By John Leonard
I had started working night shifts around then. Unlike the day shifts, the weekly hours were better, the work was easier, and the office workers weren't around. I liked that. I was kind of ashamed of my line of work and I didn’t want to deal with those suburban, upper crust jerks who returned to their model homes, families and backyard pools, passing me by as if I never existed. Nobody in a suit ever said good morning to me. And they always brought each other coffee. Nobody ever brought me coffee.
I’d always wondered if the office workers would smile and say hello to me if I wore a suit to work. Maybe they’d say, “Good morning, I don’t believe we’ve met. What branch are you?” And then they’d shake my hand, take me to the café on the corner, insist on paying because I was now a part of their team. Not a morning went by where I didn’t play through that scenario in my head.
I wasn’t handling the day shifts well, so when Mr. Raymond offered me nights for a change, I immediately accepted. The only people I saw on night shifts were other custodians and that was just fine with me. Most of them were decent people who went about their work and didn’t say too much about anything. I don’t really like talking to anybody anyway, so it seemed like a suitable situation.
I’d been living alone for about a year at that point. The woman I’d been living with left me for somebody else. She said I didn’t care about anything anymore— that I needed to take pride in what I did, regardless of what it was, and at least I had a job. I always cringed when she told me things like that. Her words made my skin crawl.
Just before she left me, I had an opportunity to get a position at work that would’ve paid me some more money. It was a custodial coordinator position, mostly scheduling employees and monitoring all floors of the building. I work in a large building, thirty stories tall, so it would have been a role with a lot more responsibility, and I had absolutely no desire for that.
Jenny, the woman who left me, made such a big deal over this potential job. She always talked about how after a few years of working and making a little more money we could think about bigger and better things, like having children and moving to a nicer neighbourhood. I often imagined myself bringing a child into the world and trying to raise him. The thought made my stomach turn.
What the hell would my kid think of me? Leader of the custodians, the big boss garbage disposer, the face behind the cleanest office building in the city. The idea made me sick. It just couldn’t happen and there was no way I could tell Jenny what I really thought about the whole thing.
She eventually convinced me to interview for the job. She cried and said she didn’t think there was a future for us if I didn’t try to better myself, even though, basking in my own insecurity, I thought it was a step back. She made me prepare for the interview as much as she could. I put on a suit and she dropped me downtown for the meeting with the building manager. She kissed me, said good luck and drove off.
I stood in front of the building for ten minutes before I built up enough courage to go inside. My briefcase had nothing but my one-page resume inside. Once I got to the floor where the interview was, I froze.
I stood there as my thoughts raced. I thought about Jenny, our hypothetical child, the office workers not buying me coffee, and me, in my dark blue custodial coordinator’s shirt, sitting behind my desk in my shit office without windows. The sweat poured from my face and seeped through the white dress shirt I was wearing under my only suit jacket.
I left the building without going to the interview and wandered into the closest bar. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but scotch seemed like a good idea so I sat there sipping one on ice as I stared at my watch. After a while, I caught a bus home. I told Jenny the interview seemed to go fine, but there were quite a few other applicants and it wasn’t a sure thing by any means. The truth was I didn't have the slightest clue how many people interviewed for the job, and when Jenny found me out, she’d had it with me.
The first few weeks of night shifts went fine. The work was simple and free of distraction, and I felt comfortable not being seen by anyone other than the few people I worked with. I didn’t feel threatened or worthless being around them, just content and at ease. I tried explaining that to Herbert, another nighttime custodian, and he couldn’t understand it. He was desperate to work days and I told him he didn’t know what he was wishing for.
Our shifts started at 10 p.m. and ended at 6 a.m. We each had certain floors of the building that we took care of. I cleaned floors ten through fourteen. On the thirteenth floor there was a fancy lounge room with leather sofas and a big screen television. Every night I would take my break in that room and look out at the great view of downtown. The glimmering lights from the tall buildings, street lights, and the few driving cars lit up the dark sky and cast a sense of quiet relief over me.
One night on break, I noticed a man in the building across the street from mine as I glanced out the window. He was sitting at his desk sifting through files and writing diligently, by hand and on his keyboard. I watched him for almost a half hour, hardly budging as he worked so persistently in his office at three o’clock in the morning. My first thought was that this man must have been just like all the people who worked in the offices in my building. He was probably just another jerk who would unintentionally nudge me as he walked past and not even bother to apologize after. He was one of those people with a backyard pool and a happy family. But then part of me felt differently. I thought, at least he’s working harder than all those other business people I see around here. This guy’s different. He’s not like the others. He works all night because he absolutely has to.
The next night, I took my break at the same time in the same room and I noticed the man was working in his office again. Papers and folders engulfed his desk. It seemed so unusual to me. Aside from custodial staff, I didn’t see any other people working in offices during the night. It was after I’d seen him five nights in a row that I began to strongly admire the fact that he worked alone, away from everyone else, like I did. Because he probably felt the same way I did. Maybe he didn’t like the people he worked with during the day, or better yet, maybe he disapproved of the way they viewed the custodial staff.
It had been almost three weeks straight that I’d seen this man working away in his office in the middle of the night. I kept taking my breaks around 3 a.m. and going up to the lounge just to watch him. I can’t explain why I was so captivated by him. But since I’d first seen him, I felt myself beginning to change. I started to take a little more pride in my work, as ludicrous as that sounds, and in doing so I began to slowly feel a little better about everything. Even Herbert noticed and asked if I’d gotten laid. I didn’t answer him, though. I hadn’t since Jenny, and my mind stirred when I thought about how she’d left me for somebody else.
One night, I actually felt like socializing so I asked Herbert if he wanted to take his break with me and eat our snacks in the lounge up on thirteen. He looked surprised at first, but he agreed and we took the elevator up together. We sat in the comfy leather seats and talked while we ate. Herbert was much older than me and had little to say. I talked about my failed relationship and my job. He listened and ate a box of raisins, nodding his head every so often. It was soothing being able to talk to someone, just about anything. It had been quite a while since I’d done that.
I told Herbert I felt better these days because of the man I’d noticed in the building across the street from ours, how seeing him inspired me to take my work more seriously. Maybe I went on about him too much, but I envied this man and his dedication, and I wanted Herbert to know that so he could understand, too. I finally felt I could relate to someone white collar and it gave me joy. He smirked at that idea and said, “Whatever, kid. I guess if it helps.” I liked talking to Herbert. He reminded me of a wise grandfather. I never showed Herbert the window where I could point the man out, though. I didn’t want him to see.
The next night I asked Herbert if he wanted to spend break together again. He sighed, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m going to work through break tonight and try to leave early.” I didn’t think he was telling me the truth and I was a bit insulted. I told him I thought we’d had a nice talk and that we could spend break together more often, even every night if he wanted. He chuckled and said he’d see me around. I stopped in front of him, blocking him from where he was headed. I told him if he came with me I’d point out the man in the office. He said he didn’t care and that, quite frankly, I shouldn’t care either. Then he said, “The man is just a man and plenty of men work at night, so you may as well get over it.”
I found it difficult to concentrate on work after that. I wasn’t feeling very well. Herbert had pissed me off so I decided to head up to the lounge and have a rest on the comfy leather chairs. After sitting for only a few minutes, I got impatient and stood up to watch the man I so genuinely admired.
When I approached the window I couldn’t see him. The light in his office was on, but he wasn’t at his desk. I could see shadows moving in the room, but I couldn’t tell from where. My heart raced and I waited for him to sit back down at his desk. I wanted to see him work again, to see him write and file lavishly as he’d done every night since I’d first noticed him. Sweat began to pour down my face and through my shirt just as it did when I skipped my interview for custodial coordinator.
I started to panic so I sat back down to catch my breath. Maybe Herbert was right. Maybe I should’ve just forgotten about it, about him. But I couldn’t. I realized this man was the last thing keeping me sane at my embarrassing, bullshit job. My thoughts spun. What if he stopped working nights? What if he never came back? What the hell was I going to do?
I tried holding myself back from returning to the window, but I couldn’t. I stood up again and looked toward the man’s office, and as I did, the window went dark. My blood ran cold.
The man left his office before midnight. I pictured him getting into his luxury car and driving home to his suburban mansion. I was sour. I thought about him going home to his wife who’d be asleep already on the left side of the bed. I pictured Jenny lying there, and him quietly lying down to avoid waking her. Then I thought about me, holding my empty briefcase, standing in front of the office where I was supposed to have my interview.