Burning the Overnight Oil

 

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Photos: Juliette Laura

Besides that shift when a guest hung their dry cleaning from the fire detector and Shining-ed half the hotel’s rooms with Boston bus riots-era gushing water, my overnights were usually pretty uneventful. Quiet enough between the hours of three and five in the morning to, theoretically, recline on the lobby’s couch, biding time until the earliest check-outs ambled down from their rooms, en route to wherever their next destination might be. But that never felt right to me. Not in an idling-on-the-clock sort of way, considering the lone difference between standing behind the desk and sitting on the couch would be the location from which I watched that two-hour compilation of every Letterman Show Amy Sedaris appearance. It was more of a concern about the kind of message I was sending out to the universe. That the Hospitality Fates would see me splayed out on that yellow leather sectional, slap hands, and smite me down with the kind of challenge I deserved for looking so comfortable.

“Medieval time?” I said, looking up from my seat on the couch, neutering myself with the intensity of my read-this-body-language crossed legs. “No, Todd, I’ve never heard of that.”

I was training the new overnight manager. What with two of us present to take care of a job usually completed solo, I broke my self-imposed rule and took a seat during a quiet stretch of the morning—eating my Tupperwared meal and creating some literal distance between me and The Keeper Of Time. Todd had moved to Boston from Stephen King Novel, Maine two months prior, appeared to favor the same hair care regimen as Susan Boyle, maintained constant eye contact with my sternum, and figured that 2:57 a.m. was as good a time as any to sidle up next to me and offer some quick hints on customer service.

“Yes, medieval time,” Todd mouth-breathed. “According to that metric, a moment is actually one and a half minutes. But that was all based on sundials and we obviously don’t subscribe to those methods anymore. So, here’s what I always say—instead of telling a customer, ‘I’ll take care of that in a minute,’ say, ‘I’ll take care of that in a moment.’”

“There it is.”

“You can never really promise anything,” he said. “I’ll try my best! I’ll do what I can! Let me see what I can do! But no promises. There are never guarantees.”

That,” I said, smiling at Todd’s rib cage, “Is for fucking sure.”

It wasn’t a job posting for an overnight position that attracted me to the hotel. And it wasn’t overnight shifts that I applied to take care of. But imminently graduating and tragically unemployed with my inked signature still wet on a year-long lease, I needed a job. So, after a semi-successful initial interview in which I felt the holy-validation-trifecta of seen, valued, and payroll-adjacent, I read a follow-up email from the general manager asking to know my availability for “some” overnight shifts and if that was something interest-piquing. Desperate is as desperate does—I worked graveyards ever since.

In defense—and pity—of those who make their living off overnights, I only worked part time at the hotel, picking up the slack on the two or three nights per week the full-timer had off. Usually Monday nights, occasionally Tuesdays, but always Sundays. Homosexually enough, there’s this really exquisite Marie Antoinette scene in which New Jersey’s finest export, Kirsten Dunst, malingers through a biblically-proportioned hangover. It ends with her looking like shit in a bathtub—bagged-eyes, shattered-shell, tousled-locks, a song playing in the background by a band that somehow isn’t Phoenix. I have never and will never see the scope, the intensity, the but why am I sad?-ness of my weekend mornings so perfectly rendered on film. But, guess what, the Dauphine didn’t have to go to work later that same day. Never adjusting my Saturday night plans to account for my Sunday night shifts, I’ve experienced a special kind of only-the-Germans-could-have-a-word-for-it misery in which I’m not only hungover all day but drag its fog with me into the midnight hours. It, in short, sucks.

“Coffee this late?” one of my roommates would inevitably ask each and every Sunday as I brewed a pot in our kitchen at 9:30 p.m., Lamaze breathing my way through the subsequent rage of responding, “Yup! Going to work!”

They require a certain kind of discipline, overnights. A phenomenon I only came to realize once I started talking to other people who’ve watched the sun rise in a professional context. The old night manager, for example, she’d call anyone who would answer the phone during her commute home, run errands throughout the morning and then sleep right up until she came to work. Personally, I’d harass my nine-to-five-bound roommates for a few stuporous minutes before conking the eff out, waking up late afternoon, and pretending I had some semblance of a life by going to a supermarket. Todd, obviously, had his own way of going about it.

“So, yeah, it always asks what today’s weather was like,” I said, watching over his shoulder as he filled out the necessary fields to turn the computer’s software over for the next day. “I have no clue why. You don’t need to get too specific about it.”

His fingers—which had been Fred Astaire-ing across the keyboard all night, using shortcuts that literally frightened me in their expediency—were still.

“What was the weather today?” he asked.

“Oh, just type, like, sunny-comma-chilly,” I said. “You—you didn’t go outside today?”

Earlier on in our shift, Todd told me about the training he’d undergone the night before with a different front desk worker. He also told me—at great length—about how he took his coffee black the first time he ever tried it and hasn’t been able to get the taste out of his mouth since. I wasn’t internalizing every word he said.

“Yeah,” he giggled, incorporating four separate vowel sounds into a one-syllable word. “I never made it out. I got home at around nine in the morning and watched some YouTube and think I might have dozed off. But I don’t entirely remember. I made myself a sandwich and then I gamed for, hmm… five, maybe six hours. And then it was time to come back here.”

Recovering from the time it took my brain to realize he’d just used “game” as a verb, I nodded my head and repeated, “Sunny-comma-chilly.”

