Q: How did you decide to go (on your first trek) to Europe on $1,000?
A: Well, a kayaking buddy in Montana said, "Let's do something really extreme this summer." He was graduating as an engineer. He said, "I'm going to be into a humdrum job the next five or six years. Let's do something crazy. How about kayaking from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia? Take three months and kayak 2,000 miles." I said, "Fine. We can get somebody to sponsor us. We'll get ocean-going kayaks. Somebody will buy the film. We'll get some underwater cameras and have a good time." People have done it before, so you know it's possible. Then my buddy got an interview with Rockwell down in Los Angeles.
A: Didn't even cross my mind. He'd never seen the ocean before. He's a ski racer from Whitefish, Montana. He goes down to Los Angeles. They were having a surfing competition. And here's 15-foot waves on Long Beach. He came back and said, "Let's think of something else to do. I don't want to do that." So we said, "How about biking through Europe?" That's a pretty normal, natural thing.
Q: How did you round up $1,000 when you were a college student?
A: Well, this guy sold his concrete company -- footings and foundations. My sister and I took out a loan for $1,200 and bought all his equipment, his steel. We thought we could make a lot of money 'cause I'd worked for him before. We bought a $300 Chevy pick-up truck. I was going to school full time and I was skipping classes and laying concrete in the middle of the day. I was paying people to take notes for me. The end of the day, after I'd laid the concrete, I'd go collect all my notes and study at night. Get up the next day. Get my first two classes in. Then go pour concrete.
After about four months of real hard work we'd made a tremendous amount of money, I thought, for being 19. We made about $5,500. But that just paid our loan, paid for the truck and paid for a couple of mistakes as far as wasting $600 of concrete here and there because it snowed on our job and we had to jackhammer it out and do it over again.
So in the end I bailed myself out by selling my motorcycle. I got $1,000, cash. Two weeks before we were going to go, I was the only one who didn't have any money. I'd have sworn I would have sold my mother first. I really loved that motorcyle. But I had three good years out of it, taken lots of trips around the country. So I sold it. It was a big, black, beautiful stretched-out thing, all made for the road with packs and everything.
Q: Last summer you were in a small town?
A: Orkney Springs, Virginia.
Q: Working on?
A: Wilderness Odyssey. Same as Outward Bound. Run by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
Q: Your job was to take them out on the expeditions? Toughen them up?
A: Not necessarily toughen them up. Sometimes they came back weaker. But they knew a whole lot more about themselves.
Q: What did they make of you?
A: They see their leader as kind of a machine. You're supposed to be all trained in first aid. You know how to rock-climb. You know how to paddle a canoe through big rapids. You know how to run them through rope courses. You know how to cook all the food. And after the dinner around the fire, you know how to facilitate conversation so people can exchange feelings.
Q: Was your psychology major valuable?
A: It was a good test to see if I could be hard during the day, and at the end be a compassionate group facilitator.
Q: You've already planned your trip to the South Pacific?
A: Yeah. But when we were going to leave depended mostly on our finances. I was working on a big ranch in Paradise Valley -- something's always falling apart. And they said, "In Washington you can do the same thing, make a lot more per hour, and get to see the city at the same time." That sounded tremendous.
Q: In a city stuck on names and titles, you don't fit anybody's definition. How do you explain yourself to people when they say, "What do you do?"
A: I don't think people like hearing that I'm here being an au pair or a nanny. I say, "Well, actually I needed to make some money to go on a trip. That's why I have the status as a nanny."
Q: They're reassured once they hear that your real goal is making money?
A: They like that better, yeah.
Q: Have you become a role model for very young people that you deal with?
A: The kids ask about where I'm from and what I like to do. They find it a little bit too farfetched -- like, say, the traveling. If my experiences were different, I'd be more of a model to them. Kids don't understand. After they talk for a little while, they decide, "This person is just a little too far out of my realm. Maybe get to know him later but right now I'll have to just wait and see what he does." They're a little confused. They know I didn't belong there.
Q: Because you're the only male in the place perhaps?
A: Maybe that, and that I'm carrying my tools with me because of a job I'm going on to afterwards.
Q: What age kids are you talking about?
A: Anywhere from 6 to 11. A lot of them live on Capitol Hill. They're looking to become interested in politics, clothing design, to be like their dads in the office.
Q: How about their moms in the office?
A: A lot of them don't know what their mothers do. I'm surprised. It's all very vague. "What does your mother do?" They say, "Well, she works." And they turn up their hands.
Q: Is it personally satisfying to you, working with kids?
A: It is not especially satisfying, but it sure is eye opening. I had a very set mind about how a kid ought to be. What works best. Generalizations based on my own upbringing and then four years of psychology that I thought would certainly apply to all kids, I find don't.
Q: You didn't have to work with children as part of your degree?
A: Yeah, I did. But children of graduate students who didn't have a whole lot of money. They weren't kids of people who work in the State Department who go to the Bahamas on the weekend.
Q: The kids go to the Bahamas on the weekends?
A: These kids, yeah. I'm always losing my kids. Last week one little girl just came from Czechoslovakia. Just a week, you know. They're going again in a little while. One just came in just this morning. She's been on the beaches of Florida for two weeks.
Q: Do kids seem spoiled?
A: I don't know spoiled. But I think sadly mislead that they're at the top. In fact, the girl who came back from Czechoslovakia, I asked her about her trip. I turned to the one beside her and said, "Have you ever been out of the country?" She said, "No, never," and looked kind of sad about that. She's 9 years old. The girl who'd been to Czechoslovakia turned to her and said, "You're kidding. Never? You've never been out of the country?"
