Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Job Journal: Assistant, Hodges Library, UT

The United States workforce is represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: those who plan on keeping their job for the long haul, and those who are biding their time before becoming the Next Big Thing. These are stories from the second group.

Job: Student Assistant, Hodges Library, University of Tennessee

Duration: 11 months

Year: 2001

My boss at the library was Al. I have no idea what his last name was. He didn't need one. Not like he was one of the most gregarious characters in East Tennessee and everyone from Chattanooga to Johnson City knew who you meant when you said Al. More like he was incredibly peculiar and I had my doubts he was borne of woman, so why would he have a last name?

Al was in his 60s. I'm pretty sure he had only ever worked in libraries. For all I know, he had only ever worked on the fourth floor of Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee. He was a skinny turtle. Slight hump in his shoulders, head pushed forward, bald head and sloping nose. He had a soft, deliberate voice with a Tennessee accent. He was from a small town. I know this because he regaled us with a story from his childhood of a gang of youths who went around town throwing axes. He said they had no problem with him, but one time threw an axe into a door by his head. In any city, this sort of behavior would land the youths in jail and on the front page. In a small Tennessee town, it was only met with the sort of boys-will-be-axe-throwing-boys chuckle Al had in his voice when he told the story as my fellow assistants and I looked at each other, horrified.

Al was perfectly suited for the job, which, as I described, could be mind-numbingly tedious. He never waivered, physically or mentally. He always moved at the same steady, deliberate pace (though I doubt he won any races), and he never seemed upset. Never seemed very happy either. His version of small talk was pacing past me and simply naming the day of the week. "Tuesday," he'd say in his soft Tennessee drawl. Indeed, Al, it is in fact Tuesday. How do you feel about that? I have no idea. Once, he got a drink from the water fountain. He stood up and walked away, saying to no one in particular "That water was terrible," with the exact same tone he'd use to state the day of the week. I would occasionally get lost in the study carrolls by the windows and take a quick nap. My spidey-sense was too slow one day, and I heard his shambling zombie step too late. He caught me with my head down, and simply said "if you want to take a break, you should go to the break room." For all I know, he was barely containing a murderous rage at my transgression. Or he wished he could take a nap too.

The break room could be a bleak affair. On the top floor of the library, it was actually beautiful. Roof access, plenty of comfy seats, a fantastic view south of the stadium, the river, and the Smokies. But also, Al. Sometimes we would take lunch at the same time, and have exactly nothing to say to each other. Much like large bodies create a well of gravity around themselves, Al created a well of absolute ambivalence. I couldn't muster the willpower to say anything.

When my mind would wander in the stacks, I'd daydream about breaking bad news to him. "Al, I just ran over your dog." "Al, I just drop-kicked your sister off the roof." "Al, I'm raping you at this very moment." I didn't think these things out of any ill-will for the man. I just wondered how he'd respond. I could imagine no reaction but "Hmm, that's too bad. Thursday."

When I was "promoted" to keep the sixth floor in order by myself, I didn't see Al any more. I did start to understand how he came to be that way. The library was his own hermitage, just as the sixth floor had become mine. My walk slowed. My thoughts slowed. Had I not gone home for Christmas break and left the job, I could have taken his place eventually. I like to think he's still there, pacing slowly, naming days of the week and fondly remembering the sociopathic axe-throwing denizens of his youth.

Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he's an actor and writer.

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