Working (now)

A Conversation with Matt Kostecki and The Wax Paper

In 1974, Studs Terkel published, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. In the spirit of that landmark publication, The Wax Paper editors have gone into the field to continue asking Mr. Terkel’s original question.

We met Matt at his apartment in a high rise residential building in Streeterville, a neighborhood on the Near North side of Chicago. We are greeted by his cheerful wife, Katrina, and their curious toddler daughter Jolita. Their apartment faces Lake Michigan, which is visible through a few cracks between the other high-rises in the neighborhood. The apartment is part of Matt’s compensation for working as a building manager.

I worked 4-5 years at Mother’s Too. It’s a tourist bar in the Gold Coast [a Chicago neighborhood]. I was a doorman, bouncer, and bar back rolled into one.

They weren’t doing well when I was there. Rush and Division was really popular in the 90s and early 2000s, but it fell off as other Chicago neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park and Wicker Park, became popular tourist destinations.

The weekends were somewhat busy, same as any other bar on the strip. I’d have to get people into the bar, especially working on tips. They had so many other options. I’d stand outside and yell at people to try and get them in. Use my charm. You’d look at a person, and you could kind of tell what they were looking for. If they were college kids, I’d tell them that they get a free shot with every drink inside. They’d find out it was liquid gut rot, but they’d still drink it. They didn’t care.

There weren’t too many fights. One guy would hit on another guy’s girlfriend, and the boyfriend would flip out. I’d step in between. It was easy to talk most people down. No one ever punched me in the bar. The manager didn’t like my style. She wanted to grab the guy, beat the crap out of him, and throw him out the door. But me, being the guy I am, I wanted to talk them down, diffuse the situation. The night could be saved, and people could still have a good time. 

I’m not a big guy. I always got a lot of, “You’re a bouncer? You’re the pussiest bouncer I’ve ever met in my life”. And I’d say, “yeah, well, you’re drunk and I’m sober”. No one ever actually punched me in the bar. They’d grab me but no one ever landed a punch. There were only a couple of times where people were arrested or punches were thrown. 

On a nice Thanksgiving night, this guy stood inside the doorway and lit up a cigarette. I asked him to please move 15 feet from the door; that’s part of the Chicago smoking ban code. He told me to fuck off. I told him the police will be around soon and you can’t be standing here. He said the cops can fuck off too. I asked him politely to leave two more times, and he kept telling me to fuck off. So I told him he couldn’t go back into the bar. Just then his buddy and their two girls came out to smoke. They moved 15 feet away from the door to smoke, but the guy stayed in the doorway. When the girls came in, he finally walked over and joined his buddy. I told the girls that I can’t let the guy back in. I explained how he was being disrespectful, and they agreed to get him out of there. The girls went to gather up their coats and things. The guy came back and tried to get in the bar. I told him he couldn’t. He freaked out and threw a punch. I grabbed his arm, put him in a headlock, and started punching him in the face in 35 degree weather on Thanksgiving night. The guy’s buddy came after me. My friend, Jones, ran out from the bar to stop the guy’s friend. Jones got a hand in his face, and the guy grabbed Jones’ long hair. A bouncer from Bootlegger’s ran over and dropped the guy on the sidewalk, but the guy still had Jones’ hair in his hand. When the cops showed up, they told me to let the guy go, but they had to rip him out of my hands. When I started explaining what had happened, I was still shaking and full of adrenaline. When they asked Jones what his part in it was, he said, “I was trying to stop the guy with my hair in his hand from getting to my buddy”. As the police were putting them in the back of the cop car, they were cursing and swearing at us. I just waved at them and kept saying “Happy Thanksgiving”. 

There were a lot of underage’s trying to sneak in. You’d get the guy who’d have something printed on a blank plastic card. You’d turn it over and there would be nothing printed on the back. I’d tell him, “Really, I’m just gonna put this in the trash for you.” You could take their fake IDs, put it in your pocket, and sell it back to them in the alley for $100. Then, they’d go to the next bar and get it taken away again. The cops didn’t care one way or the other. 

Three-fingered Bill, he’s still a friend of mine. Crazy guy. He’d ride in on his motorcycle daily, after work or on his lunch break. He’d pound back shots of tequila and a few beers and go back to work on his motorcycle. Sometimes not on his motorcycle, when I would take his motorcycle from him and roll it into the gangway out back. I knew he couldn’t ride back when he couldn’t get his leg over the motorcycle seat. Bill was a crazy, gun toting, pot smoking, alcohol loving guy. He’d blown off two of his fingers when he was younger. He made a pipe bomb and it exploded in his hand. Bill would come in speaking normal. 

After a few shots of tequila and a few beers, he’d start mumbling. He would be outside smoking while I was trying to convince good looking women to come into the bar. Bill would mumbl at them, “I like girls in short skirts.” I’d say, “Bill, godammit, go around the corner.” He’d laugh and give them a creepy eye, smoking with his three fingers.

Bill and the other regulars would sit and play Nintendo Wii. Most of the regulars would disperse when the crowds started coming in. Bill lived in the Mark Twain, the transient hotel with the hookers and the crack addicts. I’d ask him if he was worried about living there. He’d reach in his pocket and pull out his gun, before the conceal and carry law. He always had a knife on him.

