My Big Fat American Summer
Do you have a place to stay?" Nick Campagnoli asks. He looks at the four Bulgarian college students who've just dragged themselves and their luggage into his shop. He can put them up in a nearby hotel for $10 per person, and in Ocean City there's no better deal. Nadezhda "Nadia" Hristova, 21, whose first name means "hope," looks shellshocked. She's the best English speaker in the group, but the 27-hour trip from Bulgaria has left her hungry, unshowered and loath to be the spokeswoman. She turns to her three 20-year-old friends:
Radostina "Radi" Tsenova, Boyan "Bobby" Nedelchev and Krasi Rainovski. For a few moments no one says anything.
"Helloooo," Campagnoli says. "Do you have a place to stay?" He peers over his glasses and waves at the huddle of Bulgarians.
It is 1 a.m. on the Thursday before Memorial Day, and college students from all over Eastern Europe are pouring into Ocean City to spend the summer clearing tables, cleaning toilets and cutting grass. Campagnoli, co-owner of Ocean City International Student Services, is often the first person in town to greet these foreign workers. He gets paid about $100 per head to find students jobs. He also sells Internet access, calling cards and used bicycles. His small storefront near the city's southern tip is like a Warsaw Pact student union. Clocks on the wall show the time in distant capitals: Minsk, Moscow, Bratislava, Sofia and others.
Nadia finally speaks up. They have no place to stay, she tells Campagnoli. Not for tonight. Not for the next four months. "What are the possibilities of us finding a place to live?" she asks.
First things first, Campagnoli says. Tomorrow: house-hunting. Right now: folded bedsheets, blankets and pillows. He asks them for $15 each -- $10 for the hotel room plus a $5 deposit on the linens. Hall's Pioneer Hotel & Plaza, he says, is just around the corner. Campagnoli doesn't own the hotel, but, he says, he gets a 10 percent cut for steering in a stream of warm bodies. Loaded down, the Bulgarians head for the door. It's not the nicest of hotels, Campagnoli calls after them. He chuckles and says, "Hold your breath."
Out in the street, the Bulgarians slump toward the Pioneer, which sits above one of Ocean City's many T-shirt shops. ("Welcome to America," reads one shirt being hawked around town. "NOW SPEAK ENGLISH.") At first, they walk past the Pioneer. The only sign is a small wood carving that says "Family Hotel." It hangs above a glass door, murky with a film of grease and dust. The entrance is wedged open with a roll of garbage bags; evidently some guests are sneaking in without paying their 10 bucks. There is no concierge, no real lobby and almost no light -- just a dim corridor leading to flights of creaking stairs that soon bring the Bulgarians to a hallway bathed in a soft yellow glow and the wretched scent of decaying carpet. Two young Russian men sit by the window at one end of the hallway, smoking cigarettes and drinking Miller High Life. They speak in conspiratorial whispers and ignore the Bulgarians, who walk in the opposite direction, searching for their room. Bobby and Krasi enter first, followed by Radi and Nadia.
Three bunk beds, unfinished blocks of lumber nailed together, hold stained mattresses. Empty Pepsi bottles lie on the floor beside used plastic spoons. The men shrug and sling their bags to the floor, while Nadia and Radi set down their bags more tentatively. They are all exhausted, but no one utters a complaint -- at least not in English.
By 9 a.m., the Bulgarians are itching to house-hunt. They've each spent about $2,000 getting to Ocean City. Most of the money went toward travel expenses. But they also paid hundreds of dollars to agencies in Bulgaria and the United States that helped them secure four-month work visas from the State Department. All four took their final exams a week early so that they could be among the first foreign students to pick over Ocean City's low-rent housing. The competition is already arriving. A trickle of Russians walk from the Greyhound station toward Campagnoli's shop. He puts this year's crop of foreign workers at 2,500 to 3,000. Others say the number is closer to 10,000.
It feels as if the foreign students are everywhere, especially along the boardwalk. Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias, who usually hires a few foreign students to work in his boardwalk T-shirt shop, calls them "critical to our economy and certainly to our hospitality industry."
But certain perils lurk for these workers. "Everybody is trying to figure out how to make money off of the students," complains Campagnoli, who distinguishes himself from Ocean City's "vultures." He is 63 and moved to the beach after retiring from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Five years ago, he and a business partner started Ocean City International Student Services, which has become an important resource for the city's young foreign workforce. "We put together a collection of services that students wanted and would pay for," he says. In addition to finding students jobs and housing, Campagnoli processes tax returns, cashes payroll checks and runs tours to Washington, Baltimore and Niagara Falls.
Now Campagnoli waits for the four Bulgarians to squeeze into the back seat of his car as he talks on the phone with a landlady who has a vacant apartment. He hangs up and warns his passengers that the apartment is probably a rat hole. A few minutes later, the Bulgarians unpack themselves from the sedan, stepping into an alley behind the landlady's house. A terrier mutt with one marble-white eye dashes toward them, yapping. Chasing the dog is a woman on crutches with frizzed brown hair and a neon orange sweat shirt. She is shouting, "Hi, kids."