Tag Archives: Camp Stories

How I Became the Creepy Dude at Walmart

  With great power comes great responsibility, sure. But with middling power and autonomy there comes some amount of privilege. When that power and autonomy is exercised at great distance, and when it is accompanied by insane committment and endless hours, so many that you move to work for a few months to attack the job at hand, well, it comes with the privilege of ocassionally taking liberties. In my case my great liberty was I skipped first breakfast. I brazenly entrusted my senior staff, their staff and the staff they supervised with breakfast for the 6-12 year olds. 

It was understandable and in my defense I tried hard to be there by the end of Wawa breakfast to at least check in. My skills were rarely needed here and my support was hopefully felt in other ways. You see, the hours of a summer camp professional, roughly sun up to sundown to curfew to on-call until sun up, are the hours one keeps when they are a mythical creature or a college student. Being neither, being in reality a 33 year old man with a quite specific, though veiled case of Peter Pan syndrome, I felt it was within my capacity to do this job that I’d been doing in some capacity since I was the college kid getting up at the crack and getting my guys ready to be to breakfast on time. I was normally right. I did the job well, really well and by the end I at least maintained ‘well enough.’ This was probably the sunset of my ‘really well’ years and I knew how to operate. 

There is a specific thing that goes by the wayside at camp. Vanity. Actually, now that I say that I realize it’s a lie. I was awash in vanity. It just looks different at camp. Vanity is masked in disgusting personal habits, lax hygeine, scattershot bouts of shaving and an overall bedraggled appearance that screams for attention with witty asides and hats that once spoke whimsy that now speak to tradition. I did all the things. I was a fully institutionalized man you could say, a camp guy. Complete with my own unique quirks and a signature style of management. I was a guy that by all accounts was camp basic. Standard issue to all who were more than an arms length away. I was quick with a smile, easy in conflict, ready to stand up to anything and ready to help whenever asked and happy to be invisible when things were good. 

My day to day at the camp was as often at a desk as it was out and about. I loved getting out though. I loved stepping always from budgets, off the phone, away from my responsibility to my bosses who were based hundreds of miles away in the city. The camp day was a race to accomplish all the proactive planning one intended to do versus the reactive responding one was compelled to do and often it left you working until all hours. Then it left you waiting until the very end of the talent show to see the routine the cabin of 14 year old guys had been working on all week and responding to the girl who couldn’t understand why the girls she liked didn’t like her, or she didn’t think they did. 

Then it was the counselors, the hardest working 17-22 year old kids you’d ever want to see finding you to tell you all that transpired that day and the week leading up to that day (for context) and why it was all so unfair to them. Then walking the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with through the experience they lacked in order to build them up to earn the experience they’d get from facing the challenges that come with being accountable to 30-40 kids with special needs, the parents and caregivers of all those kids, the bosses, like me and others they were working with and all their friends who now needed so much from them now that they were supervised by them. This last part was my favorite. 

On the day in question I was asked at breakfast, not the one I skipped, the second one, the older kids breakfast, If I’d be making a run. This was another one of my jobs. Making the hour plus drive to Walmart to get supplies. I wasn’t planning on it, but they were kind of stuck if I didn’t. It was for the girls cabin and I asked Lexi if it was stuff they NEEDED needed or if it was stuff that could wait til next week. I was home on weekends (more of that earned liberty taking) and had a busy day of commitments. She said yeah, it would be good if I could go.  She was uncommonly talented and knew at 20 how to gently tell her boss, ‘Yes, dummy, this is important.’ Being good at being the boss I understood her. I wasn’t going home til the end of the following day, so I was sure I could make it happen, even if it was at the end of the night. 

The day proceded however it proceded. As it was getting to the end of second dinner I was telling Lexi I’d be heading out and would drop the stuff off at the girls cabins when I returned, after evening program. 

‘Um, can you help me with something first?’ She said. 

‘Sure. What’s up. Do we need to step outside?’ I asked. 

‘No, but come with me.’ She grabbed her tray and radio and stood up. 

‘Go sit with the STEP guys. Hang out for a minute. Tell me if you see anything.’ 

So I did. STEP was our older guys, 18-24 or so, who were capable of coming back and having a work experience be a part of their time here. It wasn’t for everyone. We had at most room for 10 per session. Kind of a graduate level camper. They had need for support, but they had a great deal of independent skills as well. 

‘So, did you notice anything about Taylor?’ She asked.

‘Not particularly. Seemed to be in a good mood.’ I replied.

‘Yeah. I mean, he’s always in a good mood. But it took me a bit too. He shaved his eyebrows off.’

‘WHAT?’

‘Yeah. I asked him why and he said, my mom told me to shave my whole face while I was at camp.’ She said. 

‘Oh my GOD!’ I said and started cracking up. 

