At Yale's commencement, graduates traditionally smoke clay pipes and then trample them to suggest that the pleasures of college life are ended. I participated in this tradition not long ago, but the symbolism didn't hit me with full force until the next morning. At 7 a.m., I punched a time clock and entered the working world. While my peers were off to grand pursuits—backpacking trips through Europe, banking in New York City—I was beginning a two-week stint as a Yale custodian. Thus it came to pass that I was paid to haul out the pleasures of my college life with the trash.
I had just pulled an all-nighter, packing and saying goodbye to friends, so I was bleary-eyed when my boss (think a less passive, more aggressive Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) led us into the courtyard. The neo-Gothic building where I had lived seemed to have vomited refuse from every orifice: old tools from the basement, trash bags from the entryways and even a mattress that someone had hurled from a second-story window, almost clearing the beautiful flower bed below.
Why should this squalor shock me? After all, I'd tried hard to debunk Ivy League stereotypes: no, I'd tell friends, we don't live in castles sipping expensive wine and playing croquet all the time. But the week leading up to my commencement forced a reality check. First of all, we did live in castles. Yale's 12 residential colleges are beautiful, historical structures behind wrought-iron gates. They're even surrounded by moats.
Furthermore, during that week we enjoyed our share of fine wine—at a wine tasting, an art gallery exhibition, a lavish banquet and at our commencement ball (all with open bars). To further educate our palates, the college treated us to marathon tastings of micro-brewed beer and single malt scotch. Finally, there was the capstone of my undergraduate career: the annual croquet match. We seniors assembled in the courtyard wearing 19th-century dress to challenge the college fellows.
That same night my friends and I threw a midnight cookout in our courtyard. After grilling and boozing for five hours, I was hot, grimy, and...disoriented. More important, I had lost my keys. Seeing no recourse, I collapsed and went to sleep on the grass. In my delirium I half expected to be consumed by this place, my body incorporated particle by particle into the soil. Instead I woke up with a cold and a hangover.
Now, at 7 a.m., the sheen of luxury had vanished like a Shakespearean fairy's feast. I had traded my boater hat and croquet britches for gym shorts, T-shirt and dirty sneakers. My assigned cleaning companion was a lifer custodian named Butch. A tiny man with fuzzy gray hair and oversize glasses, Butch left work each day smiling and saying "I love yiz all," to which his co-workers invariably responded that we loved him, too.
But at this moment, Butch was staring into a plastic bag and muttering, "Who the hell are these people?" A quick glance confirmed my worst fear: the bag was mine. It was bursting with things my roommates and I no longer needed: funny hats, plastic dart guns, a beer funnel—even a scribbled notebook here and there. But I wasn't about to admit this to Butch. That was me yesterday; today I was a custodian. Four years of debauchery had finally given way to what I'd always dreaded: a real job.
"This place is ridiculous," I said as I took the bag from Butch. I swallowed the lump rising in my throat, tied the bag shut with a double knot and tossed it in the dumpster.
Ben Conniff is a writer living in Brooklyn.