Last week, a custodian and community member at UC Berkeley’s International House, where I live, passed away. Damon Frick, who had been a part of our community for a few years, died in the hospital after falling some 20 feet while using a motorized lift to clean windows. He leaves behind a family that gathered at the hospital in his final hours in the hopes he would pull through despite the devastating injuries his body sustained in the fall.
The community at I-House found out little by little what had transpired, no thanks to the administration, which remained silent until Wednesday night, some 60 hours after he fell, although Damon had died Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. The staff at I-House are a constant presence in the lives of residents. Each custodian works on a particular floor, arriving about 6 a.m. and departing by about 3 p.m., but they also clean common areas and work different floors if they’re in during weekends, meaning most residents know most of the members of the custodial staff. I’m generally an early riser, so Damon was always the first person I saw and spoke to on Saturdays and Sundays, when he worked on the fifth floor.
We’d chat for a few minutes, bemoaning the fact that being up at that hour on a Saturday morning wasn’t much of a start to the weekend. A quiet person, Damon was nonetheless always friendly, irrespective of hour and no matter the mess residents might have left after a wild night out.
Irrespective of the reasons behind it, the official silence, which need not have been broken by more than an acknowledgement that a community member had been injured and was in the hospital, served to feed speculation.
And that speculation has gathered attention, because its mission aside, I-House does not convey the impression of fostering a harmonious workplace. In my five years of residence, labor-related issues — issues of accountability and communication — have arisen annually. In my own exchanges about some of these issues with various levels of management, I’ve experienced I-House as a place where management uses its nonprofit status to explain the necessity of playing by just a slightly different set of rules. The result is that it appears to take a much more adversarial approach toward its workers who are nonetheless campus employees and who respond to that approach with frustrations of their own.
Some past and current figures in management have, through personal interactions, expressed impatience with and contempt for the demands of unionized labor, deriding them as unnecessary, obstructionist or irrelevant. My understanding is that many of the union’s demands over the years have related to staffing and workplace safety — two intertwined issues.
So when residents hear rumors about inadequate training and contract violations, these rumors fit into a pattern of behavior by management that some of us have observed firsthand. While I hope these things do not prove to be the case, the fact that they fit a pattern of behavior given the attitude and culture that exists at I-House is, in itself, disturbing. Only time and the ongoing California Division of Occupational Safety and Health investigation will tell.
Damon and his colleagues had spent much of the week doing extra cleaning in the building in advance of its annual gala, an event at which donors and campus bigwigs are wooed in the Great Hall and auditorium, the most splendid of rooms in the very splendid Mission Revival-style building.
The management of I-House and members from the Board of Directors Executive Committee met to decide whether to proceed with the gala the day after Damon’s passing, in light of the tragedy. To their credit, they actually debated whether it would be appropriate to do so, and after being sensitive enough to secure the support of the custodial staff — the people who worked day in and out with Damon — they decided to proceed, while ensuring there was a moment of silence for Damon and creating a trust fund in his memory.
It is good and correct that I-House is taking the lead in contributing to a fund for Damon’s family, left emotionally devastated and financially vulnerable by their loss. I am glad his family will be receiving some support, and I hope attendees at the gala were generous.
Although I wasn’t at Thursday’s event, I can imagine the scene: It is an image which, in spite of whatever good intentions might lay behind it, does not sit well. It’s like something out of the Gilded Age — and, indeed, we are widely recognized to have entered a new era which pits the excess and raw financial power of one class against the frailty of a threadbare working class and the few protections it reserves to itself.
The auditorium is a cavernous room bedecked with banners. It sparkles with wine glasses, candles and the sun glinting off the cars that deposit well-heeled and better-bankrolled guests at its entrance. A cavernous room filled with guests and, lest we forget the important bit, their wallets. Conviviality reigns as people with nothing to lose spend a self-congratulatory night celebrating their security, success and largesse, shepherded about by student volunteers who have been asked to bedeck themselves in “traditional” garb and instructed as to which fork to use first. There is, after all, an art and a ceremony to wheedling money out of people.
In this same room, a member of our community fell to what proved to be his death. In recognition of this macabre element of their festival, the assembled notables may have taken a brief pause, carefully composing their faces into an aura of studious grief for the man most of them didn’t know, digging a little deeper into their wallets to justify their presence in the room Damon Frick was cleaning so I-House could showcase itself and trying not to let their minds wander during the remarks in his honor delivered to a room largely devoid of the people who encountered Damon in his daily life.
Because, of course, students and staff are a secondary constituency at moments like this — they don’t have much to offer in the way of financial resources. In a Dickens novel about social chasms, the genteel classes would glance at their pocket watches. Perhaps at this assembly, the guests cast their eyes down at omniscient smart phones before they can resume the more lighthearted part of their evening.
I hope this really was the best way, and I hope the fund it generated helps Damon’s family. The material results will be important for their welfare. But the truer emotional testament to his memory will not be the odd manner in which his death is folded into a fundraiser for I-House. The true testament will instead, for our community at least, be in the gaps, the pauses and the memories his own absence leaves in our days — the first of the mornings he is not with his colleagues as they arrive or at the cafe during their 8 a.m. break, and when the finality associated with not having seen him in a given week will hit home yet again; the latter when we think of the small conversations we had with him regularly and how tremendously, terrifyingly magnified that void will be for his wife, his children, his brother and his parents.
The thoughts of our community are with them.
Jeff Schauer has been an I-House resident for five years and is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley.