Mike Smith, the House page from Abingdon, likes his blazer just fine. But: "After 5 o'clock you don't have to wear this and it's great to get it off." Five o'clock means dinner, and time to spend some of that expense money. In groups the pages are allowed to leave the hotel for eateries within a two-block radius. Matt's Village Pub & Grill ranks high for its relatively inexpensive sub and sandwich fare, and "because it has a pool table," Smith says. Wendy's at the hotel is a reliable standby, as is delivered pizza, but a few times a week the kids will treat themselves to restaurants such as Sam Miller's Warehouse, The Tobacco Company and Peking Pavilion. For breakfast, they eat at the hotel or at places on the way to work, but if they are late sleepers, like Smith, they are reduced to eating bagels and similar fare imported from home. (Many have small refrigerators in which to store such victuals. For lunch, they join the adults in the sandwich nooks and cafeterias in the Capitol and surrounding buildings.) And home isn't just for food, it's for picking up homework assignments for the following week and washing clothes. (There is a two-hour study hall each evening at the hotel.) "It's amusing to see the duffel bags going out, full of dirty laundry," says Mike Yardis, general manager of the Omni. The Friday afternoon ritual is reversed Sunday afternoon, he says, when the pages return. Many of them carpool or catch rides home with their respective delegates and senators. Hairston, for example, rides home with Armstrong, her delegate. "I make sure that everything's OK, that she's not getting picked on, things like that," he says. "We talk about boys, who are the cute pages. Little romances spring up." Some of the pages among the large Norfolk contingent, it appears, have made matches, and just about every page has another they like. Fortunately for Smith and Hutchinson, the House page from Chesapeake, each happens to fancy the other's roommate, which leads to a lot of time on the hotel phone.[image-1]Photo by Chad HuntBreak time in the page room. Margaret Munson, 13, of Smithfield (left) takes on Mike Smith, 14, of Abingdon, in a friendly game of cards.
Not a lot of face time, however. The boys' and girls' floors are separate and thoroughly off-limits. Which in practice means they are not. And, Hutchinson says, the boys take advantage of the fact that their floor is below the girls': "We get pushed off the elevator, dragged down their hall," she sighs. "It gets old." Most shenanigans are confined to less amorous ends, however. Setting the standard for this session's hijinks: the eight or nine House pages who jumped into the Omni pool with their clothes on. There also are stories of hotel irons being used to make grilled cheese sandwiches and its small coffeepots being used to make everything from Top Ramen noodles to instant grits. And some of the boys admit sneaking out of their rooms after 10:30 p.m. curfew to play cards or watch TV with their comrades. But while the chaperones have been reported to raise their voices on occasion, the hotel manager views his guests as "unobtrusive and basically invisible." "I have not seen or heard of any rambunctiousness from this group," Yardis says, with more than a hint of amused expectancy. "But then the session is still young. We did empty the minibars before they came in, and of course the movies are restricted. ... Overall, they're a lot better behaved than I was when I was their age." And on a strictly enforced schedule: from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. is study hall, leaving only an hour and a half for socializing before the 10:30 p.m. curfew.[image-2]Photo by Chad HuntAs a House page Evan Story, 13, not only learns first-hand about the government, but learns what it's like to have a 9-to-5 job and to wear a jacket and tie every day.
Pressed for dirt, Yardis can only cough up "an occasional noise complaint, maybe. They aren't the cheerleader, football-player segment. They're the debate team." Liz Mustin, 14, a Senate messenger from Richmond, says her roommate left the first night. "They get homesick and that type of thing, but after the first two weeks it's OK," Habanksy says. "A lot of times, of course, they're a little frightened." But most, accustomed to one form of camp or another, take right to it. "It's a lot better than home," Cho, the Senate page from Springfield, says. "A lot of freedom. It kind of gives you a view of the real world." Dexter Bush-Scott, 13, a Senate page from Chesterfield, agrees. "I get to experience what college is going to be like being away from my parents, having responsibilities." And while all the pages dutifully report missing their families and friends and schools and sports teams, everyone is looking forward to Feb. 12 and 13, the midsession "crossover weekend," when they will get to stay in town. This past Sunday they got back in time for a Super Bowl party at the hotel, and they are looking forward to basketball games at VCU and a trip to the circus. More than anything, everyone absolutely every last one of them wants to come back next year as a head page. "You get to come back," Hairston says, as though it were a dream within her already impossible dream. "And," she whispers, "you get more power and you don't have to do as much." These kids are learning more than we think they are. Jump to Part 1, 2,