Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Janitorial Career

My Janitorial Career ã

Some 5 years ago, the Rosthern Library moved to new premises and needed a new janitor. I was asked and accepted, probably because Agnes was in charge of the library at the time and it was she who asked me. My thinking was this: vacuuming, cleaning windows, dusting, washing counters, clearing the sidewalk of snow, etc. would be good exercise, something that retired people have to make a deliberate effort to maintain a reasonable level . . . of.

I realized very quickly that I’d lived my life to date as an elitist, in this case a person who looked upon people who clean up after others with a condescension bordering on scorn. But in order for a public place to be maintained sanitary and appealing for us elitists to work in or visit, I now know that someone has to do at least some of the following tasks.

1) Clean up after the phantom crapper. This character gets caught short while in the vicinity of a public washroom and uses the provided facility. This happens on a day before a weekend. He is notorious for forgetting to flush, and by the time the janitor gets around to cleaning, the whole place smells like a stable. Our job is to hold our noses and return the facilities to a pristine, hygienic state before the elitist people happen by.

2) Clean up after the livestock handler who likes to read (do business, get a chest
X-ray, whatever).
This person doesn’t have a pair of oxfords handy in the pickup truck, and so walks in with residue of his day on his boots. This probably includes animal feces, mud, straw, pebbles, leaves and definitely some unidentified substance that adheres to carpet like Velcro. His 5-minute visit will cost the conscientious janitor at least an hour of work to undo.

3) Clean up after vandals. It’s highly predictable that the most clean and airy of places will be most attractive to persons who need to be noticed through the medium of graffiti, obscenities or simply scratching their initials into the paint on the railings. What takes a vandal ten seconds to create takes a janitor hours to put right again.

4) Clean up after a roof leak, a broken window, a toilet overflow or a flood. It happens. Janitors get to wade in flooded basements picking soggy boxes out of water, drying the contents and wet-vacuuming late into the evening after all the elitists have finished dinner and laid their tonsured heads on satin pillows.

5) Clean hand prints off glass. Why is it that even when a glass door has a perfectly placed metal push panel, almost everyone opens the door by pushing on the glass?

6) Put up and check the trap line daily. Professional people in buildings report the evidence of mice on the premises; janitors trap them, dispose of them and reset the traps. They also clean up the spoor. The elitists screw up their faces and say eeeyooo! We all have our roles.

7) Etc., etc., etc.

Janitoring will probably always be a thankless occupation. A janitor’s work is only noticed when it’s done badly. “Did you forget to dust the counters?” “Yes I did, sorry. But did you notice that I cleaned the toilets inside and out?”

Janitoring is boring, like washing dishes. It’s maintenance work, is neither creative nor constructive. The floor needs to be vacuumed or mopped in the same way every day. Variety is introduced only when something disgusting happens, like a child throwing up on the carpet.

There is some satisfaction to be had in looking back at a shiny bathroom, or noticing that the windows all sparkle, or the toilet is functioning perfectly again. Seize these moments, all you cleaner-uppers; it’s all you’re going to get.

At Shekinah, I’ve been able to apply some of my janitorial skills. Some of my tasks as a volunteer involve cleaning up the leavings of one group so the place is ready for the next group. That’s what chamber-persons in hotels do. That’s what thousands and thousands of people are doing late into the night in thousands and thousands of office towers and banks.

Some time ago, I sat in the emergency area of the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon waiting for staff to get to my brother. I watched a burly man, about 30 years old, mopping floors—fruitlessly, it seemed: it was a slushy day. “Poor bastard,” I thought as another pair of muddy boots clomped across his freshly mopped floor. “Can’t you find a better job?”

Ours is a caste system. Professionals are Brahmins. Janitors, garbage collectors, restaurant dishwashers and unskilled labourers are untouchables. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but if positive regard and pay are the measures of our esteem of people around us, it doesn’t fall far from the truth.

But then, I personally don’t want to live in a world in which hotel rooms contain a washer and dryer, a mop, pail and a vacuum and the requirement that the room be left in the condition in which I found it. Neither do I want to wash my dishes in a back room of the restaurant after eating. “Being served” in the less-glamorous aspects of daily living is—at least in part—a frequent reason for leaving the house!

My short career as library janitor reminds me that I am in debt to people who clean for me—and after me. I’ll try to pay the debt as I go along—with praise and gratitude, probably, although talk is cheap.

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