There is a small army of people that wages war in my building at 6pm every workday. The war is against dust, stains and trash for the most part, but stray notebooks or lunch-box lids are sometimes the unwitting victims as well. They clean everything in the common areas — conference rooms, whiteboards, tabletops, lunch rooms, elevator walls, you name it. (All while my office remains a neglected pigsty, by the way.) They walk around with noisy vacuum cleaners with very long yellow cords that I always worry about tripping over, and they leave in their wake the moist floors of bathrooms and printer-rooms that I have slipped on in the past.
Generally speaking, I find them annoying. They vacuum things twice over, and I can’t stand the noise. They make the bathrooms unusable while they go to work in them. (And did I mention that they don’t clean my office?) They’ve made me hunt for both a notebook and a lunch-box lid in the past. The lid had to be fished out of the dry trash, but it was when I was trying to recover the notebook that I first spoke to one of them properly.
It is interesting that one can see the same people every single work day and never talk to them at all. (Beyond the perfunctory smiles, and have-a-good-weekends, at any rate.) There is a kind of mutual, unseeing indifference that sets in when one does not truly interact with someone. So when the woman told me about the separate cleaning crews for different floors and times and their separate methods of dealing with stray objects, it was as if I saw her clearly for the first time. Not only was the notebook recovered (not in the trash, but in a corner of the very room I had forgotten it in), but I developed an appreciation for their work that I did not have before.
My father left home to get on his company bus at around 7:20am everyday for 35 years straight, and worked 6 day weeks, returning by 6:20pm. For almost all of those days, my mother packed his lunch before he left, and herself went to work some hours later. They never once complained about or even commented on any of this. There are many definitions of heroism in the world, but if this does not qualify as heroism, I don’t know what does. (I sometimes wonder how they raised this wastrel of a child who struggles to do anything consistently for even 35 days in a row, never mind 35 years, but that is another topic for another day.)
The point is this. Whatever the nature of your work, repeating the same task, at the same time, day after unrelenting day, gradually aggregating it up to years, decades and lifetimes, and never once complaining in the process is a tremendous achievement. Yes, one can argue that the personal situation demanded that sort of commitment, both from the cleaning staff and from my parents, that there was no choice. But the point is that they did it with a Zen-like attitude — without getting bent out of shape and without feeling strait-jacketed. They fit the rest of their lives around this, and they made it all look easy. That final piece of magic is what blows my mind I think — they made it look easy.
There are many millions of people doing this all around us. The mail delivery guy, the toll-booth guy, the cash register woman, the high school teacher, they are all doing it. Some of them repeat their tasks hundreds of times a day — sometimes with a genuine smile and sometimes with a forced friendliness, they are all at it everyday. And there is something to be said for this.
I think it was seeing the cleaning staff in the image of my parents that did it for me. I can never see the shiny elevator walls again, and not think of what goes into keeping them shiny. That elevator cleaning lady, she does a brilliant job.