From the Editing Room Floor: Night of the Turkish Cleaning Ladies - 8/2/11
I've been getting requests for this old college story, which pops up unexplained in the first sentence of Chapter 1 and is never mentioned again. So here goes!
Northwestern University's main Library is an architectural monstrosity. It might be the only building on Earth with no first floor - instead, the building consists of a basement foundation supporting four towers of second through fifth floors that are built up on stilts like Louisiana swamp-dwellings. The whole thing kind of looks like a giant upside down table, one of those fancy ones in the lobby of a five-star hotel. The innards of the Library are connected by approximately ninety-two miles of maze-like hallways that make the place look like a level from Doom.
But the Library is quiet, especially the towers, probably because everyone's too intimidated by them to actually venture up. As my freshman year wore on, I started to find it was the only place I could get anything done. The dorm was just to noisy and full of alluring distractions like Winamp, Mario Kart and staring blankly at the wall, and the local coffee shops were out of price range of "having no money, ever". It was this combination of factors - in conjunction with my falling dangerously behind sometimes during spring quarter - that led to that absurd epiphany one Monday night sometime in April.
"Whoa," I thought. "I bet I could get a ton of shit done if I just stayed at the library for twenty-four straight hours."
It was an unprecedented revelation; by unprecedented, of course, I mean moronic, but it was too late. Something in my was stirred by the idea. Nevermind that the Library wasn't open for 24 hours straight - this was but a minor bump in the road toward my new quest. It had to be done. Not because it was a good idea, or because I thought I could get everything done, but because it was there. And maybe the idea was just stupid enough to be fun. Maybe.
So two days later, there I was. Monday night, nine o'clock, fourth floor East Wing (the "Books Written About How To Write Other Books" section, I believe.) I had a backpack full of study materials, plus a water bottle, flashlight, walkman, and an alarm clock (in case I needed a break). My plans to beat the 2 o'clock closing time were devious and intricate - I was going to lock myself into a study room and simply refuse to leave. Actually, twenty-four hours was out because I had to go to class the next day; but I figured making it through the entire night would be good enough. I carefully selected the ideal study-room (namely, the first one that I found that was open), cracked a book, and began my Night of the Library.
After five hours of Medieval history, 2:00am finally rolled around, when the library officially closed. I reasoned if the staff was ever going to come around and kick me out, it would be now, so maybe this would be the ideal time to turn off the lights, hide out in a corner of the room, and catch a little rest. With images of Charlemagne splitting skulls with his sword, I picked a nice comfy spot on the floor and curled up to sleep. Actually all the spots on the floor were about equally 'comfy', like sleeping on a basketball court is comfy. I chose a secluded place under a table, and dozed off.
Two hours later, I was jolted out of slumber by a bright light and a horrible figure standing over me - a three-foot tall Turkish cleaning lady, the kind that haunts every child's dreams. I knew that she was Turkish because the story is funnier that way, and because I obviously understand Turkish. We locked eyes, as I struggled for the most articulate defense I could muster.
"Whoa, shit," I said.
The Turkish cleaning lady sort of half-grinned, and looked down on me. "You sleep? You sleep? You sleep home. You sleep? Heh heh heh!" she chortled in a manner that was not unYoda-like.
I struggled for a response that seemed both safe and authoritative.
"Uh, yeah," I said.
The woman - stout, whiskery, and built like a fire hydrant - bustled off around the room to empty trash cans and pulls wads of gum off the underside of the tables, all while keeping one eye cocked at me.
"You sleep here? You sleep home? You sleep here?"
Was this a question? If so, it seemed like it had a fairly obvious answer. Or maybe she was offering me a choice! Though still sleep-dazed, I was resolved not to let my night of library conquest come to an end so soon. "Yeah, I'll sleep here, if that's cool with you."
And, evidently, it was cool with her! My Turkish cleaning whizzed around the room once more, and without another word was out the door. I stared after her for a while, too confused to move. After a groggy few minutes, logical analysis kicked in: A) She knew I was here, and B) she didn't seem to mind, therefore, C) I might as well go back to sleep. I curled up again under my sweatshirt, and fell back asleep.
My dreams were short-lived.
Apparently, I had misunderstood my dear cleaning lady friend, for no sooner had I drifted off again than the light flickered on again, this time revealing not but two squat figures in the doorway. She had gone to find reinforcements! The knew cleaning lady looked almost identical to the first, but knew a little more English, and was a bit more dour, as she scuttled over to me with a frown.
