Thursday, August 26, 2004

Madman With Muscles

The Working Class On Campus

You may have reason to know, as I do, that the working class at a university ostensibly concerned with higher learning and the finer things of our culture are still just the working class. The University treats them no better—in fact, not even as well, for the private sector generally pays better. The State is always trying to squeeze by on a stingy little budget. In TV ads, the University romps and stomps about being a Fine Place to send your children, but they don't do many of the things that they teach.

The University's a business, just like any other, except that they never make a profit. So the heads of this paralyzed corporation do the obvious and pay as little as possible to the regular salaried employees. In addition, they are always scouring the jailbird work programs and the various halfway house residents for possible manual laborers and other workers. I don't know why, but it has always shocked me that an institution of higher learning was not any better than the kind of local businesses who would have been happy to have bribed the jailers so they could get that "free" prison labor for their own use. But State agencies don't usually have to bribe other State agencies.

Chain Gang Crews

What the University usually got was a cleanup crew consisting of men who still owed a little bit of time to the County Jail. Not hardened criminals, it was rationalized by University administrators. I never could decide if it was a good sign or a bad one that one or two armed deputies always accompanied the workers. Just being cautious, I guess. I wonder how many daddies knew they were spending a fortune to send their daughters to a jailhouse university that imports its own criminal element?

Halfway House Blues

The other main category of cheap labor was the halfway house residents. They were not paid less, but it was easier to fill those low-paying positions from a labor pool under duress not to be sent back to an institution. They were often men who had suffered some major disturbances in their lives. There was Clarence Cadberry. In 1980, he was a man in his fifties, very mild-mannered, hardly ever speaking to anyone unless spoken to. He was reputed to have killed his wife 10 years prior to his release to the halfway house. (Reputed, I say, because I wasn't going to go up to him and ask him about it.) We were getting him fresh out of the funny farm, I guess. He admitted that he was heavily medicated all the time. He was thus employed with us for 3 or 4 years, then one day disappeared. He'd never misbehaved at work. I heard once or twice that he'd failed to show up on schedule at the halfway house, so maybe they sent him back to the mental institution "for his own good".

The Boogie Man

Maybe he had some unpleasant incident at the Home, similar to that of Howard, a strong young man who worked in the welding shop, mostly fixing the lawn mowers and other small motors. Howard came to us from the same halfway house after Mr. Cadberry had come and gone. Howard seemed like he could have been very likeable, except that his demeanor was just a tad on the Norman Bates side. He had that unemotional stare down pat, except when he was fixing something—then he looked furious. If it was HIS job, he was going to get it done NOW! He approached each fixit job in a hurry, as if it was an enemy that he was determined to push, pull, or pound into submission. Because we liked him, we just dismissed all that Norman Bates business from our minds. I guess we pretended he was more of a Boo Radley type of Boogie Man (the timid recluse in the book and movie, "To Kill A Mockingbird").


Once, standing in the paved work yard during a slow period, he calmly recounted an incident in which he was shot at in the woods when he was younger. He'd hit the dirt quickly, but was able to shoot back at the movement he'd detected in some tall grass. I was amazed to hear him talk so much about anything, but this was a creepy story, too, not just an unexpected one. He knew he was a good shot, he told us without much expression, and he never heard any further sound. He hid for a long time, stretched out silently in a ditch and listening, then carefully slunk away. He left that area of the state the next day and never heard or tried to hear whether anyone had been wounded or killed. He didn't want to know. He believed he'd killed whoever had fired the shot at him, though. He was very calm telling the story, perhaps because he was always on heavy tranquilizers (I had once heard him mention Thorazine as one of his medications.) He was therefore generally calm. I think if he'd cut off a finger, he would not have been overly emotive—he would have just gripped it to slow the bleeding until somebody came to help.

The Hammer

But then one day Howard picked up a hammer and beat the utter crap out of a coworker. Howard got mad when the other guy started yelling at him and crowding him into a corner. I was told that Howard used the wooden end of the hammer to smack him with, but still gave the guy quite a beating. Howard was a very strong young man.

Greenson, the irritating coworker, was just that type, I thought at the time. A troublemaker. He always had bad judgment. But he drank a good bit and I'd guess that he didn't even have any interest in good judgment most days. If he hadn't been a bad-tempered fool, he and Howard might have both kept their jobs. But the University had a policy against fighting, no matter how it started, and both workers were fired.

I think Greenson would have eventually been fired anyway, if only for chronic absenteeism. On the other hand, Howard might not have lasted long, either—he might have hammered somebody's head that wasn't as hard as Greenson's and killed him. (Not me, I thought. It may not have been true, but I thought I knew how to smile and kiss up to a madman with muscles!) Not caring much for drunks, it was my fantasy that maybe he'd have killed one of the many drunks that the University kept off the streets by hiring them at low wages to operate equipment and dangerous power tools on campus. When sober, some of the higher-functioning drunks were quite skilled carpenters, mechanics, and so forth. But that's another story.

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