Every so often you get a job that is just sort of cool. Security work - if you have the right attitude - is that sort of job. Of course, most of the time you are just a glorified Barney Fife, which is okay.
This is dedicated to the security guys I met at the Federal Building on Monday. One was pretty cool, but the other - well, I think he may just have been having a really, really bad day.
The Secret World of Security Guards
Not taking yourself too seriously is the key to survival
Written by Richard S. Drake
There is a scene in the wonderful fake reality series Reno 911 which takes place after the main characters have been temporarily busted from the Reno police department. Two of them become security guards for a private company. “Not security guards,” one solemnly tells the camera, pointing to his shoulder patch. “Security officers.”
For the three years I worked in security for a wheel manufacturer in Northwest Arkansas, I often used that same line. The only difference was, I was kidding.
There is a general consensus that security guards, especially in the industrial world, are mainly made up of Barney Fife’s who imagine that they are Jack Bauer of Fox’s 24. This is not always the case, though it is the cop wannabes who make it difficult for everyone else.
I fell into the security business by accident, just seeking a part-time job for the weekends. Little did I know that it would soon become my full-time job for the next three years, or how much I would enjoy most of the time I wore the uniform.
One of the first things that you discover when you go to work in plant security is just how little money you make, compared to, say, people who are actually working. But then again, working a twelve hour shift in a deserted plant at night gave me a great chance to catch up on reading, personal phone calls, listening to the radio, and writing for whatever alternative paper I was working for at the time.
I can easily make these confessions now; it’s not like my former employers can ask for their money back.
Of course, if you think I was the only one tending to personal business during those long, lonely hours, you are sadly mistaken. Which is not to say that my fellow guards and I were not watchful, or that we were not taking care of company business. It’s just, perhaps, that we may have had a little too much time, and too little company business to take care of.
Which made some among us a little too watchful.
Though we often worked alone, sometimes we worked in teams. Once, after making a round through the plant, I walked in on a conversation between two of my fellow security officers, who were discussing the loneliness of eternal vigilance.
“You can never be too friendly,” said one, a young woman who would probably never, ever be accused by anyone of being to friendly.
“No,” agreed her partner, a fellow sporting a US Marine corps haircut (but not the body). “You never know when you might have to take down a supervisor.”
She nodded, in the manner of the cops on the old Dragnet television program.
At this point they noticed me lurking in the doorway, an incredulous look on my face. “Excuse me,” I muttered. “I have to get back to Earth now.” I turned around and left.
Moving on, there are the folks in security who love rules, any rules. They especially like the rules that allow them to “write up” working stiffs. Sometimes rules and regulations are important, and sometimes they are petty beyond words. It was usually up to each guard as to whether or not they would write someone up, or just quietly talk the situation over with them.
And then, of course, the was the option of simply making up the rules as you went along. I only did this myself twice, but I was pretty pleased about it each time I did it.
On the first occasion, I prevented a maintenance man from entering the plant while wearing a T-short proclaiming the slogan, “National Association for the Advancement White People.” I had already known for quite some time that he was a racist, and while I am a strong believer in freedom of speech, I also don’t believe in yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. In this case the “theater” being a factory made up of ethnically diverse employees.
“Hey,” I said as he passed by the guard station in the lobby. “You can’t wear that in here.”
He begged to differ, and walked into the plant. I thought about it a moment, and picked up the phone to call his immediate supervisor. A few minutes later they both trudged into the lobby, and the man went home to change his shirt, muttering about “prejudice” on his way out.
Give a liberal a little authority and they go wild, I guess.
The second occasion was when I made up a completely nonexistent rule concerning the repossession of vehicles on company property. Over the years I have a known quite a number of folks who have had hit a bad patch financially and had their cars repossessed while they were at work - probably one of the worst place in the world to suddenly be without a vehicle.
At the time I was working with a partner, and when I happened to notice a man hooking up to a vehicle in the lot, I motioned him over.
I suggested that my fellow guard have the man come in. My partner, who shared similar sentiments, readily agreed. “What are you doing” I asked when the man came in.
“I’m taking this guy’s car because he owes back payments,” he explained, as if to a backward child. Probably no one had ever questioned his actions before now.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t to do that,” I said politely. “We have to call the man up here and explain the situation to him. If he doesn’t want you to repossess the car, you have to leave the property.”
“What?” He was incredulous.
“I’m sorry,” I said sympathetically. “I don’t make up the rules.”
A few minutes later an elderly Mexican worker came from his department at the rear of the plant, and we talked to him about the repo man’s desire to two his car away. “If you say you don’t want your car repossessed,” I told him, “he has to leave it here.”
“I don’t want my car repossessed,” he said quickly.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to leave now,” I said to the confused repo man. The car sat in the lot for another two weeks until payments were caught up. I have often felt that if I died that day, I would have gone straight to Heaven.
And then there were there those others who in security who also had a tendency to make up their own rules, not to help anyone out, but to satisfy the needs of their own ugly natures. There were two briefly employed guards, for example, who worked one weekend shift and demanded that all of the Hispanic workers show them their Green cards.
Most of us were glad that we were not given any sort of weapon, but of course naturally some among us would have given their right arms for a really, really big gun. You’ve met those security officers - they never smile, and the more inconsequential their job, the more they think they are the first line of defense against terrorism.
Most of us had a running joke that we were nothing more than glorified receptionist, only we didn’t get to dress as well.
True, we did have to take basic First Aid, and also a short (very short) Hazardous Materials class. We didn’t actually learn what to do in case of a spill; we learned how to call on those who actually were trained in cleaning up such spills. While those in maintenance might take the more involved haz-mat training, what security officers mostly learned could be summed up in three words:
Point and Scream.
There were also some times when the job of a security officer could involve some unpleasant duties. For me, nothing was more unpleasant than the days when we had instructions not to allow someone into the plant, and tell them that they had to come back in a few hours and talk to the Head of Human Resources - what used to called a Personnel Manager, back in the days when human beings were more than just another disposable “resource.”
If your shift began at 4am, and you couldn’t come back until 8am, this was pretty unfair - especially if were dropped off at work, or had driven in a considerable distance.
Of course, this usually meant that you were fired, and that your immediate supervisor didn’t have the personal integrity to tell you themselves. So they would have some poor schmuck in security stop you and say, “Hey, don’t clock in just yet.”
You never really knew how someone might take the news. Luckily, while some did become upset, they never took it out on us or the people around them.
For the most part, though, it was true that security work - especially in the daylight hours - was very much like the job of a receptionist.
But after three years, fighting crime as a security guard was all the excitement I could take. When an opportunity came to jump to a lab job, I took it, and never looked back. Still, whenever I now complain about not having enough time to read, whenever I think back on those nights, leaning back in my chair, listening to the radio, gazing out on a dark parking lot and keeping America safe.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, “Freedom Run.” and “Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.”
Little Rock Free Press - 2006