Sandwiched between ice cream scoopers for Baskin Robbins, insurance-gig possibilities, calls for interior-design assistants, and jewelry sales jobs is JANITOR. Now, here’s something I can stick with, I don’t know. It says, “No Exper. Immediate openings. Midnight to 8:30 AM.” I circle that one, fold the paper, and close my eyes.
Yes. The first thing I see is a big cluster of keys, maybe on one of those long, retractable chains riding on the belt of my Sears &
Roebuck green khaki pants. I have a matching shirt with my first name over my heart in red thread on a white background.
Maybe I’m confusing this with being a gas station attendant. But anyway, I’m making the rounds in my sensible shoes with the corrugated soles, drawing on my pipe as I pull a feather duster from my back pocket and play it lightly over an office-building print, a diploma, or a portrait of “Our Founder” in the reception area. I empty a couple of wastebaskets, nod at the night watchman and ask him about the wife and kids before going back to my area in the boiler room with my microwave, coffee Thermos, stack of paperbacks, and maybe a harmonica.
As long as I didn’t have to fix anything I’d be fine. I’d mop a floor once in a while, I suppose, but I’d avoid any job in a high school where I’d have to throw sawdust on puke or fish Tampax out of toilets with a plunger. It should be pretty mellow. I call the number and I’m invited out to Mira Mesa to fill out an application at Sunrise Floor Systems.
The job interview consists of one question: Do you have transportation?”
I do, and later that day I get a call from a guy named Rafael, who asks me to show up at 11:00 that night.
In the parking lot at the industrial site on Trade Place, several men step out of their cars, breath condensing against starlight, and eye each other, make introductions or hang back, smoke or not. The half-dozen men appear between the ages of 18 and 35 except for me and one other guy. The office isn’t open yet, and I pass the time talking to John G., who tells me he’s 51 and from Chicago. We get on the subject of Chicago rock bands in the ’60s like the Buckinghams and the Shadows of Knight. A pleasant enough conversation that takes a turn when John asks me if I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. “Jesus Christ,” he says, “is really wonderful.”
“Yeah, I Understand that,” I tell him, not knowing what else to say. He goes on to quote the Book of Revelation, and it is unnecessary for me to say much, other than the occasional “Wow. Trumpets, flaming swords, eh?” Or, “What exactly is jasper and carnelian?'
“That’s not important. According to John, the apostle, who was beheaded....”
“I thought it was John the Baptist who got his head cut off....”
Our scriptural analysis is interrupted by the arrival of two men, Juan and Manuel, who have us fill out tax exemption or deduction forms and Xerox our driver’s licenses and social security cards. After that we wait around again in the office, the only lighted office in a lonely row of cracker-box offices and warehouses in a sea of well-lighted parking lots and silent winding streets.
“I had a bad time in Vietnam,” John G. tells me, apropos of nothing.
“What years were you there?”
“Sixty-eight and ’69,” he tells me. “The year after Khe Sahn but the year of Tet and the year after that. With the help of God I have survived everything a human body can survive in terms of big rocks and animals and things like that.” I have no idea where he is going with this, and I get no opportunity to find out. John G. is assigned to a Vons store in El Cajon, and I am to follow a Mexican kid named Carlos to another Vons store in La Jolla, the Regents Road location.
Carlos and his cousin Manny lead the way. We arrive as the store is closing and I ask what the plan is. “We gotta clean the store,” Carlos says matter-of-factly, as if I’m a bit dim.
“Three of us? We’ve got to clean an entire grocery store?”
“Two of us. But Manny will help us even though he’s just along for the ride.”
Manny is around 20 years old with a buzz cut and tattoos. Seems like a nice kid, but maybe tough if he had to be. Being a Mexican kid, you have to be. He doesn’t speak English at all, so I mostly deal with Carlos, a handsome guy with pretty good English, formidable looking for his size, a nice goatee. I realize he’s my boss.
