A First Job by Nathan Leslie

craft of janitor mopping floorMy father gave me my first real job.  I was happy to accept the grace of nepotism.  The impetus?  For thirteen years my father was employed as the building manager of the Interfaith Center in Columbia, Maryland. He could, of course, always use janitorial help. As a result, my first job was as a janitor’s assistant, a job I began at the age of fourteen and worked until I could drive.

Nepotism does have its benefits. As my father took me into work with him on occasion, I was familiar with this part of my father’s life, and I either knew or knew of all the major figures he would talk about at dinner. Most importantly, I knew and liked Stanley and Victor, the two Jamaican janitors.  For decades Stanley and Victor were the true mainstays of the Interfaith Center. Stanley was a short man who always wore a tan fedora to work and slacks and a button-down shirt—nice clothes, for a janitor—an appearance which made him seem out of another era altogether. Victor was tall and hefty with strong shoulders and an even-tempered demeanor.  Both Stanley and Victor were easy-going in fact, though Stanley flashed an edge of intensity and seriousness.  Often, Stanley furrowed his brow; his eyes narrowed in concentration.  Both men loved to joke around, and they teased each other, and me, mercilessly. I referred to them as old men and they called me “Naton son.”  To Stanley and Victor I was always a little tyke, the boss’s son.  They were my protectors.  My friends.

Typically my mother would drop me off at the Interfaith Center after school, and hand me a brown-bagged dinner. I would work until ten or eleven o’clock, waving goodbye to Stanley as I left.  Since Victor primarily worked during the day, Stanley was more or less my immediate boss. With Stanley at the helm of the ship, I was able to breathe.  Stanley taught me the ropes; we had, in the best sense, a true mentor-mentee relationship—as if Stanley were my surrogate father and I the dutiful son learning his craft.

Slowly I established my own rituals. When I arrived in the evening, I would first head back to my actual father’s office, greeting the secretaries along the way, placing my dinner in his mini-fridge. He would usually be on the phone with one religious group or another, taking a reservation or handling a complaint. Sometimes my father seemed overburdened with his job, particularly regarding the political in-fighting amongst the ministers, rabbis and priests. In the 1980s Columbia was still steeped in its hippie roots and hanging on for dear life to some of the original ideals of its founder, James Rouse. Multidenominational meetinghouses were at the very forefront of Rouse’s utopian vision. They were to function as a statement of understanding and mutual respect.  At least initially, I believe my father loved the job, particularly because he was immersed in an idealistic kind of baby-boomer experiment, a work-in-progress. He believed he was involved in reshaping the world, or at least his part in it.

I first told my father about my day–Dad: “What happened today at school?” Me: “Nothing”. Then I would wander the large building searching for Stanley, to find out what I could do to help. Once I found Stanley in one of the cavernous meeting rooms, I’d begin my games. One was to sneak up behind him to shock him, grab him from behind.  Stanley was willing to play along, and at times I honestly did scare him so much so that he would catch his breath, clutch his chest, knock his own hat off.  “You really surprised me that time, Naton-son,” he would say.  Since Stanley was both earnestly serious and good-natured, he was easy to tease:  I could always provoke a reaction from him.  Sometimes his heart was racing so much he had to sit down:  When he sat down and took his hat off I knew I got him good. Other times he would be in the middle of a conversation with the head of a congregation and I couldn’t “get him” at all. On occasion Stanley would hear me creeping up on him, turn around and spot me, grinning ear to ear.  “Oh Naton, not this time,” he would say. “No, no, no.”

Stanley took his job seriously.  He always struck a balance between having a good time and accomplishing his given workload.

“Time to stop joking now Naton-son,” he would say and wave for me to follow him.  I listened.

We would get to work:  vacuuming, washing and waxing the floors, washing the windows, mowing the grass on the perimeter of the property, changing light bulbs, sweeping, scrubbing down the baptistery, taking out the trash, setting up chairs and tables in the meeting rooms.  Though I resisted these types of chores at home, I didn’t mind the drudgery if I got paid for it and if Stanley was there to entertain me.  I felt as if I had a stake in things, as if I was a part of a team.  Thankfully, Stanley spared me the bathroom detail, aside from replacing the toilet paper.  I’m not sure if he thought scrubbing the toilet was beneath me, or if he wanted to protect me from it, but Stanley always volunteered to take care of the most gruesome jobs himself.  I was the son of the boss.

