McGill's night owls

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McGill Reporter
January 24, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 09
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McGill's night owls

It was a cold night. I pushed through the doors of the University Centre, kicking snow off my boots, cursing myself for not becoming a doctor like my mother wanted, and wondering when I might ever sleep again.


I was on an assignment to shine a light on what goes on at McGill after-hours. This isn't a nine-to-five kind of place, after all. The words of my editor rang in my head even now.

"Keep your mouth shut, and your eyes peeled for anything unusual. I want colour! I want you out there from sunset to sunrise! Now get out of here!" he snarled at me.

And, truth to tell, there is still a lot going on here as most of the other downtown workplaces call it a day.

Students pore over books and databases in the libraries well after sunset, while the reference librarians handle queries most weeknights till nine. Students and staff work out at the Currie Gymnasium's facilities in a bid to make their New Year's resolutions a reality.

Downtown workers flock to the Centre for Continuing Education to take courses so they can switch career paths or master a new language.

Janitors wield mops to clean up our messes -- if anyone at this University knows your dirty secrets, they do.

The University Centre is mostly closed after five, but students involved in various club activities still roam in and out of the building. I set off in search of a club meeting, but my progress is hampered by clusters of students standing or sitting in the halls, earnestly reading lines of dialogue at each other from manuscripts clutched in their hands.

I approach a group when suddenly a woman bursts out of a room down the hall.

"All right! Auditions starting! Come on everyone! We only have until 9:30!"

"But wait! I just want to do an interview with these guys for a minute!" I cry.

"No time! Sit down. You can watch the auditions."

Meekly I sit. Whatever her name, she is obviously the director of the play -- she is certainly in charge.

The students are all aspiring actors, doing a call-back audition for Family Therapy, a play that will be performed next month at the McGill Theatre Festival. Group after group of students get up in front of the watchful eye of the director and their fellow thespians and pour their souls out on the stage.

I manage to corner two actors after the auditions were over. Ashley Botting (U3 Arts) is entering her final semester at McGill. To her, auditioning for the play was a chance to finish her university career with a bang.

Stephanie McMaster (U0 Arts) is only just beginning her studies at McGill. Having acted in high school, she sees the festival as an opportunity to get back in the game. If she doesn't succeed in her audition she intends to come back next year -- maybe with a play of her own.

Pulling my coat tight around me, I venture out into the night again. Gazing at the darkened buildings, I'm reminded of the saying, "The night has a thousand eyes."

Sergeant Chris Montvydas has two of those eyes. One of the many security agents employed by McGill through Garda, a private contractor, Montvydas is one of the senior security guards, which means that he gets to drive one of the two 4X4 cars that are a constant presence on campus. Montvydas kindly allows me to ride along.

With us is George Sifosis, an agent in training. Although five buildings have what are called "static agents" in them overnight, the other 140-odd that make up McGill's downtown campus need to be checked by either the foot patrols or the officers in the two cars. In addition to the 22 buildings Montvydas and Sifosis will check tonight, they will also respond to any number of other calls -- everything from burglaries to jammed elevators. They have a story for every building.

"I remember getting called up here in October," says Sifosis as we approach the residences. "All these kids were throwing pumpkins out of the third floor."

"Yeah, I nearly got hit," recalls Montvydas, and then pauses. There is a tinge of hurt in his voice as he adds "We tend to get targeted -- you know how kids call cops pigs? Well they come up with all sorts of names for us too."

There is plenty of non-pumpkin related activity going on at the residences at night.

Student leaders regularly organize big nights out for rez residents, says Douglas Hall director Susan Davies. Movie nights, hockey games, ski trips -- the sorts of outings that help students cement friendships that will last well beyond graduation.

It also tends to be a busy time for floor fellows -- respected students selected by their peers to assist Davies in running the place. "There are plenty of one-on-one talks as students seek advice on how to find an apartment next year or how to cope with breaking up with a boyfriend. A lot of that happens in the evening," says Davies.

Sensitive characters, these floor fellows. Unlike certain editors...

After an hour of checking buildings, and cruising around campus with Montvydas and Sifosis ,we get a call to a building on Peel, where an alarm has gone off. As we enter the foyer, we meet a student. She rapidly explains that she had a late class in the building, and had gone to the bathroom when it ended. Her teacher had set the alarm; not realizing she was still in the building. Montvydas takes her name and ID number, and lets her out, reassuring her that she hasn't done any harm.

