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A Harvard education

Documenting the lives of school service workers was a lesson in social justice for Greg Halpern

CAMBRIDGE -- Sitting at a corner table at Casablanca in Harvard Square, Greg Halpern, 26, sips a Sam Adams and winces at the memory of a moment during his junior year at Harvard when he witnessed behavior so crude it altered his life forever.

 

It happened in the autumn of 1998, late one night at his undergraduate club, the Phoenix, where students were still dressed in tuxedos, still smoking cigars, and still drinking beer when Carol-Ann Malatesta arrived at 4 in the morning to clear empty bottles and dirty dishes and to vacuum carpets and mop the floors in the grand reception room with the oversize fireplace and 15-foot windows that overlook Mt. Auburn Street. She was in a hurry. She had to get home by 7 to get her three children off to school and then report to her day job.

If Malatesta was out of her element, so was Halpern.

Cambridge and Harvard were far from Buffalo and his tough, urban high school. At Harvard, Halpern lived at Winthrop House and, hoping to make friends, underwent the silly rituals, as he calls them, necessary to gain admission to the Phoenix, although as time went by, he came to think of the club as increasingly obnoxious.

"People weren't rude to Carol-Ann," he says, recalling the night, "but there was one moment when this guy -- and maybe he had too much to drink, because his social skills were certainly diminished -- but he was drinking beer with his legs on the table. Carol-Ann was wiping the table, and instead of taking his legs off the table and saying `Excuse me,' he raised his legs for a second. Grasping the moment, Carol-Ann quickly wiped the table under his feet, and then he put his legs back down on the table.

"Now, I don't know if he was trying to insult her, but my mind said, `Whoa! What the hell is going on here?' I wondered, what is that woman thinking right now?

"The next day, I found her and introduced myself formally because, till then, she'd been just the cleaning lady. I'm not socially graceful, so I probably came across as a bumbling kid, but I told her I wanted to do my senior project on interviewing workers like her. She said OK, and when I turned on my tape recorder, she told me the story of her life, and it blew my mind."

She confessed that despite two jobs, she sometimes went trash picking, or, as she called it, shopping. She confided that after paying for rent, taxes, and car insurance, there were days when there was no money for food and she'd take her children to a soup kitchen.

"My kids don't think they're poor," she told him. "When we go to a soup kitchen, they think they're going to a restaurant."

Her story ignited a passion. In the aftermath, Halpern read "Working," the oral history by Studs Terkel in which people describe attitudes about work. He enrolled in Robert Coles's class at Harvard on the "Literature of Social Reflection." He moved out of Winthrop House. He quit the Phoenix club. He found Harvard's tax return online and learned that the university's assets grew by $5 billion in the year it cut wages for poor workers. He joined roommate Aaron Bartley in what became known as the Living Wage Campaign, a three-year drive culminating in a three-week sit-in to win higher pay for Harvard laborers. He embarked on a four-year project to photograph and interview employees in menial jobs at Harvard -- security guards, custodians, dishwashers.

And now, from 2,000 photographs and thousands of pages of transcript, he has produced a book, "Harvard Works Because We Do," an intimate look at a subdivision of working poor who reveal, in simple but compelling words, what it's like to work at Harvard, at a second or even third job, and to serve food, wash dishes, and scrub toilets for elite students who rarely thank them, rarely speak to them, rarely even notice them.

As Malatesta said: "The work itself sucks, all right? It's very tiring, and it's hard work, especially if one of the kids pukes. The kids drink and they puke, and it dries on the walls, and that's kind of gross, but you just clean it up. You hold your nose and you think to yourself, `I got three kids. I love my kids. I want the kids to be happy. The kids are going to get to college. And they're going to get pregnant by someone with a degree and a job, not like their mother.' "

As Terkel writes in the foreword, "Beat that, if you can."

In Halpern's book, you meet Wilson St. Claire, whose supervisor at Adams House would leave a penny in the hall, and after St. Claire finished cleaning, if the penny were still there, the supervisor would cite St. Claire for dereliction. You meet Cindy Huff, who was on her way to college, maybe Harvard, when anorexia led to a stroke that left her disabled. She made it to Harvard, but as a waitress at Adams House Dining Hall. You meet a worker at Harvard Business School who takes pills so he can stay awake on his second job, at Harvard, and when he gets home, he takes another pill to sleep before he reports to his first job. You meet Gary Newmark, loading dock shipper at the Harvard Coop. "You want to know about regular working stiffs? You want to know what I do? I unloaded from a truck probably every book you ever read at Harvard. That's what I do."

