“In Conversation with …” is a special feature of the Hart House Quarterly where John Monahan, the Warden of Hart House, chats with staff members who have fascinating perspectives to share and stories to tell.
In this edition, John talks with University of Toronto alumnus Nigel Faulkner, Hart House’s Facilities and Caretaking Supervisor. Drawing on his two decades of experience at the House, Nigel describes what it was like keeping Hart House in good repair all through the pandemic, discusses his exceptional colleagues and lets loose about his life-long passion for the movies.
JM: Nigel, thank you for talking with me.
NF: You’re very welcome. Glad to be here.
JM: Nigel, let’s get right to it. You and much of your team have been physically present at Hart House throughout almost all of the COVID-19 pandemic. For those of us who were largely working from home most of last year, can you compare those first months of the pandemic in 2020 to what you are encountering this Fall?
NF: Well, we all like to think of this place as a vibrant, people-packed space hosting all kinds of events for community members. But at the start of the pandemic, the doors were locked, the building was basically empty, most of the systems were turned off. You could literally hear the wind ripping through the building.
Early in the pandemic, my closest team members were either assigned to other buildings or they were on temporary leave, but they were all very eager to come back. When they began to return, that was a big moment for all of us. I, for one, was very thankful to be among the first people to return to work.
And now we are finally seeing signs of life. I am proud that Hart House was one of the first places in the city to welcome people back, even in a limited capacity.
JM: Tell me more about your job.
NF: A large part of it is supervising custodial work. I meet with my Lead Hand, Tony Costa, every morning to go over the day and any special requests. I ensure my team members have everything they need to succeed.
But there's another side to facility work that’s almost undefinable. So many things come out of nowhere due to the building’s age. Something that hadn’t been an issue for ten years may be temporarily failing. It’s unpredictable. My Outlook calendar’s always full of what I think I'm going to do, but largely that's not what happens.
JM: As the one responsible for the upkeep of this 220,000-square-foot heritage castle, what’s your biggest challenge?
NF: Juggling everything. Sometimes you may have multiple requests within a five-minute span. You don’t want to leave anybody hanging.
JM: How do you measure your success, Nigel? Is it true you are proudest when visitors don't notice what you and your staff have done, because they just assume that everything will be in sparkling condition at Hart House?
Note: Nigel’s team is responsible for the upkeep of this 220,000-square foot architectural gem.
NF: Well, I'm very proud of my team. And you’re right: it's what visitors don't notice that tells us we are doing something right. Hart House is massive and our team is relatively small. We only have five full-time staff during the day and five at night. The fact that the place is so clean is a testament to the team.
But it’s not just about cleaning so that things look better. Particularly during the pandemic, a major part of our job is disinfecting surfaces and helping to protect the health and safety of our students, staff and visitors. The team is fully committed to that goal and it does a magnificent job. That's what I'm most proud of.
Note: Nigel’s team is responsible for cleaning the high-touch surfaces, individual stations and machines between users at the Fitness Centre, keeping everyone safe.
JM: I happen to know your team visits the Fitness Centre multiple times during the day to clean the change rooms, the gym equipment and all of the other high-touch surfaces. They also keep all the washrooms, offices, meeting rooms and hallways clean. It is really remarkable. It’s a testament to their professionalism and yours.
NF: Thank you. Everyone in the Facilities and Caretaking group takes real pride in what we do. A lot of us feel like Hart House is a second home. We really care about the place.
JM: Now, Nigel. You are not only a Hart House staff member; you were also a U of T student. Is that right?
NF: Yes. I went to Innis College for cinema studies. But first I came to work on Hart House’s staging team right after high school. After a few years, I felt ready for a challenge and, because I had a passion for film, I took a couple of courses. Then I started to chip away at my coursework while I was still working. Over time, I completed a Specialist’s degree in Film Studies.
JM: What was that experience like for you?
NF: It was a fantastic program. Charlie Keil was a great instructor. His passion beamed out of him. I also greatly admired Bart Testa. He challenged us constantly and possessed a deep well of knowledge.
JM: You’re one of the most passionate and best-informed people I know when it comes to film. I greatly admire the fact that, come hell or high water, you always take your annual vacation around the Toronto International Film Festival.
NF: That's right, much to my wife’s chagrin.
JM: What is it about the movies that attracts you?
NF: It started when I was young in the 1980s. My parents got a VCR and let me watch many films with them, regardless of the rating. Certain films left an imprint; a number of releases ignited my passion. Also, my dad took my brother and me to drive-ins. That viewing experience, in a big field in summer with hundreds of other families, was exciting.
JM: Do you remember the first time you saw a movie in a movie theatre?
NF: I sure do. I remember being taken to see “Return of the Jedi” (1983) on the large screen at the old University Theatre on Bloor Street. It was on a mind-blowing double bill with “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). I think that might’ve also been the first time I rode the TTC downtown.
JM: Now, Nigel, as you know, I frequently ask you for movie recommendations, and I sincerely bow in the face of your film expertise. So, to wrap up this interview, let me ask you some rapid-fire questions about the movies. Ready?
JM: Favourite film?
NF: “The Shining” (1980).
JM: First film in a theatre when they briefly reopened in summer 2020?
NF: “Tenet” (2020).
JM: First film in summer 2021?
NF: “Roadrunner” (2021).
JM: Favorite film directors of all time?
NF: Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, the Coen brothers and Alfred Hitchcock.
JM: Favorite Hitchcock movie?
NF: It’s a toss-up between “Rear Window” (1954) and “Strangers on a Train” (1951).
JM: Most overrated film?
NF: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975).
JM: Most underrated?
NF: In recent memory, “Green Room” (2015).
JM: If you were stuck on a desert island with only a film projector and one movie, which movie would you want it to be?
NF: Again, it’s a toss-up. Either “The Shining” or “The Big Lebowski” (1998).
JM: Thanks, Nigel. I will add each of those movies to my growing list of must-sees although, I confess, I haven’t got my nerve up to return to a movie theatre yet. But everyone’s different. I feel safe coming to Hart House every day, but I imagine there might be someone reading this who feels the same way about returning to Hart House as I feel about returning to the multiplex. What would you say to them?
NF: I would simply urge them to come back. Our Fitness Centre is open, the Art Museum is open, the new and improved Arbor Room is open, our meeting and event spaces are open. Yes, we are doing some things a little differently because of the pandemic, but every modification is designed to ensure people’s safety and sense of well-being. So come back, meet a friend for coffee, have a chat. We want to see you. We're doing our best to keep everybody safe.
JM: Nigel, you're one of our unsung heroes. Thank you for your time.
NF: Thank you.