Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sum-sum-summer jobs

This summer, Caroline Sweeney gets to run around in the sun, downing sugar and generally having a blast while I'm forced to stay in the office and slave over a hot keyboard on meeting stories.

Visual depiction of this summer.

(Honestly, it's a fun series. Read it. I just enjoy martyrdom.)

While we're on the topic, though, I figured I could weigh in with my summer job.

When I returned from the University of Wisconsin for the summer after classes ended, every year I got a job in the school district I attended as summertime help for the custodial staff.

Real talk, I was a janitor.

To be honest, janitoring (custodializing?) was some of the most honest work I've done in my life.

You woke up, went to work just as the sun rose, then returned home, usually physically drained, in the middle of the afternoon.

For the most part, the work was tedious. That's what I remember most about it.

During the summer, janitorial crews clean the schools, from top to bottom.

As such, the other kids hired for the summer work and I generally did some of the most repetitious and menial work a person can do. We scrubbed hundreds of lockers with chemicals and water, used razor blades to peel the gum off the bottom of desks, or, for an almost welcome change of pace, swept and mopped floors ahead of the janitors who were waxing floors.

Since I was usually the tallest, I typically was put in charge of cleaning and/or changing out the thousands of fluorescent lightbulbs in the schools.That meant opening the light diffuser, swinging it down, cleaning the inside, using a rag to remove the old tube-style bulb because it was probably pretty hot, then fitting the new one in.

Then I'd climb down the ladder, reposition it just so, climb to the top and repeat.

During those hours of constantly doing the same thing, over and over and over again, you really begin to learn how to entertain yourself. You think about sports, your friends, you dreams, women, anything.

One day, I tried to remember every regular Phillie player from every team I'd followed since I was five. I did pretty well.

Another day, I mentally sang the entire debut album of Blues Traveler.

A task that wasn't boring but could very easily have killed any one of us was the time us summer workers were assigned to move every piece of furniture from the guidance offices of a middle school up or down a level.

The office on the first floor had to go up to the third. The office on the third had to go to the second. And the second floor office's furniture had to come down to the first.

Compounding that, it was 95 degrees outside. We were inside, but it was during construction on that wing, so it was about 105 inside. And the elevator was out of service, so we had to move everything up a narrow staircase....with masks on, because the air was heavy with particles from construction work.

It took two hours and once or twice I felt myself blacking out, but we got it done.

Outside of that cruel little incident, the regular, professional janitors we worked with were generally pretty nice. They usually fell into two camps: people who took pride in their work and crafted it to the point where they could do it almost without effort or guys collecting a paycheck and constantly hiding from their superiors.

It was from the latter group that I learned that some people do not advance their skills in hide-and-go-seek from the time they were seven. One guy literally hid in his own office, the same time, every day.

It's not hiding if your name is on the door.

I also learned that janitors know more about the goings-on of the school than many of the teachers or even administrators.

They know everyone, usually don't have to be in a set place at a set time, and, because some people don't take them very seriously, have no problem talking about some slightly sensitive material around them.

As a result, a lot of these guys know which teacher is sleeping with who, what person is on the chopping block, who has a vendetta against who and so on.

There were a host of characters in the staff. There was one guy who was a 9/11 truther and, without fail, began every single spoken thought or comment with "Um."

His name wasn't Jim, but for my purposes, let's call him Jim. So, as legend had it, "Um Jim," as he came to be known, did a lot of acid in the 80s, which left him a little off.

Then, adding to that, he was changing lightbulbs in the school when he was shocked pretty badly, almost to the point of electrocution.

And, so, "Um Jim" was born.

There was another guy who I constantly seemed to get paired off with. He smelled like vomit and rum and had about as bad a temper as anyone I knew.

Repeatedly, he'd call a vacuum that had its cord stuck around a corner or the lid to a cleaning product that was stuck on a "whore."

Light-bulbs that wouldn't come out of their slots were also whores.

"Whore" was his go-to word for things like that.

As I said, the work was mind-numbing. And many days, when I finished work as a janitor, I'd only have enough time to go home, take a 45-minute nap, then get up and go out to an adult or Legion baseball game I was covering because I was also an unpaid intern at the Daily Local at the time.

It could be grueling.

But I enjoyed pieces of it.

Whenever we could, the summer workers and I would play intense games of UNO in which cheating was actually encouraged. We knew every and any fridge that had ice cream sandwiches or ice pops in it. I ran through the tunnels beneath the high school I was working returning to my work after taking a break to grab a Powerade from a broken soda machine that distributed them without money.

One of the janitors taught us how to twerk well before twerking entered the national consciousness.

The coolest part of an empty high school is it's auditorium.

If tennis courts are located within about 100 feet from a school building, the roof is likely covered by hundreds of bleaching tennis balls.

A principal's office and the library are typically the only spots in a building during the summer where the air conditioning never stops running.

