Thursday, October 4, 2012

Driving to Work in Atlanta, Georgia

The sky is an unfamiliar steely blue, the ground below lit with a constellation of bright red taillights. A low rumble and hum surrounds our van as uncounted trucks, vans, buses and cars shamble slowly towards their destinations, congested like fragments of mucus in some gigantic pair of lungs. Landmarks, already verging on familiarity after just three days, dot the roadside: a billboard for Body Works here, a used car dealership there, a doomed electronics store vainly proclaiming that “We Match Internet Prices!”. A fancy sedan cuts in front of our van, three lanes in two seconds, and muttered invective curls up from our seats like cigarette smoke.

This is Summit Five’s predawn ritual, a kaleidoscope of blinking turn signals, hasty directions and lusty pop songs on somebody’s iPod. At six A.M., alarms beep and whistle like R2-D2 and everybody commences rising from the dead. (I sleep in ‘till 6:15; I don’t mind being second-last in the shower.) We five young men walk as if the air were Jell-O, plodding in the general direction of a toothbrush or a bowl of knock-off Apple Jacks or “where the hell did I leave my shoes?”. There are bag lunches to be packed, usually a PB & J or cold cuts with a little mayo. Today, all the sandwich-making materials have seem to have migrated into the girls’ room, prompting a sleepy-eyed Shackleton-style expedition and plenty of grouching at each other.

Have a look at Summit Five as we sit in the van. Everyone is dressed more or less identically: khaki pants covered in pockets, blue shirts emblazoned with the words “FEMA Corps” covered by blue windbreakers sporting the Homeland Security logo on the left breast. Today, I have left at home my pride and joy, a pair of black leather steel-toed boots affectionately dubbed “shit-kickers”. I don’t think anyone’s wearing them today--those boots were made for slogging through mud, not sitting under a desk. A few people sleepwalked out to the van at seven A.M. and remain in their own private comas, earbuds in their ears, heads lolled back against the seats. A few bright-eyed souls sing along to the music, a mix of the team’s favorite pop songs, or bob their heads in their seats. Every so often, our chauffeur of the day will ask for guidance and changing lanes, and the back seats wearily sing out “You’re okay” or “hold up!” Like a skein of yarn in a vast tapestry, we weave in and out of the great Atlanta traffic jam, so thick you could spread it on bread and serve it for lunch.

 Just for a moment, heading down a smooth Georgia hill, the wider panorama of the landscape becomes clear. Tall, bushy trees frame a world of dense fog, rolling terrain and piercing sunbeams still low in the eastern sky—then it’s gone as we churn down towards our destination, a scattering of black glass cubes encircled by fences and concrete barriers. A genteel security guard scans our government IDs, hanging faithfully around each of our necks, and waves our people on through. The sky is brightening as we grind through the parking lot, past two sets of glass doors and another gray-shirted guard, into a world of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting and creaky, cranky Windows laptops. I grab my black bomb-resistant case, remove my own persnickety machine and go prospecting under the desk for the proper places to plug laptop and Ethernet cords. Around me, the rest of Summit Five is doing the same, replacing earbuds in their ears and calling up the FEMA training website. New orders come in over the Blackberry and everyone settles in. It’s another day at the Rock.

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