"Do you remember me?"
"What's my name?"
"It starts with an S!"
"Sam? Sean? No—Steven?"
All along the smoothie line, the same tittering and banter. Drama by the mozz sticks (“Only if you come with us to BG!”) and more by the register. A boy in a pink polo stands by the salad bar, eyes glazed. Across the room, a group of girls in dark boots and transparent blouses gather by the soda machine. They discuss their outfits in urgent sopranos, their thin shirts shifting under the fan.
“What made you come all the way up to Hanover?” I ask Igor as we wrap up desserts for the night.
Igor is a manager at Late Night. An immigrant from Kazakhstan, he stands eye-to-eye with me at 5'3. He's been teaching me Russian all term; small things like “You are my friend” and “world.” After seven hours of work, he still moves energetically around the cafe, lifting metal pots of pho broth and marinara sauce and throwing empty, clashing metal containers down the dumb-waiter.
“I'm a glass blower,” he says, fixing me with a blue stare.
I stop. “A glass blower? What the hell are you doing working here?”
Igor laughs. “I came to work for Simon Pearce; then I got laid off, then I came here.” When I continue to gape, he smiles and then goes back to packing whoopie pies into plastic containers.
Some other night, he'll tell me that he started blowing glass at the age of seventeen back in Kazakhstan, and that he fell in love with it when he visited a glass blowing studio while looking for jobs. That he visited the studio every single week until they finally told him that he could work for them.
“Whale tails,” he says when I ask him what he likes to make out of glass. “Sometimes I make just, you know, the tail. Sometimes I make a vase or a bowl. Clear, no color.” If Igor didn't have to worry about money, he would open his own glass blowing studio. He has some equipment but nowhere near the amount of money he needs to continue his art.
“And before Simon Pearce?” I ask and move from whoopie pies to raspberry-filled macaroons.
Igor puts down his tongs. “Before that, I carved fruit and vegetable displays for a gourmet restaurant in New York.”
Judy, another Late Night employee, shakes her head and we both laugh in disbelief. When Judy's not working at Late Night, she runs her own daycare—a daycare that sometimes doubles as a protective service for kids about to be sent to a foster home; a safe house. She says the kids “keep her young” and she loves it. This is her fourteenth year running the daycare.
“Have I shown you my website?” Igor takes out his phone. Photos of his work cover the screen: cantaloupe lilies, asters made from clementines. Watermelons carved into pale green roses that deepen into dark pink and violet.
“They're beautiful,” I say.
“Thank you.” Igor smiles and pockets his phone. “We Will Rock You” comes on the radio, Igor does a little dance, and we resume our work.
Mollie and I are stuck on milkshake duty. There must be some trick to it, but after only a few hours of scooping ice cream, frozen fruit, and chocolate chips, my wrists ache.
From above the whir of the blender, I can hear small snatches of conversation as students wait.
“What do you think about her?”
“At least Jane's consistently fake.”
The vanilla ice cream swirls into brown as the chocolate blends, then slightly pink as strawberries are whipped into smithereens.
“Yeah, she's pretty dece.”
The blender stops and I hand two boys their milkshakes. When I lift my head, they look startled: I'm a Dartmouth student. Someone who might know Jane.
“Thanks.” There's a pause as the boys scrutinize my features. Do I look familiar? They walk away, sipping their milkshakes, and continue their discussion.
“Sometimes I hate it,” Sarah told me one night. “It's a Wednesday night, people are drunk. And they're, like, stealing food, and they're trying to sneak out the back door.”
Upstairs, it's mayhem. Igor is running the cafe alone because, like many nights, we are understaffed. A girl drops a cup of water and while Igor wipes it up, another group of girls walk out the back door without paying.
“That boy in the white shirt already had two mozz sticks,” Igor mutters to me as I get on the register. “And that other one in the blue sweater, he's just eating cookies.”
“I can't eat anything because then I'll get fat,” a girl in a tight pencil skirt announces as she strides through the cafe.
“I'll get fat—no fatter. I haven't been under 120 pounds since I was vegan,” another girl says to her friend, her voiced slurred and bitter.
Two custodians, Scott and Tom, come in and get soda. We share a look as they observe the mess. Outside the cafe, the dining room is thundering with drunken laughter and loud chatter. Pasta smears the wooden floor next to a coagulated mess of pink smoothie. Greasy trash sits on almost every table. Half-finished drinks, sticky napkins, and marinara stained plates are all over the dining room, left by students to be picked up later.
When one thirty finally comes around, Sarah and I almost have to push students out the door.
“We're closed!” we yell. Students, realizing that we've locked the back door, run around to the other side.
“But someone stole my quesadilla!” A tall boy in a yellow shirt pouts against the glass.
“Sorry, we're closed.” I turn away and start to clean up the salad bar.
The boy paces by the door, periodically stopping to bang his fist against the glass, and doesn't stop until almost two AM.
I pass Tom in the hallway. I wave at him enthusiastically with my whole arm and he laughs, gives me a gruff, “How ya doin'?”, before continuing to limp down the hallway. He strained his back a few weeks ago at work and has hip problems. Since they've been understaffed all term, all the custodians have been working six days a week and Tom hasn't had the time to let things heal. When he does have free time, he likes to spend it by the river, trout fishing and drinking beer.
“Wait!” Sarah stops me just as I cock my wrist to throw a Coke can into the recycling bin.
“I save these.” She takes the can from me and starts to rinse it out. “Sometimes you can get five cents for them, depending on the kind.” Sarah also works six days a week. Like most Late Night employees, she starts work at six and doesn't get out until three in the morning on most nights. Last week, she worked fifty-two hours—I'm not sure how. She has thin, black braces on her wrists, elbows, and shoulders, and wakes up in pain almost every morning.
Downstairs, Scott pushes a car-sized cart full of trash bags. “I had to dig through the trash for somebody's purse today,” he says, weary after another long Friday night. Up until a few months ago, Scott worked at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center setting casts. Since he got laid off, he's been working here with Tom.
“If I didn't have to worry about money, I'd spend more time with my daughter,” Scott says. “And I'd definitely go to more concerts. And I'd start taking my family to Six Flags again.” He pauses for a second and then grins. “And, I'd travel somewhere outside the country.”
Tonight is later than usual. I leave Collis around 3:15. Scott and Tom wave good-bye as I leave—they have just about an hour left to clean the rest of the building. The other Late Night employees go their separate ways as I unlock my bike and head towards the library, towards home.
Image credit: Gavin Huang
Originally published in The Dartmouth Radical, November 2012.