I’ve always thought Easter was a bullshit holiday. Unlike most proper holidays, you don’t get a day off of work or school. The Easter Egg hunt holds neither the candy quality nor the door-to-door salesman charm of trick-or-treating. Peeps are a culinary atrocity. And I don’t look good in pastels. Easter is the too-thin ribbon of frosting on the dry hot cross bun of life.
So how did I find myself shivering outside the White House on a frigid Monday in April, volunteering for the White House Easter Egg Roll?
The answer is one part luck, and nine parts sheer stupidity.
On February 13, I submitted an application to volunteer at the White House Easter Egg Roll as a joke. I figured my application wouldn’t past the laugh test: A cursory Google search of my name would turn up the countless negative blog posts, articles, and tweets I’ve written about Donald Trump and his toxic administration. Surely, some poor schmuck at the White House Visitors Office would review my application, Google me, and dispassionately drop me into the “NO” pile.
I promptly forgot about my “joke”—haha, hilarious!—until March 5, when I received this:
I forwarded the email to my editor. “Yeah, I’m sorry,” he responded, “you have to do this.” I started to think about the type of story I could write from within the walled garden of the executive mansion, and convinced myself it could make for a fun send-up of the palace intrigue stories coming out of the Trump administration. Finally, I thought, I’ll be able to do some access journalism of my own.
But what started out as a “fun” assignment left me feeling anxious, full of self-loathing, and very, very cold. With each passing week leading up to the roll, my Easter Egg Roll dread grew. Would readers think of me as a fascist collaborator? An egg-white supremacist?
I went to a mandatory volunteer training session at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which abuts the White House. After going through the first of three rounds of security, I was given a green “A” visitor’s badge like Olivia Pope wears in Scandal. At the third checkpoint, Secret Service officers were listening to an old-timey radio; “Teenage Dream” was playing on it.
I joined the group of volunteers waiting to get into the meeting room. I struck up a conversation with a woman in Lululemon leggings, who told me this was her 15th year volunteering at the Easter Egg Roll. (It wasn’t until later that I connected her comment, darkly, to the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.)
The room was much like a modern college lecture hall, with stadium-style seating and a stage with a large projector screen at the front of the room. A man with a Southern twang from the White House Visitors Center led the training session. He gave a tactical overview of the event, as if we were a team of Green Berets about to disrupt an election.
At one point in the presentation, our host walked the volunteers through an aerial map of the South lawn, pointing out the five checkpoints we would pass through on the day of the Egg Roll, as well as notable landmarks: the 25 egg roll lanes, the reading nook, the picnic tables for children to write letters to U.S. troops, the soccer wall, the coloring wall, the cookie decorating station, the egg decorating station, the “family reunification station,” and something described only as “10’x10’ Bunny Topiary.”
Finally, we reached the point in the presentation all the veteran volunteers had been waiting for: the commemorative White House Easter Eggs. The 2016 and 2017 commemorative eggs featured delicately hand-painted flora and fauna. The 2018 edition, by contrast, looks like it got tagged with gold spray paint, and features the First Couple’s chicken-scratch signatures opposite the Presidential Seal. (Those not lucky enough to attend the egg roll itself can buy the egg for $14.95 through the White House Historical Association.)
At the end of the presentation, the aide asked the group if we had any questions. What followed was not one, not two, but three questions from adult volunteers, seeking reassurance that volunteers would be receiving their commemorative White House Easter Eggs along with the children this year. The aide did his best to placate the veteran volunteers (who had clearly gone through some shit in past years) though some remained wary. “We don’t need Secret Service to guard the eggs this year?” an older man joked. A woman raised her hand. “Will afternoon volunteers also be getting the eggs?” Yes. The woman looked reassured—for now.
The sky in D.C. on the morning of the Easter Egg Roll was oppressively white. A bad omen. The president had spent his Easter weekend at Mar-A-Lago, hobnobbing with Sean Hannity and crafting hateful tweets about immigrant children—“NO MORE DACA DEAL!”—just as our lord and savior Jesus Christ would have wanted.
The night before the Egg Roll, I had a nightmare about covering it, and did not sleep well. I thought about calling in sick to avoid my 11am-7pm volunteer shift, but guilt won out in the end. I took the Metro downtown and trudged to the Ellipse before getting in line for volunteer check-in. A young White House aide told the gathered volunteers that “due to a security concern,” we would have to move to the Secret Service tent.
My mind briefly flickered with the hope that someone had finally figured out who I was, and had rightfully blacklisted me. But when a second White House aide checked my last name on his clipboard, he only waved me forward. Disheartened, I watched another female volunteer passionately kiss her husband from behind the security fence, as if she were going off to war.
Inside the security perimeter, there was a tent set up for volunteers with bagged sandwiches and Coca-Cola products. I was eager to find out my assigned post for the day. Would I be manning the Egg Roll? Cookie decorating? Maybe I’d get to wear a bunny costume like Sean Spicer! I took my assignment and saw:
Wristbands? Wristbands. I asked my team captain, hopefully, if we would be rotating through our different stations throughout the afternoon. She said no, in a voice that sounded like a mouse being washed out to sea. I picked up a hot pink baseball cap and apron—the designated attire for all 2018 Easter Egg volunteers—and struck up a conversation with a group of volunteers. A German college student told me her volunteer assignment was “costume characters.” Bogus! After I told her mine, she said, “Oh, that’s cool. Maybe they’ll let you keep one!” Fuck off, costume character.
