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In the summer of 1981, I took a job as a security guard at the Bank of America World Trade Center in San Francisco. I had signed up for the Latin workshop at U.C. Berkeley, and working the graveyard shift was the only way I could attend class each day, complete hours of homework every night, sleep, and pay rent. I had to have a job, and it had to be a job that allowed me to study while working. I had a friend who had a friend who was assistant manager on that shift, and they were always looking for bodies for graveyard.
The Bank of America World Trade Center was at that time the second tallest building in San Francisco. Clad in carnelian granite, it looked like a fifty-two story radiator, and since it had been built before post-modern wit fiddled with the bare cage of function, it looked like a completely humorless radiator. A concourse on the ground floor allowed ingress into the building and access to the building’s crowning attraction, the Carnelian Room, an upscale restaurant that provided a 360 degree view of the San Francisco fog. The restaurant banked on the tourist trade and snob appeal, as the markings of refinement – expensive wines and French cuisine – furnished the mass consumption props to an invigorated realm of business. The sombre edifice also sheltered the city’s financial elite and the chief executives of the Bank of America: Goldman Sachs occupied a gilded floor and Morgan Stanley, a suite of offices. In its infancy, the building had served as ground zero for Dirty Harry and then as the setting for The Towering Inferno, a disaster flick of the early seventies. It showed what happens when skyscrapers catch fire, a prospect that continued to stoke the fevered hopes of guards on every shift.
Security operated in three shifts: a morning shift from seven to three; a swing shift from three to eleven; and the dreaded graveyard, from eleven at night to seven in the morning. Working swing shift would have let me sleep at night, but the Latin workshop ran from 9 a.m. To 4 p.m. It was bad enough that I was working while attending the workshop, which was strongly discouraged. It would have been unacceptable to leave ninety minutes early every day. So I showed up to work at eleven at night, worked and studied till seven in the morning, went home and slept for an hour, got to class by nine, returned home by four thirty, slept till ten thirty, and made it to work by eleven. One thing about graveyard shift: you don’t have to fight traffic.
Of all the shifts, graveyard had the least to do. Most tenants were out of the building by the early evening, and the restaurant disgorged its last customers by midnight. After that, there was nothing much to do but fight sleep. Graveyard provided refuge to the retired old and the studious young. The old worked to supplement meager incomes; the young worked to pay rent while studying. Old or young, the labor was the same: to stay awake. The shift supervisor and his assistant had worked out a way to take naps during the shift; the rest of us made do, chain drinking coffee or worse. Posts included riding up and down in the freight elevator, guarding the entrance to the building, guarding access to the restaurant, guarding the garage, guarding the computerized control center, roving between posts to provide breaks, and the most sought after of all: guarding the executive suite. For the young, this was the shift to have: eight solid hours of coffee drinking and studying with no interruptions. You, the desk, the coffee, and the book.
Much to my shock, I found out that due to my gender, I would never be given this post. Unofficial policy restricted the guarding of the executive floor to white males. No women and nopeople of color were to sully its white wool carpets.
I was, by the time I started working for the Bank of America, an ardent socialist.I knew about capitalism, I knew about racism, I knew about sexism. I understood that a woman or other minority could not hope for anything other than token inclusion in the power elite, but what I had never imagined is that these distinctions would stretch all the way down to the lowest and most invisible of servants. Two fortunate young caucasian males ascended to the executive floor each evening in the swift and silent elevators: one was a pre law student; the other, a heroin addict who shot up each night and then enjoyed an uninterrupted eight-hour nod. I watched them rise, and turned to planning my study session for the night.
Studying had to be interleaved with small, meaningless tasks that were assigned mostly to keep us awake. Each night, we had to inspect all the fire extinguishers for a given range of floors to make sure they had not expired. Sometimes, the supervisors would replace active extinguishers with expired ones to make sure we were checking. So, you had to check. The service elevator job involved no tasks except keeping your dinner down, but made studying difficult as it hurtled from the basement to the fifty second floor every few minutes. The garage kept you awake but immobilized by the cold drafts that swept through its vacant caverns. One of my usual assignments, once it had been determined that I had a brain in my head, put me in the security office itself where my two chief tasks were to watch the cameras that monitored access to the building and to turn off the alarm that summoned the fire fighters. Counterintuitive, but as it turns out necessary because 99% of the alarms were false, and the fire fighters would charge Bank of America five thousand dollars (or was it ten thousand?) each time they sent the trucks. So when the alarm sounded, first I turned it off; then I checked the computer printout to determine its location; then I dispatched guards to check the floor. There would be no towering inferno on my watch.
The Latin workshop stretched through ten weeks of summer. A quiz started the seven hours of class each day, endless homework followed. The first four weeks were dedicated to mastering Latin grammar and memorizing two thousand words. The Friday of the fourth week served up a grammar final. On the Monday of the fifth week, we started translating Virgil’s Aeneid. After Virgil there would be Ovid, and Horace, and Cicero, and Medieval Latin, and Caesar, and a miscellany of other abstruse options.
O, lente, lente, currite equis nocti
Oh, slowly, slowly run horses of the night! There was, I admit, something exhilarating about running this Latin marathon. Weaving around sepulchral terminals on the trading floors while memorizing declensions and hurtling through space in the freight elevator while translating the Metamorphoses convinced me that I had attained the purest realms of scholarship, untainted by material greed. And the perfect marks that rewarded my studies every day attested to the strength of my will and intellect. Such, such were the joys.