I said "Well, where have you been?" She said, "We drive a lot. We have a big station wagon because we have so many kids. It's too expensive to fly." And she began to tell us about Niagara Falls, and Sequoia National Park and Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. This girl who had just come back from Czechoslovakia spent all her time on jets going to Bonn and had been in Florida and New Jersey. That's all she'd seen of the United States. This one, I thought, had a much richer experience. She'd talked about flat tires in the Mojave Desert and car breakdowns down in the bayous of Louisiana. The one who came back from Czechoslovakia was getting wide-eyed.
Q: You're pretty skeptical of the self- knowledge of the middle-class? The generation that's in power knowing what they're doing?
A: I'm not criticizing them real harshly, but I can safely say a lot of them don't see themselves as causing some of the major problems. That things like missiles actually exist. I used to work on nuclear missiles. On the Minuteman. In Montana.
Q: How does someone get a job like that?
A: Just be willing to go in. It was construction. I was down in the missile silos themselves. They like people who aren't too educated. I was 18. Didn't feel like I'd ever have to go to college.
Q: What did you think about missiles before and after?
A: Before, I wasn't thinking anything. I was 18 and I thought I wanted to make some money. They started me off at $13,000 a year, which was incredible to me. I thought, why would I ever have to go to college? I'm making more money than I'd ever need, right now. It took me about a year and a half to figure out that this was very boring. And I wanted to go to school.
Q: What did you do exactly?
A: I was on a disassembly crew. The missiles were undergoing a process called "hardening." They're supposedly making them invulnerable to attack, which I think just doesn't make any sense. Putting the missile in a suspension carriage much like a bar buoy that holds your drinks still on a boat. It swings in all directions. Like a gyroscope? So it's not sitting on a concrete floor. They were putting in fancier computers.
Q: This was just six years?
A: Fall of '77. And so what I did was, I went in with an impactor and unbolted all the old computers, carefully wheeled them out to a little manhole and it was sucked up 40 feet to the surface and put in a tractor and taken away and confidentially destroyed somewhere. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stuff that had just been put in four years before was, almost at the time it was completed, outdated. That's what'll happen with the MX.
Q: Nobody had to tell you that the weapons game was just that?
A: That's why I left.
Q: Sean, how have you managed to get these jobs you've gotten?
A: There's an endless supply of work. You could do this the rest of you life. Everywhere. People don't know anything about what's up on top of their roof. They're not going to climb up and check out the leak. Or how big it is. I brought my tools with me. That consists of a drill, saw, a hammer, tape measure -- just basic tools. Nothing really fancy. Maybe $100 worth of tools. I bought more as I needed them and as my jobs got elaborate when I got here.
The first couple of people -- I met one through you with the housesitting job. She wanted her bathroom painted. Not a tremendous job, as far as making money. But she can then say to her friend -- when she's hanging around the pool or the golf club -- "You were talking about having your son's bedroom remodeled and someone just painted my bathroom and did a terrific job."
Well, she did say that to somebody and they called me and I ended up fixing their deck on top of the roof. I charge about $10 an hour. It took me two and a half days. I think $200 for two and a half days for the kind of work I do is tremendous. I was very satisfied, they were really happy. And it just goes on and on like that. They told somebody else, now I'm working for their friends.
I do just about anything. I don't do it exceptionally fast. I don't work for a union, so I can't charge those kinds of wages. I'm not an expert at it. That's another thing. I've turned down some jobs. Monetary stuff isn't the most important. I tend to find myself working at the houses of people who I think are interesting. I learn about the city through that. People hang around my work area and talk to me. That's the real meat of it. That's the true meaning. I'd rather make $10 an hour here. I made nearly twice as much on an oil rig out in North Dakota. But it was very boring. Very boring. No inspiration whatsoever.
Q: You travel between different worlds all the time.
A: Well, the first place I went to get a haircut, it was $15. So next time I ended up going to the Senate Barber Shop, which is subsidized. I called up to get an appointment and Sen. (Wendell H.) Ford (D-Ky.) is playing games and answered the phone, pretending to be a barber. I talked to him about how much it cost. He had a good laugh. I ran down to get my haircut. He was still there and I talked to him. There were lots of aides and a couple of obviously senators and representatives. That is something to be able to sit around with people like that, people you've seen on World News Tonight.
Q: What is your greatest frustration in dealing with Washington?
A: I've just discovered this the last three or four weeks. I'm beginning to grow very large blinders to where I am. I'm riding through the city, I don't look at the monuments anymore. I don't study the people on the streets the way I did just a month ago. I'm starting to get conditioned. I'm starting to look like the people I gawked at when I first came. The people who just look down at the sidewalk. The people who don't look anywhere except for the red light to change green. That's the kind of thing for three months I was criticizing people here for. I said I would never do that. And that's exactly what I'm doing. I've even taken cabs once in a while. I didn't think I'd ever do that, with Metro. In the past two weeks I've taken three cabs.
Q: Would you have any tips for people who come here to make an honest living but who aren't intending to put down roots?
A: You have to concentrate to keep yourself calm around here. Don't drive at rush hour. Don't get too upset at taxi cabs when they try to force you off the road on your bicycle. And banks, that's just the worse. When I get paid for a job, now I just tack on one extra hour to my bill and I pay myself $10 for going on my bicycle and finding their bank somewhere and cashing the check. It takes me an hour do that on my bike up to Maryland.
Q: You can't deal with an institution that isn't susceptible to charm?
A: They don't care how personable you are. Rules are rules and some computer somewhere made the rule.
Q: If you had to sum up your sense of yourself in Washington what would you write in a letter home?
A: I'm really ready to go to Indonesia. I've made a lot of money here. It's been a good visit. I wish I had some more time. I know the moment I leave, I'm gonna say, "You know? We never saw that." All the way across the ocean to the other side of the world Kayla and I are going to say "We have to go back some day when we're not so intent on trying to make money. We never got to go to this place."