In the Midnight Hour

On the clock with the folks working in Missoula’s graveyard shift

It’s nighttime in Missoula.

The lights of downtown glimmer on the Clark Fork as the lines of the mountaintops blur in with the sky. Art Bell is on the airwaves and infomercials have taken over the TV channels. Most of the city is still, though an eclectic mix of people—from students to drifters to yuppies—populates the bars in the center of town. Downtown remains buoyant by the bottle until 2 or 3 a.m., but then it, too, shuts down. All that’s left are deserted streets…and the constant rhythm of work that goes on in every corner of the county. The rhythms have changed over the years—fewer folks working nights at the saw mill, more at Wal-Mart—but they have never ceased entirely. In the spectrum of Missoula’s graveyard shift, you can still find all kinds of jobs being done all kinds of ways, and at all hours. The common denominator is that away from the watchful eye of the boss, people make their jobs uniquely their own.

The clean-up crew

About 90 custodians work the graveyard shift at the University of Montana. Alan Daniels, who cleans the music building, is convinced that he has the best assignment of them all.

“I don’t even bring a radio to work,” he says. “You walk from one end to another and start with an African drum recital and go to where the jazz band is playing. There’s always music here.” Daniels, 49, spent most of his life working days, most recently as a social worker. He has been a custodian at UM for the last two years.

“It works well for my family,” says Daniels. His wife works days, and they have four children. “We can keep an eye on them that way,” he laughs. vDaniels spent time in the Army, and has worked plenty of different jobs. His work at the UM, “typical janitor stuff,” he says, is what lets him do what he really loves. “If you’re gonna live in Montana, you’re here to be in the outdoors,” he says. “All my overtime money goes to my duck decoys. You know, the important things in life.”

Over at the Law School, Charles Smith is getting ready to finish his shift at 2:30 a.m. He pulls out a stop watch and checks the time. Wristwatches give him a rash, he says, and besides, he likes gadgets and technology. “When I worked in the Journalism School I had permission to use the computer,” he says. He liked playing around with digital photos.

When Smith gets off work, sometimes he’ll take his dog out for a late-night walk—and times them with his stop watch. One night he took “Patches” for a walk at Fort Missoula and was stopped by the cops. They wanted to know what he was doing there so late at night. “I got off work and I’m walking the dog!” he told them.

Getting off in the middle of the night is toughest of all, says Darrell Conway. He used to work the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift making plywood at the lumber mill in Bonner.

“It’s a little harder getting off at 2:30,” Conway says. “You watch the news for a half-hour, have a bottle of beer, play solitaire.” Conway also works as a custodian in the daytime at a Missoula church. He likes it there and it pays well, but it’s the UM job that provides him all the benefits of being a state employee. He has about two hours between each job. Much has changed since he first came to Missoula 30 years ago, he says. “If you wanted to work half-time and play half-time you could. Work was plentiful,” Conway says. “It was a good town before it got discovered.”

Al Price, another night custodian at the University, grew up in towns all over western Montana. He served in the Army and worked different jobs, including a stint on the oil pipeline in Alaska. No night shift job will ever be as surreal as that one, he says, where it would be light out all night long. Price, 66, got his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree in guidance and counseling at UM. He worked with developmentally disabled people in the public schools for many years. In 1994, he came out of retirement to work as a night custodian at UM.

The night shift is something Price has gotten used to over the years, although lately he admits it has been a hardship, as he cares for his ailing 90-year-old mother. He takes his solace in the UM campus, as he always has.

“At the fountain, it’ll bring your blood pressure down if you sit there long enough,” he says, adding that he loves going to campus lectures and concerts.

Tonight Price is in the Journalism building, emptying trash cans, cleaning windows, bathrooms and drinking fountains, mopping floors, and vacuuming the carpets.

“If I’m by myself or no one’s real close, I’ll kind of sing along,” Price says. He likes the old Irish and Scottish songs he remembers from his childhood.

“Once I came in to clean a computer lab, and I don’t know what possessed me but I started singing the Star-Spangled Banner,” he says. “All of a sudden a head popped up from behind a computer. It was a female student with eyes as big as sausages. She was pretty surprised.”

