Notes from the Night Shift

Self-Portrait at Work

On my first day at work, after my lunch break at 2:00am, I am locked out of the library where I am assigned to be trained. The radio I have been given doesn’t work, but I am soon found by F____ who I am shadowing. F_____ is older, he has long grey hair, his fingernails are thick and chipped, and he has a habit of falling asleep while standing. Most nights he brings a 12oz bottle of diet soda with him to fill his thermos with, his early-morning lunch is often a box of Albertson’s donuts. L______ has a habit of wandering while working to check on others in his building, dispensing advice. He likes to tell people to follow a pattern and insists “we’ve tested it and this is faster.” For the first few weeks I am happy for advice, by my last day I will be glad never to talk with him again. S______ is originally from down south (Arkansas, if I remember correctly?) and is old enough to have a hard time walking too fast. He has gout that causes swollen lumps in his hands and legs, and he is afraid to get them drained because he doesn’t know how long he could afford to not work or take medicine while waiting for them to heal. He likes to talk with his coworkers and brags about racing against cop cars in his youth. He says his ex-wife steals money from him through child support and he has been sent to HR for saying the N-word (though he says he doesn’t remember saying it and didn’t mean anything by it if he did say it). 

By the end of the first month I’ve gotten pretty used to working the library. I often work with D_____ and K______. K______ is from the East Coast originally but lived in the west for some time, he came up to Boise after a divorce and settled on the first job he could find. He has a degree in criminology. His East Coast background gives him a sarcastic sense of humor and it is fun to complain about work with him. By the time I leave K_____ is probably the only one who really knows I’m a Marxist and what I mean by that. D______ is younger than me. He is originally from down south (Georgia, if I remember correctly?) and his second job is working on-call for a cleaning crew. He says he mostly cleans up suicides and has had to do several friends and an ex. That job pays better than this one, and eventually he gets too tired to keep the night shift as well. When he turns in his resignation he doesn’t bother coming in for the last few days before he is officially not working here. 

Half a year in and I’ve been trained in several buildings. I mostly move between the Micron Business and Economics Building and the Library. When I’m in the library our group is overseen by T_____ whose a nice enough guy but spends a lot of his time sitting in his car in the parking lot on his phone. When he brings up politics or we have a sensitivity training event he often says he doesn’t really get what all the fuss is about. At the Micron building we’re overseen by G_____. G______ is polite and works hard, often traveling from building to building on his bike. He is originally from the Philippines and his son works part time with us. B_______ is the supervisor for our whole side of the campus, he gives us our assignments at the beginning of every shift and reports on our activity. He is a staunch libertarian, a biker, and tends to spend too long on our passdown before work going on less-than-PC tangents. Nonetheless, most people seem to like him, if at least for his colorful personality. Near the end of my time working here one of the women who started working with us during the summer (a student at the university, younger than me) will tell me “I really should get offended, but I can’t really. He never seems to want to do anyone on his team harm.” Despite our political differences (not that we’ve explicitly talked about them), I like B______ alright too. He is one of those low-on-the-chain managers that really prefers to see their job as protecting their team than pandering to upper management worries about “efficiency.” Several times while I work there he arranges to let us off early. We have a mandatory trade show in the Summer, the night shift has to attend it even though it begins an hour after their shift and goes several more hours into the day. Even though we ask how we will be compensated for this mandatory meeting off of our work hours we are not given an answer by the date, even though other teams on the day shift are attending on their work hours and therefore being paid as if it were work. After signing in and sitting down, B______ comes by the table I’m sitting at with some of my coworkers and says quietly, “y’know, if I weren’t a supervisor who they’d know was gone, I’d just get my name on the sign-in sheet and head out before the training sessions.” That’s what we do. 

