the entertaining journey of a struggling museum security guard

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Not long after I start my career at the museum, we have a firedrill.  A mandatory drill for all security guards in which we learn what to do if the building starts burning to the ground.  While I don’t like coming to work on my day off, I would like to know what to do in this situation so I show up bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to learn all there is to know about this emergency evacuation plan.  A few minutes later and we’re done going over the plan but I’m left confused.  I don’t understand why half of the museum would be told to evacuate using the emergency exit stairs (built to withstand high heat/fire) and the other half would use a main staircase (which by the way is NOT built to withstand fire.)  And what REALLY blows my mind is that the half that are using the emergency exit stairs actually stop on the 2nd floor at a locked door which leads back into the museum, wait for another guard to open it from the inside and then they all exit through the main entrance. 

 

I can’t be the only one thinking it, so I ask the question “What happens if the guard on the 2nd floor can’t get through the fire to open that door?  Then everyone is locked in the emergency stairwell?” 

 

My bosses response?  “Why wouldn’t they be able to get there?  It takes two minutes?” 

 

Ummm… how about the fire that’s hypothetically ripping through the museum as we speak!?  I would imagine two minutes feels much longer when your lungs are filled with smoke.

 

My boss does not respond well to being challenged and I do not like to make a scene so I let him win this battle but decide to use the suggestion box to explain how to make this plan more efficient.  Basically my suggestion says, “Have everyone exit through emergency exit stairs all the way to the ground floor emergency exit doors.”  My boss is confused by this and needs clarification.  Even after I spend 15-20 minutes explaining how this would work, he still doesn’t get it.  The next week the plan changes.  Now he decides not to use the emergency exits at all.  Everyone goes down the main stairs and exits out the main doors.  This is the opposite of improvement. 

 

Someone else must have explained my plan to him in terms that he understood because soon after, the plan changed to something similar to my suggestion.  Apparently my boss didn’t fully understand the plan though and gave me the task of leading the firedrills for the next week or so. What an honor!

 

If you were wondering at any point whether or not you’d be able to keep a straight face when your boss suggests that staff and visitors go back into a burning building, I’ll leave you with a direct quote from the man himself.

“Don’t smile during the firedrill.  I don’t want to see any smiles because this is serious stuff.  I’m gonna be pissed off I see any of you smiling or laughing.”    

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Before rental events start there are usually security guards standing just inside the entrances to make sure no one comes in or out before the event starts. I was working at this post one evening before an event started when a man knocked on the door wanting to come in. I poked my head out the door to inform him the event wouldn’t be starting for a little while and guests weren’t allowed to come in yet. He apparently did not think this was acceptable, as he really needed to use our restroom.  I tried to be helpful by giving him directions to the closest public restroom but he was not having it.  He informed me that he was attending the event later and this was rude, insensitive, and he was either coming in right now or leaving and not coming back at all.  I still wasn’t allowed to let him in so he angrily stormed off and then later came back to the event where he gave me the stink-eye all evening (so much for “not coming back at all.”) 

 

Dear Mr. Impatient,

We’ve all been there at some point in our lives.  If you don’t get to a bathroom in two minutes or less you fear that you really may pee your pants in public.  I can assure you that if I were in this situation, my first pick of places to stop would certainly not be a closed museum.  A few suggestions that come to mind instead: Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, McDonalds, Barnes & Noble, etc.  There are so many other options in a major city and I was even nice enough to point you in the direction of one of them.  Also, you’re a grown man.  Don’t use your whiney-15-year-old-girl-know-it-all attitude to force your way past the security guard at the front door.  First of all, that attitude isn’t pretty on anyone, including 15 year old girls.  Second of all, the guard at the door is probably making $8.50 an hour and the ruder you are to her, the less she cares if you have an accident right there on the front steps. 

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Our museum, like many others, has a staircase and balcony where one can look over the edge and observe the passersby five flights below.  One of our galleries is adjacent to this balcony on the fifth floor and since my gallery was empty, I happened to be absentmindedly observing a group of students looking over the edge.  Before I could react, one of the students spit over the edge.  While I found this amusing and have secretly always wanted to do this myself, I still rushed over to inform them that spitting over the edge was not allowed.  I was obviously too late but looked down to the ground level below to see if anyone was affected and immediately saw a member of our cleaning crew looking back up at me.  I called him on the radio to see if he had managed to dodge the flying spit.  He didn’t speak English and I did not excel in my beginners Spanish classes so I can’t tell you what he said.  Judging from his quick response to look up, and the fact that he wasn’t angry when I called him makes me believe that he narrowly escaped a giant glob of spit to the face.  It’s a little ironic that the glob of spit landed right at the feet of the guy responsible for cleaning the museum.  Come on kids, as if this guy’s job doesn’t already suck.  You don’t need to make it any worse by dropping spit bombs on his head from five floors up.           