And so I spent most of the next six hours freezing and standing nowhere near the White House, and instead on a barren patch of grass between two security checkpoints, affixing blue, yellow, and green bands to Easter Egg Roll attendees’ wrists. Rather than getting the inside scoop on a frivolous event, I was neither inside nor experiencing any frivolity. I had played myself.
I befriended two of my female wristband compatriots, who were also newbies. We commiserated over how underdressed we were for the weather, and cursed the National Park Service volunteers, who had hand warmers but would not share them with us. We apologized to kids for putting our icy hands on their arms, and hopped from foot to foot as the wind whipped past our behatted heads.
The first crowd of the afternoon started streaming in. I pointed out a girl in a gold tutu wearing no tights, her head bent down against the cold. One of my new friends, a mom to twin boys, chastised the girl’s parents from afar. “What planet are you from?” she asked. “Are you fuckin’ retarded?” One of our fellow volunteers was wearing a tiny pink body-con dress under her pink hat and apron. We got some good mileage out of feeling superior to her.
The sun refused to come out all afternoon. I was mad at myself for only wearing a light jacket, and resolved to never try anything new again. I eavesdropped on a trio of young, male White House interns. One of the interns, a lanky Floridian with a scraggly beard, was holding forth about the evils of socialism (“The government is stealing from me to give to somebody that’s not working!”) and same-sex marriage (“There’s a certain way God made nature”). Off in the distance, from the IHeartRadio DJ booth, I heard the strains of “Fight Song,” Hillary Clinton’s campaign anthem. It was official: I had entered Egg Hell.
My stupor was broken when one of my new friends, who had disappeared from our post for 20 minutes, came back and told us she was able to sneak onto the South Lawn. “Just walk in there like a boss and you’ll be fine,” she told us. Joyous news! My other new friend and I did as she said. We strode through two more security checkpoints in our hats and aprons, and onto the South Lawn.
The air on the South Lawn was suffused with the smell of vinegar. The kids were wearing adorable but extremely weather-inappropriate outfits: boys in matching plaid blazers with their hair gelled back, girls in taffeta dresses and Mary Janes. On the Bunny Hop Stage, a military band played a cover of “Walkin’ on Sunshine.” The family photo ops were bountiful: There was a giant gold frame in front of the White House, a miniature podium where kids could pretend to be mini-demagogues, and a 50-foot wide Styrofoam sign that read #EGGROLL2018. It was like Coachella for people who read mommy blogs.
I walked past a man holding a tray of hardboiled eggs stuck on long lollipop sticks. “Take a bite of your egg!” a dad instructed his kid while taking a photo on his phone. Another family posed in front of the White House. “Now that’s a Christmas card,” someone said. I saw what I assumed was the 10’x10’ Bunny Topiary, a terrifying inflatable rabbit that looked like it was in the middle of a psychotic break. Same, I thought.
I walked over to the Family Reunification Tent—the bureaucratic name for Lost and Found—and asked the volunteers there if there had been many kids missing. “More parents than kids,” a woman stoically replied. I had no idea how to interpret her comment, but decided not to press her further.
Then there were the costumed characters. A man in a bunny suit and sunglasses wore a blaze-orange shirt that said “DJB.” There was a blue tiger wearing a jersey with the MyPlate.gov logo, a holdover from the Michelle Obama era. (Melania Trump was nowhere to be seen—she and the president had done their Egg Roll circuit earlier in the morning, before my shift started.)
Another character, “The Birthday Angel,” was a Tiffany blue propane tank with a cartoonish woman’s face and angel wings. A mom tried to get a photo of her children with the character, but her two four-year-old daughters were terrified of it and shrieked from behind their mother’s legs. Wimps, I thought, and got my photo taken with the angelic propane tank.
I walked into the volunteer area and peeked into two tents reserved for volunteers to change in and out of their costumes. A woman wearing the lower half of her Elmo costume was taking her break, along with two Cats In the Hat who looked like they badly needed a cigarette. In another tent, three people were cinching a volunteer into her Zootopia bunny cop costume. Maybe it was German student who had patronized me earlier, I thought bitterly. The costume looked warm.
I figured I had stalled for enough time, so I took a couple more laps of the grounds, got a coffee at the catering tent, and ate a hardboiled egg on a stick (not too bad) before heading back to my post. “Did you see Kelly?” my friend asked when I got back to the wristband station. Kelly who? “Kelly… Kelly… oh you know who I’m talking about.” Kellyanne Conway? “Yes!” She had been reading in the Reading Nook while we were on the South Lawn, and I hadn’t even noticed.
After the last wave of Egg Roll attendees had gotten their wristbands and gone through the gate, I took off my hat, balled up my apron, and left the security perimeter, not bothering to say goodbye to my new friends. What had started out as a joke ended with me feeling utterly humiliated. The joke was on me the whole time, only I was too proud, too stupid, or too much of both to realize it. Maybe there was a metaphor for Donald Trump’s political ascension somewhere in there, but I was too tired to piece it together. I could feel a cold coming on. I bought a $4 hot chocolate to warm up my hands, and went home.
I didn’t even get my fucking commemorative egg.