‘I know. I asked him how he liked his new look and he said he thought it looked cool.’ She said. 

Now, I can’t tell you how much this is no big deal for someone like Lexi. She was poised beyond her years, emotionally and in all other ways intelligent and intuitive. But when you are 20 and you take your job of taking care of others kids seriously, and you are a tad shellshocked from being the point of contact for parents of kids with special needs, day and night for weeks on end, who are on ocassion quite nervous to be alone without them for what is often the very first time, well the potential for disaster in calling a parent to tell them their kids will be coming home with at best a five o’clock shadow where their should be eyebrows, well, it can call for some support from your boss. 

We talked and laughed and talked and laughed and finally arrived where we needed to be.

‘How’s your relationship with his mom?’ I asked.

‘Great. I mean, until now.’ She said.

‘How about we just laugh. Life is short and she seems like someone who gets it. I mean, I’d be happy to make the call if you like, but I think we should just treat it with her like we’re treating it now. No one got hurt, it’s super funny. We could present it that way. I’ve always known her to get it. What do you think?’

She was down, and she would make the call. But this was a risky approach. We had faith that she would have a good perspective, but I was going to be there. So, once whatever the activity was that was going on that night was off and running we stepped out to the office to make our call. Being a pro I took the pro’s approach…

‘Oh no, I’ve done a ton of these kind of calls, you get used to it. You want me to do it?’ 

‘No, I think I got it.’

Phew. She bought it. Now, lets see how this goes. 

Ding ding ding… We were right! His mom coulndn’t even stay on the line long enough to say goodbye in real words. She was in stitches. Crying, laughing. It was a highlight of my life hearing the volume of that laughter that came from that phone as Lexi joined her cracking up at something that was genuinely funny. 

So, dusk upon us I told her I’d be heading out. 

‘What do the older girls cabin need? In the hubbub of dinner I didn’t get a list.’ 

‘It’s not a list. They need a few cans of FDS.’ 

‘What’s FDS?’

Sometimes when you are young you forget that people who are right next to you don’t posess all your knowledge. She was dumbstruck. 

‘um, really?’ 

‘Really.’

She hemmed. She hawed. I waited, unaware why she was so uncomfortable.

‘Our girls are a little older. You know, we go up to 18?’

Nope. I’m still staring at her blank faced and innocent. 

How about this…

‘What does it stand for?’

‘Feminine Deoderant Spray.’  

I was inclined to say something like, Oh, like ‘Secret’, but the implication was that it was not ‘secret’, and  it was.  Nuff said.

‘Where do I find that?’ Okay, one more question.

So there I was, a list from the younger girls cabin in my cargos, unshaven and unkempt in clothes that were wearing me headed off into the late night to do my little part that took a long time. An hour plus each way to the Walmart in Kingston where I would ocassionally see several people I just knew were there doing the same thing. Making time where there was none to do things important but not important enough to be done earlier than the middle of the night. 

Now, all of this is context. I was away in the woods in a committed lifelong pursuit to make the world a better place. I was a man who cared about how he spent his time, but not so much how I appeared outside of this little world where all of us, dirty, tired and worn, understood who we were and why we were there. We were the good people, dammit. Breaking down barriers in the real world and in the minds of children who would go on to build on our small but hard earned successes. We were planting seeds and tending gardens that would bare fruit for our children. But to the other people in Walmart, I was just a clearly unwell man, one who could use some help taking care of himself. Someone to be cautious of, someone to perhaps be careful with. Who smelled funky. 

But there is no one who was more concerned for who I was or what I was up to then the woman at the cash register as I lay my admittedly very small pile of items onto the belt for her to ring up. If there were a silent alarm system under the till I am both thankful and concerned that she didn’t activate it. You see my list consisted of three items and three items only. The aforementioned Feminine Deoderant Spray. A few packs of multicolored underwear for little girls. Candy. 

I saw the look in her eye and rushed my way through all my explainations. I’m engaged to be married, I run a camp for kids, sleepaway. I was sent with this list. I didn’t even know what this stuff was a couple hours ago. Ugh. It was only making it worse. We both survived our one and only interaction, but we were both scarred, far as I could tell. 

As I dug into the candy for the ride home I did something I never did on any of the other nights I was out and about running errands throughout the Catskills. I set the cruise control. For the exact speed limit. If ever there was a night when the cops might be looking for me it was this one. 

Sometimes trying to make the world a better placed can be severely misunderstood. 

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The Lodge, Part V: Figuring it Out

‘I really love it. It’s crazy. I’m here with people from all over the world, we work around the clock and we get one day off per 13. It’s perfect.’ I said. I meant it.

‘Joey, I’m so happy for you. I’m so excited.’

‘Thanks. It’s just a lot, but I think I really like it.’