I am still amazed that I was able to retain three words, given the mental fog in which I laboured those ten weeks. We are not nocturnal animals. Force us to stay awake all night and the brain grinds into a perpetual first gear. Being a night owl, I had not expected it. We were all good till midnight. One o’clock was bearable; by two, we felt heroic; by three, desperate; but four…. four is when we felt capable of anything, even murder, to be allowed to sleep. Four was the hour of the wolf, the hour when most people die. If you’re asleep, it is the hour when nightmares are most real. If awake, it is the hour when you meet your most dreaded fears; it is the hour when laughter is no longer possible.
At 4 a.m. I could not study; I had to move to keep myself from falling asleep or from a psychic shattering to which there would be no end. And as I walked the gilded halls, I asked myself what possible reason there could be to be awake at that hour. I was not a doctor struggling to save a life, or a fire fighter quenching a fire, or a mother feeding an infant. Any of that would have made sense. But what I was doing all night, every night, was walking the halls and keeping watch …to guard the money of thieves. It wasn’t very much more complicated than that. Hour after hour of sleepless purgatory while somewhere else those who profited from the labor of others, those protected by my tormented nightly vigils, feasted or slept without a care.
At last I understood Hamlet, the play that begins with the weary greeting of one guard to another on the graveyard shift: “For this relief much thanks: ’tis bitter cold, /And I am sick at heart.” As in my world, in Hamlet’s world guards keep watch all night to guard the drunken revels of a murderer. It is a world without trust, a world in which every man spies on the other. It is a world so hermetically sealed from trust or truth or justice, that these must return as ghosts to haunt the living. As Hamlet puts it:
… I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the Bank of America World Trade Center provided a perfect setting for Hamlet. As I careened between the phosphorescent terminals that blinked through the night in sealed offices, I imagined how it might be done. A skyscraper is not unlike a medieval castle: there could be a penthouse for the King and his entourage; apartments for the nobles; offices from which administrators could pull the levers of the world; a floor filled with huge motors to keep the water running and the lights shining and the elevators climbing, and another floor for the restaurant to feed them all. Deep in the bowels of the edifice, the security center, wall-papered with cameras watching every orifice, every opening to a possible other. In fitful scenes of static interference, those cameras might register a ghost haunting the subterranean approaches to the castle. And the guards might see that ghost. And Hamlet might go to meet that ghost. For ghosts only haunt those with a conscience.
Macbeth is still a varnish upon the old morality play. But Hamlet, Hamlet is the first modern play. When Macbeth is killed the hope and the prophecy remains that the world can return to normal, to a place where hosts do not murder their guests any more than mothers dash out the brains of infants. When Hamlet dies on the other hand, the world remains the same, charged only with the telling of his story until somebody finally understands it. During the hour of the wolf, when ghosts and daemons come to life, as I paced the halls of the Bank of America World Trade Center, I began to understand Hamlet’s story. I understood that killing Claudius would have righted nothing in a world where men continued to add the half pence to the pence and find an exact price for selling their souls and that of others. It would have righted nothing in a world where grief is just a stumbling block to self advancement. Hamlet’s quandary needed a historic solution, a solution not available to princes and heroes but only to those who were doomed to walk the parapets night, after night, after night.
As it turned out, one night no able bodied white males showed up to guard the executive floor, and I was entrusted with the office. Clutching my Latin grammar, my index cards, and Horace, I took the elevator up and stepped carefully across the snowy white carpet to the desk where I would study all night without interruption. And study I did, hour after hour without rest, congratulating myself on having attained a post in the microcosm of corporate security that tallied with my noble aims.
During my shift, the one and only shift I ever served on that floor, I took a couple of breaks to visit the offices of the most powerful men in the world. I had been to Versailles. I had visited the palaces of Romanian princes. I was disappointed. One office had a small Persian rug; another, a handful of coffee table books. Scattered throughout were small glass cases with carved offerings from African governments. On the one hand, the barrenness was not surprising: these offices were merely places of business in an economy that had long since divorced work from life. The work of decorators and the filigreed icing were reserved for the living spaces of Manhattan penthouses and Woodside estates, not workaday offices. On the other hand, the tawdry offices brought to mind Balzac’s observation that the rule of the bourgeoisie would leave nothing behind it — no pyramids, no palaces, no hanging gardens, no cathedrals — just plaster board and dust.
I continued to study all night. In the morning I went to the Latin workshop and took the quiz with which we started each day. In the afternoon, when the quizzes were returned, I found out that I had failed. I was bewildered. What had happened? How could I have failed in these perfect learning conditions? Uninterrupted study for eight hours. I had mastered every inflection, absorbed every lexical entry, and memorized every grammatical rule. A few days later, I realized that it was the very perfection of those conditions – studying all night without the small interruptions of my usual tasks – that had given my brain no chance to remember anything, because there is no remembering without forgetting. I had cast myself adrift on the floating island of Laputa of the executive floor. Not only had I not learned anything, I had not even realized it. Such is the danger of entering into the direct service of kings.
J. A. Bujes is a writer and teacher who lives in Oakland, CA.