Commerce House

During the period from 1982 to 1985, I was unemployed and underemployed.  For over a year, I worked as a security guard at a ten-storey office building downtown.  Technically, I didn’t.  I had applied for work with a cleaning service.  They had the contract for the owners’ common areas, as well as several of the clients located in the building.

Building management wanted someone to answer the phone and watch the front lobby and underground parking area, keep the wrong ones out, let the right ones in and out, from when the building officially closed at 5 PM, till it reopened at 7 AM.  Only licensed Security Guard companies may legally do that, so I was on the books as a cleaner.  The only *cleaning* I ever did, was take the power buffer to the marble floor of the entranceway, and use paper towels and vinegar to remove handprints from the glass doors, left by people too stunned or lazy to use the push-bars.

At first I worked from 5 to 11 PM, but that didn’t give enough hours to support the family.  The old guy who did the eight-hour midnight shift was on Workman’s Compensation.  They guaranteed him a given sum each week, and topped up his earnings, to reach that figure.  I convinced him to take the six-hour evening shift and sleep with his wife, while I stayed awake all night.

The building sat sideways into a hill.  There were ten steps up to a landing, then ten more up to the front door.  The entrance to the underground garage was even further down, and invisible from the lobby.  Authorised parkers had swipe cards which would roll up the gate.  Unless you were listening carefully, you weren’t aware of folks entering or leaving that way.

People came into the building at the oddest times.  I was shocked several times making a walk through the three underground levels at four in the morning, and suddenly running into someone.  There was a group of six or eight teenagers who used to hang around the church property directly across the street.  If someone used their card to enter, it was easy to dash across the street and get in before the door rolled back down.

The old guy told me that he had found some of them a few times, drinking, smoking dope and screwing downstairs.  He carried a two-foot length of lead pipe and suggested I do the same.  He was older than me and lead piping had been outlawed, so I got 20 inches off the top of a broken, solid ash, rake handle.  I still have that little billy-club at the house, *just in case*.

There was a bank on one half of the main floor, and the Employment Office on the other.  Even working the midnight shift, I got to meet some interesting people.  The Employment Office didn’t open till nine, but there was one lady who came in before I left at seven.  Other than getting the coffee started, I’m not sure what she did for those two hours.

We often talked, and I got to know about her husband and teenage daughter.  One day she told me, “I bought a horse, and didn’t tell my husband.”  You what?!  Her daughter loved to ride, so, instead of paying rental fees, she bought a damned horse.  Where are you going to keep it, in your garage?  Oh no, she had a stable all picked out.  All she had to do was pay the monthly stall fee without the husband noticing.

My son was still going to high school.  A couple of times he accompanied me for a Friday night shift, to have some father/son time.  The first time he did, he found that staying up 24 hours was a bit much.  At about six-thirty AM, he curled up on the marble floor behind the guard’s desk, and went to sleep.  It was on one of these nights that he *won* a radio DJ’s contest, and got to meet him in person for breakfast.

A ten-storey building, at the top of one of the higher hills in town gave a grand view from the roof.  We used to go up in the middle of the night and look around.  You could see almost five miles in all directions.  We used to watch all the little people, the drunks going home from the clubs, and the taxis, police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.  A clear day would bring a magnificent dawn, first the false dawn, as the sky began to brighten.  Then the sun would peek over the eastern horizon and wash everything with a lush golden glow.

If you’ve read my *water guns and pony bikes* story, you already know I’m still just a big kid.  We had to know what happens when you drop stuff from over a hundred feet up.  We didn’t want a safety hazard, so no glass.  An empty plastic water bottle just whirls away in the inevitable wind currents.  A full one splits and spews rewardingly.  A pop can, filled with water and carefully dropped vertically, crushes the bottom a bit and just sits there.

