Odd Job: Nursing School Receptionist (Third Shift)

In the fall of 1981 my job at Godfather’s Pizza began to go from bad to worse. There had been a lot of turn over in the kitchen crew, and recently hired coworkers were mostly unmotivated. They stood and stared as the work piled up around them. I closed every night that I was scheduled, and jobs left unfinished eventually became my responsibility. And the new night manager wasn’t interested in running an efficient kitchen. She liked to play head games instead. She flirted around with me for about a month and dropped hints that there was a possibility for a relationship, but changed her mind abruptly and cut me cold. A few weeks later she began to hit on a young guy who had just started to work in the kitchen. One night she made a point of leaning against him, rubbing his arm and whispering to him while I stood a few feet away washing dishes. He should have been sweeping and mopping the floor, but he neglected his duties as she persisted in toying with his hair, holding his hand. My interest in the night manager had cooled long since, but she accused me of petty jealousy when I finally pointed out that her new boyfriend was, at that moment, supposed to be helping me clean and shut down the kitchen. She told me that I should start looking for a new place of employment if I wasn’t happy with my current job.

My friend Jack gave me an out. He worked as a third shift receptionist at Miami Valley Hospital at the nursing school dormitory. He told me that there was an opening on weekends and thought that he could fix me up. I was planning to go back to school to finish up my degree, but needed to keep working to pay rent and tuition. We figured out the yearly income by adding in weekend and third shift differentials, and it turned out that I could make more money working two nights a week at the hospital than I made working five days a week at the restaurant. I eagerly agreed to make the switch, interviewed for the job successfully, and gave my two weeks notice at Godfather’s.

I wasn’t supposed to start the new job until the second week in January when the nursing students came back from Christmas break, but I got a call on New Year’s Eve from a woman who worked the second shift. Her third shift replacement had called in sick, and she wanted me to fill in. I told her that I hadn’t been trained, but she didn’t seem that think that mattered. She said, “All you have to do is watch the monitors, answer the phone (not that anyone will be calling), and open the front door for visitors. You’ll have lots of quiet time. No one’s around right now.” I agreed to come in at 11:00. I brought along a used copy of “Moby Dick” and a thermos of coffee.

The receptionist’s desk sat in an open faced office off the lobby of the north entrance to Miami Valley hospital. A counter separated me from passersby. Mrs. Putterbaugh, an elderly, heavyset woman with white hair pulled back in a bun, explained my duties in greater detail. I was supposed to stare at security monitors that showed views of a back entrance to the dormitory and a tunnel that ran between the main hospital and the dormitory. If someone rang a buzzer at either location I would inspect them to see if they had legitimate business in the building, and if they passed muster I would hit a button to unlock a door to let them enter. The lobby door to my right was to be guarded in the same fashion. I answered outside phones calls and transferred them to the dormitory rooms upstairs, and answered internal calls from security. When the girls were in residence I also checked out recreational equipment. There were pool and ping pong tables in a rec room down the side hall. I was responsible for walking the dormitory floors at two a.m. to make sure that everything was in order and that visiting boyfriends had left the premises. I signed in visitors and called a girl’s room if her guest had not left by the curfew hour…The job sounded a bit fussy and pointless, but I was willing to get paid to mostly sit on my butt.

Nothing much happened for three hours. I occasionally opened the tunnel door to let nurses, doctors and medical aides come through. They walked past me without acknowledging my presence. It started to snow outside, and I felt cozy sitting at my desk until cold drafts began to seep under the lobby door. I turned up the knob on a space heater next to me, but had to turn it back down when I started to get drowsy. I drank coffee to wake up again, but then had to pee. A security guard came by at two a.m. He sat down at my desk and told me to go up five floors on the elevator nearest to the reception area. Floors five and six needed to be inspected. I walked up and down gray carpeted corridors with tan walls and fluorescent lights set in the ceiling. There were closed dorm rooms on either side. I passed a common area with a sink, stove, refrigerator and table, and smelled spoiled food on moldy, dirty dishes left on a counter. I saw a men’s bathroom on one of the floors and ducked into it to empty my bladder. I had been told that there were no scheduled bathroom breaks during a shift, and this was my only opportunity for relief that wouldn’t involve abandoning my post. The guard left immediately after I returned to my desk. At 6:55 my replacement arrived. She was another elderly woman. She had a wrinkly face, was thin and a little stooped. She kept her coat on, turned up the space heater in the office and lit a cigarette. She puffed on it in between taking sips of coffee from a brown mug, and she moaned and grumbled to herself as she waited for her blood to warm up. I fled as soon as the clock on the office wall read 7:00.

The job became more eventful when the nursing students returned from their Christmas break. The telephone lines lit up from 11 to 12:00. I sometimes acted as a mediator if a call was unwelcome. For example: I answer the phone and some guy named Brad wants to talk to Mary Beth. I look up her room number and find a corresponding buzzer on my switch board that opens up an intercom link. Mary Beth angrily demands, “Who is it?” when I tell her she has a call. “Brad.” “Tell that two timing son of a bitch to go to hell!” I switch back to the phone. “Uh, hello, Brad, Mary Beth isn’t feeling well. Can I take a message?” “Tell her that I’m sorry and ask her to please answer the phone.” “Hello, Mary Beth…Brad says that he’s sorry and still wants to talk to you.” “When hell freezes over–that no good prick can go back to that slut. And if she’s dumped him for good and he’s feeling lonely tell him to fu–“ “Hello, Brad. Mary Beth feels very indisposed right now and doesn’t want to talk. Perhaps it would be better if you tried again tomorrow.” “She’s nuts! I never even touched Shirley…All right…Dammit!” Click.