As Halpern writes, "They dust portraits, polish the oak panels, and prune the trees. They cook the food and guard the campus; they work in every room of every building, day and night, and yet one of their frequent complaints is that the nation's most perceptive students and scholars simply do not see them."

About Harvard, Halpern had doubts from the beginning.

"I didn't want to come here, but I was seduced by the name. I didn't have the guts to say no to Harvard."

Halpern's social concerns may be rooted in stories he heard growing up in a family that symbolizes the American dream. His grandfather stowed away aboard an ocean liner from Hungary and arrived illegal and penniless. He went to work as a dishwasher, learned the craft of glass cutting, and saw his son graduate from law school, his grandson from Harvard.

The more Halpern studied social justice, however, the more annoyed he became at the way workers were exploited by Harvard and disdained by students.

"It was a buildup of things, students dressed in tuxedos in the Yard weekend nights, drunk and singing a cappella. One day at lunch, a student made fun of the food, and when everybody laughed, I caught the eye of a woman who was glaring at us because she was one of the people who had helped prepare the food."

Halpern became obsessed.

"To me, it was more interesting than a lot of my classes. I had wonderful professors, but stories I heard from custodians were more riveting than classroom lectures."

After graduation, Halpern continued taking photographs and conducting interviews. He worked at part-time jobs, and in between he'd catch workers at lunch breaks, sit with them at bars, or visit them at home. Some workers were photographed 200 times before Halpern was satisfied. Some transcripts ran 60 pages and were edited to a few paragraphs.

Most publishers rejected the book. Not quite right for us, said Harvard University Press. The idea was wonderful, wrote Yale University Press, but surely Halpern could see that Yale was not the appropriate publisher. It wasn't until Terkel agreed to write a foreword that a publisher was found, a division of W. W. Norton & Co., the Quantuck Lane Press.

Among those featured is Danny Meagher, 46, of Ayer, a security guard at Harvard art museums, who says of the book: "Greg shows plainly that workers are not part of the furnishings but human beings with families and children, and they're performing a function for which, at the time, they were not paid very well."

Some students dismissed Halpern as a bleeding-heart liberal, but others said the book opened their eyes. Phoebe Lithgow, 21, of Los Angeles, agreed that many students took workers for granted. "I actually recognized some of the people he photographed, and I said to myself, `I didn't know that person fled the Khmer Rouge.' "

Even the administration at Harvard expressed kind words.

"It's a beautiful book," said Merry Touborg, communications director for Harvard's office of human resources. "However, the university doesn't agree with all that is said about Harvard's relationship with its service workers, much of which is outdated."

The Living Wage Campaign ended with mixed results. Harvard granted a raise but declined to tie it to a cost-of-living index. "We wanted a permanent commitment, but it was disappointing because all we got for workers was a decent raise that, with inflation, will disappear in five years," says Halpern. "Here's how bad it was. In 1998, a single mom was working on the cafeteria line at Harvard Law School and trying to raise her three children on a salary that allowed her, after rent, an average of $13 a day."

Last fall, Halpern moved to San Francisco to study for a master's in photography, and with release of the book this month, he's been on a merry-go-round of publicity interviews -- he was a guest on WBUR's "The Connection" and was featured in The New York Times Book Review.

To Halpern's relief, there'll be no book tour.

"A book signing would feel weird, because these are other people's stories, not mine. All I did was translate them. It's not as though I'm going to make any money from this, because I'm not, but talking to workers made me feel humbled in a way I'd rarely been made to feel by professors."

An incident at his undergraduate club at Harvard led Greg Halpern on a four-year project to photograph and interview employees in menial jobs at the university. An incident at his undergraduate club at Harvard led Greg Halpern on a four-year project to photograph and interview employees in menial jobs at the university. (Globe Staff Photo / Janet Knott)
Photo gallery

Amadeo Lopez (top) and Lillianna Lenares, both custodians at Harvard. (Photos / Greg Halpern)   See more of Halpern's pictures
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"Harvard Works Because We Do," by Greg Halpern
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