When my kids were teenagers, I frequently accused them of being lazy and ungrateful. (I know, I know—I’m a terrible mother.)
In an effort to stoke the guilt fire and motivate them, I did not have to make reference to some faraway third world country where children lacked basic necessities—food, heat, running water, their very own cars. I only had to point to the hardworking families in Fort Bragg where Dad and/or Mom worked two jobs and their children had to work and take on domestic duties from a young age.
I never admitted that I was a lazy, self-absorbed teenager. Outside of babysitting, I managed to stave off gainful employment until the summer after I graduated from high school and took a job as a janitor.
Ask my mother how she enjoyed the irony of my being employed to dust, vacuum, mop, and clean toilets. She never laughed in my face, but I’m certain she had moments of hysteria in her basement sewing room.
I’d applied for several jobs (okay—two) during the last month of my senior year, but never got an interview. I complained to my buddy, John Donner, whose dad owned a janitorial business. The week after graduation, John’s dad offered me a job. I would work from 6:00-9:00pm five days a week for $1.60 an hour.
The first night, John’s dad met me at a small insurance office building near Deaconess Hospital and offered a 15-minute orientation. An hour later, I met him at Valley Volkswagen where he spent another brief period showing me what to do. He gave me keys to both buildings, and forever after left me alone.
The first week was a challenge, as I took care to do everything perfectly. After that, the job became a dull routine. I brought along a portable radio and tuned it to my favorite rock ‘n roll station. The music allowed me to sing and dance which spiced things up and made the time pass quicker.
One night, Stairway to Heaven started to play as I feather-dusted desktops near a wall of windows that looked out on a grassy area. As the song shifted into high gear, I grabbed the industrial-size dust mop and started on the floors.
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
The dust mop handle became the microphone through which I belted out the lyrics. I worked that mop across the floor with the wild abandon of a rock star. Turning to the audience on the window side of my stage, I saw a tween-aged boy, frozen on the lawn, gaping drop-jawed.
I stopped my performance, lowered the microphone to waist level, turned my back, and slowly pushed the mop around the remainder of the floor. “Little turd.”
Another night, I met an employee of the insurance company who was working late. She was friendly, about my mom’s age, and chatted as I went about my business. She told me she had a son five years older than me.
A week later, her son just happened to drop by the office. She was all atwitter over introducing us and tried to motivate conversation. He and I exchanged smiles, and avoided eye contact. He was well groomed, gainfully employed, and not a musician—definitely not my type. I’m certain he wondered if I ever combed my hair or changed my artfully patched plumber’s jeans.
The matchmaking did not go well and I thought that was the end of it. A month later, when I began a new job working the cafeteria line at Deaconess Hospital, he appeared across the steam table.
He asked if I remembered him.
I had tried so hard to forget.
He wondered if I’d like to go to a movie. I told him there were strict rules against socializing on the job. He apologized and asked for my phone number. I gave him a fake number. I felt guilty, but it was the only tool available to my 18-year old self to tell this guy I wasn’t interested.
The entire time I worked as a janitor (three long months) I suspected the experience would prove advantageous in later years. And so it did—it became my I walked six miles each way to school through knee-deep snow story related to my children more times than they cared to hear it.
In comparison to subsequent jobs, being a janitor wasn’t that bad. It allowed me to laze around all day, work for a few hours, and party afterward. (My kids don’t need to know that.)