Carlos takes me to the bakery department. “We do the bakery first,” he explains, “because the baker comes in about 1:30 or 2:00.” I am shown where the push brooms and straight brooms and dust pans are; where the sinks, hoses, and chemical solutions for the floor are hooked in to the water system. Carlos instructs me to move as much equipment aside as I can before sweeping, hosing, scrubbing, and then hosing again. For the next 20 minutes I am moving baker’s racks, 100-pound sacks of flour, carts, garbage cans, dough mixers, plastic containers, and shrink-wrap machines on wheels around the red concrete floor, exposing stale doughnuts, wax paper, dust, package labels, Styrofoam coffee cups, shredded plastic, and dust balls. Manny is over in the deli section, Carlos is doing something back in the receiving area, and I am alone for the next hour with my brooms, hoses, trash cans, and my thoughts.
I had assumed that this kind of work would free up my creative processes to plot the next chapter of the novel I’m working on, but I find myself thinking of other things.
Boiled but unbaked bagels left to dry on the floor cannot be easily swept up. You have to bend over and collect them by hand. Their texture is like the unanimated flesh of infants — something I once saw and touched (though I didn’t want to) in a Tijuana coroner’s office. This disturbs me in a way I am unprepared for, and I try to think of something else. KYXY is on the sound system playing songs from the ’60s that sucked back then and still suck.
I wonder why the Beach Boys are considered good. I mean, there’s the harmonies, sure, but give me a break; this stuff is crap. Why doesn’t anybody see this besides me?
Scrubbing motion back and forth with the broom. Detergent sudsing up nicely. Hot water steaming off the floor like mist...smoke. Yeah, radioactive vapor.
If there was, say, a third world war or some other disaster and I was stuck in here, what would I loot first? Everybody would be shooting it out for meat, liquor, and canned goods. I would go for the spices. They’re portable and everybody else would forget to steal paprika and turmeric. Eventually survivors would be tired of eating the same, flavorless stuff, and I could get a nice little trade going.
Parting the steam with broom strokes. Swirling little eddies of steam and lather. Be the broom.
There is some hardened sludge on the floor like molasses and silicone...something that will not come up. Spinoza is right: all things struggle to remain what they are, which is why it’s so hard to get ice out of an ice tray, I suppose.
Hosing off the floor with cold water. My shoes are ruined. I want a cigarette.
In 12 years I’ll be 60. I’ll probably be dead in 20 years, more or less. Twenty years ago I was living in Brooklyn writing my first novel. I didn’t have a clue about anything. I still don’t. What are the odds I’ll have a clue 20 years from now? Not good. My last thought will probably be: Now? No. Wait a minute!
What happened to these bagels? I wonder if it's okay to eat these apple fritters? They’re probably stale anyway. So many questions, but as I hose off the last of the chemical foam into the drains, clean out the dreadlocks of schmutz from the traps, I realize the bakery department is now finished and the produce section awaits. Life goes on. It is now almost 2:00 a.m. My back is singing ragtime glis-sandos of pain.
Carlos tells me to sweep the carpet around the fruit and vegetable stalls, moving leaves, stems, candy wrappers, stray grapes, and cherry tomatoes toward the middle of the produce aisles. I am then to follow up with the giant battery-powered vacuum cleaner, about the size of a jukebox. Though it is chilly in the store, I have now worked up a fine slick of perspiration as I play the straight broom over the rug like a hoe in hard soil. My back is becoming a problem. My future in this line of work may be limited.
The vacuum cleaner is heavy, hard to maneuver, and deafening. Its whining, grunting, wheezing, and throat-clearing echo around the store drowns out the Standells on “Dirty Water” and Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain.” I turn the floor leviathan off long enough to listen to Van Morrison do “Here Comes the Night.” I think about how hard I have worked in my life to avoid real work, and yet here I am with an aching spine I wrenched ten years ago while picking asparagus in the Imperial Valley.
I turn on the cleaner again and notice the Kamatsu 5000 — or whatever it is — isn’t doing a great job. It seems to blow rather than suck. I run through the list of jobs I’ve held since I was a paperboy in Chicago at age 11.