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We’ll start off with a story from my childhood.  When my sisters and I were in grade school, one of us owned a James Taylor cassette.  One particular day we played “Fire and Rain” a few too many times and got on our mothers last nerve.  She’d had enough James Taylor for one day and told us, “If you three don’t turn that thing off, I’ll throw it across the street in the gully!”  (Yes, gully.  We grew up in the middle of nowhere.  Maybe you know the place?  About three miles from the blinking light and right across the street from a wooded gully.)  Little did we know, mom wasn’t playing games.  A few minutes later our James Taylor cassette was hurtling through the air into the gully, never to be seen again.  These days, I’m sure our cassette has seen fire and rain and many, many, sunny days come to an end.  We were pretty devastated to see our tape go at the time but now we consider it a blessing in disguise and laugh about the day mom threw our James Taylor tape into the gully.       

After this little incident, we were pretty quick to pick up our clothes and toys when mom told us to for fear they may meet the same fate as Mr. James Taylor.  I bring this story up because 25 years later I work at a museum where the powers that be pay people absurd amounts of money to leave garbage, toys, blankets, ropes, chains, plastic, glass, food, etc strewn across the gallery floors.  (Dear Mom, I think I’ve found my calling in life.  Did you know that they’re paying people to leave their crap all over the floor!? I know! I couldn’t believe it either but it’s really true.  I’m an expert in this area so I should be rich in no time at all!)  If my mom ran the museum, she would waste no time telling the curators and artists to pick their “modern art” up off the floor or she’d do it herself and they would not like the outcome. 

The security guard’s job is to explain nicely why visitors can’t touch or step on the dirty blanket lying haphazardly in the middle of the floor.  We’ll say something like, “It’s about love and loss- can’t you tell? The artist thought it had the most meaning lying in this particular formation.” 

To which the visitor replies or at least thinks, “Yeah, right!  I have a duvet just like that at home.  It’s from IKEA and costs $29.95.  It most certainly doesn’t mean ‘love and loss.’  It means ‘I’ll sacrifice quality for a bargain price any day and I’m not ashamed of it.’  Where are the idiots that paid thousands of dollars for this?  If they’re paying top dollar, I have a used duvet I’d be willing to part with.”

In my tenure at the museum, I’ve seen curators and artists spend countless hours arranging such pieces of artwork on the floor and I secretly want to tell them, “It would look exactly the same if you just throw it in that general direction and walk away.”  I don’t waste my time though because I know, to them it really is about love and loss and they’ll spend the next hour trying to get me to “see it.”  And that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back. 

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A portion of our museum is dedicated to modern art.  Some of the most interesting experiences I had as a security guard occurred in this area.  I studied art in college so I had general background knowledge in the area but still somehow wasn’t expecting to see so many questionable objects considered valuable art. 

My Mistake:

Within a few weeks I made my first huge mistake.  I had seen a rope lying around on the floor of the modern art gallery.  I didn’t believe it was actual artwork but didn’t really question its existence either.  Like most museums, we held a number of special events and often I would work at these events.  One evening we had a large event (around 900 attendees- many of them wearing high heels) and this rope was lying in the middle of the floor.  I continued to see people getting tripped up on it and thought to myself, “This is not a smart place to put a rope.  Someone is going to fall and get hurt…I should move this out of the way so we don’t have a lawsuit on our hands.” 

So I took it upon myself to move it next to a wall so less people would have to step or trip over it.  I thought nothing of it until another guard told me later that he’d overheard the curators talking about how baffled they were that the piece moved so far away from it’s original spot on the floor.  Oops.  Apparently no one looked into the matter though because I never heard anything else about it.  Note to self and others: assume everything is artwork in a museum and do not touch! 

Maria’s Mistake:

In the not so modern section of our museum, we had a few marble statues valued at around $12 million a piece.  After they had spent a couple of weeks in our museum, they started to collect dust.  The proper procedure for a guard to follow in this situation is to call our preservation department to come clean the statues; however, that is not what happened. 