Much as I was enjoying my ride-along, I knew I had to get moving. Time and tide wait for no man, and neither does science.

Biochemistry professor Nahum Sonenberg is keenly aware of this. Although most of the rest of the McIntyre Medical Building is quiet by seven in the evening, his section of the eighth floor is relatively crowded with people -- all from his lab.

Sonenberg works in gene expression, with a focus on cancer cells and obesity. It's an intensely competitive field with anywhere between 20 to 40 other labs in the same field in North America.

"If you want to succeed you want to be first," he says, "And the winner will be the one who works hardest."

Sonenberg comes in at around nine in the morning and doesn't usually leave until late in the evening. It's a work ethic that seems to have infected his graduate students. As I follow Sonenberg down a hallway to one of his work areas, we pass a room where four or five of his students are eating.

"Having your supper?" I inquire.

"Lunch!" one replies.

This is not unusual Sonenberg tells me.

"I have students that come in at four in the afternoon and stay all night," he says with pride.

France Drolet, administrative officer with the Faculty of Medicine, says it isn't unusual for labs to be operating at all hours. Some of her faculty's best-known researchers, including Philippe Gros, Michel Tremblay and Moshe Szyf, have been known to troop in at unusual hours with their teams.

As I slide back down Peel I hear the sounds of a large party coming from Chancellor Day Hall. I enter, spying about 400 people surrounding a man playing a grand piano in the faculty's atrium.

It's the law faculty's Coffee House -- a weekly event for the last decade. Hosted either by the faculty's clubs, or by law firms eager to meet potential recruits, the Coffee House is one of the few chances law students have to hang out with each other away from the pressure of school work. Tonight's event is sponsored by a firm called Fasken Martineau, whose recruiters are pressing the flesh with potential employees.

The firm's Christian Faribault sees the Coffee House as a way to meet potential employees in a setting where they're more relaxed than in a regular interview.

I pick up a phone and place a call to a guy who won't tell me his name. He is answering the phone tonight for McGill Nightline, a student-run operation that promises to listen to anything you have to say "without shock or disapproval."

The reason he is careful about what he tells me is that Nightline is a totally confidential service. "We don't give advice," he says, but they are carefully trained to answer all sorts of questions about McGill and the city and they'll refer you to someone who can help if you've got a serious problem.

"We do get calls from people who say they feel suicidal," and a calm, sympathetic ear at the other end of the line can sometimes work wonders in situations like that. More often, though, a caller dialing them at 398-6246 will ask about the best pizza joints downtown.

Gary Bernstein sleeps well at night. He credits it to his administrative responsibilities as the director of Network and Communications Services.

His staff isn't so lucky and it wasn't so long ago that he was in the same position. McGill's computer and telephone networks never rest -- students in residence and medical staff at the Montreal Neurological Hospital use them 24 hours a day, for instance.

There are NCS staff working 4 pm to 11 pm shifts and others who come in at 11 pm and work to the wee hours of the next day. The network must be monitored, servers maintained, backups put onto tape. "My people are all on a really short leash," says Bernstein. If something happens at 2 am that urgently requires the services of a specialist, "somebody is going to get a phone call." The software specialists at Information Systems Resources are also accustomed to occasionally abandoning their warm sheets when a crisis emerges.

I arrive at Gert's after 9 pm and the University Centre's bar is already full. Wall-to-wall partiers occupy every inch of floor space and the music is pitched at ear splitting levels.

A big night for Gert's is often a big night for McGill Walksafe, a volunteer organization that escorts people to any location on the island of Montreal.

Walksafe spokesperson Vladimir Marquez (U3 Biochemistry) tells me that from 8 pm until early morning, Walksafe volunteers will send a red-jacket-clad team -- usually one male and one female student -- to escort clients to their destinations. For 10 years the organization has been taking people safely to Longueuil, Ste. Anne de Bellevue, and all points in between.

When not actually escorting people, the teams are supposed to remain visible -- wandering around campus where they can be seen. However, Marquez tells me there are concessions for the climate.

"When it's -30 they can go hang out in the Second Cup or a Subway," he says with a smile.

Files from Daniel McCabe, who rarely snarls, even at creative license that borders on character assassination.

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