Trouble Finds Me

There are nine of them. Six boys. Three girls. Ages range from 13 to 17. As they wait on the sidewalk outside the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Minneapolis, they look like they would rather be anywhere else. But they don't have a choice. So they do what uncomfortable teenagers usually do in such situations: They put on hard faces and gaze into the middle distance.

It's almost 3:00 p.m. Time to get under way. Crew leader Todd Bowdin gathers the group together. He is friendly, firm, and direct. "I don't need to be hearing a lot of swearing. There's no flirting, no physical contact, and no giving out phone numbers," he says. "I'm not here to be a prick or get on your case. I'm not here to be your friend. I'm here to be your boss."

He then herds the kids into the foyer of the Juvenile Detention Center, where he instructs them to hand over their pagers, cell phones, lighters, and cigarettes. After they each pass through the metal detector, Bowdin explains what the day will hold: For the next six hours, the crew will be picking up litter along one of the city's grittiest thoroughfares--West Broadway.

Bowdin cautions that they should expect to be hectored. There are a lot of litter collection routes in Minneapolis, distinctive for varying reasons. Some are dirtier than West Broadway. On the Chicago-Lake route, for instance, crews pick up about 500 pounds of litter per week, making it tops in the volume category. But by the verbal abuse measure, Bowdin says, no route rivals West Broadway.

The kids climb into the van. Girls in front. Boys in back. Bowdin offers a final word of warning. "This isn't a church program or a school program. If you don't get your credit, they'll put out a warrant for your arrest. Any questions." A voice peeps up from the back of the van. "Yeah, can you turn on the air-conditioning?" Bowdin obliges.

As the van wends its way through the Warehouse District, the boys are quiet. The girls are not. LeVita, who is 16, is working her third and final day. Like everyone else, she was ordered by a judge to participate in the county-run program, which is known as Sentencing to Service, or STS. An alternative to fines and jail time, Hennepin County STS has been in existence for 10 years. In Minneapolis, juveniles on STS crews pick up trash seven days a week, accounting for virtually all of the city's litter cleanup operations. The program's boosters see a lot of virtues in STS. LeVita doesn't.

"I believe this program was invented to embarrass the hell out of us," she complains. "I just don't think it's fair. They could have us go to a class or do something that's good for us. But instead they just want us to be garbage kids. And they should let us have a cigarette. That just makes us angry. And you don't want to see a lot of angry kids, especially not angry like I can get."

LeVita, who says she is here because of disorderly conduct and two theft charges, is especially unhappy that today's assignment will take her to West Broadway. "You know how many enemies I've got on the north side? I'm risking my life to pick up trash in the 'hood."

V'Lisi, who is also 16 and wants to be an actress, says she landed here because of truancy. She admits to cutting classes. "But it's not like I'm flunking classes. And they even made me miss school to go to court," she adds, flashing a sweet smile.

She asks a 17-year-old boy behind her why he was ordered into STS. "Drinking," comes the glum reply. The boy later elaborates: He got busted at a prom-night celebration at a motel. He's been through STS before. Does he think this will be his last time? "Probably not," he says. "Trouble finds me." He says he would have preferred to spend 12 hours in jail, but his mom insisted on community service.

Bowdin parks the van and dispenses translucent yellow garbage bags, gloves, and reflective orange vests. And he gives a final round of instructions: Don't bother picking up anything smaller than a matchbook, or broken glass, needles, syringes, clothing, condoms, tampons, or dirty diapers.

And the kids begin the long slog down West Broadway. It doesn't take long for the cracks to start. A young guy in a beater sedan leans out the window and laughs, "I know how that feels. Been there." An old man with an eye patch, sitting on the bus bench in front of White Castle, mutters disapprovingly: "You do the crime, you got to do the time." A passenger in a speeding Suburban yells at one of the girls--something about a fat ass. "Yo, STS. Ha! Ha!" shouts another passerby.

LeVita says she would like to tell the guy to fuck off. But she doesn't. She wants her credit, wants this to be over with.

And when the day finally does come to an end six hours later, she's got a plan. "I'm going to make myself something to eat, take a shower, and think about my day and how embarrassed I felt," she says. Will she take anything from the experience? She pauses and squints in the bright sun. "I'll still do what I'm going to do. But I'll try harder not to get caught."

 
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