Wednesday, September 7, 2011

365 Jobs: Swing Shift, St. Louis


Residential construction work doesn't usually have "shifts" as in day, swing, and night shift.  I've done evening and even late-night construction projects, but the occasional job isn't the same as shift work. 

Shift work is an alternate world.  It makes you an outsider.  In business, shift work defines you as Labor.  Management — the suits — work days.  In personal affairs, it takes you outside the rhythm of normal life.  You sleep at odd times.  You shop and play when most people are working.

Swing shift is the twilight realm.  It begins in daylight just as the suits are heading for the parking lot, then grows progressively more ... strange.

In the 1960's while I was in college I took a full-time swing shift job.  I was operating a primitive computer that with peripheral equipment filled an entire room but had less brainpower than the cell phone I carry today.  The work was:
    Mostly physical.
    Easy money.
The computer was located in a mental hospital in St. Louis.  Wires ran to an electroencephalograph which was attached, via more wires, to the head of a patient who had received a dose of the drug-of-the-day, sometimes LSD.  Through the computer an EEG would be plotted while a clunky printer would chock out numbers. 

Meanwhile, the patient was supposed to be sleeping.  When the drug was LSD the subject rarely wanted to sleep and sometimes had to be strapped down.  Have a nice trip.

Giving LSD to crazy people was, um, unhelpful to their mental health.  This was obvious to everybody except the doctor who was conducting the experiment.  By 1969 he certainly should have known better.  Fortunately I rarely had to interact with the patients except when they wandered into the computer room with wires dangling from their heads.

Siv, a college classmate of mine and a free-spirited soul, had recommended me for the job even though I had absolutely no experience operating a computer.  "You'll learn it in an hour," she said.  "I did."

She was right.

"It's like entering an alternate world," she said.

She was right about that, too.

When Siv moved up to programming, the operating position opened.  Siv's boss, Tammi, thought I looked a bit ... scruffy.  I'd showed up for the interview wearing flip-flops and sporting scandalously long hair that almost reached my eyebrows.  Plus a beard.  Tammi agreed to hire me, on one condition: "You have to wear shoes."

Tammi was a good-looking 30-year-old virgin.  She was the suit in our wing of the hospital and indeed she often wore actual suits.  Of course she worked a conventional day shift and appeared to be a conventional midwesterner. 

Tammi had a boyfriend named Roy who was becoming a little frustrated.  One time Tammi asked Siv, "Do you really do all those ... married things ... with your husband?"

"Uh-huh," Siv said.

"How do you stand it?"

Siv, of course, told me.  Siv was still a student like me.  To accommodate her classes, Siv worked a schedule that overlapped the end of day shift and the beginning of swing, so she stayed in touch with both worlds.

Another time Tammi asked Siv, "Before you met your husband did you ever do ... those things ... to yourself?"

"Every night," Siv said.

"Okay," Tammi said.

"Okay what?" Siv asked.

Tammi changed the subject.

Later Tammi broke up with Roy.  Siv said Tammi became much easier to work with.  Maybe some people are just meant to be single.  Or different.  Maybe Tammi should try swing shift.

One patient, Bonnie, was mute.  She had curly hair, a cute face, and never spoke except to giggle.  Bonnie was at home in the foggy realm of swing shift.  She wasn't a subject of the experiment but seemed to have free run of the hospital, sort of like a trustee in a prison.  As a teenage girl she could approach a man, run her hands up and down his arm, and flash a wicked grin.  Doors seemed to magically open. 

Bonnie was sweet on Johnny.  A Vietnam Vet with a Tennessee accent, Johnny was supposed to be monitoring the experimental subject of the night while the subject in turn was supposed to be sleeping.  Nights when Bonnie came around, subjects tended to go unmonitored for a while. 

Johnny smoked marijuana on the job and talked about Pee Eye (Philippine Island) whores.  He said they were the most loyal women in the world.  I tried to convince Johnny that he shouldn't mess around with Bonnie who was after all a mental patient — and jailbait — but Johnny had a somewhat ... detached ... attitude.  You never knew whether he actually heard anything you said, though he'd talk a blue streak about whatever was on his own mind — usually pickup trucks or Pee Eye adventures.  Never 'Nam.  That subject was closed.

One day, the same day when Bonnie was discharged, Johnny without warning didn't show up for work.  Nobody at the hospital ever heard from them again.  It's an incomplete story for which I can imagine many endings, some good, some bad, all passing through the twilight realm.

Working swing shift, I'd ride my bike after classes from the Washington University campus through Forest Park.  In the late afternoon I'd pedal through the little insular neighborhoods on the south side of St. Louis, brick row houses, mothers on stoops, kids playing ball.  I loved it. 

Before the Interstate was complete I'd cross Route 66, Gravois Avenue, at a traffic light where the long-distance trucks and overstuffed station wagons were trapped — puzzled, or simply furious — among city traffic. 

Most nights, after running a few punchcard programs through the card reader, I could study for uninterrupted hours — and get paid for it — with occasional breaks to change paper in the printer or reboot the temperamental IBM 1620 CPU.  Every two minutes the printer would go chock-chock, printing two more lines of numbers which presumably explained what was happening in the patient's brain while the CalComp plotter would go scritch-scratch, placing another line on the graph.

After midnight, I'd ride home through those same little neighborhoods, each with its own ethnic group — all white, this being the south side — Italian, German, or hillbilly — with its own little tavern and its own little grocery.  Then I'd pedal among the amazing stillness and fog-halo lights of Forest Park to the tougher streets of the north side where I had cheap rent.  I lived above a liquor store on Delmar Avenue in a black neighborhood.

Working swing shift in the relative isolation of a computer room in a mental hospital, you start to feel somewhat removed from the real world.  Returning after midnight through city streets, you feel like an alien, an observer.  Which, as a writer, I was. 

Note: For another brush with LSD experiments, go to "Plumbing and LSD."

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