To see the invisible

No one aspires to be a janitor. When I grow up, I want to clean toilets, empty trash cans and have people pretend I don't exist. But things happen. A busted knee ends a promising sports career. You goof off in school and never reach your potential. Opportunity and luck keep passing you by, and one day custodial work finds you.

There are many reasons we become what we become -- why some of us argue cases before the Supreme Court and some of us vacuum the court's chambers. But there is no good reason not to embrace, as Dr. King once put it, "the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality." A job is just a job, but all lives have value.

More than 2 million people make their living as janitors and cleaners in this country, according to the Department of Labor, but sometimes it's as if the rest of us don't see them. Unless we are looking down at them. Janitors have taken to calling themselves the Invisible Workforce. "It's like they are gremlins who come at night and magically clean the city," says Stephen Lerner of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 185,000 janitors, doormen, elevator operators, security officers and others who tend commercial buildings nationwide.

I was once one of those gremlins. For a summer I worked as a janitor at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. Mopped hallways, polished them with an industrial buffer, picked up trash, dumped garbage, walked around with soiled cotton gloves in my back pocket. Sometimes a little kid would throw up by the big elephant, and I'd have to go get the bucket and the mop and the disinfectant. Swab vomit in public as others watched. Sometimes my shift began at 5:30 a.m., long before the tourists arrived; other times my shift ended at 9 p.m., long after the tourists departed.

No complaints here. It was one of the most memorable summers of my young life -- I made good money and learned a lot about the worthiness of blue-collar labor from men who raised families and sent kids to college by sweeping floors. Of course, I was just passing through, a Boston University student home between semesters. These guys weren't passing through.

You can learn plenty from people whose lives don't turn on ambition, who take the days as they come. I nervously sneaked away from the museum one afternoon and walked across the Mall to glimpse the Queen of England because, as my partner-in-sneak, a veteran maintenance hand, urged: "How often do you get a chance to see the queen?"

I often observed how others observed the janitors at the museum, and it taught me something about what people look at and what they see. I had walked the halls of that museum dozens of times as the son of a Smithsonian geologist, I had spent the previous summer at that museum labeling specimens, but all of a sudden I was invisible. Even some colleagues and friends of my late dad no longer saw me. It wasn't out of contempt that they'd walk right past me without a greeting; it was out of conditioning. It just wasn't their practice to speak to janitors, to even make eye contact with them. So I became just another faceless cleaning man.

Over the past 15 years, janitors increasingly have made themselves seen and heard. They have hit the streets with their "Justice for Janitors" campaigns, striking for better wages and health benefits. In D.C., they blocked bridges and disrupted rush hour traffic at major intersections. They even picketed the home of Oliver Carr, then the city's biggest commercial property owner. There have been effective demonstrations in Los Angeles, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities. And now the janitors are back at it -- this time, the Service Employees International Union is trying to organize 20,000 nonunion janitors in the New Jersey and Philadelphia suburbs and in Baltimore, which is where I met Matthew Coleman, a 32-year-old father of two who once dreamed of playing pro football.

Coleman had just finished his shift as a $ 7-an-hour day porter at the B&O Building downtown. His duties: changing light bulbs, stocking bathrooms, unclogging toilets, cleaning windows, polishing brass, sweeping up cigarette butts outside. Which took a little longer than usual that day. A woman wouldn't budge. The phrase "excuse me" made no impression.

"She just frowned and turned her nose up at me," Coleman said. "I had to work around her. Most of the time, I ignore it. But I have my days like anybody else. Just because I'm doing janitorial work doesn't mean I'm any less important than doctors, lawyers or anybody else."

Like many janitors, Coleman -- who has joined his comrades' campaign for better pay, more hours and health benefits -- wants his kids to surpass him in ambition. He tells them to stay in school, study hard.

"I also tell them to respect everyone," he says. "You don't get nowhere looking down at nobody."

If you do that, you won't see what you need to see.

Washington Post
Publication Date: 
May 6, 2001