ON A TRAIN SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BALTIMORE AND WASHINGTON -- It's a little after 8 a.m. and Bernie Smith could be home catching some well-deserved zzzzz's. Or he could be (( studying for his political science class. Or doing chores around his West Baltimore home.
It's his day off, after all, and that's what days off are for. Instead, he's on the train to Washington where he will spend up to eight hours in a job that is short on money (none) and long on heartache (other people's).
This Mr. Smith goes to Washington every Monday to read mail sent to the White House.
Although this day promises to be sunny and warm, it was chilly when Mr. Smith, 28, got on the train to D.C. His duffel bag was filled with newspapers and homework assignments. He had just wolfed down a quick breakfast from McDonald's.
For the past year, Mr. Smith has used time off from his job as a security supervisor at the National Aquarium to make this journey to the capital for volunteer duty.
He leaves home at 7 a.m. to catch a bus to the light rail and then takes the MARC train. After the train ride, he rushes to the Washington subway and finally walks the last five or so blocks to the Old Executive Building, next to the White House.
Doesn't matter if it's cold and snowing or if the humidity has transformed Washington into a sauna; doesn't matter if Congress is in session or out; or if President Clinton is in D.C. or Detroit. Mr. Smith makes the two-hour trek every week.
He hears the questions all the time. Why are you doing this? What's in it for you?
Mr. Smith doesn't expect the volunteer work to lead directly to a job. Like private industry, the government is downsizing. Staffers have been let go in the very department in which he volunteers.
He does it because, well, he wants to.
"It's important to me. It's an obligation to serve the people," he says.
Good answer. And one that clarifies something -- there's definitely a touch of the politician in Mr. Smith.
What propels him most is an insatiable curiosity about what goes on in other people's minds.
"I get letters from all over the country and all over the world," he says.
Mr. Smith is not allowed to speak specifically about the contents of the letters. But suffice it to say, it's human nature for people to contact politicians more when they are upset than when they are pleased.
The volunteers can sometimes anticipate the subjects of the correspondence. "When I read the newspaper," says Mr. Smith, who actually reads three a day, "I know what the next week's mail will be about."
"It's fascinating reading," he says. "I read faxes, letters, adult mail, children mail, all of it." Psychologically, it can be a hard job sometimes.
"Although some of the letters are good, most are hardship cases, like, 'I lost my job and got thrown on the street.' And some of them are bad, real bad," Mr. Smith says. "They all get to you after a while."
Most of the mail is for the president. But Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, first daughter Chelsea and even Socks the cat get their share of missives.
On any given day, there are 100 to 250 White House volunteers, says Lori E. Abrams, spokesman for the White House correspondence department. "And the bulk of them are in correspondence," she says.
Unlike Mr. Smith, most volunteers are senior citizens. They must commit to one day a week and pass a security clearance. The turnover is fairly low, she says. Some volunteers have outlasted several presidents.
"We've had people here who have been volunteering for 25 years," Ms. Abrams says. Or, as Mr. Smith puts it: "It's not like when Clinton goes, we have to go."
Mr. Smith's supervisor hopes he stays around a while. "He's excellent," says Cyril Jones, who supervises the correspondence department. "He's one of the most dedicated and committed volunteers. He comes in and gives us more than we expect. And he helps out with the new volunteers."
Some days, Mr. Smith reads more than 200 e-mail letters -- a rapidly growing form of communication inaugurated during the Clinton administration. "We get roughly a thousand pieces of [e-] mail a day," says Stephen K. Horn, director of White House e-mail. Yet that is still far fewer than the 5,000 to 12,000 letters sent the old-fashioned way.
The glimpse Mr. Smith's gets into the political process has reinforced his already strong opinions. He knows how people feel about politicians. And, as the saying goes, it ain't a pretty sight. He has a strong comeback for people who complain about the government.
"All these people who don't vote! People say. 'So and so should be done.' I say, 'Did you vote?' And they say, 'No.' "
Mr. Smith, who with his wife, Maria, attends Catonsville Community College part time, may run for local office one day. He is a political science major, and tested his leadership skills as president of the Black Student Union.
But he is also considering other options. "Opening a business is still in the back of my mind," he says.
Back on the train, he pulls out some homework and frets over needing more time to study.
Time is in short supply for Mr. Smith, but his wife says she does not begrudge the extra time he puts in volunteering. The couple, who have no children and own their home, are saving money for a car, which should make the Washington commute easier.
And let's face it: Although he doesn't expect the volunteer duty to lead directly to a job, life can be full of surprises.
"It looks good on my resume," he says.