Dishwasher at Bob’s Kitchen in Grayslake, Illinois (where I learned to smoke at age 15); paper-bundler at the Grayslake Press; three grocery store jobs (Robin Hood Market, Parkway Foods, and Piggly Wiggly); of course, lawn-mowing and leaf-raking; some baby-sitting, housepainting, spray-painting glue on speaker cones at a speaker factory, melting flywheels over a vat of molten zinc in a foundry (where splashing slag metal burned a patch of flesh off my foot, repaired with a skin graft from my ass); musician; bookstore clerk; boat-bottom cleaner; bartender; busboy; caterer; landlord; corsage factory lineman; record-store clerk; roofer (hot tar, layers of flannel, August sun in the Midwest); short-story writer and novelist; newspaper and magazine writer; fast-food worker; telemarketer; and as of tonight, janitor. I know I’m leaving a few out. The same thing happens when I try to count how many women I’ve had sex with (it’s somewhere in the 30s, I think).
The first one, the Ukrainian girl, never told me her name, at least I don’t remember it. Her mother chased me off her front porch with a kitchen knife calling me a “black boy.” She thought I was a Gypsy. I can’t remember who was second, maybe Sue Faulkner or Barbara Benedetto. Then there was Kendra; I thought it was love, but it was just a case of her knowing what she was doing. That chick at the Aragon Ballroom in ’67... I really needed a cigarette now. What was the name of that girl that called me
“Daddy” at crucial moments? Very distracting....
It turns out Carlos smokes too. Victor, the store manager, unlocks the front door and lets us into the night. Carlos compliments me on the job I did on the produce section. He asks me if I’ve done this before. “No,” I say. “Not professionally.”
“So what work do you do?” I tell him and he smiles with satisfaction. “I knew you were somebody else. The way you dress and everything.” I look down at my jeans, wet walking shoes, T-shirt, flannel shirt over it, and I wonder what he is talking about.
He tells me his name is Carlos Camacho Garcia. He is a friend of Rafael, Sunrise Floor Systems’ manager. Carlos tells me he had worked a couple of weeks as a favor to Rafael and then was offered the job with Sunrise when he took a leave of absence from his job at Wal-Mart because of a “personal thing” with one of his coworkers. Carlos works every night of the week. He quit going to school for computer programming because he was “always too tired.” Garcia has been waiting five years for his green card. It was held up because of some snafu with his social security number. He got that straightened out, and now he doesn’t know what’s holding things up.
He tells me what a good father his dad is, how he works hard and doesn’t drink, how he always sends money to his family down in Pueblo. His dad is employed at a retirement home and at Wal-Mart too, and Carlos liked working with him. He’ll go back after a while; his job is still there for him.
Garcia tells me about crossing the border illegally when he was 15. His father paid a pollero $20 for little Carlos to come across. “Dad didn’t want to risk me, but I wanted to come. I wanted to be up here with him. Thepollero gave me extra clothes to wear for crossing the border.” The idea is, you can get busted by border cops easier if your clothes are muddy, so you strip off the outside layer. Same with getting work: you wear your better clothes underneath the dirty or ripped ones so you’re a little more presentable. The pollero also issued Carlos a plastic trash bag for crossing the Tijuana River.
“We had to cross two fences,” he tells me. “One we had to go under, and the other we had to climb over. At the second fence I was really scared. It was dark and the fence was too high for me. I was praying a lot that night. When it was time for me to jump, I backed up to take a running start, but I froze. I got too scared. I couldn’t do it. The guy kept calling to me to go, the coast was clear, there was no border cops on the other side. We had to go right then. I told him I was scared I wouldn’t make it. So he came and got me and put me on his back. He ran to the fence and jumped with me on him. He jumped like some kind of animal, man. He was running and running and then whoo!” He makes an arc with his hand in the parking-lot lighting. “We made it over.”
Burning our second Camels now, Garcia tells me about being transported in a car, under some blankets, to a motel on this side, where he waited in a room with ten other people for a “mule” to drive him to a certain address. Garcia had no idea where he was. His father collected him at the drop. Garcia seemed amused that the whole adventure only cost his father $25. “You know, with $5 for the ' clothes and garbage bag.”
“That’s cheap,” I agree.
Garcia is not allowed to leave the country, not even to visit his mother and brothers and sister in Tijuana. Not if he plays by Immigration’s rules. “I have been here for all this time, and I have everything: a job, food, a place to live, a television, and a car. I have everything except my family, and that is the most important thing. This place is like, what do you call it, a gold jail? Is that how you say it?”