The other part of the night janitor’s job was simply to walk around the building to make sure everything was safe and sound. This job entailed a bit of security detail. As a sign of the changing times—Stanley began locking the bathroom at night. “Too many graffiti and tings,” he said. “You never know about the batroom.” The building itself was in the center of the Wilde Lake Village Center, an outdoor mini-mall designed by Rouse to be a center for community gatherings and entertainment. Thus, we did see some foot traffic, especially from the art gallery and the community center and the high school on the far side of the huge parking lot. Usually the night was quiet though, and it afforded Stanley and I the chance to listen to the Orioles on the radio—his usual routine. Sometimes we played cards.  At the end of the night we would lock up, and Stanley would walk down the road to his apartment, where he lived alone.

One night, Stanley and I were locking up the building when I came to a realization:  there must be a quicker way.  For the past year Stanley had taught me that the best way to lock the series of doors around the perimeter of the Interfaith Center was to proceed from door to door on the inside of the building, locking each one and testing it by a double tug.  I thought, why not just lock the doors from the outside and lock the very last door from the inside? I told Stanley of my discovery.  “This has to be faster,” I said.

“No way, Naton son,” he said. “You’re wrong. I know it.” Stanley had told me had been locking the doors from the inside for years, and that my method would be slower because I would have a longer distance to travel to reach the doors.

We decided to race.  Stanley would lock half of the doors his way, and I would lock half of the doors my way. Whoever finished first would owe the other an ice cream bar from the store up the street. I zipped my keys in the doors as fast as I could, turning each one, and quickly yanking each door to make sure it was locked. At door number one and two and three I was ahead, but by door number four I stumbled, dropping the keys. I had to find the master key again in the ring. By the time I recovered, Stanley had won by a landslide. He leaned against the glass wall, laughing so hard he had to hold his fedora in his hand.

Stanley stuck out his hand, still laughing, congratulating me for the effort.

“Te old man still has it Naton,” he said.

“I slipped,” I said.  “If I didn’t slip I definitely woulda won.”

“When you’re outside it easier to slip,” he said.  “Tat what I mean.”

“Let’s race again,” I said.

“Oh no,” he said.  “Another night, Naton-son.”

And we did.  Each night that Stanley and I worked together we did the lock-up-race. Occasionally I won, but usually Stanley won. It was a great way to whistle while we worked, to pass the time. We always laughed a lot. Stanley knew how to put a smile on my face.

 

The Interfaith Center job was rewarding precisely for reasons other than the mere work I accomplished. The social connections I made and realizations I came to during those years were invaluable. Not only were Victor and Stanley good role models for me—how could I take myself too seriously in their presence? They were a kind of refuge from the stress of high school–when my social life went to pot, I could always go to work.  I could sweep the floor or wash the windows. My angst had a release.

During the years I worked at the Interfaith Center, my opinion of my father also multiplied. My father was the boss. He was admired and respected by those around him and I could see that on a daily basis.  He was able to delegate, to communicate clearly with his colleagues.  He was patient and kind and tolerant. In addition, I saw how my father was able to moderate between those who did not necessarily see eye to eye. Ironically, my father’s immersion in hippie idealism also brought out his natural pragmatism. He was a man at ease with himself and the world. At times I wonder how his life would have turned out had he never left his position as the building manager of the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Where his subsequent job as a real estate agent forced my father to become increasingly solitary, internal, and bottom-line, his position at the Interfaith Center was communal and external and it allowed his charm to surface.

On the days when I cleaned for four hours then listened to the Orioles game for the rest of the evening, I felt sorry for the kids working at McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. The pay was terrible working at the Interfaith Center—three thirty five an hour, the minimum wage at the time—but I was as happy as a clown just having some walking around money. And since my father paid me in cash, the money I did earn seemed more substantial somehow.  It all went towards baseball cards and clothes anyway.

Once I was sixteen and could drive myself to and from the Interfaith Center, my father let me man the building myself on occasion. By this time I was also working at a discount retail store, Caldor, a job that paid five dollars an hour. But that was a real job and I had to work much harder, or at least pretend to. There I wasn’t the boss’s son, and I was often in the public eye. I felt embarrassed if a neighbor or friend saw me in my brown and orange Caldor uniform but this was part of the job description. Despite the low pay I still preferred my off-kilter, eclectic janitor’s helper job at the Interfaith Center. I had more autonomy, more space to roam, a real comfort level.

