Working Girl: The Summer of No Sleep
At the end of my freshman year at SDSU, I was busted for being on the guys’ side of Binnewies Hall after curfew. I had to report to the Residence Hall Director later that week for judgment, which I did. The RHD, Joe, asked me what I had to say for myself and I said, “Absolutely nothing. I am totally guilty. I should have paid attention and either gotten out of there earlier, or at least kept my voice down so I didn’t get caught.” I don’t know why I was so unusually comfortable in the situation; my traditional response would have been shame and panic (caught! breaking rules! on the BOY’S side!) but I had a rare interval of clarity right then that let me see that this was what it was: a legalistic situation that called for accountability and not a big deal. Joe looked at me for a second and said, “Have you ever considered becoming a Resident Assistant?” I had not, but I saw that the position offered a free private room, a basic meal plan, and didn’t seem to require too many hours of work. I liked my RA’s and thought it would be fun to shepherd wide-eyed freshmen into the campus world. Kind of like being a tour guide, without the long dress. Starting in my sophomore year, I was relying on a few tiny scholarships, grants, loans and work to pay my way, so the RA gig sounded like a sensible way to go.
I was not a great RA. I liked the residents, but I was not very effective at inspiring enthusiasm for the events we were forced to provide. I, in fact, was the only female RA in Mathews Hall to NOT get an award for providing extra social or educational events for my residents (above and beyond the requisite two.) On the other hand, I would talk to anyone, anytime about anything, and the residents and I had a perfect understanding: if they kept the shenanigans quiet I wouldn’t notice them. Also, the one social event I do remember hosting was a viewing of the video “Raw” by Eddie Murphy, which was hilarious. I loved the staff meetings; the other RA’s were pretty awesome and I find myself now wondering what they are all up to. Some of my former residents are my friends on facebook, and one, Kelly, is still my BFF and can be found on Hot Off The Wire. Good times, weird year. By the end of April, I felt I had kind of flunked RAing, but had managed to get a position as an Ambassador to incoming freshmen for the next Fall, and had applied for and scored two work-study positions for the summer. I would be working in Records and the Nutrition Lab.
I will not bore you with Records except to say I helped manage requests for transcripts and the most exciting thing was the motorized file system that was built into the wall and ran kind of like the spinning rack at the drycleaner. It was a quiet, sunny office in the very old Admin building, with its high ceilings, tall wood-framed windows and uneven floors. Not a bad workplace to ride out the occasional hangover.
The Nutrition Lab was a different kind of animal. Literally. The labs were on the top floor of what was called the HEN house, for Home Economics and Nursing. There was a food lab that was a massive kitchen, but I worked for an instructor doing research on certain diets, and we had a big biology lab and, up some steps into a kind of attic, was “the rat room.” My boss was feeding a control group of at least twelve rats as much kibble as they wanted, and was feeding the experimental group of the same size a yo-yo diet of minimal food for a set amount of time, followed by as much as they wanted. My daily job was to weigh & document how much they ate and keep them fed and watered. At least weekly I weighed the rats and cleaned their cages. There were also a bunch of lab mice for another experiment and I had to take care of them, too. It was warm and musty smelling up in the rat room, even when the cages were clean. I had a radio to listen to and I recall the big hit of the summer was “Nasty Boys” by Janet Jackson, which always makes me think of wiggly white rats and the smell of urine. I did not love the rats, but I bore them no ill will either, which is one of the reasons why, when the feeding portion of the experiment was done, the next phase made me a bit squeamish. (ICK ALERT! Beware the next paragraph! I warned you!)
When you euthanize rats, it is a lot like using a killing jar on insects, only bigger. You pop the rat in a big jar with some cotton balls soaked in something (ether?) Then my boss finished them off and excised the “fat pad” above the rats’ tails (we humans have them too, that cushy pad at the base of our spine, just above the butt-crack. I can’t see that without thinking of rats, either.) It turns out that this fat pad is a good indicator of overall body fat content. So I weighed the fat pads and documented this and then slipped the dead rats and the fat pads into plastic bags, labeled by ID# and frozen. For later. Because the fat pad was not enough information. Over the next two weeks, with no rats to feed, my job was to thaw a few rats each day in an autoclave. This produced an interesting aroma that brought people to the lab asking, “Mmmm, what’s going on in the kitchen today?” Once we told them, they never asked again. After the rats were thawed, I put each one, with a specific amount of purified water according to the rat’s weight, into an industrial blender, where it was ground up, making some horrifying thunking sounds which I always envisioned was the tail. I poured the thick, warm “rat shake”–hair and all–into a new, freshly labeled bag from which we would later take samples to do a more comprehensive body fat test. Then I cleaned the blender, and started again. It is the kind of memory, with sounds, smells, visuals and even the tactile sense of holding the lid on the warm blender as it shuddered and buzzed, that keeps the experience as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Traumatically so. Nasty Boys, indeed.
On top of, or underlying all this, was the new overnight and weekend job I got that summer, the one I’ll talk about next time. Suffice it to say that between the three jobs (the rat lab job ended as the Ambassador one began,) and the new boyfriend (Mr. Wordtabulous!) I got next to no sleep that summer, which had an interesting effect on my personality and my relationships. Thank you, to everyone who survived that time with me. And thank you, visitor, for reading!
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