Thursday, August 26, 2010

Backpacks, France, Tipper Gore, and Architecture

Yesterday was great. In the afternoon, I volunteered for the second time to fill 600 backpacks with school supplies for children in need.  One of the other volunteers had this tattoo on his neck and let me take a picture.

All the work me and a few other volunteers did ahead of time served us well. It went super smoothly. Well, there was a slow working odd lady in her 50s with frizzy 1970s hair and glitter patches all over face (I found the lip liner particularly disturbing) but watching us working carefully around her was entertaining enough to make up for any delays.

Last Monday was the first time I helped out. It was me alone in a room with boxes of backpacks that needed to be unpacked and labeled. The repetition of the work involved many wandering thoughts. Making a game of such tasks always serves me well. Trying to unpack each box faster than the last, finding new little tricks to make that happen, are desperately needed to make six hours of organizing alone an entertaining way to pass the day.

Something about thinking about late summer and going back to school triggered a reflection on the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college. I certainly had my fair share of problems growing up but if I could justify the expenditure, the money was always there.

The summer of 1994, I continued a French class in France for a few months. The best part of that trip was meeting an Australian, whom I also shared an amazing summer in New York two years later while working as an intern at a museum. She invited me to stay in Europe a bit longer to see more of France, followed by Italy and Switzerland.

I called my father, who was happy to pay for it-- if that was really what I wanted to do. It was so much more expensive then living with a host family during my language classes that I decided to go home to DC instead. I missed my high school friends.

Once home, I combed the Help Wanted section of the paper and quickly found some odd jobs, many of which were as much fun as unwrapping backpacks. I had a few shifts each week as a cashier at a nice deli. The slow hours seemed to drag on forever but the thick activity of breakfast and lunch was intoxicating. I would calculate change in my head, impressing most customers but annoying a few who didn't know for sure how much I owed them.

Late one afternoon, after the lunch rush, Tipper Gore came in with secret service and a friend. She ordered a fancy coffee drink from me. While giving her change, I complemented her speech from the day before-- which I had seen on CSPAN the previous night.
"You watch CSPAN?"
"I don't work here all the time."

On another day, a friend's mom stopped in asked if I had found a major. When I told her I was planning to become an architect, she arranged for me to meet her friend-- a successful woman architect-- for lunch. When I was looking for a winter internship, literally sending a letter of interest to dozens of firms, she recommended me at a firm recently started by a former employee. It was the first job I had in my field.

A year later, when I was interviewed to be an intern at a museum, I was told that 6 week internship was the reason I was being considered. It set me apart since no other applicant had experience with architecture. If I hadn't been working in that deli, I wouldn't have gotten that first job in New York.

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