tales of sin and virtue
October 10, 1999 | Brushes With Power

Susan worries 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 everything else.

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.

"Well, I 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.

"Oh, the Volunteer who didn't have enough money for a suit and shoes!" Carol Bellamy exclaimed.

The President 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.

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