Saturday, January 29, 2005

The first two days: AmeriCorps, chapter 2

It was about 8 or 9 in the morning when our 15 passenger van pulled into the Perry Point complex, that first dreary day in January 2002.

None of us had slept. We did not have the luxury of showering, sleeping, or even dropping off our luggage. Christine brought us to the campus gymnasium for the exciting ritual of inprocessing.

There were people at different stations around the curtained-off half of the room. We started by sitting at a long table and filling out a bunch of paperwork. I think there were bagels and juice or something, to help restore us to wakefulness.

Then we took turns putting on a big black fleece vest and smiling for our AmeriCorps ID photos.

In between things there was some extended sitting around and waiting. A good foreshadowing of things to come!

Eventually we got to the musical montage section of the experience--'shopping' for all our gear! Wasn't there a great segment in Private Benjamin or something? We went in partners to the 'back rooms' in the maze of the building and a team leader acted as our personal shopper. We tried on samples of each article of uniform clothing--BDUs, short-sleeve tees, long-sleeve tees, vests, coats, polo shirts. Then we just got to take two of everything (except the vest and coat) in our size. Sweet! The TL helping me and Kelly was called Jess, and she was awesome: fun and energetic and friendly.

After that we got to see the other half of the gym. That was set up like a sporting-goods store, where we picked up a sleeping bag, and a Red Bag, plus a selection of steel-toed boots. None of the shoes were exactly comfortable, and none of the 'women's' styles fit or felt right, so I ended up choosing the generic men's boots. At this point we all got a big clear trash bag to tote around all our goodies.

We waited for everyone to finish their rounds of getting uniform stuff. Then we piled back into the van and got to see our houses! I think that all we had time for was running in and dropping stuff, because we had to go back to the gym for dinner or something. I remember that it was raining when the van stopped in front of house 1103 on Fourth Street. Kelly was in the house too, and excited, we ran up the stairs, onto the porch, and through the front door.

We peeked around for a second, took in the blank walls and sparse furniture, but immediately headed upstairs to the bedrooms. We saw that of the four bedrooms, one was empty, and the other three only had one bed in them. We looked at each other in disbelief, because that meant we weren't sharing rooms! Only three people would be in our house instead of seven! We screamed in joy and claimed rooms. I got the middle one with two windows.

It didn't register with us on that first quick visit how gross the house was at that point. Or if it did, we didn't know it was an anomaly.

There was a cheap buffet-style dinner in the gym. More people had been arriving in from airports, as well as the people who had driven out. They had piles of the boxes that people had had shipped, and I was supremely disappointed and sad to learn that my own three boxes had not yet arrived. Damn postal service!

It must have been that afternoon or evening that I met Jen, the third roommate. She's from Indiana and has a trace of a Southern accent.

Since all my bedding was in those boxes, I slept the first night (in fact, the first two, possibly three nights) in just my corps-issued sleeping bag. Maryland is cold in the winter! Also, the whole world there was brown. Nothing was alive there except the bay. The trains run on the nearby tracks through the night, blowing their horns. The proving ground across the bay makes noises, too. When we discovered the furnace gauge thing, we also discovered what we termed "the gnome in the basement." The furnace banged and popped really loudly, all day and all night. As if someone was down there, angry that we'd locked him in the basement. (Which was not exactly a friendly place; dark, dusty, cobwebby, just ominous enough to make us scurry upstairs as quickly as possible.)

The house is the last one on that side of the lane, and has an unobstructed view of the Susquehanna River meeting the Chesapeake Bay, plus the town across the bay, Havre de Grace. The water is less than two hundred yards from the house, and the sun sets right over the water.

So apparently the next day was sort of left open for all of us to unwind and unpack. Our house also had the exciting task of cleaning. Our house was quite disgusting when we arrived. The kitchen lacked a refrigerator, and the entire stove and oven was covered in soot and grime. The bathroom was especially gross. There was no toilet paper or shower curtain. Pieces of ceiling tile, paint, and dirt had collected in the bathtub. The whole house had wood floors that were dusty and dirty. Windows were brown. There was a hole in the support of one side of the big couch.

We spent the day toiling away to make our abode habitable. We were tired but satisfied with our work.

It must have been Saturday that we learned some important information: unit and team. Name tags were delivered to the houses. Ours were in red marker, and once everyone had gathered in the gym for lunch or dinner, we noticed that some others were in blue. I speculated to my roommates that that must mean we were in the Fire Unit, and the others were in Ice. They were both like, "Oh, yeah! That must be it! You are so smart!" They said that a lot that first month. I was 22 that year, and they were both under 21, I'm not sure if that was why. Anyway.

A bit later (another meal later? right away? I don't remember the details), each of us received a fun-size candy bar with another name tag on it. I got a Mounds bar, and my last name was misspelled by a letter. A few minutes later, we were all released and told to find the other people that had the same type of candy bar. It took maybe ten minutes for everyone to get matched up, and then, voila, we had been divided into our teams. (That wasn't how or when they chose our teams, that's just how they revealed it to us.)

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