PHILADELPHIA -- They say the difference between home and the road is that when you're at your own place, you clean up. That the difference between a guest and a friend is that a friend will help with the dishes. So when I slept over at the Palestra on Wednesday night
, a place I consider to be the original genesis and home court of The Mid-Majority, I felt an overwhelming obligation to serve instead of simply visit.
When I surprised longtime Palestra custodian Dan Harrell at 5 a.m. (the message from the facility managers and the athletics staff didn't get through) I offered to help out however I could. From the contorted look on his wizened face, I could tell he thought I was a.) nuts, and b.) taking the liberty of false sympathy on a 66-year-old man, a fiercely independent former Penn sprint football coach who still clocks 40 hours a week, one who doesn't need anybody's help or pity.
"No, no, I'm alright," Dan said cautiously, waving me off. "They'll be in to practice around 6:30." Then he proceeded to wash the floor with a 45-lb. oaken squeegie that he dragged across the court, then conspicuously slung across his shoulder.
During the two-hour practice, Dan made the rounds with his dustmop, chatting up the coaches and managers and Mike Mahoney, Penn's SID. I could see Dan leaning in close, making subtle and hidden hand movements, the kind that one makes when they're talking about somebody who's in the vicinity. He was given away each and every time once the other conversant party would look up to the bleachers in my direction. They'd nod gently and reassuringly at Dan. Then they'd tilt their head, speak with an open-palmed gesture. "He's alright," or some variation, I could tell that's what was going on. The process repeated several times as predawn became early morning.
After practice, Dan approached me. "When you said you wanted to help, I thought you were kidding," he said. "In fact, I thought you were a little nuts."
I presented my credentials. "I'm non-union, I work hard and I work for free," I told Dan. Usually, that gets me in the door every time. But not here.
"Well, you'd better be pro
-union," Dan replied.
I assured him that my profession had no real national union, much less anything resembling a professional certification process. Besides, I said, I have friends who are high up in the Steelworkers. And that was good enough for Dan Harrell.
I was about to take on the greatest temp job I've ever had in my whole entire life: assistant Palestra custodian.
The Palestra contains four main Penn locker rooms, one in each corner of the building at floor level. The basketball facilities are on the west side -- the men are in the corner closest to Chestnut Street, and the women are in the southwest corner. Dan handed me a blue and white vacuum, and we wheeled it into the women's locker room ("Housekeeping!" he announced as we entered) to clean the rugs ahead of the team's practice later on in the afternoon. The floor was covered with shoes and shirts and unmentionables; Dan moved the items into loose piles.
"I don't tidy up so much that they can't find where they put things," he explained. "I sorta meet 'em halfway."
It took about 15 minutes to completely vacuum the blue and red rugs in the main locker room and the coaches' room. The Quaker women's team, which hasn't had nearly as much historical success as the men, are mired in the same kind of slump. They're 1-14 to nearly match the 1-15 record on the men's side. The walls were covered with handwritten messages of affirmation. "I will be a source of strength to my teammates in times of struggle," read one. I'd rather be on a team with people like that, I thought, than on a 30-win championship squad.
Dan inspected my work afterwards. "That looks better than when I do it," he remarked. I'm sure he was just being nice, but I'd earned the opportunity to do one of the most important jobs in the entire building: mopping the hallowed Palestra court.
We stood courtside as the last few Penn men's players got in their 3-point and free throw shooting practice before class and the northbound bus later that afternoon for Yale-Brown weekend. "The floor's clean, it don't need to be washed," Dan said. "Do you hear it?"
He paused to allow for the squeak of sneakers.
"You can hear how clean it is. I have to wash it every morning, because the dust comes down overnight. Real thick. Sometimes I'll wash it two or three times during the day when there's a lot of activity. But that floor's clean. It just needs a once-over with the dust mop."
After the court was clear, I attempted to maneuver the four-foot-wide mop along the floorboards. Steering it was harder than it looked; I learned that it was all in the wrist. Some Penn assistants and staff members sat talking in the corner. As I passed, they gave me the old joke about missing a spot.
