Super Creepy Handball Courts

This will probably come as a surprise to many, but off and on for nearly a year I worked at a gym.  A gym!  You know, where The Sports and stuff happen.

Now this was not some state-of-the-art facility full of the latest and greatest in athletic equipment.  No, it was Henry Crown Field House, the “new” gym at UChicago during my time there as a student in 1998-2001.  The “old” gym – Bartlett – had been completed in 1904.  Hence, Henry Crown – built in 1931 – was new…ish.  I just learned today that the second story was only added in 1976, as evidenced by the amazing photo below that shows a bulldozer going to town on what would soon be basketball courts.  Amazing!Henry Crown Field House renovation 1976Somehow I ended up applying for and getting a job at Henry Crown as an attendant or assistant or whatever it was they called the people who sat at the front desk and made sure no one entered without their university ID.  It was a pretty sweet gig all in all.  I almost always worked with at least one other person, some of them more entertaining than others, of course.  Friends would stop by and chat, we could work on homework during the slow times, and for the most part we got to sit down on tall swivel chairs, save for the times when there were towels to be laundered.  Plus, I think I made something like $8/hour, which was good money for a student in 1999 (and is still sadly only slightly less than the current minimum wage in Illinois).  Like I said, pretty sweet.

The only times that I somewhat dreaded were when I worked the closing shift which, once I became a supervisor, was probably a couple of times a week.  Closing the gym entailed making a sweep of the entire facility to ensure everybody had gone home for the night.  If memory serves me, we closed at 11pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends, so about 10 minutes before closing I’d start making the rounds and turning off lights as I went.  The other person would stay back at the desk to make sure nobody else came in.

The upstairs was easy because usually it was configured as one big open space and the light switches were all together in one corner.  Downstairs, however, was another matter, owing to the handball and racquetball courts.  Not all of them were used for those sports – the rowing crew had their machines in a couple of them and there was maybe some storage in another – but nonetheless I had to walk along a narrow corridor with eight little doors and check to make sure each court was empty before turning off the lights.  Some nights I was convinced that this was how I would meet my death.  You know, because crazed axe murderers tend to hang out in college gyms and then wait for unsuspecting attendants to walk along during their closing shift before jumping out and hacking them to pieces.  You know, like that dog in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Clearly, nothing close to that kind of scenario ever took place, but I was still spooked for just a couple of minutes every closing shift when I had to walk that hallway.  Occasionally there would still be somebody in a court who didn’t realize it was closing time, but almost to a person the gym users were polite and quickly headed out into the dark night so we could lock the doors and go home ourselves.  Speaking of locking the doors, we did that from the inside using just a simple Allen wrench.  We’d check the doors one last time then part ways and walk back to our respective dorms.

I haven’t been in Henry Crown since 2001, but from the outside it looks virtually the same.  I’m sure the computers and washing machines and ellipticals have been replaced and updated, but I would bet money the doors still lock the same way.  Wonder if the students working there these days still get a little spooked by the handball courts.  I’ll be they do.

Salary: $8/hour (I think)

Hours worked: Early mornings and late nights, probably on average about 20 hrs/week.

The parts I like to remember: It was always a bit weird to see a Nobel Laureate from the Econ department pop in wearing a t-shirt and spandex in preparation for their racquetball game with, say, the chair of the English department.  My favorite person who stopped by, however, was a former professor of mine, Charles Gray, whose 11th Century Church Law class I remember as being way more fun than it should have been.  He’d wear shorts and a safety loop to keep his glasses on as he slowly jogged around the upper level for 30 minutes or so.  I don’t think he ever recognized me as having been in one of his classes (he was at least 70 by the time I even met him), but knowing that such a preeminent scholar was walking through the turnstyle always made me smile to myself.

The parts I’d like to forget: Towels on towels on towels.  And the smell of the chemicals we used to wash them.

What’s so hard about taking a break?

I’m in this marketing certificate program at the University of Chicago’s Graham School right now and I have to say that being back in a classroom suits me well.  It’s a very different environment than my first go-around at UChicago as an undergrad.  Students are far more likely to be carrying around Marketing case studies than The Marx-Engels Reader (imagine that!) and the instructors are highly accomplished professionals who are more likely to drive a luxury SUV than possess a PhD.  But it’s great.  My classmates are lively, our guest speakers are engaging, and even though it’s the first time I’ve paid entirely for education out of pocket, it’s absolutely worth it.

During class earlier this week one of our guest speakers revealed that it was actually her last day at her current job and that she had a six week break before she started her next one.  Six weeks!  Jaws slowly dropped in a combination of jealousy and disbelief.  My instructor commented something to the effect of “Studies have shown that that’s the only time you can really relax, when you’re in between jobs, but you know you already have the next job secured.”  Heads nodded, still not able fully to comprehend the idea of being blissfully unencumbered by work emails for more than six minutes, let alone six weeks.  And with that the guest speaker walked out the door, possibly 20 pounds lighter than the rest of us.

Japan Airlines and MicrosoftThis morning on the bus I was reflecting on that quick interchange in class when I saw an ad for Microsoft Office 360, of all things.  The ad caught my eye not because it was advertising software that nearly everyone uses at some point in their working life, but because the “Japan Airlines” image caught my attention.  The juxtaposition of exotic travel and a mundane office product was timely.  I thought, “When’s the last time I went on a proper vacation? Or even staycation?”  Even though I had a couple of weeks off in between jobs when I moved to Chicago, that time was consumed by job hunting, almost to the point of obsession.  And I spent an inordinate (and probably unhealthy) amount of time reading Gawker’s absorbing series “Unemployment Stories” which was alternately terrifying and slightly encouraging.  But at no time did I consider myself on a break from working.

As long as I can remember during my professional career (i.e. not grad school or hourly jobs), I’ve taken off just the weekend between ending one gig and starting another.  Oh, except that one time when I took off two weeks between jobs…in order to write my Master’s thesis.  I know what you’re thinking: that Em Hall sure knows how to relax!

But there’s no reason to punish ourselves for stepping away from work emails and an office environment for a break, even on a regular basis.  I’m lucky enough to work at two jobs now where getting out of the office – whether for professional development, special events, or just a mental break from the cacophony – is actually encouraged.  What a gift!  And I’m really glad that our guest speaker shared with us that she felt no guilt for a six-week break.  She shouldn’t!  Nor should any of us.  I’m not looking to change jobs any time soon, but I know that when I prepare for the next big adventure in my life, I’m going to take some time to myself, to honor all that I’ve accomplished and celebrate what’s yet to come.

I’m riding 200 miles in support of About Face Theatre and other amazing community organizations in this summer’s Ride For AIDS Chicago.  If you’d like to donate, please visit my fundraising page.  Thank you for your support!