Before we get to the story, we first need to discuss one of our top-notch guards, Maria.  Sweet little Maria was a very neurotic woman in her 60s but did not let much get past her on the floor.  She was a stickler for the rules and constantly approached patrons to ask if they’d paid their admission fee and ran around waving her finger and shaking her head to stop guests who attempted to take photos.  She also didn’t quite understand how walkie-talkies worked and often forgot she was holding the “talk” button while she spent five minutes discussing rules with the patrons.  She was a real gem and I looked forward to hearing her come over the radio wavelengths.  I almost always turned my radio volume up and listened closely because I knew I was in for a treat when I heard her voice. 

As much as she enforced the rules though, Maria sometimes forgot that the rules apply to everyone- including security guards.  One particular day she decided that these $12 million statues were too dusty for her expectations and decided to dust them off herself.  I guess the higher powers cared more about the $12 million statues than the $3 piece of rope that I moved because they looked into this one.  Maria got a very stern talking to but wasn’t fired.  As you’ll see that tends to be a trend at the museum.  You may get a day or two suspension if you let someone deface a piece of artwork on your watch but rarely are guards fired for anything other than not getting along with the boss.  Also, I think it’s hard to justify firing a sweet, little, old lady for trying to keep the museum looking it’s best!   

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Training Day 1:  Day one consisted of reading an employee handbook for hours and watching a few security and safety training videos from the early 1980s.  I tried desperately to stay awake through these videos, look past the 1980s eyeglasses/uniforms, and pay attention to the information at hand.  It seemed like quite a bit to learn.  My intention was to only retain a small portion of that information because I felt for $8.50 an hour I shouldn’t be expected to become an expert in the area but alas, I am too dedicated an employee to not give 100% so I retained as much information as possible.

*Side note: security uniforms have surprisingly changed very little since 1980.  I guess it’s hard to improve perfection?

Training Day 2:  Speaking of uniforms, I tried on uniform pants to see what size fit.  Why didn’t I know my size you wonder?  Because I am a female and it turns out I do not know what size I wear in men’s pleated uniform pants.  My first thought was to ask if they had women’s pants and was told that although the uniform company offered women’s styles, Tom didn’t allow us to order them.  Really, Tom?? Really?? A pleated pant flatters no one…and I do mean no one.  Fortunately I had a few weeks of freedom to wear my own black pants until the uniforms arrived and what a glorious few weeks that was!  My self-esteem dipped to a new low when the hideous, pleated, ill fitting pants eventually arrived and I was forced to wear them in public.

Day two also consisted of shadowing another security guard and getting my photo taken for my ID badge, which would unfortunately turn out horrible and be with me for the next couple of years.  I couldn’t even blame the pants for this one, as it was a shoulders and up shot.    

Week 1: After a rigorous two days of training behind me, I was officially a security guard!  I was ready to start protecting the crap out of things. 

Right away I realized things were going to get interesting.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like wearing uniform pants.  This became evident when our supervisors began checking to make sure security guards were wearing uniform issued pants.  I, of course, was wearing them because I’m no rule breaker; however, nothing makes for a more uncomfortable situation than a male supervisor checking the back of your pants for a uniform label.  As if it wasn’t obvious from the pleats on the front of them.  Come on now, if I was going to be a true rebel and wear my own pants, you can bet they wouldn’t be pleated.

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I got the phone call about the interview on a Monday afternoon and after discovering that a phone interview wasn’t an option (they only did face to face interviews), I decided to take a chance.  I spent some of my hard earned subbing money on a $200 plane ticket to a city far away for an interview that Friday.    

I showed up to the interview completely over dressed and over prepared.  I even studied a list of interview questions specifically for museum interviews I found via Google.  The questions were aimed for more prestigious museum jobs but I was under the impression there would be at least a few questions involved in this interview and I wanted to be prepared.  Little did I know my interview would be an informal meeting with my future boss, Tom, and consist of zero job related questions.  Much of the interview he spent discussing how shocked he was that I flew 750 miles for an interview.  He talked so fast I could barely understand a word he said which made things slightly awkward because I had to keep asking him to repeat himself. 

What I gathered from the interview was that I would be making only $8.50 an hour, which was worse than I was expecting.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect much from a security gig but I wrongly assumed the pay range would be somewhere between $10 and $12 an hour.  I also learned that training would take three days, it would be at an undecided date, and if I couldn’t attend training on those specific days (whenever they would be), I wouldn’t have the job. 

At this point I didn’t know how to react.  My Googled museum interview questions were not helping me here.  Tom obviously thought I was crazy for flying in specifically for this interview (hey, desperate times call for desperate measures!) but seemed to be impressed with this at the same time.  The fact that he was impressed with my dedication/desperation made me think he should be a little more flexible.  After a few more moments of consideration, he decided that even if I couldn’t make it for the first day of training, they would still work something out so I would definitely have a job there.  A part time $8.50 an hour job was mine!   This college degree was really starting to pay off. 

