“Excuse me, miss,” says Harry G. Gray, as an undergrad with a bulky backpack hurtles past him in the Quincy dining hall servery. Gray’s emphasis on etiquette might seem eccentric, but old-fashioned manners and general goodwill are routine, the man you may know as “That Nice Guy Who Swipes You in at the MAC.”
Gray, a lanky 25-year-old with a beard, his collared Harvard polo tucked into his pants, holds a paper cup of water. It’s Junior Parents Weekend, and the dining hall teems with flower bouquets, chirpy parents, and mountains of food. But Gray’s not hungry.
“I think I might just drink some water if that’s okay,” he tells me. Escaping the hordes, we head downstairs to the Junior Common Room where we can chat in peace.
When I ask about his job, Gray jokes, “I’m manager of the terrycloth affairs.” Besides handling towels, Gray’s duties at the Malkin Athletic Center include swiping in gym-goers, cleaning machines, and re-racking weights. He often works 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., six days a week.
“I’m the only person able to be conscious and in a good mood in the morning,” he says. “I’ve got job security.” Gray has been an early riser since seventh grade, when he had to bus two hours each morning from Lower Allston to Dorchester’s Boston Latin Academy.
Politeness and a positive attitude are Gray’s trademarks. “I usually say ‘sir’ or ‘miss’ when I’m talking to [patrons] to show I take my job seriously. You aren’t just a number on the board. You’re someone who’s coming in here, who I want to make sure has a great time.”
Patrons of the MAC range from Harvard undergraduates, to professors, to dining hall workers. He mentions one staff member in particular who has frequented the MAC for four years. “He came in and said, ‘Harry, I want to tell you—you’re a solid dude.’ And he gave me this brain teaser puzzle thing and a cookie,” Gray remembers.
The job has other perks. “I don’t feel like naming names, but there’s some important people coming through,” he says. They include top Harvard administrators, Massachusetts government officials, political commentators he’s seen on TV, and people who have written books he’s read.
“They’re like the head of some Law Review Board, and I’m like, oh, okay, well, I’m glad I gave them a good towel!” Gray exclaims.
I ask Gray what he thinks of Quincy House. “Very fancy,” he responds. “I went to UMass Boston, so it’s a little bit of a different set-up, I’ll say that, since it’s a commuter school.” The son of a janitor and a data entry worker, Gray was the first in his family to go to college. He studied history as an undergrad, with a loose emphasis on 19th century Europe.
Junior and senior years of college were his wild days. He and his friends stayed up late in the campus game room playing Dungeons and Dragons—a pastime Gray still indulges in most weekends. He and his college friends were into heavy metal concerts, too, and they frequented the mosh pits of Coheed and Cambria, Metallica, and Muse where he suffered blows to the head and fractured ribs, but found it worth it.
“I’m kind of a very deep-level nerd,” he jokes. “There’s ratings to nerds, and I’m in the abyssal level.”
Gray started working at Hemenway Gymnasium almost five years ago, while he was still in college. After graduation, he put an end to his raucousness and turned the part-time gig into a 40-hour-a-week job. Eventually, he moved to working exclusively at the MAC, taking the opening shifts most employees dread.
“You can’t be too proud to do a humble man’s job,” he says. “I have a degree, and I didn’t expect to be doing this job, but I’m still going to do my best to perform it even if it isn’t teaching at Harvard.”
Gray uses his downtime at work to read, sampling authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman but prioritizing history. “I flow around different subjects, like I went from China to the Mongol Empire into the Timurid Empire down into India, Africa, back to Europe for a while,” he says. His current project is “The Oxford History of the United States.”
“Buying books is my one big indulgence,” he says. “I’ll spend my fair share of my paycheck. If it ain’t for the family, I’m gonna spend it on reading material.”
He lives in a three-decker house with a backyard in the quiet neighborhood of Lower Allston. “Serves to keep you out of the rain,” he says of his house, chuckling. The house has been in his family for generations. His best friend Lauren—they are Facebook-official siblings—rents a room downstairs from his aunt, and his parents live there, too. He does the dishes, shovels snow, rakes leaves. “When I’m doing laundry at work, I’m practicing for laundry at home,” he jokes.
Sunday is Gray’s day off. He spends too much time at the gym already, he says, to work out in his free time. Instead, he bikes 10 or 20 miles, often along the Charles River and through Boston Commons, sometimes all the way to the shoreline.
In life, as in bike rides, Gray’s not quite sure where he’s going—whether he will next pursue his old dream of becoming a history teacher or build his career at the MAC. At the end of the day, all roads lead to a three-decker in Lower Allston. “I’m a Lower-Allston lifer,” Gray says.
As Gray heads out the front doors of Quincy, I say I’ll see him around. “Oh, okey dokey,” he says. “I’ll be swiping you through in no time.”