One time, we found a ball of string.  The building is sealed.  None of the windows open.  We filled a Coke can with water, threaded the string through the tab, and lowered it on a big loop, down to the eighth floor.  There was about a two-inch ledge outside the windows.  We carefully swung it in and dropped it on the ledge, and even more carefully pulled the loop of string back though the tab.  Let the office workers figure how a Coke can got outside their office, eight stories up.  Eventually the water would evaporate, and the can blow away.  Ah, the cerebral adventures.

Since I’ve had this post in my drafts file for a while, I’d just like to add a wish for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all the lovely people who have visited, followed, read and commented on my site in the last year.

8 thoughts on “Commerce House

  1. Jim Wheeler says:

    An excellent and thought-provoking post, Archon. I am reminded by it that most lives in the modern era are too full of minutia and social anxiety to allow time for philosophical reflection on the direction of life. Your work history would seem to be an exception. Some idle hands will find mischief, but others may find insight.

    I knew a bright young engineer who, knowing of my Naval background, told me of his own close brush with military service. He had graduated college, I think in NROTC, and was inspired to apply for training as a Naval aviator. At Pensacola he was, like all the other applicants, thoroughly involved in an intense around-the-clock curriculum, both mental and physical. Until, that is, it came to a challenging swimming requirement. Turns out he swam pretty much like a rock, so they pulled him out of his class for several weeks of nothing but swimming instruction. Suddenly he had oodles of time to reflect on his circumstances and surroundings and experienced an epiphany. He realized that aviation was not his cup of tea after all. Last I heard of him he had been offered a lucrative job as an engineer on a team designing and managing complex concrete products for a large company. What a difference from flying sorties from the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier!

    Your post also caused me to recall a distant experience of my own. When I was a high-school senior I was laid off of my job of some three or four years as a stock boy, merchandise labeler, janitor, toilet cleaner and part-time clerk at the J.C. Penney store and found a new job for the remaining few months before graduation working for a company that sold burial plots. There were about half a dozen salesmen who would phone me their sales to record, and I would do other random paperwork. It was evening work (for some reason) and on slack days the salesmen would gather in the office, crack dirty jokes and play poker. I found the contrast with my previous job quite odd – it had been both physically and socially challenging and now there was . . . boredom and a view of men with unchallenging lives. The experience offered a view of life I had never even thought of as possible for myself. I was looking at the butterfly effect and the alternatives were myriad.


    • Archon's Den says:

      The post seemed *interesting* enough when I wrote it, but last night when I published it, I wondered who, aside from me, would truly find it so. It’s rewarding to see that, at least a couple of people were caused to reflect on the *how we got here* past.


  2. Oh, the fun of being the security guard. I did it for a short time between jobs, too. Nowhere near as much fun. But at my first job, which was one of several Ameritech buildings, was staffed by a cleaning crew who were under STRICT orders not to talk to employees. One night I pulled a 24-hour shift, co-ordinating loading and transfer of a data tape to one of our clients. Scared the cleaning lady half to death! Took a bit, but she finally warmed up to me. From that day on, whenever a group of us would be around late, the automatic lights would shut off – but would magically turn back on with a yelled “sorry!” if I was there. My co-workers never DID figure that one out! 😀
    And A VERY Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, to both your lovely wife (my stand in grandma) and to you, my dear Grand…… fellow blogger! (Gotcha!) 😉


  3. Archon's Den says:

    My son also did plant and office security at a small firm for a while. At six foot-two and 270lbs. he would seem as quiet and inconspicuous as Rant’s limo, but in fact can give sneaking-up lessons to the cats. At least twice he STARTLED the little Portuguese cleaning lady, who was half his size. He says he Thinks the floor was damp because she was mopping. Also, carpeted floors and dry winter air, he used to get sparks off doorknobs, big enough to power Fresno. Learned to carry his keys and let the lightning arc to them.


  4. Loved the pop can on the window ledge. Villain the Vile couldn’t have done better.


  5. Archon's Den says:

    I just don’t remember Villiain being 43. During one of our discussions, the wife accused me of being a Peter Pan, never really growing up. And my spirited defense was, Buh, buh,….Yeah,….Okay.


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