Always on call

In a bunker-like headquarters in the basement of the Missoula County Courthouse, a team of dispatchers works all night long. They’re the ones who take 911 calls and stay in constant contact with law enforcement, fire, and medical responders, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Relaying information from warrant and registration checks to officers can be tricky, says Susan Bomstad, the night shift supervisor. “We kind of tell them in code,” she says. The dispatcher does not know if the suspect is still in his own car or if he is sitting next to the officer. “They know the person’s demeanor, so the officers have to tell us if they want the information now or later.”

Bomstad has been a dispatcher for 22 years. When her children were growing up it was difficult to balance the night work, but she was blessed with an older friend who was a reliable babysitter. Now that her kids are grown, she appreciates the graveyard shift without reservations. “A lot of day shift duties are administrative,” she says. “I think the night shift can be more exciting, more like cop work.” With so many calls and such a small staff, there is almost no downtime for the overnight dispatchers.

Sometimes situations go beyond busy, and even beyond tense. “Sometimes it takes a while to get a first responder on the scene,” Bomstad says. “You may have someone on the phone for 10 or 20 minutes helping them with CPR until the closest fire agency can get there.” In situations like these, the rest of the 911 center staff hones in and covers the dispatchers’ other work. “The teamwork is incredible,” Bomstad says.

Labor of love

The night shift at the Kaimin, the University of Montana’s daily student newspaper, can last until 11:30 p.m. or it can go until the next morning. Sometimes it goes so late the editors will actually catch a glimpse of the mythical printing services employee who comes in each morning to retrieve their finished pages. “That’s the big Kaimin test, if you’ve ever been here to see ‘The Lady,’” says Courtney Lowery, editor of the Kaimin. Early in her tenure Lowery rode out a long night of production all the way until 6 a.m. Everyone was taken aback when they learned that “The Lady” was actually a man.

“One girl actually gasped,” she remembers.

Production goes on in a cramped, computer-lined room covered in photos and funny quotes. Two microwaves stand ready and the desks are covered in old marked-up pages, pizza boxes, and Diet Coke in all stages of consumption: full bottle, empty can, half-filled plastic cup. “Last semester it got to the point that two of us were just sleeping on the couches,” says Lowery. She had an 8 a.m. class and with production wrapping up on average around 3 a.m., going home seemed extraneous. She would sleep with a note on top of her asking friends to wake her up before class. She remembers waking up with the floral print of the Kaimin couch imprinted on her cheek. Tonight is looking like a late night because the staff is producing a special election issue. There are 39 candidates, the worst of all possible worlds for student journalists, because it means including each one of them. If there were 40 candidates, they point out, there would have been a primary to cut it in half, and they only would have had to keep track of 20 people. “We just get in the rhythm of doing it,” says News Editor Jessie Childress. “Everyone just does their own job and it falls together and somehow it gets done.”

Steam and pressure

Jim Robbins learned about steam in the Navy. When the Missoula native left the service and returned to Montana, he worked with steam equipment at the timber mill in Bonner. Now Robbins, 58, is a stationary engineer at the UM heating plant. For the last eight and a half years he has worked at the plant, which generates the 170,000 pounds of steam per hour that heat all the buildings and water on campus.

Everything’s pretty much automatic, until it goes off-line,” says Robbins, who tonight is working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. “We’re pretty much the last line of defense.”

If things are going well, Robbins has plenty of down time. He passes it by reading books, doing crossword puzzles, playing solitaire, writing letters, and tidying up his desk. Behind him are the enormous, foreboding steam machines that grind and whirl at 50 decibels. Soon they will switch to the louder machine, which cranks out 80 decibels and forces the staff to wear earplugs for their whole shift. “It’s pretty noisy but you get used to it,” Robbins says. “Generally for us guys who’ve worked around this, we don’t have the greatest ears in the world, but we try to protect what we’ve got.”

If a machine stops working no one on campus would know about it—except for the engineer on duty. If steam is lost during a cold spell, buildings can be severely damaged. The engineers confront these hectic situations a handful of times each year, usually when surges or outages cut off power to the steam generators. It happened recently, and Robbins had to manually restart the boiler. “You hustle right through it,” he says. “You try to bring things right back up so the campus doesn’t even know it’s lost power.”

Early risers

Fugazi is blasting from the stereo tonight at Le Petit Outre. Erik Lionberger draws some finished loaves of bread out of the oven and sets them down on the rack. “We just crank the music and crank out the bread,” he says.

Lionberger has worked at the Missoula bakery for the last two and a half years. He started as a delivery man and now is a nighttime baker. He balances the work with his classes at the University, which doesn’t leave much time for sleep.