But I really did
miss a spot. Dan made sure I remembered to sweep out the corners around the scorer's table on the north end of the floor, and down by the opposite benches. He knelt and picked up a maroon feather out from just beneath the bleachers. He held it up to the light and inspected it.
"This is a Saint Joseph's Hawk feather," he intoned with all the gravity of a TV orinthologist. "It's from their mascot
, and they come off from all that flapping. When they play here, like they did Monday, we'll find these for three or four days afterwards."
Once I'd mopped the court, Dan fetched an old orange standup vacuum from behind the west bleachers. It was one of those ancient Hoovers with the inflatable bag that puffs up when it's on, but the on-off switch didn't work. He plugged it into an outlet in the men's locker room, with the help of a yellow extension cord, and soon the grey mop-bottom became slightly off-white.
While he was cleaning up the mop, Penn assistant coach John Gallagher approached. "Let me tell you a little story about Dan," he whispered. "Have you heard the one about Denzel Washington?"
I thought the story might be about Quaker legend Jerome Allen
, who does resemble the actor and who came back to serve as interim head coach after the December firing of Glenn Miller. It had to do with Denzel's son, Malcolm, who's a freshman guard on the team.
"Well, Denzel came out and watched practice about a month ago," John said. "And Dan, he's never watched a movie in his life, I'm serious. Everybody in the world knows who Denzel Washington is, but not Dan. All he knows is Palestra sports. So Dan and Denzel were talking for about 20 minutes, and at the end of it, Dan asks, 'So what do you do for a living, Denzel?' And Denzel says, humble and unassuming as could be, 'Dan, I'm a trying actor.' And Dan replies, 'Good luck with that, Denzel... good luck with that.'"
Dan's love affair with the Big 5, which has kept him from more popular types of culture, dates back to his childhood. "Here, take a break, Kyle," he said. "I want to show you something."
Dan led me, and one of the staff members who'd been hanging out, through a grey unmarked door on the floor level. Down a dark ramp we went, deep into the ground below the city. We were entering the very bowels of the Cathedral, covered with dust and cobwebs and surrounded by pipes and tubes of all kinds. As we progressed down the corridor, it became louder and warmer. We passed an ancient switchboard overflowing with broken wires
. Dan opened a side door to reveal a gaping cylinder, five feet in diameter, out of which came an overwhelming blast of hot wind. Dan smiled and closed it immediately.
"Did I scare ya?" he said with a sideways grin.
There was a short stack of steps that led down to a litter-filled basement. "This is how I used to sneak into games when I was a kid," he recalled. "We're underneath Hutchinson Gym right now, and I'd come down here, up that tunnel, and out -- the door was in a different place back then -- and I'd be near the bleachers. The security guard would be looking left to right... when he looked left, I knew that was the time to run and find a seat."
A lot's changed since then, since the Big 5's heyday, when Harry Litwack and Jack Ramsay and John Chaney and Rollie Massimino roamed the Palestra sidelines. For most of those years, the corner ramps from the concourse down to court level weren't grey gloss-painted concrete, and they didn't have to be vacuumed.
"A lot of dust and debris builds up here," Dan explained. So I used the blue and white vacuum to clean the pebbles and dustbunnies and splinters and paper scraps from three of the ramps. They're quite steep, and the best way to do it is uphill. I noticed there were quite a few dark splashes on the ramps, which wouldn't come off with the vacuum.
"Yeah, people spill their Cokes sometimes when they're in a hurry to get down to the floor," Dan said. "But believe it or not, a lot of that is residue from the concourse floors, that's wax dripping down. We need to power-wash that about once a week. It's a two-man job, a union job, I wouldn't have you do that. It gets real slippery."
But there was plenty I could do. I vacuumed the volleyball locker room, as well as locker room No. 4, which is usually used by visiting teams, but was utilized on this day by the coaches of the various Penn varsity teams, who were there to play their weekly Thursday lunchtime pickup basketball game. ("They do it to release all the stress," Dan said. "Coaching is a stressful job. I know, 'cause I did it for a lot of years.")
