that her life is becoming all about this book she's editing, and that
my life is becoming all about the ambulance. I'm not as concerned as she
is. I was obsessed with riding the ambulance when I was an EMT after college,
and believe me, this is a long way from the level of obsessive
workaholism that I displayed then.
Those were strange
days. I worked a shift every day of the week, sometimes a 16-hour double,
for weeks on end. At the end of each day I would ride out into the shimmering
fields of Ohio with my then-girlfriend, in search of new roadside ice
cream stands and thrift shops. A sense of beautiful doom presided over
everything: in a matter of months, then weeks, I would leave for Senegal
and two years away. Soon this feverish and lovely world would end forever.
I saw truly awful things that last summer, bodies wrecked, lives splintered
apart at 2 AM on an unremarkable stretch of road, blue and breathless
infants. The painful fragility of the human form that I saw every day
mirrored my own searing awareness that this delicate summer and my love
affair were fast escaping. Time would do to them what I saw it doing to
But there's no
doubt that my rescue life has been a consuming factor recently. It's been
about all I've written about in the Tales; it is a frequent topic of conversation
at home. For eight hours a week, during the work day, I head off to Northeast
for EMT class. I then have to make up those lost billable hours on evenings
and weekends. One night a week I sleep up at the squad for an overnight
shift. I take two or three hours on weekends to go on the obligatory fundraising
excursion. I read about human anatomy in bed. I talk about the perils
of being ejected from a car during a wreck due to improper seat-belt usage.
I can see how it might become a little hard to live with after a while.
But I know that it could be so much worse.
Here's an interesting
recent event that does not relate to the rescue squad:
Susan and I were
at the gym on a late weekday afternoon, trying to get in a workout amidst
the swollen, overdeveloped bods that fill the place after 5 PM. We couldn't
help but become totally fascinated by one man, who was dressed in a suit
and positioned behind the unstaffed main floor desk, just watching everyone.
We thought perhaps he might be an investor in the gym, but we'd never
seen him there before, and we thought we knew the co-owners. Finally,
Susan went up and asked him what he was up to.
might be a professor of psychology at American University, and studying
interactions at gyms, " he said. "Or, I'm considering
starting a new branch gym and I'm apprenticed to Doug [the owner]. Or,
I'm with a Secret Service detail and I'm accompanying [member of Clinton
cabinet] while he works out."
We did another
set of back exercises and considered the three options. [I would note
that I'm big on back strength now that I have to lift people on a regular
basis, but that would tangentially relate this story to the rescue squad.]
The psychology research story seemed implausible. I wasn't particularly
convinced that he could be in the Secret Service either -- he was a greying
man wearing a light color suit, and I tend to imagine them as slick-haired
young dudes in dark blue. Plus, he didn't seem to be wearing one of the
required and mysterious earpieces that distinguish the Secret Service
from, say, the corner drug vendor's security goons. So I tended to believe
the "new gym owner" story. When we finished the set, we walked
back over to him and asked for the answer.
I spotted the
earpiece as soon as I was face-to-face with him. They're made of clear
plastic now, and quite unobtrusive. He confirmed that he was accompanying
[member of the Cabinet] during his workout. The security man was quite
friendly and chatted with us for a good ten minutes, occasionally peering
over our shoulders to make sure no one had abducted his boss or clubbed
him with a dumbbell. We asked what it was like guarding a high-ranking
Administration official, and he described the hectic pace and the many
places he'd traveled in the last week alone.
Somehow, my past
experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer came up. The security man immediately
thrust out his hand. "Thank you for your service," he said to
me. As completely cheesy and staged as that sounded, I rather appreciated
the gesture. He said it with such an official tone that it sounded like
the Government itself was expressing its gratitude to me.
This put me in
the mind of another brush with powerful people that I had when I was in
Senegal. The new worldwide Peace Corps Director, Carol Bellamy, was coming
to the country for a couple days, and was slated to meet the President
of Senegal, Abdou Diouf. The in-country Peace Corps administration selected
three volunteers to accompany her to the Presidential palace, and I, inexplicably,
was one of them. I quickly realized that there I had a major problem on
my hands: I had nothing to wear.
I came to Dakar
with my friend Elizabeth a couple days before the event, and we began
hitting clothing shops in search of a decent suit. Negotiations were frequent
and often fruitless. We finally found something reasonable, bought it
and took it to a tailor for alterations. Unfortunately, by this time I
had more than blown my monthly Peace Corps dole, and had no money left
for shoes. All I had was a pair of ratty leather boots, which looked painfully
shabby next to my new blue suit. So, on my way out to meet the head of
Peace Corps and the President of Senegal, I had a sidewalk shoeshine stand
coat the boots with a thick armor of black goo, obscuring the color completely
and filling in all the scuffs and scrapes. They looked passably like dress
shoes, particularly if you factored in that I lived in a hut at the time.
I rode to the
Presidential palace (also called the "White House") in the company
of two fellow volunteers, the head of Peace Corps Senegal, the Regional
Peace Corps Director for Africa, and Carol Bellamy. While we waited to
be ushered into the President's office, someone complimented my suit.
I couldn't resist telling everyone the whole story of the grubby shoes
and my ingenious low-cost solution. I held out my feet for everyone to
appraise the success of my efforts, and they all agreed that you could
hardly tell I had on the same boots that I wore while riding my motorcycle.
In about a year,
Carol Bellamy, onetime Peace Corps Director, became the head of UNICEF.
Well over a year later, my sister was in a meeting that Carol Bellamy
attended. Amy approached her after the session and mentioned that I had
met Ms. Bellamy some time ago.
Volunteer who didn't have enough money for a suit and shoes!" Carol
of Senegal seemed like a quiet and terribly nice man. The head of Peace
Corps Senegal introduced him to the Regional Peace Corps Director for
Africa and Carol Bellamy, and we all sat down around a low coffee table
in the back of the President's office. Carol Bellamy read a letter from
President Clinton. I sat beside my two fellow volunteers and tried to
keep my shoes hidden under the table. One of the volunteers passed along
greetings from the people of her village, in Wolof, and President Diouf
answered and spoke to the three of us for a while in Wolof. I looked across
the table at the blank faces of the Director of Peace Corps Senegal, the
Regional Peace Corps Director for Africa, and Carol Bellamy, Peace Corps
Director, and I thought: what a great moment. The President of
Senegal is talking to me, and neither my boss, nor his boss, nor her boss
has a clue what he's saying, or what I'm saying back to him. They
must be pretty worried over there.
So we chatted
in Wolof with the President for a while.
Savor this moment,
I told myself -- the working world offers few like it. Being powerful
must be fun, but it offers few thills like subverting power.