“There are times when I walk around like a zombie,” he says. “I’ll tell you, sometimes here it gets a little dreamlike with the fluorescent lights and the music and the late hours.” Surrealism aside, Lionberger gives the job high marks, including points for creativity.

“There are definitely different styles,” Lionberger says. He waves at the other overnight baker, Brian Rukavina: “He rolls a baguette very differently than I roll a baguette. It’s very tactile.” In a few hours, these baguettes, rolls, and loaves will go out all over the city. Tonight they will make more than 500 pieces of bread. Lionberger sets out 14 rolls of baguette-shaped dough on the rolling baking sheet. He goes over each one with a knife, slashing at the surface to give them their carved texture, then puts them in the oven.

“It’s a very rewarding job,” Lionberger says. “You work hard and come out with something to show for it.”

TV nation

Mike Doty, who has worked in broadcasting since 1969, used to be a country music disc jockey. After a while, though, he realized he like working the control board better than coming up with witty banter. “I decided I wanted to do something a little more behind the scenes,” he says. Now Doty is the control room supervisor at television station KTMF, Missoula’s ABC affiliate. Two people man the master control room at the station 24 hours a day. Tonight Doty is doing the overnight shift along with Nathan Ellerd, a UM senior majoring in television production who has been a control room operator at the station since October.

KTMF, which is owned by MaxMedia of Montana, also operates the ABC stations for Butte, Kalispell, and Bozeman, as well as an NBC affiliate in Great Falls. All of the stations are run from the master control room in Missoula. Tonight these two men will spend their 12-hour shift in front of a bank of computers. Above them are two huge projection screens. The screen on the left shows all of the MaxMedia stations, while the screen on the right has the raw satellite feeds from the national networks. The job of the master control staff is to monitor everything at once.

“It’s pretty stressful,” Ellerd says. “The thing about this job is you do so many things at once. Right now we have five stations going. We’re recording shows for the next day, and doing the next day’s schedule.”

While they monitor the Maury Povich Show on four different channels—the theme of tonight’s episode is “You’re My Mom, Stop Dressing Like a Stripper!”—Doty also enters tomorrow’s programming schedule into the computer, down to each commercial break.

“It’s killer on the eyes,” Ellerd says. “After a while with these screens and those screens and these lights and those lights…I’m using Visine throughout the night.”

“You have to have six eyes a piece,” adds Doty.

Still, as self-proclaimed “computer nerds” and “TV buffs,” both men love their job but admit the hours are brutal. Ellerd says he simply disappears from his friends during the week. “It’s a little tough on the home life because my lady works a regular 11-to-7 day,” Doty says. “But we deal with it. If something comes up, like a car problem on a Wednesday, I’ll just put it off until Friday.”

Run of the mill

Dean Squires quit smoking 12 years ago. These days he gets through his night shift as a production laborer at the Smurfit-Stone Container plant with coffee and junk food.

“When I was a trucker that was my thing, coffee and cigarettes all night long,” he says. Squires gave up trucking and came to the factory nine years ago. “I prefer this work because when you finish your shift you can go home instead of being out for days at a time.”

Squires helps operate and maintain the enormous, warehouse-size machines that run 24hours a day and crank out 800 tons of paper every night. Once the paper is spat out of the machines in enormous rolls, workers pick them up with forklifts and drive them into railcars. More than 30 railcars a day are filled up and shipped out to locations all over the country. As Squires explains how he works the paper machines, we suddenly hear a load roar in the background.

“You teach yourself to learn what noises like that mean. You learn to associate different noises with different jobs,” he says. “You see these guys at two or three a.m. working on their tenth hour…Last night the crew was just about out, then they’d hear the machines and it would snap them out of it.”

Carl King and Marianna Molenda, who have 34 years of experience between them at the plant, work nights in the paper lab. They spend their overnight shift running samples of paper through a wide array of laboratory machines, testing them for strength, density, and absorption. “Basically you can teach a chimpanzee to punch these buttons and do the tests,” Molenda says. Of course, it would have to be a chimpanzee with a chemistry background. Molenda and King even have the blunt, sarcastic humor common among scientists.

“Graveyard shift is the worst thing ever created,” King says. “By mankind. God didn’t create it.” He says he loves the job but hates the shift.

“I don’t think it’s healthy, but I can’t blame the company. I made a choice,” says Molenda. They both point out that the money is very good.