"You no sleep here! Illegal!" She then seized hold of my backpack and began stuffing things inside, but lightened up. "Heh! Heh! You sleep long time!"
I back-peddled into a prolix explanation of how I must have accidentally dozed off for, um, several hours, as I regained control of my bag from her and began stuffing things into it, including my alarm clock, still plugged into the wall. The cleaning ladies just stared at me, as I packed in the rest of my things, stood there awkwardly for a moment, and then did the only thing I could think of. I bolted.
Into the maze of bookshelves I disappeared, with the sound of the deep, accented chortling fading behind me. I took random lefts and rights as I made my way back toward the central hallway, my mission on the verge of failure. I wondered why there had still been cleaning staff around at 4:30 in the morning. But as I entered the library's main area, my jaw dropped and my confusion was multiplied. It was cleaning-lady circus! There was a bucket and vacuum at the entrance to every wing, and every one had a woman standing by it, all between the heights of 5'1" and 3'10", and all staring at me. I felt like I was trapped inside the "It's a Small World" ride at Disney, except my boat was stuck at Eastern Europe, and instead of their song, all the little midget robots kept chanting "You no sleep here! You no sleep here!" in deeply accented harmony. Actually they weren't saying anything, just watching me as I freaked out and ran for the stairs.
Third floor was the same thing - the number of cleaning ladies at the library that night could make both sides of a football team. I got all the way down to the second floor before it hit me that "Oh yeah, the library's locked at 4:30 in the morning..." And this meant from the inside too – the revolving door was no longer revolving, and there was a huge metal wall where the passage to the exit used to be. I suddenly realized that I didn't know of any other ways out, and that I had no idea where the cleaning lady super secret entrance was. Even if I did, they probably wouldn't appreciate me romping through their lounge at this time of night.
And so I stopped. I weighed the sides. "Sleep bed home" would have to wait - I didn't really have much of a choice because the doors were locked and it was kind of too early to get expelled for breaking a library window. But on the other hand, I could finish the challenge! I'd just have to find a place to hide for a bit until the library opened... in four or five hours. I headed back to the library's core, where, not surprisingly, there were more identical cleaning ladies. But now I was determined - as soon as one went around the corner, I sprinted passed and dove ninja-style under a desk to hide. Another woman vacuumed past, and I dashed to another area, jumped down some stairs and locked myself in a study room. It was five in the morning and I was playing hide and go seek with custodial staff in a library. This is what college is all about.
I held my breath I the study room for a few minutes, and when no one came, I took out another book and went to work. Soon the vacuums shut off, and at 6:00am, they cut the electricity. Mr. Pen Light came out of my pocket, and more chapters were devoured in the dim light of budding dawn.
By the time the sun rose, I was nearly hallucinating with fatigue. I struggled through a bit more text, but hacking through J.S. Mills after being up all night is a tall task, and I realized I'd been on the same page for 35 minutes. By 7:45 I'd had enough, and although the library didn't open for another 45 minutes, I could see through the window that workers were starting to arrive. I'd had enough.
I packed and hoisted my bag, and off I went, pondering how I was going to get out the door. By this point, my limited logic could only keep repeating one thought, the classic advice of "Just look like you know where you're going, and people will leave you alone." And so I walked, or should I say I marched, towards the exit, getting somewhat surprised glances from all the early morning library people I passed on the way. But they just took one look at me, saw how serious I was, and decided "Hey, that guy really looks like he knows where he's going! It must be alright that he's here." My final test approached. There, sitting behind the checkout desk, was a middle-eastern guy with a sweet beard that for some reason had an earring in it. He looked up, surprised, from the book he was reading, and stared. I stared back, because obviously I knew where I was going. But he wasn't having it.
"Hey! How the hell did you get in here?"
Casting him a cool glance as I pushed through the turnstile and whisked passed. "Dude, don't worry about it. I was just helping the guy, with the thing."
Apparently he didn't know, for he yelled after me, "What guy? What thing?" But it was too late - I was gone.
I entered my dorm at 8:15 and sat down with some friend to eat breakfast. They were complaining about how the had stayed up until 3 studying, and how they were all tired. But I just smiled and nodded - I knew what a real man's night was all about. Then I passed out into my Lucky Charms.