It’s Nov. 13, around 10 p.m. and the fall show “Machinal” just had its final performance. Sophomore Ryan Dugan carefully looks over the organized chaos that is the set of the play. Bits and pieces that once told the story of a woman who was sentenced to death now lay in tidy piles across the floor; tables and chairs that acted as a point of conflict are mountains of debris.
Where hours ago Dugan was performing, now he’s cleaning up.
The show has just ended and the cast is striking the set— clearing the auditorium of objects used in the play. The actors and crew collectively trudge back and forth across the stage and grab cardboard that lies scattered across the floor.
“Hey we need to take this stuff to the compacter,” Dugan shouts towards freshman Malcom Gibbs and sophomore Liz Wilson.
They walk down to the first floor carrying and, more notably, struggling with the load. The big pile of cardboard is quickly proving too much for the struggling students; they can’t get it into the machine, or figure out how to work it.
As they continue their feeble efforts, someone approaches from the distance. He is tall, wearing a janitor’s uniform and headed their way. Without skipping a beat, he grabs the cardboard and tosses it into the machine. He then tosses in a cardboard frame and cracks a joke about how he wishes he was framed.
The boys and Wilson leave to fetch more trash. When they return, he is still there. Helping.
* * *
He is Steve Peck. Peck, along with two other janitors, run the third and final shift at East. If the daytime janitors are the stars, then this late night gang is the under-appreciated supporting crew. They work Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays, from midnight to 7 a.m. Although it may not seem like an ideal time—working while most are sleeping—they enjoy it nonetheless. With late hours, they all note it’s easier to stay focused on the task at hand.
“It’s quieter; you can get more done,” Peck said. “You don’t have kids running in and out.”
Third-shifter Tommy Crider, like Peck, enjoys the quiet that comes along with the job. He already is a self-proclaimed “night person” and is used to a nocturnal lifestyle. Crider points out that the most difficult thing to adjust to is the feeling of being alone in the school. He says that he often “listens for strange noises.”
Their job—while obviously much later—is not necessarily more difficult than earlier shifts: it’s just different. Each is assigned to their own area in the building to clean, as opposed to daytime janitors who get calls for areas in need of assistance. Head janitor Mike Webb describes this final shift as the “last line of defense.”
“Sometimes people are off sick, or on vacation or off for some reason or another, so those guys are kind of the last group before students get here,” Webb said. “We’ve had water breaks at night, and they were here to report that…so that really made clean up a lot better.”
Webb says that the district requires each school to have three janitors filling the midnight to 7 a.m. time slot. Of all the responsibilities the three workers have, he thinks protection of the building is at the top of the list. He sees them as “night watchmen.”
“If somebody were to break in, they would be there to call the police,” Webb said. “So I can see a value in that.”
Despite the late hours, Peck enjoys the job. He’s not one to complain. He has been with the Shawnee Mission School District for eight years and in his time has worked a vast array of different jobs with accompanying crazy hours. Before his time with the SMSD, he worked at St. Lukes Hospital in Shawnee. There he held a midnight to 8 a.m. shift and also one from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. His eventual termination of this job was largely due to budget cuts.
Shortly after being let go, he wound up in the district. He admits that the job is nothing fancy, and being assigned to the locker rooms can be annoying at times. But through the tedious clean up and hectic hours, the job isn’t half bad. All three janitors have worked together for more than four years and have gotten to know each other very well.
“I think any time you work with someone you become friends with people,” Webb said. “There’s been occasions where we’ve done things outside of work.”
The third shift janitors see each other from time to time, but on a typical night they mainly stick to their respective spots. Their work includes anything from mopping floors to cleaning graffiti off of walls. At 3 a.m. Peck says they meet to have what they see as “lunch.” They finish their shift at 7 a.m.
They have fun talking with each other at work—griping about messes, talking to Peck about his love of cameras—but just like with Dugan at “Machinal,” the top priority is the students. Whether it’s cleaning the “very messy” locker rooms or helping throw cardboard into a compactor, they put the kids first. And hopefully leave them with, if anything, a positive impression.
“I felt a lot better for the rest of the night [after I talked with Steve], it makes you feel good to really get to know somebody,” Dugan said. “It was really an opportunity—if my job wasn’t compacting wood, I wouldn’t have gotten to know this guy and hear his great stories.”
* * *
Their job is simple. At its core, being a janitor means maintaining the cleanliness of the building. A daily night consists of tending to pre-assigned areas and any spots in dire need of pick up. But each night, the third-shifters head into work with the knowledge that what they’re doing matters. And they put up with the mundane tasks.
“Sometimes you wish you had a change every once in a while. It’s pretty rough sometimes…especially after football,” Peck says with a laugh.
But Peck knows how important it is. He remembers finding a wallet and returning it to a current K-State student; the East alum was grateful and gave him a big “thank you.” He remembers two weeks ago, when there was a water mane break during the night and someone was there to fix it.
Ultimately, Peck enjoys the job—but that doesn’t mean he has no hope for a different future.
He currently is taking courses at Johnson County Community College. He takes classes on video and computer productions, including Microsoft Word 2010 and Photoshop. Recently, he made a video with some fellow students and entered it in a local film festival. He says that after being a janitor he’d like to learn more about the computer system and production of video.
“[In classes] I learn what’s going on in the TV studio and stuff, operate the cameras, editing and all that,” Peck said. “If [a job] pops up and comes available, then I’ll look at it.”
For the time being, he sees himself at East. He doesn’t love the work, but it gets him through the day. When asked, he says that his job is “fine.” Not bad, just fine. Crider describes it as something that “pays the bills.”
They may have a love-hate relationship with what they do, but Dugan, for one, is glad they do it.
“I really appreciated it…what he did for us,” Dugan said. “I was amazed at—well it was uncommon for him to help us like that and I was amazed at his support and attention to our needs.”