Tabula Rasa

Night Watchman

"In June, 1948, when I graduated from Princeton High School, I already had a job, as a night watchman at the Institute for Advanced Study, on the far side of town. All kinds of people assumed that the Institute was part of Princeton University, which it wasn’t and isn’t. My job was not actually inside the Institute’s one completed building, but outside, in the back, where two smaller and bilaterally symmetrical buildings were under construction. Halfway between them was a shack made of pinewood and tar paper, where foremen presided by day and watchmen by night, protecting bricks, lumber, reinforcing rods, nails, wood screws, and double-point staples from thieves who would come to take them. There was no shortage of thieves.

My weapon was a billy club—a ball of lead wrapped in leather with a nine-inch stem and a loop handle. It was the only weapon, if you did not include the flashlight. I would include the flashlight. Its beam could warn a ship at sea, intimidate an actor, shine brighter than the headlight of a locomotive. Mostly, I was just there, passing time, expecting events that were not happening. In fair weather, I climbed up onto the flat roof of the construction shack and lay there, staring at the rear elevation of the Institute’s main building, Fuld Hall. It was only nine years old—dedicated in 1939—and nine years younger than the Institute itself, founded in 1930. Institute mathematicians, during those nine years, worked in space on the Princeton campus, giving rise to the flattering myth that the Institute was part of the university. How flattering? Think Albert Einstein."

Read more at The New Yorker.