The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Graveyard Shift, Tilt-slab Ghetto, Mountain View


For three years I worked the graveyard shift.  Again I was operating computers, this time running a hospital information system in Mountain View, California.  The hospitals that employed us didn't appreciate the g-word, so when the suits were around we tried to remember to call it "night shift."  Mostly we forgot, and mostly the suits were scared to mess with us because graveyard workers tend to be cranky, anti-social — and hard to replace. 

I was one of a half dozen unshaven, badly dressed, all male crew operating a gaggle of computers, printers, tape drives, disk drives, and a decollating machine from midnight to dawn.  In the hospitals that we served, no doubt each night had drama: babies born, heroic surgery, blood spilled, and last breaths sighed — but we had no idea.  In our sealed climate-controlled empire, the only drama came from the little TV in the decollating room. 

The decollator took a printout on five-part paper and separated it into five stacks of one-part paper while disposing of the carbons between each layer.  Though noisy, dirty, and dull, the decollating job was popular because it kept you in front of the TV.  One of the San Jose stations ran three or four old black-and-white movies every night interrupted by Dodge commercials and a corny host who would urge people not to commit suicide.  Apparently it really bugged him that so many people killed themselves while watching his flicks. 

In my three years on graveyard I got an education in the oeuvres of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stuart.  Everybody on graveyard could quote most of the good lines in, say, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  We'd drop what we were doing and gather to cheer the grapefruit-in-the-face scene in The Public Enemy.

For some workers, graveyard was temporary — an entry level, or a final demotion.  They soon moved on, or out.  For others, it was a lifestyle.  For myself, I took graveyard for the 10% salary bonus and the short hours.  We worked a six and a half hour shift from 12:30 to 7 a.m. with no scheduled breaks — although in actuality we took breaks all the time. 

We never left the building — why would we?  This wasn't North Beach.  This was a tilt-slab Silicon Ghetto.  If you aren't familiar with tilt-slab, it's a valid and useful construction method.  Concrete walls are formed and poured flat on the building site, then lifted — tilted by cranes — into an upright position, quick and cheap.  The result is a rock-solid structure, though ugly and lifeless.  Perfect for computer work.


At midnight I'd strap lights onto my legs and ride my old red Raleigh bike through the Stanford campus and the sleepy streets of south Palo Alto to the tilt-slab ghetto in Mountain View.  The ten mile ride at night was peaceful and meditative except when I got mooned by three men in a convertible or the time I got ambushed by water balloons near the campus.  Mornings, I'd ride home in the rising sun as drivers sipped coffee waiting at red lights.

Maintaining a marriage took some adjustments.  The moods didn't mesh.  I'd arrive home feeling chatty and wired just as my wife was groggily trying to wake up.  Or likewise she'd come home charged up from her day job just as I was awaking grouchy and stupid.

Days off were equally out of sync.  When my wife was off I'd try to stay up all day, which was the equivalent of taking an all-nighter.  On my days off I couldn't sleep at night, though I tried.  I'd take walks at 3 a.m. feeling like a criminal skulking the empty streets.  Many nights off, I'd take my dog walking into the summer-dry foothills to return at dawn reeking of pennyroyal and sage.  One night, walking across the Stanford golf course, the sprinklers suddenly came on.  I tore off my clothes and streaked the course, my dog and I, wet and joyous and totally alone.

In the winter rains I'd hang out at all-night restaurants.  At Kazu's Koffee Kup I shared a few silent breakfasts at the counter with pro football quarterback Jim Plunkett of all people.  He was an early riser.  We had an unspoken agreement: I'd never ask him about football, and he'd always borrow my sports section, The Sporting Green.  For some reason he never seemed to buy a newspaper.  Later I learned his father had been a news vendor with progressive blindness.

Other nights, I'd just sit at my desk and write.  I'd listen to country music.  I loved all-night trucker's radio from KOB Albuquerque.  I felt akin to the long-haul drivers all over the West.  A lot of that trucker vibe found its way into the novel I was writing, Famous Potatoes.

I became a friend of the night sounds: the distant freight train, the chuk-chuk of sprinklers, the owl perched in the oak outside my study.  From a hilltop of the cow pasture across the street from my cottage, I watched the winking of radio towers and descending lights of airplanes, the blackness of the San Francisco Bay ringed by silent street lamps.  I became a friend of the sunrise: the purple sky, the slowly surging energy of suburban flatlands as cars filled the streets and children walked to school.

Sunrise over Stanford

After 3 years of graveyard, my brain and body started sending unmistakable messages that all boiled down to this: Stop fucking with your circadian rhythm.  Besides, I'd seen all those movies 2 or 3 times.  I could have donned a necktie and switched to day shift, but for me the day culture at a computer shop would be a disaster.  For better or worse, I was solidly counterculture.

Meanwhile I wanted to get out of the easy money and easy work of computer operation and into something harder, something that seemed more real to me: building stuff.  Construction, repair and rehab.  A lot of people would consider it a downward career move, like a banker choosing  to be a welder.  For me it seemed right.  My wife was pregnant.  I wanted to work with my hands in a life that allowed for time off, for raising a child, for working part time so my wife could also work at a job she loved.  If I didn't get out of computers now, I'd never escape.

The day I gave notice, they took it kindly.  In fact, everybody said the same thing: "I'd like to get out of data processing, too."  On my last night, they gave me going-away presents of all my favorite things: a jar of peanut butter, a bag of peanut butter cookies, a box of It's-Its, a six-pack of Coors.

For the last time I rode my bike home as the sun rose. 

Late in the afternoon I woke up depressed.  To my surprise it was suddenly clear to me that I liked that job.  I'd come back part time if I couldn't find enough construction work. 

Graveyard screws up your life but it gets in your blood.  How weird.  I was going to miss it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment