By Erwin Coombs
Years before I became a teacher, I found myself in the sad position of having a four-year BA and being in the middle of a recession. The recession was the economy. On a personal level, I had a pretty good depression going. Not being able to get into a Faculty of Education and not being able to find a decent job, this newly married fellow was forced to take the only job he could find as a security guard.
Now I don’t mean to disparage security guards. They have a nasty job with a nastier pay. But you’ve seen these people. They are usually on the cusp of what we might term the unemployable. When I say cusp, I mean they are leading the parade of that group. And it’s not their fault. Many are new immigrants whose education credentials have not been recognised. Or they are retired men who cannot stand to watch their lives fritter away at home so come to malls and office lobbies to wear a uniform and do the same. And then there are young people, as I was, who are caught in hard times and have no other choice.
After a couple of humiliating jobs waiting tables in chain restaurants where I would remarkably come home with less money than what I would take to my shift, I jumped at the offering of a job as a security guard. The next time you’re in a chain restaurant, I want you to look kindly on those employees too. They are usually bright and assigned the all-important tasks of making sure the salad bar is inviting. And while you’re in there take a closer look at the salad bar. It is old and crusty and sprayed with oil to make it look shiny. But we had to make it look less toxic. Any idea how few employees eat that salad? Lots and lots.
Okay, when I say jumped at the job, that might be an overstatement. One doesn’t jump at that sort of employment. One stumbles, slithers or falls into it. But here I was offered a job at $5.75 an hour!! It was an olive branch. That very phrase has a biblical origin, apparently. But there was nothing biblical or God giving in a job like that for those wages. Don’t get me wrong. I was raised in a white trash upbringing where one didn’t expect anything necessarily good. Instead, one only hoped very hard that nothing too bad would happen that day that might lead to a poor night’s sleep — such as the arrest of a family member, an eviction from your apartment, or the like. As a survivor of this sort of upbringing, the prospect of a job didn’t seem that bad. What, after all, was I going to do with a specialization in English Lit. and a major in history? Apparently, I was going to guard office buildings in the wee small hours of the morning.
But while that might seem a sad conclusion to years of study, there were some perks. Imagine, for example, the sheer utility of having to wear a tie that clips on! Think of the minutes, and in the totality of a year, the hours saved not having to struggle with said tie. Pop it on and you’re ready to do whatever it is that fellows with clip on ties do. Oh yeah, that would be security work. The assumption being giving workers like me, those ties in the event of an altercation, you wouldn’t be choked with that tie.
When you are making $5.75 an hour, and you are brandishing what has appeared to be a useless university degree over your head, what’s going to happen if an altercation does occur? Let me tell you, you are going to, to put it politely, not intervene. There was no chance of my tie ever being touched by anyone except my sad, trembling hands before a sad, trembling shift at wherever they put me.
And for my second shift of what was to be my “permanent placement” I was assigned to a tall office tower in downtown Toronto. It was a plumb job, high end lawyers, businesses that made obscene amounts of money doing God knows what God knows where. And they had entrusted me to keep it safe throughout the long dark winter nights. Was I honoured? No, I wasn’t honoured. I only felt deflated. And to make matters worse, my first shift was on Christmas Eve, the graveyard shift, from nine p.m. to nine a.m. Christmas morning. Envisage if you will a bleaker prospect. Here I am, a young man, head full of ideas (granted, not his own) and lines of poetry and hope for the futures of his world and the world in general, newly married and, yes, making minimum wage, working on Christmas Eve. Gradually the poetry and the hope faded.
But to be fair it wasn’t entirely without a bright side. My wife had gone to visit her family outside of Toronto for Christmas. Had I not had a shift to cover, I would have gone with her. Her family were a small-scale variation of a war zone. Nobody got along and there was never a peaceful moment, instead there was only a lull between battles. There were tears and accusations and more tension than one might find in a tightly strung tennis racket. When I told her that I was expected to perform my duties as a poor imitation of a cop for this special night, and that she would have to go enjoy the majesty of her family without me, I was not as sad as one might think. In fact, I had a novel to read, a thermos of tea and the prospect of 12 hours of not watching a family engage in a bench clearing brawl over two days.
But fate had other plans for me. Other plans of a Christmas Carol variety.
I showed up early to get the very precise instructions of how to get through the night. My boss, a veteran of many years, who commanded all the respect one might command when sporting a polyester jacket uniform, was very specific.
“There’s no one in this building tonight. Except you. There is a fellow on the second level parking garage, but he never leaves his cubicle. And, uh, between me and you, that should make you feel safer.”
I started having visions of a madman on some kind of a parole programme given parking duty having committed the most heinous offences.
“Well,” my boss continued…” he’s one of them.”
He let that comment hang in the air for me to absorb and be shocked at. Of course, I knew what he meant. This was 1987, and the world was still in the throes of homophobia and misogyny and racism and all the other features of Neanderthal thinking that was, thankfully, about to be knocked on the head by people with fully developed brains. But I wanted to have a bit of fun with this monkey boss.
“You mean, he cheers for the Montreal Canadians?” I tried to sound both outraged and frightened that such a man would be my workmate through this long night.
Bob, the Neanderthal boss, was a little shocked that I hadn’t picked up on his primitive subtlety.
“NO… he’s a fag!”
I pretended that it would take me a while for that to sink in and put on a shocked face.
“You mean, he….?”
“That’s what I mean.” He said, almost in triumph of having gotten his point across. “But don’t worry, as I said, he never leaves his cubicle, thank God.”