One of the students who joins up is someone I knew from Drama in high-school. They do Ethnic Studies at the University and like to say how they do both art and science. At some point they ask me what I’ve been doing and what I studied and I mention I do a lot looking at history with a Marxist lens. They say they aren’t a fan of that economy-focused stuff and I should read some criticisms of Marxism they’ve used in class – mostly about how it’s not inclusive enough for people of color and women. I bring up that most of the famous groups associated with Marxism in the U.S. were associated with feminist and black-liberation struggles, but they say how they didn’t cross-integrate enough. Most of their interests seem about uncovering stories and representing narratives, particularly on-stage. “Nobody talks about gay classical theater outside of ancient Greece,” they tell me, “but ancient Japanese theater… I dunno…. sounds pretty gay to me when you look at what they were doing.” I just nod. “Someday,” they sigh, “we’ll really have an inclusive movement to bring all the struggles together.” In my head I think about how they sound like every theater student I knew in college, or any online Maoist. They’re friendly with the other coworkers. At the sensitivity training we go to they righteously say how nobody needs to pry into anyone else’s business about their personal life, and how if somebody is uncomfortable at work they should be able to say so. What kind of struggles, I wonder to myself, will their perfect rainbow coalition partake in should it come to pass? I think about the other coworker who regularly speaks up about sensitivity and the way things are run. She is a nice woman personally, though she is rather obsessive about getting things done her way. She clearly wants to be a manager so she can have the ear of the higher-ups and get things running efficiently with no time wasted. I often think about that, and how depressing it is that the only way one can think of making things better is by being an efficient manager.

One night we have a training session on how to safely handle bodily fluids if we come across blood or vomit. The trainer is from the university’s clinic, and he asks us if we’ve been briefed on any of this before. None of us really have. Exasperated he explains he’s been trying to get the University to let him do this more regularly but its been a struggle. He tells us about the chemicals we can use, and how to make sure we use the proper kind of hazardous material bagging, how to use the eyewash stations and showers if material gets on someone. We point out we’ve never really been given the proper red bags, or shown where they would be. Someone points out how, when cleaning out the sanitary disposal units for used feminine-hygiene products, we have been instructed to put it in the trash. He is visibly upset that we have been told to do this rather than put it in a bio-hazard bag and says he’s going to talk with the school about this. By the time I leave we still haven’t heard anything.

By the time I leave I’ve cleaned the library on finals week, used nearly all my sick hours to call in because I was too exhausted, cleaned out stashed alcohol and canned food in the library (I suspect from one of the homeless people who often stay there during the day), and spent most of the summer shifts getting my work done early and hiding someplace with my phone for four hours or more. I’m perpetually exhausted, but by the last few weeks I’m energized by getting an article published on an online socialist magazine. I’ve saved up money and am ready to go easy for a  few weeks while I’m not paying rent staying with my parents. 

I quit almost exactly a year after I started working. I awkwardly brush off the questions from coworkers about where I’m going or what work I’ve found. “Freelancing,” I say.

Now, writing this, it’s been something like four or five weeks since I left. I love my parents, I appreciate that they let me live with them, but I hate their attempts to find out what I’ll be doing next. I know I frustrate them, or make them sad. I’m trying to get more articles published, at least one more, and maybe send resumes back out to publishing houses in New York. All my college friends want me to move out there and live with them. I don’t know how to get a job there. What’s more, I don’t know what I’d tell my family if I did suddenly get a job there and just pack up and leave. The only application I’ve put out so far is to be a part-time barista at a coffee place opening a few streets down from my parent’s house. My parent’s want me to have a plan. They tell me at once to look for security, to just try and find something to get by so that I can just live my life whatever my work may be. They also tell me to look for things that interest me, to consider graduate school. After all, I can  be so excited and talkative when I talk about literature, or history, or philosophy. I do love those things, but so much of it feels useless. I tried to teach myself some economics, thought maybe I could take some summer courses, try and get into a Masters program at University of Utah. I still try to understand economics, but I gave up on that pretty fast.

Working the night shift as a custodian feels like something important in my life, like its confirmed so much about how things really work. I also feel like a fraud. It’s my touchstone for grueling, shitty (sometimes literally) work. But while doing it I knew I could probably be trying to do something else. B______ even told me I should be somewhere better, maybe teaching English at that same University. I don’t want to be a middle-class would-be journalist playing at workerism, but I don’t want to just find a salaried job somewhere either. I wish I could’ve done something to help the people I worked with, many of whom were in real pain. But I didn’t. I didn’t urge for a strike, or hand out anything. We have no IWW representatives in this state. Most of my coworkers were old. They hate unions and anything outside of the Republican Party. One of them bragged about how they’d be ready to kill any Muslim that charged them with a knife. It all feels very important, but I can’t say why. This account isn’t meant to vilify anyone I worked with, whatever flaws they might have had. It’s simply an attempt to describe the actual experiences I had in an overlooked career which functions precisely on nobody thinking all that much about. I hope I can learn something from it, or that this cursory reflection can confirm something for others. For now, though, I guess I have to keep looking for a new job. 

-PHH

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