Fifteen Minutes: Smokin' With Billy: The Passions and (Extended) Family of a Harvard Guard

Billy Duarte arrives at Mather House at 5 p.m. In a large bag, he carries cigars of varying size, shape
By Timothy L. Warren

Billy Duarte arrives at Mather House at 5 p.m. In a large bag, he carries cigars of varying size, shape and nationality into his office. For a few hours he sits in his office listening to students who want to pick up a package, get into their rooms or register their complaints about poor plumbing. Billy has worked as the principal Mather security guard for the last three years. He has worked as a Harvard guard for the last 11. All evening, Billy eyes his bag. By 9 p.m., he has selected this evening's cigar, a strong and long one, a Don Rafael from the Dominican Republic. He makes a comprehensive check of the grounds until 11:30 p.m., at which time he retrieves his Don Rafael, and walks out into the courtyard. He struggles to light the cigar in a stiff wind. Then, at last, victory! His smooth puffing lasts until his shift ends. "It's my drawback," he declares on a Tuesday evening in October in the Mather office. "All the students know where I am, from my cigars. They're good to smoke. It relaxes you. Many people smoke one after a good dinner, to relax before dessert. I smoke one after I finish my final round of the building."

"You don't inhale cigars," he explains, "but I do know people who inhale, even though it doesn't look too becoming." He pointed to a cigar in his bag. "Last week, two Cubans were here for the regatta, and they left me with two tokens, so to speak, of their country. I've smoked one and am saving the other, but I don't know for how long." He shook his head, looked at the cigar closely as if it were something to reckon with, and exclaims, "Whooo." The difference between a good cigar and a bad cigar is spitting, Billy explains. "Bad cigars taste very bad. With a bad cigar, you're always lighting it, fighting the canoe. You like to have a cigar that burns evenly. I smoke only one a day, maybe two," he says. "And if I have a cold, I don't smoke at all. But then I'll smoke more than two after I get better."

When Billy dons his official Harvard security uniform, five times a week, he wears a black wool sweater adorned with a Harvard patch. A red stripe runs down his black pants to the sneakers that pass for shoes from far away. He attaches a walkie-talkie and a hefty set of keys to a belt that snaps together with plastic clasps. His hat with a #157 badge covers his thinning white hair. When Billy speaks, he mixes his local accent with phrases such as "one might say" and "so to speak".

Billy grew up in Somerville and still lives there with his wife and two daughters--15-year old Crystal and 10-year old Melissa. "I just got their report cards," Billy reported. "Melissa did really well. Except in science where she got a D. With all those As and Bs, I thought she could have at least gotten a C. My oldest, Crystal, wants to teach someday. History. Old history, she likes especially, Greek mythology, Zeus and all his children and that stuff."

Working at nights, he can spend days at home. "I run around, shopping or cleaning the house. I drive my kids to school and pick them up. Sometimes I prepare dinner. My wife doesn't like to cook steak; she overcooks it." On his days off, Billy likes to watch wrestling on TV with Crystal. "On Saturday at 9 a.m., there's a wrestling preview on [channel] 38. My favorite is The Rock. He's the people's champion, they say. But my daughter likes Stone Cold Steve Austin. I don't know why she likes him. He's so rude on the TV." On the days Billy works he spends his last hour at home relaxing, preparing for a long night.

Mather House students and staff are Billy's extended family. "The best thing about working here is that all the students know me," he says. On a recent Friday evening, as he puffs on his evening's cigar, a tutor introduced Billy to his girlfriend who was visiting from Europe for the weekend. Two separate groups of students proposed that Billy join them on their trip to see The Game the next morning. Billy politely declines and lightheartedly advises them to not drink too much beer. Working as a security guard is more about fielding random queries than cracking down on crime. "Yeah, I get a lot of crazy requests," Billy remarks, "like the students who say, 'I know it's wrong, but could you do this?' The people who lock their clothes in somebody else's room, and then ask me to let them in. I tell them that I can't go into somebody's room, because for me, that's breaking and entering. If you have his permission that's one thing. Otherwise, I say I'm sorry. You give them an inch, they take a mile," he says. "The worst thing about working here is that they sometimes like to bend things to their advantage or ask for something they're not supposed to do."

On weekends, Billy breaks up parties. "Hopefully, they register the party," Billy says, "so at least we know what's going on in the room, and at 1 a.m., I go up and say, 'Enough is enough.'" He chuckles, and says, "It seems to me that everybody's content in the Yard, but when they come here, they say, 'I'm free,' and get a little crazy. Especially this year, because we have a new breed of sophomores." He recalled one recent toga party during which a fire alarm sounded. "The toga party they had was very interesting. All the girls were half nude, in their bras and panties, and it was about 40 degrees outside." He continued, "But I understand you've got to let loose some time."

Harvard let go many of its security guards loose this summer. "About half of the guards left," Billy says. "About 27 out of 54 guards I'd say. Either they were old, or they took some money and got away. It was a lot of money, maybe $13,000, but that's not a year's worth of work. In the long run, the agreement wasn't worth the paper it was printed on." Harvard replaced the vacated positions with subcontracted workers from Security Systems Incorporated (SSI). Instead of the traditional black Harvard uniform, they wear bright white shirts with an SSI badge. "They gave us a contract with no raise for four years, across the board. That hurts," Billy says. "And we didn't get a raise in the last four years. The cost of living increases 3 percent a year. That's a 24 percent increase, compared to my no raise. I remember I used to go to church, and my parents gave me two dollars for milk, bread and the Sunday paper. And I still got change. Now the paper itself costs $2.50."

"If I won the lottery," Billy declares, "I'd probably pay off all the debt I have and take a nice trip to a warm climate. I'd stay for a while--at least a month--or until I ran out of options to do there. Say Aruba, or the Cayman Islands, but I'd have to be doing more than fishing and drinking in the beach. I like fishing."

"I fish for striped bass on the bottom," Billy explained. "I fish off Hampton Beach in New Hampshire, or off to the side of the JFK building here in Boston. What excites me is fighting for 15 or 20 minutes to land a 35 or 40 pounder, like I have done. Once I get them, though, I let them go. I'm not a killer. My family doesn't eat fish anyway. I take a picture, instead. I've got quite a selection of pictures." Billy hunts less successfully than he fishes. "I hunt sea duck," he said. "But if you ask me in ten years of hunting duck have I ever caught one? No.

Billy has no worries about the coming millennium. "My computer died today, so I don't have anything to worry about," Billy explained. "I don't know what I'll be doing," he said. "I just hope I'm not working." If he is working, he will be smoking one of his finest.

Tim lives in Lowell House. He is hoping to travel to Cuba this January. Billy looks forward to what he might bring back. This is the second in a series of three articles profiling Harvard workers.