t an animal shelter or animal advocacy group, exactly; what it does is provide support for pet owners who are HIV positive, seniors, disabled, addicts in recovery, or mentally ill. In short, the people of PAWS are rock stars who know how much animals can add to the quality of people’s lives. My two cats are both miniature Buddha demigods and greatly enhance my overall sense of well-being, so I’m down with the cause.
At PAWS, I am put to work doing a variety of jobs, including calling clients to remind them about their upcoming free dog washes. Sure, it’s a bit repetitive, but it’s no worse than previous temp jobs I’ve had. Most people actually answer their phones and are super nice. You can tell they really appreciate what PAWS does for them. Warm fuzzies all around.
I also help pack up pet food and supplies for the weekly Saturday Food Banks, where volunteers can also log some hours either handing out orders to clients who drop by, or driving out and delivering them. I end up working at an open house event, too. I get to interact with both clients and staff, and really get a feel for the uniqueness of the clientele. They’re a little bit nutty and a whole lot of awesome: in short, my people.
Now on to the part you really want to hear: street cleaning.
I start my first day of street sweeping on a Thursday with a girlfriend who is a Project 20 veteran. When you sign up, it really gets drilled into you that you need to show up at the office right at 8:30 a.m. or else you might not get work. I wake up early and am trying to usher my grumpy, sleepy friend out the door ASAP. She keeps telling me to chill out because you can show up as late as 9 a.m. and still get in. She takes off without me and I get there all in a panic because I didn’t think about the parking situation and can’t find a legal spot. How ironic, no? Get a ticket while you’re paying off tickets. I finally park nearby at a meter and run in. You have to sign in, and then you get assigned to a driver-supervisor. Vans and pickup trucks line up on 7th Street and take you to a designated neighborhood. I’m lucky because my driver is willing to wait while I move my car to a legal spot. Tip: Park far down on 7th Street near the Greyhound station and you won’t get a ticket.
I’m ready to go, let’s do this. We end up with a driver who claims he’s going to Chinatown and Grant Street. My friend says, “Oh no, not Chinatown, that’s one of the worst areas!” I guess because the number of smokers is high, so no sooner do you clean up all the cigarette butts but the sidewalk is littered with them again. Our driver assures us that we’ll end up in North Beach. Sweet. Turns out, our driver is amazing. He tells us to call him “Chow Mein,” cusses like a sailor, repeatedly asks us what our problem is (trust me, it’s charming), and proceeds to treat us like the delicate lady flowers we are. We’re in a truck with two other guys, and both are actually cute – score!
Chow Mein drops us ladies off first on a very nice, clean block, hands us two rakes and some garbage bags, and asks us to just sweep up leaves. No problem! We work one block and then go in search of food and coffee since we hadn’t eaten – unless you count the four bottles of wine we downed the night before. We dine on bagels, cinnamon rolls, and strong coffee at an Italian café in North Beach, orange vests tucked safely in our pockets. This is allowed, actually. You can take breaks so long as you do NOT wear the vest so that you don’t appear to be goofing off while on the clock. If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean, buddy!
We come back, do another block, and there’s Chow Mein checking up on us. He spots us and laughs as if delighted to see us hard at work, then actually gets out and helps us with the rest of the raking. Then he brings us closer to Fisherman’s Wharf where we need to sweep just one more block, and then we’re done. He tells us to go to the nearby bookstore for lunch, and that’s where he’ll pick us up.
This is where things get momentarily dicey for me. I’m near the aforementioned job (which I ended up unceremoniously quitting over unpalatable working conditions) that caused me to get all the parking tickets,. Wouldn’t it be just my luck to run into ex-coworkers, while sporting my Day-Glo orange shame and raking up In-N-Out Burger trash? Luckily, this doesn’t happen. We spend a pleasant two hours reading magazines and drinking tea in the bookstore café. Then it’s time to leave, concluding nine hours of service that I can credit to my Project 20 requirement. This is important to note: Street cleaning on weekdays earns you double time – work four-and-a-half hours (really more like 45 minutes), get credit for nine. Work four hours on weekends, get credit for 12. Not too shabby.
It turns out there is a price to pay for showing up late to the Project 20 office. I arrive at around 8:37 a.m. on my last Saturday working the chain gang, and the line is already snaking down the block. Sure, you can still work if you show up late, but fair warning: it won’t be an assignment you’ll want. Show up late on a Sunday and you might get assigned to an area our driver refers to as “The Shitting Fields.” Yeah, don’t do it. Follow these rules and you’re golden: Show up early, ask the driver where he’s going, get yourself to a nice neighborhood. It might not be wine and roses, but it’s not all syringes and used rubbers either. It’s all what you make it.
Believe it or not, street cleaning can be both pleasant and entertaining. Here’s what you won’t know until you experience it: Strangers on the streets won’t look down on you, they’ll congratulate and thank you. The homeless will see you as one of their own, or even elevate you to hero status: You’re a sort of folksy, “down with the people” street-savvy individual who is kind of working for The Man, yet not THE Man. They will high five you and/or raise a paper bag-encased generic liquor bottle toast to you. Depending on the neighborhood you end up in, street sweeping or picking up trash is like being a special sort of tourist or city employee. Only no one hates you!
You don’t need to pay The Man if you don’t want to! First head down to the SFMTA office and pay a fee to sign up for Project 20. Next, take your paperwork to the Project 20 office, and get your name in the system. When you sign up, let the staff know if you want to work for a nonprofit and they’ll get you a contact. Show up at 8:30 a.m. sharp when you’re ready to clean streets and get your very own orange vest and blue rubber gloves!