Violet

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from RC Tolman papers. Photo by Meg Rosenburg (@trueanomalies). Used with permission.

 

                         Half hidden from the eye!

 

The poets know that rage and sleeplessness are close bedfellows. Modernism didn’t invent this relationship, though its poets may have articulated the connection most clearly. Yeats’s 8-line poem “The Choice” imagines that to choose perfection “of the work” (as opposed to “perfection of the life”) is to inherit “A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark” — “heavenly,” perhaps, because the rewards (if any) of such work are of the spirit, not entailing earthly reward at all. In Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle to his father (a poem featured prominently in one of this year’s blockbuster movies, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar [2014]), rage is posited as the last refuge of the living, the force that spiritually if not temporally and biologically divides life from death. The imperative of Thomas’s famous refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” is a call to resist Sleep in the name of Rage. That both poems are written in antique, heavily patterned forms — Thomas’s villanelle, Yeats’s Ottava rima — may tell us something about how modernism handled rage, or about how rage can be handled in poetry at all. Form may contain rage and give it an “appropriate” outlet. But form also gives rage (raging) a voice.

2014’s Summer of Rage, punctuated by Gaza bombings and several police murders of unarmed black men, found me in a rage along with many others in this country and abroad — in a rage, and mostly sleepless. When Ferguson, Missouri erupted with the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, the protests were nightly. So too were the arrests, firing of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, use of LRADs in civilian neighborhoods — every civil rights abuse and instance of State violence imaginable, all being played out evenings in middle America, available for view online (but almost exclusively there). And I could not sleep. Someone on Twitter called my time spent on that platform, tweeting and mostly retweeting news from Ferguson, a vigil. I was grateful for a term that gave to my actions what felt like an unearned dignity and purpose. There didn’t seem to be any purpose in my activity. It was sleeplessness merely, fueled by rage — tears, and rage.

I met Violet in that period of uncontained, formless rage. In those late summer nights she was virtually the only Institute employee I would encounter on campus. Around 1 am she would appear on the hallway where my office is located; she would work there an hour or two before moving to another floor in the building. She found me bewildered, horrified, distracted, raging, indisposed. She found me; we spoke briefly, and she moved on. She looked like she knew what I was doing even if I didn’t.

From a few conversations in August I gleaned a few facts about Violet. She lives in a suburb 30 miles away from campus. Like most MIT employees, she pays for own parking — despite the fact that most employees have long left campus by the time her shift comes around. Her job was to dispose of waste in the offices, classrooms, and hallways, polish floors, and perform other light maintenance tasks. Over the course of a decade or so, the Facilities staff that sees to Building 14 (“the Humanities building” on campus) has been rolled back. Five janitors used to work the building. Today, two do. On their shoulders fell the daily cleaning and maintenance of a building with over 142K of useable square feet.

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4th floor, Building 14, MIT

I wonder how many readers who work in higher education — and if you’re reading this blog, chances are reasonably good that you do — can name a janitor at their college or university. If you can’t, as I suspect most university employees and affiliates can’t (and as I couldn’t until August), it may be because the janitors and their labor are all but invisible. Perhaps you met or became acquainted with a member of your university’s janitorial staff because you once found yourself sleepless and burning the midnight oil on campus, as I did. Whereas custodial staff at law firms, investment firms, and many other corporate offices work afternoons and evenings or throughout the day, university janitors often work nights as a matter of course. At MIT, this arrangement is codified on the Facilities website as a basic amenity provided by the Institute to its faculty and researchers: “Most cleaning is conducted during evening and night shifts to minimize potential disruptions.” University janitors, paid to make waste and various messes disappear, are made and paid to disappear themselves.

Adjunct professors have been called “spectral figures” on campus, and with reason. They are visible to the students they teach (during class hours, at least), but invisible to virtually every other campus community, and excluded from the possession of rights and privileges that other members of the community enjoy. With janitorial staff one is dealing even more obviously with a largely invisible population, similarly deprived rights and privileges granted to others on campus. The rare moments when these underpaid forms of campus labor are made more visible to the wider community are typically in periods of labor dispute. And how visible the existing conditions of janitorial or adjunct labor become will often depend to a high degree on the engagement of students, others on campus, or the general public.

If you doubt the efficacy of student activism mobilizing for a cause on campus, I wish you would read about the Justice for Janitors movement participated in by Harvard students and members of the Occupy movement on behalf of Harvard janitors in 2011-12. Justice for Janitors is a decades-long movement of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), with major successes in L.A., Houston, and elsewhere. In November 2011 Harvard janitors employed by UNICCO (one of the largest employers of custodial staff in the area) voted to strike. With the help of students and other community members the janitorial staff won a new contract with support for child care, tuition assistance, and four weeks paid vacation time, among other benefits. Wayne M. Langley, President of SEIU Local 615, which represented the striking employees, represented the decision as a remarkable victory for the 99%: “With the help of the students at Harvard, janitors were able to close the gap between the rich and the poor, a success that should be nationally replicated.” At an Adjunct Action event I attended in Boston in April 2013 (Adjunct Action operates under the SEIU), the renegotiated contract on behalf of Harvard janitors was pointed to as a success story that the adjunct faculty of the area should wish to emulate.

This was not a new battleground for Harvard students in 2011, the year of Occupy. Harvard was the scene of similar protests for janitors almost a decade earlier: at a protest event in 2002, four Harvard students were arrested in Boston while defending janitors’ rights (story). At MIT the Justice for Janitors movement had some supporters too; see for instance this 2002 editorial in MIT’s student paper, The Tech. But without the concerted support of students, faculty, and other campus community members, there may be no pressure to stop employers and administrators from treating people like the waste they are paid to remove.

Postscript: I’ve meant to write this piece since those late August days — took some notes that I can’t find now; found myself coping with crisis; lost time; lost more. I return to the task as one who is bent to no apparent purpose but to fulfill a promise made to oneself and to no other. I haven’t seen Violet since late August; my last communication with her was a note left on my office door in early September.

violet
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