Though a nine-hour block of time, the 10:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. overnight shift has about 86 minutes worth of quantifiable work. With most guests already checked in by the time I arrived, the remaining stragglers were usually late-night travelers in no mood to chat or no-shows who, bafflingly, have the funds to pay for a room they’ll never use. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of charging all the cards on file for guests arriving the next day and praying that the fire alarm doesn’t go off. A capuchin could be trained to do it. A toddler. Britney Spears, post-conservatorship. In my downtime, I’d usually reply to the text messages I’d put off all day—knowing the recipients would be asleep and non-responsive—or leave out a slip of paper reading, “The front desk producer has stepped away for a moment. ROCK ON!” and stare at myself in the single-stall bathroom mirror for a half hour.

It’d be tough to determine if I liked working during the day better than at night, considering how tough it’d be to determine if I like working at all. Off-season at the hotel isn’t bad but, what with it being someone else’s stone’s throw away from Fenway Park, any given day between April and October gave me a pretty good understanding of what life must be like in Hell or Indiana. Having been branded “fabulous” by many a Sperry-wearing female before, I understand the danger of broad strokes. I’m sure there are redeeming Red Sox fans somewhere in the world. I’ve just never met one. And so I didn’t champion to be taken off the overnight circuit.  In all its tedium, its loneliness, its “Yeah, overnights, I know—random,” it was still, somehow, preferable. Until it wasn’t. The same week as opening day and my one-year work anniversary, I fended off a double-amputee who wheeled himself into the lobby at 4 a.m., swiping at my chest and threatening to “kick” my ass if I didn’t give him all the cash we had and show him proof we were, indeed, sold out.

“You know my name?” he said to me, as our 24-hour valet guy, the closest thing the hotel has to security, traffic-marshalled him back outside. “Bob. Bob Bulgahhh. Sound familiar? Yeah. Big mistake, kehd, yawhhr dead!”

Life speaks to us in whispers, I mantra-ed, sending an email to my bosses that same night with the subject line, “Two-weeks notice.”

“So, what’s next?” Todd asked me, knowing this shift with him was my second-to-last.

“I don’t know,” I responded, having recited into the mirror that exact line, ad nauseum, until I perfected a lilt of carefree-hopefulness. “I majored in English. A bookstore could be cool. You can meet authors at, you know, events and what not, so I think I’m gonna try for that. And I kind of want to be an actor? But that seems stupid to admit out loud. I guess I don’t know. But I’m not discouraged.”

Todd nodded, “You know what I was always tell creative types having a hard time finding work?”

“No.”

“Video games,” he responded. “Video games always need copy. They always need a storyline. The best ones do, at least. And, believe me this, I’ve experienced many a game that was in need of a tighter, more cohesive plot. You should look into it. I could see you doing that.”

I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of advice this year.  Some of it solicited. Most of it from people who tell me how badly startups need “solid” writers. And, really, it’s all helpful. Interesting to hear what other people envision me doing, even if, especially if, I could never see myself succeeding as such. It’s never been easy for me, work. Not only have I never loved any of my jobs, I’ve only ever felt barely proficient at them. Each mirroring and exaggerating all the traits I’ve loathed most in myself—my shyness, my self-centeredness, my Anti-Savantness with any and all fact-based logic. But this was a new kind of reflection, looking at Todd as he suggested I script the next Minecraft release. I hadn’t met someone so earnestly bizarre in years and, rightly or not, I had to wonder what this said about me. That someone so strange, so fucking off, was fit to do what I’d done for the past year. The three therapists I’ve seen so far during this, my emerging adulthood, have each led me to the same root of my occupational-loathing but this was the first time I felt it tugging at me, consciously privy to it being rubbed in my face—that I am what I do.

“Not a bad idea, Todd,” I smiled.

He was only supposed to train with me until 5 a.m., thanks be to whichever manager wrote the schedule and figured I wouldn’t be all that instructive after a certain point. When I brought his early departure up—the casually-masked desperation in my voice impressive even to myself—he shrugged and said he’d probably stick around until, “Six. Or seven. Maybe eight.” I didn’t shove my skull into the nearest wall nor do I recall exactly what I said in response but it did warrant him looking at me in the eyes for the first time and asking, “What, you trying to get rid of me?”

I didn’t so much feel bad as found out. I was trying to get rid of him. Not just because he told me more than I ever cared to know about late night taxi companies servicing small-town Maine but because he was suddenly taking up this space that had been mine alone to fill. Caring about this job, but only so much. Showing up, but ten minutes late. Admiring that direct deposit, but knowing it was just a means to some end. My part-time commitment to the place as literal as it was eighth-grade-poetic. Knowing that any given shift would be over in X-amount of minutes. And that I could take the time I’d bided, the wheels I’d watched, and feel certain all the things I was waiting for had to happen that much sooner.

“Alright, Todd, I’m outta here,” I said, signing my time sheet. “Good luck with everything. It’s a good bunch of people here.”

“Nice working with you, Brian,” he said. “You have a great day.”

I walked out of the lobby’s front doors, cringing at the delivery of his parting wish and adjusting the strap of my bag without bothering to check if I had everything. Fourteen-odd-hours later, I’d be back—a fate rendered only slightly less awful by the fact it’d be my last time doing so. But that seven-in-the-morning sun didn’t look any less confusing. The sidewalks populated with the same as usual executives in running sneakers, that pillowy look of their hardly-conscious eyes contrasting the two thousand yard stare of my own. I’d developed a weird sort of envy of these people, watching them begin their days on one side of the tracks while, on an empty outbound platform, I ended mine. The chilly, childish hope of early morning not meaning the same thing to me as it must to everyone else. Taking a seat, I leaned back my head against the wall, half-listening as an overhead speaker announced, “The next train will arrive in five minutes.”

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