I was 35 years old when I accepted my first position in Residence Life, and moved into an on-campus apartment. In my career, as in so many other areas of my life, I did things backwards. Most people do their live-in position(s) early in their careers – when they are young. With good reason.
My boss gave me a welcome gift on my first day: a “survival pack” containing a roll of duct tape and a channel lock wrench. And that’s when I had my first true misgivings about the job. I had been working in professional student affairs positions for ten years, advising and educating students. Nothing I learned in my graduate program in Counselor Education or in any of my previous positions suggested that duct tape and/or a wrench would be useful tools in my profession.
We were seriously understaffed, and I was responsible for a 24/7/365 operation, sometimes without any assistance (though usually overnight, weekend, and holiday coverage was split 50-50 between myself and one other staff member). While the schedule was grueling, and the responsibility sometimes crushing, I loved my job with an intense passion. There was constant stimulation (I often saw 2 a.m. in my office, hanging out tossing a baseball with students or having a Minesweeper tournament on my computer while filing paperwork). There was the regular adrenaline rush that came with beingthe responder to all types of emergencies (busted water pipes, acute alcohol intoxication, a high-speed police chase driving across the residence hall lawn). And there were the Night Guys.
Have you ever seen those movies where the items in a store or toy room come alive at night, when the humans go home? A small college campus is a little like that – it comes alive in a completely new way at night. The seasoned professionals go home, the intellectual crowd thins, whole buildings go dark. And the remaining spaces come alive with students, completely at home and indulging in a proprietary swagger they don’t show during the day. At night, I was the ranking administrator and most things came my way: behavior issues, strange questions, facilities problems. I quickly realized that it was me and a few hourly night crew – housekeeping and security – who would be expected to find a way to deal until daylight.
Most of the Night Guys were engaged in solitary work, cleaning offices and classrooms in empty buildings or making security rounds with Detex wands tracking their progress. On breaks, they were grateful for anyone to talk to. We had almost nothing in common, me and the Night Guys (Dave, Lorenzo, Carlos, Dick, Ed, Jim and others). But we talked about their lives and their job complaints, and we shared lots of pizzas. We wet-vac’d together more times than I can recall, we sheltered in the tunnels during tornado season, together we were vigilant for the safety of our students. They called if they saw an intoxicated student vomit on her way up the hill from the parking lot (then they cleaned up the mess). They were with me in the aftermath of the tornado that hit in the middle of the night, taking down dozens of old trees on the campus. Together, we checked for the safety of people and buildings, readied an empty apartment when we deemed one roof damaged and possibly unsafe.
They watched out for me. In the winter, they shoveled my car out after the plows went through. They came running when I screamed after seeing a mouse in my apartment. They said, “It was a late one last night. Why aren’t you in bed tonight?” or “They should pay you more,” or “That kid should be more respectful to you.”
I learned a lot from the Night Guys. I learned that sometimes the people who are most overlooked in a workplace are among the most committed to doing a good job. I learned that a quick, sarcastic wit isn’t the only kind of humor that can make you laugh – so can self-deprecating stories about flubbing a simple task, or someone’s terrible Sean Connery impression especially if you’re not expecting it. I discovered that it doesn’t much matter whether someone is entirely scrupulous about personal hygiene if they are kind and generous of spirit. I learned to admire someone who instinctively gets how machines (and boilers, and toilets) work. Most importantly, I learned that my master’s degree did not mean I knew more than others. It just meant I knew different things.
Over the years, my job and the campus have changed. I no longer work multiple 18-hour days in a week, and I live in a detached house, rather than in an apartment one flight up from my office. Weekdays, I head home at a decent hour, and eat a dinner I cooked, rather than another “all you care to eat” meal in the dining hall. Occasional late night crises are addressed as quickly as possible, and I don’t linger to shoot the shit with whomever happens to be around. It has literally been years, now, since I personally used a channel lock to shut off a running toilet. The Night Guys have moved on too: retired, transferred to day shifts – or continue with their work at times and in campus corners where I rarely interact with them. Mostly, I prefer it this way now, though sometimes I run into one of the Night Guys and it strikes me that I miss the old times. I know I miss the guys, but I hope I’ve held onto the valuable things they taught me.