Within ten minutes, Mr. Meathead had left the building and I was alone. Except, of course, for the serial homosexual rapist that I had been warned about. I went right down to see him two floors below to introduce myself. And there he was, sitting in a tiny cubicle with classical music playing and reading what looked to be a fairly serious book.
“Hi, I’m Erwin, tonight’s security guard. It’s my first shift so if there are any problems please don’t call, I’ll likely be napping on an office couch somewhere.”
He laughed and we joked about Bob the Ape man and how if were both in this job one year from now we would have a mutual murder/suicide pact. I left him alone and went upstairs to begin my action-packed shift of watching. And watching. And, if there was time later, watching.
Now as this was my first shift, I thought I should probably do some of what was expected of me. We were told to go on perimeter patrols. These were walks around the out and inside of the building looking for narcotics dealers and nuclear terrorists and generally the sort of high-end criminals who intrude into empty offices in the night. And we were to record in our little make belief police notebooks where we had patrolled and at what time and what we had discovered. After a couple of weeks, it dawned on me that the patrols were not necessary. But I was dedicated enough to still record the patrols in my book. Had I been a little more honest I would have recorded the following:
10:15 p.m. went to office lounge and took delicious 15-minute nap
11:00 p.m. found cookies in staff lounge… ate same
12:30 a.m. finished latest novel…surprise ending quite good
2:00 a.m. considered the merits of suicide as I peered over 15th floor balcony onto atrium…. otherwise, no unusual activity
4:00 a.m. wondered why my cat sleeps so damn much
But as I said, this was my first shift, so I dutifully walked about and scribbled down my report. All had been very quiet until I got to the first level of parking. There were literally no cars in either lot, everyone with lives being at home while I celebrated Christmas Eve in their empty building. But it was not as empty as I thought it was. There, across the lot, I spotted what was obviously a homeless old man who had broken in no doubt to escape the frigid outside. My several hours of rigorous training had taught me what to do in this situation, so I called out the lines I had learned that might save my life one day.
“Hey! You!! You shouldn’t be here!!” I yelled in my deepest, most authoritative voice. The old man, who was shuffling more than walking turned his head to look at me and gave the most peaceful smile. And then he hid behind a concrete column in the middle of the lot.
I have read enough detective novels to know what my next step should be. I must go to the other side of the column to find him. That’s the kind of skill set one acquires from reading. I did, but the shuffling old fellow was a bit faster than I imagined, for he had run around the column to avoid me. I followed. He ran, I followed. Before long I was running around the column chasing no one, and the image of the dog chasing its’ own tail came to my mind. There was no way he could have escaped my most professional pursuit, but he had. I stood there, out of breath and dumbfounded. There was an intruder in the building, and I had let him, somehow, get away. And now I had to report it.
I jogged down to the serial rapist one floor below. He was surprised to see me, perhaps because I was not the same calm looking fellow who couldn’t give a flying damn about this job. I looked worried. Mostly because I was.
“Listen, Mark, not to alarm you, but you should know, there’s an intruder in the building.”
“An intruder?” he looked concerned enough to put down his book.
“Yes, I think it’s a homeless fellow. I’ve got to call it in to headquarters and then notify the police.”
This all sounded very by the book and what ought to be done. Naturally, I was making it all up. I had no idea what procedure was, and I had never read “the book”. And as far as headquarters went, I knew it was staffed by the same South African lunatic who had trained me, if he was even awake. And as for the police, I supposed that made sense as this guy was, strictly speaking, a break in sort of fellow. I was hoping for some guidance from Mark who looked, sadly, like this wouldn’t be his last year at this cubicle. He must have had a lot of great books he wanted to read.
His attitude became casual.
“So, what did this guy look like?”
“Well, he was old, with a gray beard…”
Here is where he cut me off.
“Long gray coat, shuffled when he walked, pleasant smile, fairly short…?”
“Christ, you saw him too! Did he come up to you?’
“No, he never does. He just walks and smiles and disappears.”
Now at the idea that Mark allowed this guy to walk about at his leisure my security guard instincts (never very sharp) kicked in.
“Did you report it??” I asked accusingly.
“Oh, Erwin, you can’t report a ghost. Well, you can, but why bother?”
I looked at him in a predictably stunned way.
“Oh yeah…I see him every so often and he just comes and goes and just goes. He has disappeared before my eyes more often than first dates I’ve had. But unlike my first dates, he always comes back with a smile. Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”
Now here’s something else to imagine. You are alone in a big building, you’ve seen a ghost, you have the prospect of many more hours alone and you are told you’ve seen a ghost and that you might see him again but not to worry as he’s harmless. I don’t doubt that ghosts exist and never have. I also believe that they are harmless.
Does this mean that I want to be with one overnight in a building alone? Nope.
I can also tell you that security guards do several things most people aren’t aware of. They pilfer little things, like pens, staplers, cookies (as I hinted at earlier) and they sleep. Sitting alone for a long time and trying to stay awake, it’s tough. Sure, you can play a radio, you can read, you can make plans for an escape from this life that you couldn’t have had nightmares about when you were younger. But ultimately sleep stampedes towards you and you nestle your red eyes into your polyester shirt sleeve laid out on the desk and sleep. But not when you expect the old ghost of Parking Level Two to come by for a Christmas visit. That was the only night I stayed awake for a whole shift. And it was purely from fear, not dedication to my profession. The paltry pay was compensated for with this experience, so I have no regrets about having taken this job. Who knows what adventures lie in the most seemingly bland corridors we travel through!
Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.
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