He means a gilded cage or golden handcuffs. “I know what you mean,” I say. It’s time for me to clean the meat department, then the customer’s bathrooms in the back, the break room, the bathrooms upstairs, and then the office up front. Garcia tells me that normally I would have to finish all this stuff by 4:00 a.m., but since this is my first night I shouldn’t worry about it too much. I don’t.
The meat department gets really clean. I’m fully into it. The pain in my back is a bank of jagged spark plugs; it actually hurts less if I keep moving. The entire rectangular room (15 x 50 feet) takes about an hour— and those butchers leave the area pretty clean in the first place—as I reflect on things such as: human hair will grow to a length of 12 feet before it stops growing; the fresh peas in produce are of varying configurations yet frozen peas all seem to be the same size and shape; I am the same age my father was when he died of a heart attack; and that south of the equator, water would revolve around this drain in the opposite direction.
The bathrooms aren’t too bad. They are cleaned every night so you don’t get that nightmare scenario I feared: being ankle deep in dukes, plunger in hand, scraping congealed vomit hardened into a tough polymer off the sides of the thrones with dental instruments and a putty trowel. You clean the mirrors, the sinks, the towel racks, the top and insides of the cans, replace the hand towels and bunwad, wipe the fingerprints off the light switches and door handles — stuff like that. For all these purposes I use window cleaner. In the maintenance room is an arsenal of chemicals, solutions, compounds, sprays, polishes, solvents, and bottles, and the tools to apply them. The thing is, I don’t know what any of this stuff is. Yellow gunk, blue additives, red thinner, clear gel with skull-and-crossbones warnings, liquids to avoid inhaling or swallowing, unstable fluids to keep away from flame and skin. Everything is harmful or fatal one way or another and could cause nausea, blindness, hair loss, hallucinations — at the very least a loose, oily stool. The cure for cancer is probably in this closet. Just standing in here is making me sick, so I grab the stuff that looks like Windex, because it is more or less familiar, and I hope no one says anything.
At 5:00 a.m. it is time for another break. I drink coffee in my car out of an Aladdin/Stan-ley Thermos (the best) and watch Vons employees arrive one at a time, greet each other, and prepare for the day. It is still dark; the little dipper is overhead and the north star blinks at me a few times. An airplane from Montgomery field, I suppose, appears as a sluggishly animate planet on its way to the horizon and the sea. That break room is looking damned fine, I think to myself. Just the office to go and I’m out of here.
I am moving slowly because of my back. My socks are wet, my feet are cold, the inside of my mouth tastes of lukewarm coffee and tobacco. I can see Manny playing the floor buffer up aisle seven as if he’s been doing it all his life while Carlos, in the next aisle, ogles the new Mexican-made Volkswagens in Car and Driver.
I empty the office trash under the paper shredder, run the broom and mop around a little. After consolidating the transparent garbage bags from four bathrooms and the office into one bag and dumping it out back by the receiving area, I figure I’m done, but Carlos has a last job for me.
I follow Manny’s buffer with a dust mop. “The floors aren’t even,” Carlos explains. “The buffer shakes up dust and pushes it under the shelves. Go over the whole store once. Start at the front, and put a new mop on the handle.” I follow his instructions and ask what to do with the old mop head. “Throw it out,” he shrugs. “This is America. That’s one thing I don’t get. This country is crazy to recycle some things and then just throws away the most amazing objects. Nobody wants to wash this thing and use it again. Do you?”
I look at the thing, trying to see it as an amazing object but failing. “No,” I tell him and ditch it.
“Tired?” he asks me.
“God, yes,” I say. Why lie?
I add that I probably won’t be in that night.
“That’s okay,” Carlos understands. “Just call Rafael and tell him.”
After eating some aspirin and watching Martha Stewart make pasta salad out of bonsai trees, I decide what to tell Rafael. For my second day I can’t call in sick or with car trouble or a death in the family. I’ve called in late for jobs, called in hungover and with a broken ankle. This is the first time I’ve had to call in “old.” Rafael does not seem surprised.