Rollins would come in and hang out with Bill. Half the bartenders didn’t like him because he was very picky. He’d walk in with a book at 7 PM and try to read while tourists were blaring hip hop. He’d, go to the jukebox, skip all their songs and put on a whole Pink Floyd album. He’d say, “Yeah, yeah, what’s up now?” Pretty soon the tourists would start wandering out. 

Colette would throw on her R&B and dance. She was always drinking wine. She was about 60, a hard partying 60 year old. She lived a half a block away. Every once in awhile I’d have to walk her home. Or she’d take a cab and refuse to let me walk her home. She was a kind hearted woman. She just wanted to be out there having fun. She didn’t want to be in her apartment. She had released her own jazz album with her sister. She had traveled the world and had lots of great stories.

When I had my days off I’d come in, and there would be a lot of building engineers and maintenance guys in there. Marty Walsh would bring all his guys in with him after they got off at 2 pm. They were always fun. They’d drink Bud Lights and full glasses of Jameson’s. The bar always had a party for him every year, a Party for Marty, because he pretty much paid the daytime shift bills. They’d rent a bus and go to a Cubs game. The story goes with him. He had won five to eight hundred thousand dollars in the lotto. So that was his dream (to buy his friends drinks). He had a good job and money to pay for drinks. He was a funny guy. Sometimes he’d come in all coked up, grinding his teeth, and try to drink whiskey. I’d say, “Marty, you should go home.” His son worked with him too. His son would come in and drag him home. I heard that Marty passed about a year and a half ago. He hung himself. He was having health problems. He was in and out. He might be okay he might not. He didn’t have much time to live. From what I heard, he hung himself at his office at work. The doorman tried to call him for something. Ended up going to his office and found Marty hanging there. The doorman, being an idiot apparently, called his son and said you gotta come see this. So Marty Jr. walked in and saw his dad hanging in his office. Instead of calling the cops and keeping his son out of there.

Three-fingered Bill, was a building manager too, he kept telling me to come over and be a janitor at his building. I kept saying, “I don’t want to be a janitor. That doesn’t sound like a good career choice. I can mop up puke and piss here.” 

I finally left the job at the bar. They had made too many promises to make me a bartender. I took the training, but they never followed through. Bill ended up getting me into one of his buildings in River North, and I took the job. I became a Class C janitor. Technically, in the union, Bill was the head janitor. He was usually referred to as a chief engineer or building engineer, but in the union it’s janitor. There’s an assistant head janitor. There’s a Class A, which is maintenance, fixing things. I became a Class C janitor. I just cleaned. I didn’t do anything that involved tools. I could change a light bulb, maybe a filter. 

The River North building was pretty new. It was 40 stories of condos. I had no clue what I was getting into. The first week I was there,  Bill was showing me where to take the trash out. We rolled some trash cans out into the alley. I said, “Oh man there’s dog shit back here.” And Bill said, “That ain’t dog shit.” He said, “Usually I tell people I’ll do anything, but I’m going to let you get this one.”

I started taking classes to become Class A while I was at that building. Right now, I’m a Class A janitor, basically the Assistant Building Engineer. I took a gamble and became a janitor, which was probably the best choice of my life.

I live in the building. I take care of all the emergency calls. I take care of all the mechanicals. If I see something dirty, I tell the guys to clean it. We have a Chief Engineer, Ennis. Ennis is usually in his office dealing with paperwork, the manager, and the contractors.

And we have four cleaners. There’s 325 units. 40 stories. 30 stories of residential. 10 stories of parking. There’s 30,000 square feet of amenities too. There are offices here that people can rent out. It’s a lot of cleaning.

The average apartment here is around $2,800 a month. I haven’t run into to many problems with the people here. This type of building, people seem to stay here for a year or two. If they stay in Chicago, they eventually buy a house in a nice neighborhood. We’ve had the CEO of Morton Salt and Judge Mathis live here.

One family paid the first month’s rent. Every check after that bounced. It seemed they were making a business out of it. We found blank check paper in the unit after they moved out. We went up there for scheduled preventative maintenance, changing out filters and looking for damage. The lady said, “No, no we’re not ready.” We went up the next day. She still didn’t want to let us in, but she finally did. Inside, there were cigarette butts all over the kitchen counter (we’re a non-smoking building) and trash everywhere. In one room, there was a kid sitting on the floor watching an old school TV on an old table. There was no furniture anywhere else just pizza boxes, pizza boxes everywhere. In the other bedroom, there was a dog and shit and piss everywhere. That was the first eviction I saw. I think it took almost six months to evict them. We had to rip out all of the flooring and put on three coats of paint to get rid of the smell. 

I work with Nick, another Class A guy. We do all the appliance repairs. If someone’s shower or drain is leaking. We go in and cut all the mold out of the drywall and the flooring, set up the dehumidifiers, and after it’s dry, replace everything.

I’ve moved up quickly in this industry. I’ve only been doing this for a little over three years. It takes most guys five to ten years to get where I’m at. But I’ve taken as many classes as I can, and it’s paid off. I have my Journeyman’s certificate as a Stationary Engineer. I have my EPA Universal Certification for dealing with refrigerant. I’m a Certified Pool Operator. People like seeing that.

I’ve always been mechanically inclined. I was always building stuff when i was younger. I tried to go to school for engineering, but didn’t get through it all of the way. Eventually, I ended up here.

This conversation was recorded in April of 2016 in the break room of the building where Mr. Kostecki lives and works.