Roger Davis agrees. He’s been at the factory for 27 1/2 years, and now he keeps watch over the railcars as they’re loaded up and shipped out. His seniority has given him a comfortable salary and a good schedule. The factory, which is unionized, has more than 500 employees, with an average salary of $52,000 a year.

As he puts tonight’s shipping schedule down on the table, Davis says he has no complaints. “Nobody leaves and nobody quits,” he says.

Gimme shelter

Jon Jacobson leans back in his chair, decked out, as always, in a tie-dye shirt. Rubbing his beard, he reflects on how he came to work nights at the Poverello Center, Missoula’s only homeless shelter. It was, well…a long, strange trip.

Jacobson, 47, says he spent more than a decade as a bartender, and at his last job at the Top Hat, he found himself watching the calendar. After eight years, seven months and 15 days there, he quit—with no idea where he would land next.

“I kind of looked at the Creator and said, ‘OK, you don’t want me bartending. What else have you got for me?’” Jacobson says. So, he came to work at the Poverello Center three months ago, where he discovered that some of his bartending skills have proven useful.

“I’ve been throwing drunks out of places for years,” he laughs.

Most of the time, however, he’s handling clients’ requests and making sure nothing goes wrong. From 7 to 10 p.m. he checks in clients and gives out bedding, towels, soap, and razors. After the clients go to sleep at 10, the job quiets down.

Lately he has been passing the overnight down time by filling up yellow notepads with the beginnings of his memoirs. It’s a been a long-term project that keeps evolving. He was going to call it the “Memoirs of a Buddhist Bartender,” but he quit the bars—and lost his faith.

“I thought I was pretty spiritual, until I got broke,” he says. Jacobson used to eat lunch at the Poverello sometimes, but never stayed there. Even when he was living on the verge of total poverty working as a tree planter, he used to camp out at night.

It’s been 30 years since Jacobson came to Missoula to go the college. He still remembers driving through Hellgate Canyon in the early ’70s and saying to himself, “I’ve found my home.” He was around for all the classic Missoula movements, from the underground press to the anti-nuclear protests. By now, Jacobson says, he probably knows half the people in town. It was a jarring experience, then, when he started working at the Poverello Center and ended up checking in people he knew.

“The guys I used to think were crazy in the bars are kind of the ones I consider saner here,” he says. Before he leaves in the morning he heads up to the dormitory to wake everyone up. He laughs at how divergent their moods are: About to get off work, Jacobson is buoyant and cheery, telling a roomful of people who don’t want to get out of bed, “Wake up! It’s a beautiful day!”

“It’s kind of ironic,” he says. “I quit the bars because I wanted to see what the day life was like.” But after three months he is getting used to his inverted schedule. It’s tough, he says, but worth it. “At least when I go home now I feel like I’ve done something that’s contributing to the betterment of society instead of its detriment,” he says.

Late-night fantasies

Jess Gordon runs a ’50s-style vacuum cleaner across the carpet at Fantasy for Adults Only on Main Street. It’s nighttime, but with the front windows blacked out, it always feels like nighttime inside this store. Behind him is a wall of garish video boxes and in front of him a glass display case with exotic lotions and sex toys.

“My roommate’s girlfriend worked here before I did,” Gordon says. “She was saying that she’d sort of become the Dr. Ruth of the porn shop. I was jealous because I wanted those insights, too.” Gordon specialized in sex therapy in college, so when he took the job at Fantasy for Adults Only he was hoping to garner some sociological insights and help couples with healthy sexual exploration.

“Single women and couples know what they want,” he explains. “But there’s a whole other set of people who come here who have grown up sexually repressed all of their lives. They have to hide their faces, get what they want and get out.”

Gordon feels badly for them, but sometimes customers come in with more sinister requests. When they ask for things like child pornography, he takes a hard line.

“In a place like this the customer is not always right,” he says. “We get a lot of freakos. This isn’t the kind of place where you want to get walked all over.”

Gordon says his least favorite part of the job is when customers disappear into the arcade booths in the back and don’t return.

“I’ve had the cops come and get four guys who’ve passed out in the back,” he says. “Usually with their pants around their ankles, drunk, with their hands around their members.” It wasn’t what he expected when he started. Still, most of the time he enjoys helping out people who come in with legitimate questions, especially couples. As for the darker aspects, he says there is an upside to them as well.

“You do learn a lot about people here,” he says.


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