I can't say my college summer job was fun. But I think it taught me a lot of the patience I use in my career.

No matter what you're BS summer job is, I think you should at least try to take something like that out of it.

Once you figure out where all the ice pops are stashed, anyway.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Don't Be That Guy

As I may have mentioned in the past, part of my job and that of many other journalists is to attend the various public meetings that you would never wish on the guy who ran over your dog just after he finished burning down your house.

These meetings include school boards, local municipal meetings, special public hearings on developments, everything you'd rather not spend a few hours of your night or life in.

They're undeniably important and where I get a good amount, if not most, of my stories from, but I can't say they're my favorite things in the world.

When these meetings aren't boring, they're tremendously uncomfortable.

Remember how you used to cringe at Steve Carrell in "The Office?" That's what those meetings are at their unboring-est moments, with the huge exception that you don't get to laugh at Dwight's beet farm afterward or further delude yourself that you are the Jim in your own office.

When the meetings lean toward being classified as uncomfortable over boring is the only time when a lot of people show up. That's because they're pissed at something. And that's my cue that I'm going to have a bad night.

Here's an example of one of those pissed-off groups.
Since I'm the one that has to suffer through this stuff, staring at the floor or my notes because I can't possibly look at the suffering of other people experiencing this with me, I figured I could impart some advice on not being "that guy" who particularly embarrasses himself or his cause at the meeting.

- Laughing at someone else's point makes you sound like a psycho.
Meetings are predicated on order. Like Robert's Rules of Order, specifically.
In those rules, there's a specific, set schedule of who can talk and when. It's that way so that everyone can make a point in a full, cogent way.

If you're attending the meeting through your own free will (unlike me), you generally disagree with what a lot of people are going to say. But you have to let them say it. You'll have your own time to talk when people will let you say what you want. But you have to let others talk.

That's the "order" part of everything.

Cackling like this while someone talks about something you disagree with is just a little disconcerting.
Believe it or not, it even hurts your side a little, because it's a little hard for someone in the public eye to say, "Yeah, I agree with the gentleman giggling in the corner."
Additionally, yelling such classics as, "No," a sarcastic, "Yeah, right," or "Put it in front of your house, then," additionally come across as childish and impatient and also hurt your cause.

In one meeting, a man who was nervously fidgeting in a corner for most of the meeting suddenly started screaming as a township official was explaining an ordinance. The man was literally screaming.
He also sounded like Christopher Walken, which made it even weirder and crazier.

His point, which was about the water authority or something that didn't seem to warrant screaming, suddenly became less attractive to support.

So shut the hell up until it's your turn.

- This isn't Lincoln-Douglas. Keep it simple.
Above: Not you.
The average person going to protest the sidewalk being put on their property isn't a great orator, and most people that do get up to speak behave accordingly.

"That guy," however, believes that he can give the speech that will bring borough council to its knees, solve racism, end global terror and get that four-way stop sign he wanted so damn bad at the end of his block, all at once.

That speech, however comes across awkwardly, circles back to the same point he's only made a borderline case for approximately seven times, and features a lot of stumbling and mispronunciation.
I know there's a lot of information that needs to be spit out and it seems like there's not a lot of time to do it. But you can shorten it up. Believe me, I do it daily.

Flowery speech doesn't help, either. Most people tune that out because you're not using it correctly or it further highlights that you don't understand what's going on.

At a recent meeting, a man told a person sitting at the meeting table that he "sat on the throne of authority" and could stop the ordinance change he didn't want.
The man he was speaking to was the mayor and, while his opinion matters, he does not vote on ordinances.
All a person needs to do is quickly explain what's up, what they want, include an example or two of why they want it and why others would benefit, then get off the microphone. That's more effective than any JFK-esque performance they might dial up. It really is.
- This is not the crowd for your conspiracy theories.
Accusing a zoning board or school board of corruption, out of the blue, with your time at the microphone isn't going to get it done.

You have three minutes to talk. They have as long as they feel like. Generally, if they don't just ignore you, which is pretty effective in itself, they're going to rip you a new one with the two hours left in that meeting.

I've seen it done. I once sat through a PRESENTATION put together doing just that. There was a Powerpoint and video.
All because some lady decided to snipe in public comment with no actual grasp of what was going on.

If something happened, if there's a wrong to right, you need evidence, up to and including real paperwork or like 15 witnesses, because, otherwise, when you yell that a municipal representative is intimidating someone, people are going to wait till you sit down, say, "Well, that was weird," or "Did you see his hair?" move on, and hope you never approach the microphone again.
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In summary, be respectful, follow the rules, remain concise and have some kind of proof of your point.
Don't talk shit and keep your shit together.
I'm not trying to discourage anyone from making public comment. There are a bunch of people who I've seen do it the right way who got the result they were looking for.
It's actually impressive when it's done right.
What I'm saying is make it less painful for everyone involved, because I'm the one who's usually involved.