THE NIGHT WATCHMAN
Sergo, an immigrant with six kids and a wife back home needed to work to feed his family. He has been in the US for two months and just landed his first job. He had to go through the process of obtaining a social security card and had been going to a number of places applying for any position, porter, maintenance, orderly. He was excited about his first position except it was a night job. Not a night owl, he tended to fall asleep quickly around ten in the evening and was a sound sleeper. Shift started at eleven, one hour past bed time. However, he accepted it in a heartbeat. Job description was simple: be awake the whole time on duty, no exception, walk around, check that exit doors were locked, alarm was turned on, inspect the grounds with a fixed schedule. One break of thirty minutes, his own time, off duty. Performance vs unemployment. One week of grace. He would be trained by another watchman. Five consecutive nights and then off two, two weekends a month at a nursing home.
Staying awake on the job versus unemployment; food on the table versus an empty belly, he kept repeating to himself. He has been rooming with a distant relative and feeling uncomfortable not yet able to contribute financially to the expenses. As it was, he had already accumulated quite a bit of debt just to live. His first paycheck would most likely go toward paying his debts. His budget was very tight. He had to watch each penny.
Night one. He trained with a fellow from Martinique, Roland. They spent the first couple of hours together and he was let loose. Roland taught him what and how, and advised him to call in case of any question. The both spoke Creole. Ever the survivor, Sergo brought along a thermos filled with hot coffee and drank a cup each hour to keep him awake. Thermos for six cups for shift spanning eight hours. Dilution of his last two cups with hot water was the solution. No dozing off. The watchman he was replacing, was let go for that reason. Just thinking about it gave him cold sweats and trepidation.
Despite drinking the coffee, staying up was a struggle. Hours seemed to trickle. 2 AM was torture. His eyelids reflexively wanted to shut but he knew better. For a millisecond, he wanted to give in; in a battle for the ages, he fought hard, opened a window on and off to let fresh air blow in. He washed his face several times with cold water and forced himself to keep walking, even pacing the floor rather than sitting down. He had refrained from taking a nap during his break, knowing full well he would have slept for the remainder of the shift. He was hungry but didn’t bring any food. He had to survive the first night or else. 7AM didn’t come soon enough. Night one was close to nightmare. He barely survived it.
His second night was cold. Winter was on the horizon. One more hassle. Cold averse, shivering in a minute. He stuffed himself. Yet, his toes, nose, ears hurt intensely on exposure to the elements when he made his rounds of the grounds. Paradoxically he started sweating and felt the need to open the coat, only to feel a cold draft suffocating him. Besides wakefulness, proper insulation for duties performance was another addition to the list or else… His ordeal with the weather seemed to have prevailed over his somnolence. His second night was even worse than the first. The biting cold brought tears to his eyes; the reality of his family back home depending on him kept him going.
Ever the survivor, he inquired from Roland about the proper gear to wear and keep comfy. He learned about thermals. An unexpected expense but a necessity, not an option. He borrowed money and he bought thermals, insulating socks and a beanie. On his third night, he immediately noticed a difference. With thermals, no need of heavy covers; scarf over nose for complete protection. Third night so far was the easiest. Somnolence was less of an issue. His hot coffee was handy.
Fourth night begat another problem, understanding questions on the walkie-talkie. He had yet to master English. English fluency, good insulation, wakefulness, performance or else… Mastering the language was a sine qua non for keeping the job. What to do? Roland suggested a bilingual dictionary, ESL adult night classes.
Going to night classes, then catching bus and be punctual; lateness was not acceptable. Bus stops in frigid weather, another hardship; class textbook, another expense. Another hassle to go to the school to enroll in the English class. Finding bus fare to and from school. More debt piling on.
On the fifth day, adjustment continued. He kept looking at images with words underneath them. He had yet to master pronunciation, a very tall order, the most stressful obstacle so far. Fortunately, a lot of the co-workers were themselves foreigners and sympathized with him, giving him some leeway. When obvious he didn’t understand spoken language, face-to-face gestures while talking seemed to help. Telling him a word and asking him to repeat it helped build his vocabulary. Learning the ropes was occurring progressively. There was something palpable in the air, things seemed to be taking place at a more fluid pace, people seemed to engage him a bit more spontaneously and seemed to be smiling.
He would soon make a remarkable discovery: he became an accepted member of the clan, having survived the week and proven his mettle. In what amounted to an induction, he received an open invitation to get some coffee from the pot always brewing at the lounge. That was part of the culture of working the graveyard shift. Without him knowing, the staff was watching him from afar and up close. His demeanor, his mannerisms all played in the evaluation. Being polite and friendly weighed heavily. He no longer had to worry about his coffee ration. They would allow him to sit and take a break during his rounds from now on. That night for the first time the staff offered him to share their prepared food. So long as he was not asleep, he could rest at the nurse’s station for five or ten minutes without any supervisor’s fuss, he also found out. Limited leniency, part of a bag of tricks shared among clan members. He had to do whatever it took to keep the job, he kept reminding himself.
Day sixth, he was off. He survived the week. He still had a job he could perform. His major stumbling block was his English learning curve. A long arc to be tackled on a day-to-day basis but he was a survivor. Failure was not an option. He was a member of a special group of individuals uprooting themselves from their homeland to find a better livelihood, willing to do menial jobs the average native citizen was not willing to do. One of the many spokes of the economic wheel.
Then as well as now, two years later, his learning curve with English was still a struggle as he was reminiscing about his first week on the job while training another watchman and teaching him the ropes.