I left the interview, skipped down the sidewalk in my heels, and thought about how I would spend all of the money I was about to make. Just kidding- I walked to the bus in a freezing cold November rain, attempted not to wipe out in my heels, and thought hard about even accepting the position but ultimately decided to accept it for the following reasons: 1.) I hated my current job. 2.) I figured I could stay in this position a few months, put a major museum on my resume, and it would be the gateway to a better job elsewhere. 

Little did I know, I’d be employed there for far more than a few months… but you’ll see.

*Note to future museum security applicants: proper attire for an entry-level security interview at a museum is probably khakis and a nice shirt, if that.  I’ve seen multiple applicants interview and get hired in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.  Sadly, I still see the occasional suit and cringe when I think about the moment of the interview where they discover the pay rate for one hour isn’t even going to pay for their parking.

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You know you’re in a bad place when you move halfway across the country to sleep on your cousin’s couch for a crappy job that pays $8.50 an hour. But I hated my job so that’s what I did.

 Let’s start at the beginning so you understand why I made this seemingly irresponsible decision. I graduated from college with a degree to teach and then like many recent education grad’s that can’t find a full-time position, I set out on the substitute-teaching path. I’ll give you a two background stories from this experience, which will give you an idea of why I jumped at an $8.50 an hour opportunity 750 miles away.

1.) I knew there were reasons I wouldn’t like subbing at the high school level but I didn’t know that one of those reasons would be that the students would find me on facebook and send me messages. A prime example of this was a time I wrote a note to a former teacher of mine about how my day went teaching her students. (This was something I did for all of the teachers I subbed for.) I had one particular problem child and in my note to her I referred to him as a “silly boy” b/c he caused some problems throughout the class and attempted to get a few things past me. I’d smartened up since the second grade class deceived me so I wasn’t letting anything get past me this time. Now I obviously didn’t expect the teacher to read this note to the students but apparently she did which led to the student finding me on facebook and sending me the following message.

“thanks for calling me a silly little boy you silly little bitch haha”

I replied to him as professionally as possible instead getting him suspended which I thought was really nice of me and then proceeded to ignore any more messages from him.

2.) While subbing a half-day for elementary art I got a call to see if I could stay and help out with Sue for the second half of the day. Aside from having one student who kept hiding under the tables, my day was turning out to be a pretty easy one. When the call to stay for the afternoon came, I was in the middle of teaching a lesson and convincing the child hiding under the table to come back out, so I agreed to stay not knowing who Sue was. I found out Sue was a third grade special needs student and this was her first day of being integrated into a classroom with the rest of her peers. I was in way over my head since I had absolutely no training in a situation like this one. This became very apparent when it came time to change her diaper at the end of the day. I was told that the nurse was responsible for this but the nurse sang a different tune. The first 25 minutes or so was spent with Sue yelling at me not to look at her and hugging the toilet and me assuring her that I wasn’t looking. Finally, on the verge of tears, I found the nurse and asked her to please help because I was getting nowhere and Sue was still clinging for dear life to the toilet. The nurse proceeded to help and then offered some advice and words of encouragement, which would have been helpful 30 minutes earlier. I knew at that moment that I wasn’t cut out for this. For the record, I have an incredible amount of respect for special needs teachers and despite my lack of experience in the area; some of my most enjoyable subbing experiences at the high school level were for special needs classes. This particular experience with Sue was obviously a case where the student needed more help than an inexperienced substitute teacher such as myself could give her. Regardless it was the last of a string of bad subbing experiences for me and ultimately led to my split second decision to get out of the subbing game.

That afternoon, I checked my voicemail and was ecstatic to find that, as fate would have it, I had a message from a museum I had applied to. They wanted to set up an interview with me for a security guard position! Not the most glamorous gig but at that moment in my life it was music to my ears.  In my mind it had great potential to lead to something better. It didn’t matter to me that the job was 750 miles away from home or that they wanted to interview me the next week or that I didn’t know how much it paid. My cousin lived in the city so I looked at it as a vacation and trip to see her if things didn’t work out and as a job opportunity if things did work out.

Things worked out. And in these last few years, I have seen things you wouldn’t believe but I’ll attempt to put into words the experiences I’ve had so the world can be entertained by my failure to use my college degree or find a decent paying job.

Please enjoy this, as you are about to be very entertained.