In between jobs, Dan introduced me to the electricians and managers and equipment people who help keep the Palestra running. ("In case you haven't figured it out, I'm also the tour guide around here," Dan said dryly.) I saw the original Palestra court, the one that dates back to the building's opening in 1927; it's currently the floor in the facilities office, proof that recycling is no new concept. I heard stories about the old twin scoreboards at either end, each over 50 years old, that require constant upkeep and maintenance... because squirrels get in the building and keep chewing on the wires.
It's one of the few scoreboards with a manual message board system; the keyboard operator enters the letters one by one, and has to start over if there's a mistake. And there's the analog portion; the two team names are slid into a backlit bar with clear plastic letters, like the sales boards outside of fast food restaurants. Dan showed me where they keep the letters.
And then it was 1 p.m., the end of a full day's work. "One last job to do," Dan said. "Let's take out the trash!"
The accumulated garbage from the morning's practice went in the bins behind the Palestra. We talked to some of the sanitation workers from Hutchinson Gym, who had spent the morning cleaning up after the Penn-Princeton squash game the previous night; according to them, the visiting Tigers fans had trashed the place. "You know what the problem with Princeton people is?" asked Dan. "They think they shit ice cream."
Dan laughed along with everybody else, at a joke I'm sure he'd told a thousand times. "They warned you about my language, right, Kyle?" he asked me. I told him that I'd heard worse; I sat in with the Red & Blue Crew a few times during Penn's championship years. They really let the Princeton people have it back then.
The Palestra's custodian recalled what a newly hired administrator had told him years ago when he'd expressed a policy opinion in a loud and vulgar manner. "She told me, 'I think you need to change your image,'" said Dan. "I didn't know what to say. Who says something like that? I've been here forever, and who's this person right off the boat telling me to change my image? Hey, I like
my fuckin' image."
Dan Harrell has a gruff exterior, a foul mouth, and he's the best person in the world to his friends, coworkers and family. He's active in the community and in the Mummers
; after we were done working for the day, I walked with him over to the athletics office, where he picked up a Wilson autograph basketball that he was going to have all the current Big 5 head coaches to sign (Penn interim head coach Jerome Allen took care of his signature first). It was for a charity drive fundraiser for the Ancient Order of Hibernians
, Dan told me. He respects people for their work, not necessarily for their words, and he loves Big 5 basketball with every fiber of his being. In short: a more true and pure Philadelphian you'll never meet.
moment came 10 years ago, when he took a degree from Penn's College of General Studies as a member of the Class of 2000, 38 years after he graduated from West Catholic High School. He earned the B.A. with credits he earned via his staff position at the university. And when his last class was complete, he paraded down Locust Walk with his famous mop, decorated with "Penn 2000" in red and blue letters. Taped to the handle were pictures of all the relatives who didn't make it to see Dan's big day. "They weren't going to let me take the mop into Franklin Field," he said. "Something about some breach of protocol. But I got it in there."
Dan told me that he'd even taken a few steps forward on his Masters, that he'd earned a handful of postgraduate credits. But he didn't have the time to take the classes. "I might soon, though... I talked to the retirement guy a few weeks ago..."
His voice trailed off. I knew that the Palestra would never be torn down, thanks to its status as a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but I wondered who would keep it clean after he retired. I asked him if there was a succession or contingency plan in place.
"I really don't know, Kyle," he said. "They can't even get people to come over here when I'm out, they just get overwhelmed by how complex this place is. What you saw today was only a little piece of what goes on here. You should come on a Monday or a Tuesday, after a full weekend of games. Then you'll really get an idea of what this job is like."
And then it was time to go. I promised that I would come back and work a full day, when I wasn't writing about it. Whenever I was in town, I told him, he could count on me to help him out and keep the Cathedral clean.
"Kyle, one last thing," Dan called out after me as I walked away, up the grey concrete ramp. "You'se need to change your image!
There was only one thing I could say in response. "Hey," I yelled back across the Palestra floor, my voice echoing around the empty arena. "I like
my fuckin' image."This is the fifth in the ongoing Kyle Doin' Work series. Previously: Assistant Coach, Assistant SID, Stat Crew Spotter, pep band member.