The Morning After

My transition from senior to citizen

illustration of recent college graduate in transition between work and school
Edwin Fotheringham

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.

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