Girls would sometimes try to sneak boys into the dorm without signing them in. They could entertain them in their rooms over night if they managed to get by me. One night I buzzed in a group of six through the lobby door. Three of them were girls I recognized, and the other three were their dates. They smiled and headed toward my desk for a moment before bolting for the elevators. One of the guys hit the light switch for the lobby and plunged everything into darkness. I sprinted over and yelled out one of the girls’ names, hit the lights and marched them back to the desk. The guys looked like they wanted to start a fight with me, but the nursing students kept them in check and signed them in.

One girl didn’t bother to sneak her boyfriend upstairs. She had recently dropped out of the nursing program, but showed up on a Friday night, rang the front entrance buzzer and asked to be let in. Jack was visiting and we were in the middle of a long conversation, and I didn’t bother to look outside as carefully as I should have. I released the lock and she pulled along a guy behind her. They appeared to be drunk as they staggered and ran away from the counter to a large coat closet on the opposite side of the lobby. The girl slammed the door shut and locked it, and seconds later Jack and I heard a steady, rhythmic thumping inside that had the unmistakable tempo of lovemaking. Their makeshift bed was a long, narrow bench where people could sit and take off their galoshes. It butted up against a wall, and soon the whole closet began to vibrate and shake. Jack and I looked at each other in disbelief. I knew that I was supposed to do something, but all the options appeared awkward. But before I got out of my chair or picked up the phone to call security the door burst open and the unabashed couple ran out through the lobby doors. I don’t think more than two or three minutes elapsed between their entrance and exit from the building. The gleeful smile on the departing girl’s face probably came more from defiance than from physical satisfaction.

The lobby faced Apple Street. This part of Dayton had never seen good times and had declined still further in recent decades. Tough guys engaged in all sorts of mischief in the neighborhoods nearby, and I remember hearing a news report about a man tortured with a drill press in a machine shop not too far from the hospital. Another receptionist, an old lady who had formerly worked in the hospital kitchen, often took the third shift during the week. She was on duty when a ragged man pounded on the lobby door and begged to be let in. She refused, and while she looked on in horror he was stabbed in the back and left to bleed and die on the doorstep.

I never had to deal with anything that bad, but I did have an unfortunate visitor early on a Sunday night shift. A middle aged woman wearing loose fitting, dumpy clothes and a heavy coat rang the lobby doorbell. I let her in and she slowly approached me. She tilted her head slightly and looked at me sideways, and seemed reluctant to face me square on. She told me that she was trying to get into the hospital, but that they wouldn’t admit her when she went to the emergency room. I asked her what her health issue was, but she vaguely looked away from me and began to wander in circles around the lobby. The phone rang and I connected an outside call to a room upstairs. When I looked up the strange woman was gone. I saw her on the back door monitor taking the stairs toward the upper floors. A student came up to the desk at that moment to check out some equipment. I asked her to sit at my post while I ran the woman down. I caught the intruder between the second and third floors and ordered her to turn around. She refused to do that, but began to come down the steps facing backwards. She told me that she couldn’t do it any other way. When I got her down to the ground floor she continued to refuse to walk in a normal manner, and shuffled slowly backwards down the hall until we reached the desk. The student, much to my chagrin, had called security, and an officer was waiting at the counter. I was afraid that I would be reprimanded for letting a stranger get past me, but the man didn’t scold. I had kept the mad woman off the floors, and that apparently was good enough. The guard hung around for a few minutes after two late arriving officers escorted her off the premises. He told me that the woman was an obvious nut job. The doctors in emergency thought, however, that she was just a homeless woman faking madness on a cold night. She needed to act a lot crazier if she wanted to find shelter inside the hospital.

Security officers figure into one more story of late night oddity. Jack and I were sitting in the office shooting the breeze at around 1:00 a.m. We heard a sudden commotion on the steps, in the lunch room just beyond the coat closet, and along the back hallway. The elevator dinged and guards poured into the lobby from the front door (without me releasing the lock), the back hallway, the lunch room and the elevator. Eight men with eager faces and hands on their holsters converged two by two on the receptionist counter. The head of night security was among them. They circled the lobby and peered intently into the office where Jack and I sat. The security chief tried to act nonchalant when I asked him, “What’s up?” He said, “Oh, not much,” as his eyes slid away from mine. Jack and I immediately realized that we were the target of the raid.

I never heard what they thought they had on us, and nothing ever came of the incident. Jack and I wondered if one of the girls in the dormitory had told false tales about the two of us. Jack was student in the nursing program and may have made an enemy. I had thrown a slew of boyfriends out at curfew. Maybe the officers just suspected that young men in a building full of young women were apt to get into trouble, and hoped to catch us in the act.

The officers straggled off, and the security chief made a poor attempt at a casual conversation with Jack and me. We three pretended that the security department had felt sudden pangs of loneliness that could only be eased by a group visit to their compatriots in the nursing school dormitory. The chief eventually slunk away, and Jack decided to head home after we spent a few minutes trying to figure out who might have acted as the Judas. I picked up a book and read for a while. A guard came at two o’clock to relieve me while I inspected the dormitory floors, and nothing was amiss.

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