This was my first call home after the guests had arrived. After the week long, 9AM-9PM trainings we were all ready to get to it, whatever it was. Even with that much time spent learning, with that many people who’d done it before there was no amount of preparation that was going to give me so much as a clue as to what that first day would entail.

‘I got picked to be on the bus that went into the city to pick up the guests. It was crazy. Unbelievable how much could happen in so short a time.’

This is not the staff picture from my 1st year. 3rd year, maybe?

About half of us staff were selected to ride the bus down to the city that first day. It really was a good omen, even if I didn’t know it yet. I’d be prepping the busses and coordinating the drop offs and pick ups within a couple of years and would continue to do them for many years after. You really had to trust the people on that crew. Any number of issues could arise, between the guests and their anxiety or separation or some other totally unexpected thing having to do with their diagnosis to random cars breaking down in front of you in the Lincoln Tunnel, car accidents, staff walking off never to be seen again (this happened more than once, place could drive you mad), incidents between guests on the bus, anxious, angry or just plain mean parents (as a rule they were ALL lovely. As a rule. Rules are ocassionally broken), mixed up medication, short fuses, insane heat, torrential rain. Whatever we ran into, whatever ran into us, we were there to check in 60 or so individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, process their personal effects and account for them, ensure they were fully stocked with meds, check in money get them on the bus and start to entertain them and continue to do so, and to be entertained by them for two weeks, sun up to well past sundown. It really was the most amazing thing I’ll ever do. Having and raising kids will mean more, but we can relate to so many others who’ve done it. But this, this was a singular experience.

‘Guests?’

‘Oh, yeah. Thing is they aren’t campers really. They’re grown ups and face it, grown ups don’t go to camps. They go on vacation. So they aren’t campers, they’re guests.’

‘That’s interesting.’ Mom said.

‘Yeah. Not so much, it’s just what it is. You forget about the word after a day of using it. Not even when you hear it so much during training. Truth is I was ready to see some guests by Sunday. They got here, Sunday.’

I was already spewing my person first language, practicing my committment to treating people respectfully and in line with their life experience and not the way I had before those trainings, which would have still been sensitive, but wouldn’t have been mindful of age appropriate language. In real terms I have learned a hand full of things in the 22 years since that week of training, some real valuable things, but none of it will ever come close to what I learned in those two weeks. Two because the training really didn’t end until after the first week that you were putting it into practice with the guys.

The training wea almost all centered around the arts and crafts room that was off the kitchen, the dining hall and the administrative/infirmary hallway. It was painted grey cement floors with knee to ceiling roller windows lining the walls to either side of our rows of chairs we lugged back and forth to and from the dining hall between meals to reset our classroom all day every day. I was given basic, sanctioned safety trainings, by the book and repeated yearly or near yearly since. I was given first hand trainings on what it meant to work in a field that was still populated with residents and former workers at Willowbrook State School. I met some of those who transformed our entire service system, from the inside, from one fraught and underfunded, filled with systemic abuse into one that was so truly person centered that we busted our asses to ensure that every person was given every ability to choose every single activity on their own and we would modify everything to ensure they could do it regardless of ability. I learned what it was like to be a sibling or a parent of a person with a disability from one of those parents. I met some of the heroic figures who said no to Doctors in the fifties who told them to put their child with a disability in the institutions and forget them. I met many of those children who found their way, through decades of darkness, both literally and in every other way and emerged on the other side heroic and still in touch with their tender and delicate humanity which had been so forsaken. They taught me. And I soaked it up. I loved it.

img_0191And I wasn’t alone. There was a core of us who made it through and reaped endless rewards because of it. There were at root about 30 or so of us who worked in cabins, lived with the guys. We were on call all through the night and working every waking minute (save the one hour break you lived for in order to shower and make a ten minute call to whoever to say how amazing the whole thing was or to cry because it was breaking you). Of those thirty about 16 or so made it through the summer. My cabin started with the full allotment of 6 staff. We lost Ausberto and Jim the Marine and I can’t remember who else, but one more. We made it through 3, two week sessions with just me, Mike and Tony. A suburban, an urban and a comrade. We cared for and loved 16 guys in that cabin every day. Two in wheelchairs? No problem, everyone will have what they need cause anyone of us would push ourselves miles past our limits to make sure of it. Truth is we did it to gut busting laughter much of the time. There were moments of discord and hot tempers, but they were over fast. Still love those guys and dozens more and would have the time of my life sitting around a fire all night reminiscing on those days. I can say confidently we all would. I met real family there.

‘Joey. I’m really proud of you.’

It’s still the most important thing I ever hear them say. Whenever they do I just eat it up.

‘Thanks mom. I think you would love it here more than anyone.’

And I’m sure I was right. It was a utopian society experimentation lab built on the ideals I learned from her. Love, compassion, understanding, committment, service and tireless giving that results in you getting so much after giving all of yourself.