“Topsham Fire stand-by for a page,” hails the omnipotent voice of dispatch, bringing to life the pager on my bedside table. Time to go save the world. I pull on the closest pair of pants as the tones go off, ending my post-dinner, pre-homework Netflix session a little earlier than planned.

“Sagadahoc County dispatch for Topsham Fire, respond to 33 Redacted Avenue for a water leak and ceiling collapse. Time 19:48.” I jog down to my car—passing roommates now accustomed to routine emergencies—and speed off to the station.

I became an EMT after my first year at Bowdoin, and joined Topsham Fire-Rescue shortly thereafter. Although I’ve never really figured out why, it seems like a natural combination of vague pre-med aspirations, repressed urges to drive quickly and loudly through traffic and—as observed by a friend—a persistent hero-complex. Whatever that means.

In two years, I’ve gone through additional EMT training and Basic Fire School. I now function as one of the youngest and least experienced members of the 50-person department. Everyone should spend some time on the lowest rung of the ladder for a while—it’s a remarkably humbling experience.

Despite the title, modern firefighters spend very little of their time actually fighting fires. Most of our work involves car accidents, various cleanups and medical emergencies. Chicago Fire and Grey’s Anatomy don’t do reality justice—it’s far less glamorous and far more predictable.
I arrive at the station just in time to pull on my turnout gear and climb onto Ladder three before we go screaming down the snowy road. We arrive at a thoroughly ordinary and uninteresting house, the lieutenant starts assigning roles and we get to work. As we enter the house, one of my co-workers ahead of me instinctively withdraws and gags before continuing inside. Never a good sign. Sure enough, the house is straight out of “Hoarders.” We’ve discovered a domestic jungle of unknown plastic objects, food waste and piles of garbage. What A&E fails to capture about these situations, of course, is the smell. The horror, the horror. 

Compounding these problems is the fact that a second-floor water leak has caused the entire living room ceiling to collapse onto detritus mountain, leaving behind eight inches of greyish water, a lot of dry wall and an especially offensive odor. Tasked with finding and stopping the leak, my partner and I trudge up the stairs only to find more of the same situation. We eventually attribute the flow of water to a leaking heating pipe that’s buried under about five feet of trash and debris. It’s time to start digging.

Afterwards, we chatted mindlessly as we loaded the overhaul equipment back onto the truck. It turned out that the owners hadn’t been able to pay the heating bill, so the pipes had frozen and burst. 

“Not the kind of place you’re used to seeing at Bowdoin, I imagine,” said the lieutenant as we drove away. 

I made an off-hand joke about the first- year dorms, but he was absolutely right. It’s hard to imagine abject poverty anywhere within a 10-minute drive of Thorne Hall.

The one element of my job that I’ve never quite gotten used to is the abrupt and unexpected transitions between the Bowdoin bubble and the “outside world.” This world, for me at least, offers a sharp contrast between the liberal arts minded and the vocational minded. In general, Bowdoin students are blissfully unaware of the hard work, stress and logistics that go into public safety, and how an entire community of people in our area devotes their lives to this field. 

“Do you have EMT friends too? Is that even a thing?” asked one concerned teammate.
On the other hand, the work environment is completely detached from academically rigorous and socially progressive Bowdoin that we all know and love. At any given time, this can be a welcomed break from the intensity of school, or a valuable source of thoroughly non-Bowdoin perspectives.

I’m not trying to make a value judgment on either community—hard work and compassion are the common themes here. Their manifestations are completely different, however, which can be a little jarring when you experience both worlds multiple times per day.

I drive home from the station, pondering how I can put off homework for just a little longer. And then it hits me: ping pong and milkshakes. Never have I been luckier to have a friend like Katherine, who is invariably down for pong and shakes.

Hoping I don’t still smell like work, I navigate the crowded Union to the beacon of procrastination—the Café. After chatting for a while about classes and parties and how abroad stress is “objectively the worst,” Katherine and I proceed to the game room and prepare for battle. We’re mutually unskilled. It’s perfect.

“I’ve never actually asked you this,” said Katherine, returning a mediocre volley wide right of the table, “but what’s, like, the worst thing you’ve seen while EMTing?”

I get this question a lot. As much as I want to be honest and forthcoming, discussing tragedy and death has never seemed like it fits into Bowdoin’s nurturing and comfortable environment. I don’t want to burden my friends with all the nasty stuff, and I definitely don’t want to fish for sympathy.

“Well, I’ll tell you about some of the funniest things.” I reply, hitting the net for the third consecutive time. We talk about the old drunk guy who thought it would be a good idea to fire up the grill in his closed garage and the car accident where the uninjured kids were—to their parents’ dismay—exposed to their Christmas presents one month early. These are the easier stories.

The ball sails over me and rolls under the mountain of furniture, jackets and backpacks we’ve left in the corner. Katherine’s finger immediately finds her nose, and I turn to the pile.
After three years, I still haven’t come up with a good definition for the Bowdoin bubble.

Beyond the obvious ideological and financial differences between the average Bowdoin student and the average Midcoast resident, what gives us such a strong sense of enclosure? I have no answer. I’ve noticed, however, that there’s a camaraderie of determination and hard work in both groups. If nothing else, having one foot firmly on either side of the bubble has demonstrated how artificial it really is. Superficial differences ultimately keep us apart.

Facing the pile, under which our precious ball is trapped, I ponder questions like “Why did I pick the furniture side of the table again?” and “Who decided to buy this heavy-ass coach?” Regardless, it’s getting late and there’s work to be done. It’s time to start digging.