THE BLOG
12/17/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

Astoria Characters: The School Fireman

In the bowels of the boiler room of P.S. 122, Tommy Gawiak sits solo. The sun hasn't rubbed the sleep out of its eyes yet, and the 1,368 elementary school kids won't start skipping in for an hour or so.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
Tommy has been at P.S. 122 since 1979.

Tommy, the big guy in the little room; he doesn't mind the solitude, which is broken only by the creaks of his aging body. He's the school's fireman, a title that was conferred on maintenance workers back in the days when coal had to be shoveled into the furnaces to fire them up.

Since 1979, Tommy has been making sure everything is up and running at the Mamie Fay Core Knowledge Magnet School. He's its longest-serving worker. The kids call him Mr. Tommy, or Mr. Custodian, or Mr. Cleaner, which he thinks is cute.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
He has the most seniority in the school.

"I'm the Old Maid," the 56-year-old Tommy says. "I'm as old and derelict as you get around here."

Tommy, a Corona kid whose family moved to the Astoria area around the time he took the P.S. 122 job, is happy to say he has been gainfully employed since age eight, when he made spending money by unloading advertising fliers from trucks.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
He's Mr. Cleaner, Mr. Custodian or Mr. Tommy.

Later, he graduated to a paper route. He learned all the handyman stuff that prepared him for being a fireman in his early teens while toiling in a woodworking shop. And when he got his working papers, he had a blast as a grocery store stock boy.

"I grew up across the street from a firehouse, and I always wanted to be a firefighter or a fighter pilot," he says. "At the time, those jobs required 20/20 vision. Everyone in our family has bad eyes and gets glasses at birth. I thought I had escaped, but it sneaked up on me. I got them when I was a freshman in high school."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
A fire bucket in the boiler room.

With those options crossed off his wish list, Tommy couldn't see far enough ahead to decide how he wanted to spend his life.

"I took a cup of coffee at college for one and a half years," he says. "I was studying accounting. But one day I said to myself, 'This is boring. I can't wait to get out and get a real job.'"

That real job was the one at P.S. 122, and it turned out it was never boring.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
Tommy in his basement bunker.

"I love the variety," Tommy says, adding that he and the building manager are responsible for the school's upkeep. "I do everything from operating the boilers and fixing broken window shades and toilets, to replacing tiles and landscaping."

Tommy, a wide-eyed giant with Santa-white hair, is the first guy in the building every morning. It is he who opens the massive cast-iron gates at 6 a.m. He lives in Medford, Long Island, which is a lifetime away, so he gets up at 3:30 a.m. or 4 a.m. to make it on time. His shift ends at 3 p.m., right when traffic revs up, so it's not unusual for him to spend two hours on the commute home.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
He loves the variety of his job.

When the weather is bad, he spends the night in his basement office, which has some of the comforts of home, including a stove, refrigerator and sink. Upstairs, there's a shower.

This concrete bunker, whose spotless floor is painted battleship grey, is furnished with two leatherette couches, one cream, the other coffee, that are big enough even for Tommy to sprawl out on. There also are three rocking chairs, a dining table and an old TV set. One wall has shelves full of videotapes that were saved from the trash bin. Tommy keeps an extra set of clothes in his locker.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
He's the school's Mr. Fix-It.

He doesn't mind staying over. He makes a cup of tea.

"I don't drink anything fancy, only Lipton," he says. "I'm a meat and potatoes guy when it comes to tea."

And it gives him a jump on tough jobs like snow shoveling, which has to be done long before he opens the school's doors.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
Tommy's domain -- and responsibility.

"Some people would think it's scary to spend the night here alone," he says, "but I'm used to it."

Builit in 1925, the red-brick schoolhouse is a grande old dame. Its entrance is flanked by majestic white colonial columns. Sometimes, Tommy feels as ancient as it is.

Every year, getting the building ready for September becomes harder. Rooms have to be painted and floors must be stripped. There is no elevator or air conditioning, and thousands of 50-pound boxes of textbooks need to be carried to classrooms.

"It's five stories tall -- five friggin' stories tall -- when I have to go back down to get something I forgot," Tommy says. "There are 65 full-size classrooms, 10 office rooms, two gyms, one lunchroom and a partridge in a pear tree. Okay, maybe it's a pigeon in a maple."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling.
He looks forward to coming to work.

Tommy's not sure how much longer he can do it. But he must: Although his two sons are grown, his daughter is only 16.

"I'm not watching the clock," he says. "If I left, I'd probably get a part-time job driving a school bus, or do odd jobs in my neighborhood."

For the last decade, Tommy has been planting Rose of Sharon bushes from his home garden at the school. He likes to think that they'll be there even when he's not.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2013 by Nancy A. Ruhling