hello, sign your life away, please.


when i was an americorps volunteer at the red cross, i heard about this organization called seattle works. they brought together idealistic people in their 20's and 30's in seattle, and these idealists would go volunteer and have drinks or do whatever it was people did. i was young, and i hated americorps, and i had a girlfriend, so i didn't care about seattle works. it sounded kind of stupid, to be honest. we (and by "we" i mean i got sucked into it as part of my job) tried to do the same thing at the red cross, create this group of "young professionals," but luckily, my service year was over before anything materialized. i had dodged the networking bullet.

fast-forward five years later, to this past friday. i'm sitting at my desk (again!) and i'm thinking about how i'm going to have nothing to do (again!) during the weekend. i look up the seattle works website and i'm thinking about joining a team. to rekindle my idealism, to save the world and all that, to have a reason to get out of bed on a saturday, to maybe make a friend, to maybe meet a girl, to work on my rapidly deteriorating social skills. i'm about to type in my credit card number, and it hits me: it's really come to this, huh? a $35 registration fee to pull weeds and meet people? ugh. wouldn't you rather sleep in and continue feeling bad about yourself instead?

i typed in my card number before i could think about it any longer. i joined a team called younger and wiser. i woke up saturday morning slightly hungover (3 or 4 guinnesses and something i called a "shower drink" the night before) and bussed it out to west seattle. i got off at the wrong stop, and got lost. as i aimlessly wandered the street, i thought about just going home. some part of me said not to, though. i had already come this far, might as well see what it's about. i showed up to the place half an hour late.

i saw two girls wearing kitchen gloves. "umm, i'm here to volunteer," i said. a big-breasted girl with a german accent said, "well, you've come to the right place." i apologized for being late, but the german, sylvia, said it was ok. another woman came out, and her name was darcine or marcine. i think it was marcine. marcine thanked me for volunteering, and introduced herself as the manager of transitional resources center, a small apartment complex for persons with mental disabilities. she told me that, before i could do anything that involved a ladder, i would first have to "sign my life away."

she changed her mind about the ladder and said that i could help with weeding in the organic garden. i said that was fine, and i was glad to be out in the sunlight rather than cooped up in my apartment wondering how to spend my saturday. there were two other girls who were already weeding, and at first, they didn't introduce themselves or even look up to acknowledge me. great, i thought. i'll just fucking pull up weeds and keep to myself. i started going at it. you should've seen me with that rake or hoe or whatever it was i was using. i could've been a farmer. i could've been a lot of things.

i finally felt comfortable enough to say something. one of the girls was wearing an oregon mba shirt. i asked if she went to school there. she said yeah, and then told me about the school. i find that an effective way of interacting with the humans. since i have nothing interesting to say about myself, i just ask questions. most of the time, i don't even listen to the response. i just wait until they stop talking and then i ask another open-ended question. the girl introduced herself as eviva. i had to say her name again just to make sure i got it right. eviva? yes, eviva. the girl working with her was marisa.

i quickly discovered that my team consisted of financial investors, engineers, and i.t. consultants. i thought of my dad on the soccer field years ago, how he had to explain to lawyers, anesthesiologists and social workers (my classmates' fathers) that he was "between jobs." my teammates truly were young professionals, individuals with lucrative careers and expensive, advanced degrees. they worked for boeing, expedia, and financial institutions i had never even heard of. "and what do you do?" each one asked me. i told them i worked at the university, ashamed at having dilly-dallied in life for so long. i can't remember how many times i heard the words "grad school" that afternoon.

i raked up leaves, and i thought, here i am again. raking leaves. not a fucking clue in the world. can't even fake it. can't even pretend i know what i want to do. so here i am. with a fucking rake. i did a really good job raking those leaves, though. then marcine wanted to give me, sylvie and marisa a tour of the facility. she led us into a hot room where there were two guys sitting on a couch. they were watching a small television. one man was really fat and he wore a fender t-shirt. he and marcine exchanged some words; the other man just looked at us.

we walked down the hallway to another room with two other men also watching television on a small screen. i thought about a raymond carver story where the narrator goes to get clean for a few weeks. a phone rang off the hook and marcine said that they never answered it for purposes of confidentiality. i thought of cuckoo's nest. i thought of awakenings. one man watched a cartoon on the disney channel, and i felt like crying.

we walked over to the other building, the one that people "graduated" to, once they were able to live on their own. a young man named james got into the elevator with us, and he told us that the apartment was the best place he had ever lived. "i swear," he said. a resident named sheena (can't remember her real name) had agreed to let us see her apartment. the four of us walked into her apartment, and sheena was washing dishes. "are you busy, sheena?" marcine asked her. sheena didn't look at us. she just kept washing dishes. "yeah, i have to feed my turtle," she said. i looked over and saw a small aquarium with a turtle in it. we thanked her for showing us her apartment, and then we stood on the balcony overlooking the yard.

sheena came out and asked if she could offer us a pop. we politely declined, and she just stood there. this mentally challenged woman with a turtle and a small apartment in west seattle. how does marcine do what she does, and not have her heart break everyday? thinking about sheena and the countless others who live there in those small single apartments, all alone, and the whole world has forgotten about them. it made me feel better about raking, about volunteering. if not better, then at least less guilty. i don't think i have the courage to be on the front lines of justice and humanitarianism and all that, so i'll take the rake for now. and the shovel.

after we had cleaned up, we went to luna park cafe to have lunch. we sat there, an odd group, the 8 of us (2 had left early), and i wondered about us. what were we trying to do? who the hell were we? each person looked normal, like he/she could easily make friends, yet here we all were. there was an indian couple, two guys and two girls, and me. i didn't have much to say. after lunch, marisa offered me a ride home. she drove a mercedes-benz convertible, and we talked about the bachelor. she said she was glad to get away from new jersey (where she grew up), and that she didn't want to work for boeing her whole life.

sheena and her turtle, marisa with her mercedes.

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