The man who recently wrote to me had been a bookstore owner in Arkansas and, because of the vicissitudes of the business (“death by box store”, as he put it), he’d taken a job as a custodian for its meager pay and the critical benefits it provided. He thanked me for the dignity I had afforded a character in The Ploughmen. The character in question, a janitor (“burner of trash, sweeper of floors”), is an Alzheimer sufferer who wanders lethally off into the badlands in search of his long-dead wife. In his kind note, the custodian spoke of how dismissive our culture can be of someone like him—of millions of others—who by virtue of their perceived lowly station are looked upon with disdain or, as they bend to their drudgery, are simply not looked upon at all.
I’ve had one foot in academia and another in the trades most of my life and this double life has made me into something of a class warrior. Years ago, after a long day’s work on a particularly difficult remodel, my friend Neil McMahon (a wonderful writer, author of some ten books) and I attended a literary party hosted by a dear friend. She stood before us that evening, this bright, kind person, talking about the freedom of doing manual labor. “It must be nice,” she said, “to go to a job and not have to think.” Neil and I exchanged looks above our drinks. We’d spent the afternoon building a roof, a complex operation involving calculations using the Pythagorean theorem and the making of numerous intricate cuts. Dear woman, her words illustrated an ignorance in our culture of those who work with their hands and the all-too common perception that they are somehow less intelligent than the white collar professionals of the world—or worse, that they are a kind of automaton, numbly executing some rudimentary task for their proscribed hours. The duties of a janitor, for example, or the girl who cleans tables at a fast food restaurant.
A tile setter friend once told me he had to tear out his work on an enormous shower the size of a tractor trailer because the home owner or designer had decided that the Ice White tile was simply too white and oh so terribly dreadfully cold and it simply would not do because it was so very cold and we simply must go with the Glacial White because it is so immeasurably warmer and cozier. So Ice White tiles in pieces went in the dumpster and the tile setter began again.
Beyond the senseless waste, such grotesque frivolousness disallows any pride in workmanship, the tearing out of perfect work and the redoing of it of little difference. What could it possibly matter to the tile setter? As the old saw goes, “it all pays the same,” right? (The cost of this absurd and seemingly whimsical change would have funded our local homeless shelter for months—but I digress.) The great majority of my clients and people I’ve done work for over the course of my other career were wonderful, generous folks who appreciated good work and who only wanted their homes to be safer, more comfortable, more efficient. They’ve provided me a living and put shoes on my kids’ feet and kept me afloat to write and for that I am grateful. Still, there were those unenlightened few who saw in the muddy boots and tool belt a prole moving about on rails, a necessary implement hardly more animate than the material he handled.
My middle child is a lobby attendant in a fast food place and, given her disabilities, this is more than likely the kind of job she’ll always have. But she arrives at work happy and on time and is diligent and takes pride in the work of clearing and wiping down tables, sweeping, hauling out the trash. People are in a hurry, I understand that. People are under stress. But most people don’t see her; like the janitor of my recent correspondence and the one wandering the pages of my book, she’s only a mechanism with the specific purpose. But take a moment and you’d see a young woman with a tender heart who loves tiaras and baseball and who yearns like all of us for the candle-flame warmth of a kind word, a smile acknowledging her existence in the great bleak world.
Okay, perhaps a custodian’s work or the work of a lobby attendant or the chambermaid does not require great skill or years of experience for its mastery as does carpentry or plumbing or masonry. But it is difficult labor nonetheless. And though the janitor’s brain may not be fully engaged in the act of sweeping, it may be on other things—churning with thought, sifting out the meaning of the book tented on the break room table. Or, like Faulkner, he may be bent over a grimy tablet in the boiler room in the midnight hours laboring at the next great novel which could transform forever and profoundly the dusty and unmopped hallways of American literature.