A knot would form in my stomach on those nights alone. Something about the silence and calm of solitude in a large empty building was daunting.  Like many of the buildings built in the late 60s and early 70s, the Interfaith Center was built in a modern Frank Lloyd Wright style, and the rooms inside were decked out with high ceilings and windows, all air and light.  Yet, those empty rooms and hallways bereft of voices or sounds were lonely. I would walk from room to room, checking up on each space, but I usually wished Stanley or Victor were there with me, someone to joke with, to laugh with, to listen to the radio with me.  Alone I was restless. Alone, the building felt huge.

When I was alone, I didn’t see watching the World Series in my father’s office as abusing my position, but some on the staff complained. Yet, instead of stopping completely, I just moderated my baseball watching and waited until everyone who might still be lingering in his or her office was safe at home. Then I would hole myself away back in my father’s office.  I wasn’t exactly proud to be a janitor—the popular kids at my high school would never stoop so low for a job—and in the glass-walled highway I was conspicuously visible, an object of scrutiny and mockery. I wanted to crouch in a smaller and less visible space, and my father’s office fit the bill. Partially I hid out of shame, but I also simply wanted to watch the World Series and a mere job couldn’t, and wouldn’t stop me. As a teenager my priorities were in order:  first baseball, then everything else.  Soon the complaints flowed in and my father asked me to cease and desist. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end of my tenure at the Interfaith Center.

In my senior year of high school I would still return from time to time to help Stanley and Victor set up chairs, or clean up after a particularly large function. However, by the end of the 1980s my father had resigned from The Interfaith Center, frustrated by the low pay and the frayed relationships between the various faiths.  Idealism had gone to seed.  Ultimately the Catholic, Baptist, and Jewish congregations would leave the building altogether and establish their own individual structures elsewhere in Columbia.  What was left were simply several bland denominations of Protestantism, all fairly alike in their outlook, worldview, and approach. The inter-religious experiment was, if not a failure, then at least a disappointment.  At the end of the 80s something was lost.

Before I left for college–to become an adult–my father and I took Stanley to an Orioles game. Though Stanley had listened to the Orioles on the radio for years he had never seen a game in person. I can’t remember whether the Orioles beat the Angels that night but watching the excitement in Stanley’s eyes as he took the game in was one of the high points of my adolescence.

In the late 90s I attended Stanley’s retirement party at The Interfaith Center. We sipped sodas and laughed and he nudged me and told me that he never really planned on retiring. He would always work full-time, he said.  He said he didn’t understand what retirement really meant. Stanley still works at The Interfaith Center. He still stacks the chairs, cleans the bathrooms, locks up.  I can picture him.  He’s whistling in the dark.

nathan leslie on trail in woodsNathan Leslie’s six books of fiction include Madre, Believers and Drivers.  He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His first novel will be published by Atticus Books later this year.  His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in many literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review.  He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years.  His website is www.nathanleslie.com.

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  • Stephen

    Wow this was a nice surprise to stumble on this fine story.  Nathan got most of the fact right….but I did not pay him in cash.  It’s always a bit dangerous to have a son who is a writer.  You never know when you are going to appear in a story.

    Nathan’s Dad

  • Yoga2light

    Nathan, your story kept my interest all the way through. Heart warming, sincere and very real. First read of yours and it’s great. Keep writing and sharing. Paula Tepedino

  • Ian H

    Nice story, Nathan. I wish I could say my first job was as educational, but I worked in a hot dog shop under the scrutinizing eye of a 70 year old woman. Unfortunately, she was not quite the same working companion as Stanley and took offense at my desire to read at the counter when all the cleaning had been done and no one was coming in to eat.

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  • As an architecture writer I suffer cognitive dissonance when I read others’ writing about the field. Occupational hazard– and a good one. Actually made me work harder to imagine the church.
    Loved the “whistle while we worked” reference. Fab!
    Refreshing to read a positive story on a father/son relationship. Most nonfiction we read about that dynamic is fraught with bitterness and disappointment. Though I would like to have more to go on regarding his character– dialogue, physicality, actions between him and Stanley/Victor.

    @NicholeLReber:twitter