I have never worked as a janitor. I did, however, spend a couple teenage years employed at McDonalds where, on rare occasions, I was assigned "lot and lobby" duty. This entailed mopping the restaurant's floors, cleaning the bathrooms, and crushing full garbage bags in the giant trash compactor behind the store. As I said, I didn't pull "lot and lobby" too often, but of course one of those times had to be the day someone died in the parking lot and the manager told me to go outside and "hose down the blood."
When I think of janitors...custodians...maintenance engineers...I always think of "Ty," the high-school-janitor protagonist of one of my favorite novellas, VALEDICTORY by Mackinlay Kantor.
Going back in my own life, I also recall "Ned," the beloved custodian at my old grade school -- and probably the only adult that we kids were allowed to call by his first name. Toward the end of our grade school days, a friend of mine said she went to say hi to Ned as he waxed the floor of an empty classroom...and he leered at her and began chasing her around the desks. That was one of the first times I realized that people are often not what they appear to be....
For years and years after that, as I went to school or held various jobs, I had little direct contact with custodians. Usually they worked a different shift than I did or, if our work hours did overlap, they'd rush through the office pushing a loud vacuum cleaner and listening to music on their iPod, with no personal communication beyond a nod or a muttered "hi." Although occasionally the custodian in one office would leave notes on my desk. The one I remember best said, "If you MUST chew gum, please wrap it in paper before throwing it your wastebasket." Good advice, I guess, though I still chuckle over the stern "if you MUST chew gum" reprimand.
For the past couple years, I have had the same custodian cleaning my office. I see "Billie Faye" almost every morning and she's always got something interesting to say.
A while back she told me that her grandmother cured lung congestion the old-fashioned way by drinking "cowpat tea."
"What's that made of?" I asked.
"Cow s--t," she said.
Another time Billie Faye told me that she and her "old man" once spent a year living in California.
"Did you go out there looking for work?" I asked.
"No," she replied. "We was running from the law."
The old man is now out of the picture, and Billie Faye currently lives with her ninety-year-old aunt. Recently B.F. came home from work and found her aunt laying unconscious, half on the floor and half on top of a shattered glass coffee table.
"Oh no!" I said. "Did she have a stroke?"
"Nope," said Billie Faye. "Passed out drunk!"
When I tell these Billie Faye anecdotes to friends, they always say, "You have to put her in a book someday!"
"I know!" I reply, already envisioning a fictionalized version of Billie having a small, but pithy, role in my future Newbery-winning novel. (Newbery? Hey, if I'm going to dream, why not dream BIG?)
But then it suddenly dawned on me...maybe it will be the other way around.
Maybe Billie Faye will base a character on me in her novel!
After all, just the other day I saw her pull an empty Lean Cuisine box out of my wastebasket and study it carefully. She saw me looking at her and explained, "I always like to see what everyone else had for lunch."
And when you think about it, who better than a custodian to know all your secrets? Who but a custodian sees the old shopping lists and bank statements you casually toss in your trashcan? I'm sure janitors have been known to find empty vodka bottles hidden in office desks. I'm sure they've pieced-together love letters that you've torn up and thrown in the wastebasket. They've overheard your private phone calls as they sweep around your desk, probably heard the boss yelling at you when they dust the computers. (Just because they've got their iPod buds in their ears doesn't mean they've got any music playing.)
Working as a janitor really would be a great job for an aspiring writer.
And lots of writers have done this kind of work in the past.
Writer-illusrator Michael Garland (THE GREAT EASTER EGG HUNT) once worked as a custodian. So did Elvira Woodruff (GHOSTS DON'T GET GOOSEBUMPS.) Audrey Couloumbis, who won a Newbery Honor for GETTING NEAR TO BABY, was a school custodian; can you imagine how much she may have observed about kids in that position?
Hey, even Stephen King once worked as a janitor.
For most of the above, custodial work was just a pitstop on their way to success. However, I can think of two highly-esteemed children's authors who worked as janitors throughout much of their writing career.
Trained as a grade-school teacher, Richard Kennedy worked as a cab driver, factory worker, and fireman before he became a custodian at Oregon State University, a position he held throughout much of his writing career. In addition to THE DARK PRINCESS and AMY'S EYES, Mr. Kennedy also wrote a short novel called INSIDE MY FEET : THE STORY OF A GIANT, which was inspired by a pair of empty shoes he found abandoned in a hallway he was cleaning at work.
And Meindert Dejong worked as a church janitor during the 1950s, as he was producing some of the most highly-praised children's books of that decade -- including Newbery winner THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL and four more Honor Books.
I wonder how many other famous children's book authors have done custodial work in the past?
And how many future children's book authors are doing custodial work now?
Just think: the person who quietly wet-mops your floor, peels sticky gum out of your wastebasket (I now wrap it in paper first -- really I do!) and empties your trash may one day be sharing your secrets in a book!