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THE 42ND FLOOR

Iused to haunt houses for a living. Not as an amateur looking for something to do on weekends with friends--"Hey, Bob, let's go down to the old Kramer place and see if we can scare some kids." No, I was paid for my work.

Fresh out of college on the five-year plan with a degree in communications, the only interviews I was lucky enough to get began with the question, "Do you own a car and have auto insurance?"

But as summer turned to fall, I said all of the right things in an interview and was hired by a nonprofit organization as a "Community Service Representative." My first assignment was to plan, construct, and staff the organization's fall fund raise--a haunted house.

Wearing a new dark blue suit on my first day, I stepped off the elevator with my expectations high. The dirty yellow carpet that led to the office front door was my yellow brick road. I would conquer the world of nonprofit fund raising even if it took nine months. A year tops. Then I would move on and conquer something else. I walked down the hall with confidence in my stride, my new black loafers seemingly pulling me to my destiny. Behind that door was a new world of experiences and adventures. I turned the brass knob and pushed on the door. It was locked. Not a good sign. I leaned against the wall and wondered about the possibility of graduate school.

"You must be the new guy," said a 20-something red-haired woman as she approached 15 minutes later with door keys in hand. "You're early. Nobody gets here long before 8:20."

That afternoon I was to go with one of our volunteers to the haunted house site. All morning my brand-new co-workers would smile and say, "You're going to meet Johnny this afternoon." Just after lunch, my boss came into my office. "Bill, this is Johnny. He's our chief haunted house volunteer."

Johnny was 35 years old but had the look of a man losing the battle with life. He was dirty and a little hunched over with a two-day growth of beard and teeth that were either missing or going in any direction but straight. He wore a faded white T-shirt with "Haunted House 1979" printed on it. He was carrying his coat and a large wrinkled grocery bag.

"Nice to meet you," I forced out. My mind was racing. What had I gotten myself into?

On the walk to my car, I learned the abridged version of Johnny's life. He lived with his mother and didn't have a steady job but occasionally sold flowers on a street corner. Working at the haunted house was the highlight of his year. Johnny had a 16-year-old mind in a 35-year-old body that looked 45. He was a man-child.

I pulled into the lot of the empty warehouse that would soon be transformed by glow-in-the-dark paints and masked high school kids. No one had been in the five-story red brick building for months. One person in the office had told me its only residents were numerous rodents. The large oak front doors were supposed to be unlocked, but that was a lie. The back door was sealed tight, too. Someone had gained entrance there once before by kicking in the bottom door panel that was now covered over with a heavy-looking, battleship-grey sheet of metal.

"We'll have to go back for the keys," I said. Johnny looked at me through his dark eyes. "Don't need to," he said, handing me his coat. He reached into his paper bag and pulled out a small crow bar and effortlessly punched out the metal plate. Then he crawled on hands and knees into the dark warehouse to what, I was sure, was his certain death. How would I explain that on my first day on the job I had sent a volunteer to his death? "See him? He lost a volunteer on his first day. Eaten by rats." But a second later, Johnny's head poked back out. "I'll meet you at the front door."

I ran around the corner of the building and right into two policemen. "What are you doing here?" asked one. Before I could explain, the front door opened. "Hey, Johnny," the policeman said. "This guy with you?" Johnny introduced me as director of this year's haunted house. Though, at that moment, I was beginning to wonder who was actually in charge here.

Later that afternoon, Johnny and I sat in the dark warehouse, the only light supplied by the sunshine streaming in through the front doors. (The story about the rats turned out to be an office joke.) "Thanks for before," I said, grateful that Johnny didn't have fun with his police-officer friends at my expense. His eyes took on a puzzled look. "You know. You could have had a good laugh on me," I explained. He looked even more confused. "Why would I do that?" he finally said. "We're friends."

Many nights over the next two months I drove Johnny home to a house that looked straight out of London during the blitz, and I wondered how he could live there. But he did, and I never heard him complain. During those rides we talked, a lot, and did become friends.

I no longer haunt houses, and over the years I've seen Johnny only occasionally. The last I heard he had gotten his driver's license and was driving a school van. A friend, who also knew him, commented that it was about time he got a real job. To me Johnny has had a real job for years. He teaches people like me how to understand and appreciate life.--Bill Young


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