I graduated from college in the late 1980s with a degree in English literature and no real idea of what to do for a career. One afternoon I wandered out of Harvard Square after a movie at the Brattle Theater and saw the grand yellow Georgian mansion where the nineteenth-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had lived. A sign said that it was open to the public for tours; they must hire tour guides, I thought. I imagined it would be pleasant to work in a dusky, book-filled house, tucked away in a quiet pocket of the world. I went inside and filled out an application.
When I got a call a few weeks later, it was to interview for an opening at a different, affiliated historic site: John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, a not so grand, actually kind of poky early-twentieth-century house in the nearby suburb of Brookline. I was a little disappointed, as I didn’t have much interest in the Kennedys. But I didn’t have any other employment prospects either, so when an offer was extended, I accepted. My parents were pleased, at least. I had grown up hearing from them about the shock of the Kennedy assassination, how they had gathered with friends in front of the television set and mourned for days—for four days, to borrow the title of a commemorative book my father had on our shelves back home.
The National Park Service maintained both Longfellow’s and Kennedy’s houses, and I was surprised to find that my title would be “park ranger,” something I had never thought I’d be. On my first day I was given a catalog from which I was to order a ranger’s uniform: flared pants and a shirt with epaulettes, both dull green and made of stiff, scratchy, nonbreathable polyester; and a broad-brimmed campaign hat, the kind that Smokey Bear wore. I was at war with my uniform and its hopeless lack of coolness from the beginning. When my half-hour break came around each noontime, I did a quick change into my civilian clothes in the bathroom before going to pick up lunch in nearby Coolidge Corner, where I might run into someone I knew, and another quick change when I got back. There was barely time left to eat.