Luigi Lucioni, "Paul Cadmus", 1928

Cleaning Up

The dragon tree was the first thing I bought for my new office. It was a hip-high plant with two puny canes that I had picked up at a garden fair in the city. Now a decade later it’s taller than me and broader than the span of my arms. Given the little light that filters through the wooden blinds behind it, I think it’s done extraordinarily well. Then again, as Ersie says, the woman who’s cleaned my office for the last ten years and who took on my plant as a spinster nanny would her charge, the plant would burn up and die if left outside under the full rays of the sun. It was raised in the shade, she says, to get it ready for a life indoors. “Like you,” she jokes.

I have never told Ersie that I also once worked as a janitor. I don’t say anything because I’m afraid she would misinterpret my attempt to find common ground as condescension. I was an amateur at the job, she’d think; she was condemned to be a professional.

My usual paranoia. It’s the same hyper-sensitivity that explains why I never buy toiletries for friends. I wouldn’t want them thinking I thought they actually needed the soap. My friend Natalie once said to me “You know, most people have a much more innocent sense of your intentions than you suspect. People think you’re a nice guy. Why don’t you?” But apparently I still need convincing. 

So I don’t tell Ersie that during my senior year at high school, I worked part-time on the school’s Building & Grounds maintenance team. I didn’t kid myself, though. I wielded a mop and bucket. I was a janitor.

There were actually two maintenance teams, an inside one for the building and another outdoors team for the grounds. I don’t know if we chose for ourselves or were steered to one team or the other, or, as is the case with most hierarchies, it was a bit of both, but it was clear who worked on which team. The tougher, more athletic guys mowed the lawns and trimmed the hedges and worked with tools that could slice off fingers. Some had been on the football team.

The rest of us were misfits of sorts, geeks and nerds mostly, who worked with dusters, mops and toilet brushes. We had machines, too—the buffers we used to rid the linoleum of the day’s scuff marks, and a boxy metal monster that a few of us got to push around to clean the terrazzo floors—but ours lacked the masculine allure that gasoline and the threat of disfigurement gave the equipment the guys on the G team worked with.  Their lawnmowers and hedge clippers were emblems of a future life of success in the suburbs; our dustmops and buffers reeked of hospitals, prisons, and army bases.

We were all working for different reasons. Some were saving up for a used car, others for expensive stereo equipment, things that most of our other classmates at this modestly prestigious Catholic prep school could reasonably expect their parents to buy for them. I heard a couple of the guys on the Grounds team were using the money to buy drugs. I used my earnings to buy books and eat out in the city with my friend Simon and save for a cross-country trip he and I talked of taking once school let out. If I hadn’t been in love with Simon, I probably would never have taken the job.

It suited me, though. I liked the quiet and I liked working on my own. I was usually assigned the classrooms and corridors in the north wing of the school, which at that time of the day were deserted. Had it been now, I’d probably have worn headphones and listened to music, but I enjoyed the stillness. That, and the single-minded focus on the tasks at hand.  I would have called it a kind of meditation if I had known what meditation was.

I always took a minute or so to survey the classroom before I began work, as if to fix in my mind the state of disorder that I would later make right. I’d note the patches of chalk dust on the floor below the board, the gum wrappers and crumpled scraps of paper, the desks in disarray. The image would sharpen the sense of accomplishment once I was done and could look out on the room with its perfectly aligned rows of desks set on the shining spray-buffed floor.

Some of my own classes were in the rooms I cleaned in the north wing, but I never consciously looked down on the floors when sitting the next morning for History or English. Sometimes if I got bored with class my gaze would wander to the floor and I might then notice the groove-like circular traces the buffer had left in the waxed linoleum. But I made no mental note to buff out the grooves later that afternoon.

Others would say I needed that compartmentalization to deal with the loss of face I had to endure at school. But the truth is, no one ever commented about our working on the B&G crews, not to our face anyway and I doubt not behind our backs, either. Most probably didn’t even notice what we did. For the few who did, working on the crew didn’t help our popularity any, but I was on the margins of the in crowds anyway. Besides, I had other, more troubling ways in which I felt awkward and different, and they had to with my feelings for Simon. Being gay, even if I wasn’t out at the time, was turning out to be harder to deal with than being a janitor.

I want to say that my time on the B&G team taught me something about the value of manual work and the virtue of humility, or even how to clean my house. But it didn’t. Nor did it immunize me against arrogance later in my life. It was merely a job, a short-term means to an equally short-term end, and I brought to it the same purposefulness and unquestioning sense of duty to do it well that I already brought to my studies. Jobs don’t shape us; we fill out our jobs to suit our character.

Unlike the head custodian and his assistant, I was only passing through. Ersie would be right if she called me an amateur. Though I’d have other part-time jobs in later years waiting tables, making pizza, and unloading trucks at a UPS hub, I knew I’d finish university and find a different kind of job, even if I was fairly certain I’d still be working indoors.

The only thing I gained from these jobs was a tendency to tip well and the realization that I could do it again, if I had to. I could clean up after others, mop their floors, and scrub their toilets, if need be. I could live contently without defining myself in terms of my work, as I had been happy in the classrooms and corridors I cleaned later in the day. I could take care of myself.

I don’t know if Ersie feels the same sense of accomplishment at cleaning our offices as I did the classrooms of my high school. I would never ask, of course. But I know she’s proud of the plant. Apart from the urn of coffee she makes each day, tending my plant is the only act of production in a job that otherwise consists of elimination. She spends most of her day removing the traces others leave behind, the grease-prints and lunch crumbs and sloughed off skin that are the evidence of our presence in these offices, just as I had the gum wrappers and chalk dust at school. Her goal is to make the room look as if no one had even been there, just as mine was. My plant, on the other hand, is evidence that someone—she—has been there. She waters it, sparingly as is appropriate, and when needed feeds it and re-pots it. She may even talk to it. If so, I hope it talks back. It probably wouldn’t be around without her.

The painting reproduced in this post (Luigi Lucioni, “Paul Cadmus”, 1928) is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In its commentary to the painting, the museum informs us that Lucioni and Cadmus were likely to have met in the circle of gay artists and writers which both frequented. I was also intrigued to discover that the artist attributed his sense of discipline to the obligation he had as a boy of scrubbing the wooden floors of his family’s home (as  Stuart Embury notes in his The Art and Life of Luigi Lucioni)



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