On TV they interviewed a man about a bank robbery he’d witnessed. He was a person plucked from a crowd of bystanders, chosen for television because of his comical way of talking, and the way he waved his hands above his head as he described what went down. On the screen, he was ID’d as Jack So-and-so – Unemployed Janitor.
I didn’t see this clip on the news; I saw it on a late night talk show, Conan O’Brien or someone, somebody all too ready to pounce on that byline.
Saying something to the effect of – “News for ya, buddy. There’s no such thing as an unemployed janitor. There are unemployed teachers, unemployed steelworkers. You’re just unemployed.”
I don’t know about that. Once a janitor always a janitor. You may move onto other things, you might not always remain diligent about order or even particularly interested in cleanliness, but certain jobs stay with you.
I’m not a janitor anymore but I still think a lot about who is cleaning up after me. I notice the janitors everywhere…cruising the periphery of crowded institutions, from hospitals to malls to the college that I now attend (in the capacity of student, not cleaner). Pushing their loaded carts silently, in uniforms designed to render them invisible. Biological Roombas offering no comment, no blame.
But when for any amount of time your job is to clean up after people, your outlook changes. When you’re the person who tidies up the stuff people forget, or the stuff they drop or spill, or don’t want anymore, the stuff they run away from in shame before it can be connected to them, you change. Your heart changes and you see people differently. Not just as people, characters with loveable foibles and quirks to be navigated. You see them as agents of chaos. Creators of mess. People there to rumple, to use up, to stain and make wet. People there to undo, in increments, your thankless tasks, sending you back to square 1.
It is a very existential job, being a janitor. If you clean for a living you’re like to spin off your mental axis several times a shift.There’s a limit to the number of times you can mop the bases of toilets and Windex palm prints from glass in one day. Hence smoke breaks, fresh air breaks, or hiding-in-the-unused-north-stairwell breaks.
Also, you aren’t able to attend an event, a wedding or art gallery, or go on a holiday and stay in a hotel, you can’t walk through the world without thinking, on some level: Now who’s going to clean this all up?
You use air fresheners that evoke places the exact opposite of whatever situation you are dealing with. Kill cigarette smoke with Caribbean Breeze…douse poop with Morning Glory Antiseptic.
You can see this thousand-yard gaze one the face of every cleaner. Look at them, next time you see one. The next time you stand (in belated self-accountability) beside the jar of pickles you dropped in aisle 5. The next time you have to find another bathroom because the one you want one has a little cone blocking the door. That lady who shoos you away when you step over the cone? Look into her eyes. You will see the darkness of one who knows about humanity. You’re not a person. You’re someone who messes things up.
A janitor has the keys to the kingdom. You can use the back doors, the service elevators. Only you can access the locked toilet paper. In my years as a janitor I felt it was the perfect metaphor for what I considered my parallel life. A life of writing things down. I think there are few janitors who would freely discuss to their private pastimes, something personal like writing.
You know you will be looked at, and your presumptuous claim will be measured against what people see: A person on the edge of things, chasing paper cups with a broom. You can only be a writing janitor if it’s in the context of admitting to what you USED to do. Then people think of you locked in a broom closet, hiding out and writing down your ideas, and they feel indulgent, and happy for you for escaping. They are not actively pissed off at not being able to find you when the toilet on the third floor is overflowing.
Raymond Carver was a janitor but janitors with a sense of self preservation wouldn’t use that example.
People will ask what you’ve published. And if you have to say “nothing,” then suddenly you’ve lost all your sustaining illusions. The mop is real. The pen is not.
At an early age I had an intuition that I would not be equal to a certain kind of ambition. I look around at people my age who have material success, even the modest success that I have not managed, for the most part, and I am envious. But there is always an edge of caution to my envy. It’s a feeling similar to wanting to win a pie-eating contest, but having no stomach, or having a deathly allergy to pie. A very involved, stressful, demanding position in the world would be the death of me. I am cut out for the edges of things. No ivory towers, not even the ghost-light of modern offices. I am comfortable with puddles in cupboards under the sink, cobwebbed basements where they keep the sidewalk salt. Comfortable with watching, and picking up what gets dropped.