June 24, 1999 | Peace Corps picnic
There has been one success in my unending campaign to get fun people to move to Washington, DC: my Peace Corps pal Stephanie and her husband Bruno recently relocated to the vicinity. I enjoy Steph's company for many reasons, among them that she laughs at my jokes. The importance of this cannot be overrated. A couple years ago, I briefly dated a young woman who seemed in every way to be the perfect match, except we did not share a common sense of humor. If one drew up a dating resume (and we all have that kind of inventory), she looked great on paper -- former Peace Corps volunteer with a black belt in Karate, now working in the international sphere for a DC-based nonprofit. We first met at a conference in Ghana, where we hung out in the lobby and made fun of our relentless social-climbing development colleagues. But time eventually revealed a single and decisive flaw: we didn't find each other screamingly hilarious. Things petered out.
I first met my friend Richard after a date with the young woman, when I joined then-coworker Susan and a group of her friends at a bar on 17th Street. I confessed to the group, few of whom I'd met before, that things were not looking good for my future with this gal. One of the strangers immediately asked "Have you fucked her?" and I stammered that I had not. "Well, then, nothing lost," he said, and that was how I met Richard.
Like so many former volunteers, Stephanie now works at the Peace Corps office downtown. She emailed yesterday to tell me about a big Peace Corps picnic in Georgetown. A massive group of new volunteers was being sent off the following day, and the organization was having a big blow-out for them. Al Franken was supposed to make an appearance. For the record, there was no picnic and no comedians when I left for Senegal. Apparently Peace Corps is updating its motivational tactics.
I biked down there after work and met Steph and Bruno in the park where the festivities were being held. The grounds were crawling with young folk in white Peace Corps T-shirts: the trainees who would leave the next day for various nations around the world. They were strewn about on the grass, feverishly getting to each other. I remembered this time in my own life with a wince -- the high anxiety mixed with excitement, the desperate need to carve out a new support group among this gaggle of unknown faces, the overwhelming desire to call friends and lovers and tearfully, painfully bid them adieu over and over again.
Although I was pleased to note that Peace Corps provided ample vegetarian fare, for free, there was a startling and inexplicable lack of beer. For God's sake, I thought, these people would spend the next day on a plane accelerating out of the world they knew -- at least get them shitfaced drunk the night before.
Stephanie asked me if I would be writing about the event in my journal, and I told her it would have to compete with the scene of the robbery and shooting at the Uptown theater the day before. Fortunately, at this point they introduced Sargent Shriver, Kennedy in-law and founding director of the Peace Corps, whom I thought was dead. A little thrill went through the crowd; other people probably thought this man was dead, too. He gave a rousing speech with vaguely neocolonialist overtones that probably went over really well in the 1960's. This is a fear of mine: to outlive the age of my glory (still pending) and not realize that everything I do or say comes across as a faintly quaint, anachronistic blast from the past.
The stage was dominated by a large blue banner featuring the logo of the US Postal Service. We joked that the unwitting volunteers had actually been signed up for two years labor in rural Post Offices around the nation. In fact, the banner covered the new Peace Corps stamp, which was to be unveiled right before our eyes. I felt a genuine, and slightly embarrassing, twinge of excitement at the moment that Sargent and a Post Office official grasped the banner and pulled it aside to reveal the new 33 cent masterpiece. Instantly, disappointment cascaded messily over my anticipation. The stamp featured a portrait of a young white dude amidst a crowd of exotically-robed black people, earnestly demonstrating what looked like a plough. Like Sargent, this stamp projected a very 60s view of Peace Corps. I tend to believe that more people in Africa know how to use a plough than do typical Peace Corps volunteers, since failure to know proper plough usage doesn't highly correlate with starvation and death for most Americans. My Senegalese family taught me how to use their plough, and cheerfully stood on the sidelines giggling as I trashed their fields trying to use it.
Al Franken did not fare much better with the crowd. While I found him amusing, the gathering seemed perplexed by his humor. "I know you're not supposed to have any contact with the CIA as volunteers," he said at one point, "but when you arrive in your countries, please just call them and tell them where the Chinese Embassy is located." He commended their ability to share American culture with the people of the world, like our fascination with guns, and invited them to bring back some of the cultural knowledge they would pick up overseas, like female genital mutilation. The crowd met this with stony silence. "I guess that one might not really catch on over here," he said lamely. One woman behind me hissed, and Al Franken continued the slow train wreck of his monologue.
Later I joined Richard and Susan at a bar and told them the story. "The one disadvantage to being a liberal in this country," Richard said, "is that you can't take a fucking joke."
Before I left the picnic, I caught a frisbee emblazoned with the Peace Corps logo and decided to wander backstage and ask Sargent Shriver to autograph it. I thought this might make a nice memento, but I also considered that it might fetch me some money on eBay. Security was nonexistent, and I strolled around the backstage area looking for Sargent and eyeing the lush catering tables set out for the stars of the show. At last I spied a silver-haired gentleman being buttonholed by a young fellow. Was it Sarge? I stood idly nearby waiting for their conversation to end, but the young man kept chattering away. In a moment of ageism, I assumed that the only reason a young fellow would be engaging this gent in such a long-winded discourse was that it must be Sargent Shriver, and I approached to interrupt them. Then I saw the name tag on the older man's chest: "Bob." I slunk away, and never found my quarry.