Everybody Starts Somewhere
The year was 1983. My parents’ favorite words were “save your money.” Anytime I wanted anything, the inevitable response was: “save your money, pal.” Didn’t matter if it was a pack of gum, a new bike or a root canal. When I eventually got fed up after hearing it for the 5,000th time, I girded my loins, furrowed my brow, and pitched myself headlong into the world of gainful employment.
Now, being a 15-year old kid living in Hudson, Ohio (don’t ask — my therapist says I should just block it out), with like zero practical job skills, the employment opportunities at my disposal were not exactly vast. After dragging myself through the application process at the handful of fast food establishments within biking distance of my home, I somehow discovered (and to this day I still cannot remember exactly how; my therapist is nothing if not thorough) that there was a summer job opening at the local junior high school, as a janitor.
I honestly don’t know what I was thinking, but I took the job. I don’t know … it was within walking distance of my house, it paid pretty well, and I figured I wouldn’t come home at the end of the day reeking like a Long John Silver’s deep fryer. No no, instead, I’d come home reeking of ammonia.
What Was I Thinking?
My boss was Bill, who was to that point the loudest, angriest, and most bitter man I had ever met. A deeply religious man was Bill. A deeply religious man with a penchant for eating entire loaves of garlic bread. You see, Bill weighed in at around 400 pounds, easily (that was approximately four of me at the time). When we’d go out to lunch, we’d have to pull the table out from the booth so he could kind of waddle-slide in, and we’d push the table up to his massive belly, which would serve as a secondary table and food trap.
I feared Bill, and respected him. Not just because of his monstrous girth, or his ability to fell a man with one swipe of his massive paw, but because anyone who could keep my co-workers in line and get them to accomplish anything whatsoever deserved the utmost respect in my book.
My co-workers were all “lifers”, not some wanker “it’s a summer job” kid like me. These guys were seriously hard-core, a collection of ruddy misfits and dangerous cast-offs that society had quietly shuffled to the back of the bus. They were like a genetic experiment gone wrong, prone to sudden outbursts, inexplicable brooding, impromptu fistfights and … well … it was just abundantly clear that they had been getting a little too friendly with the floor polish.
Their disgust for me was tempered only by their smug realization that they could treat me like crap.
Bill first sent us forth on a mission to dislodge (sometimes with a putty knife, but usually with a chisel) every last piece of hardened gum from the underside of every desk and chair in the building. I haven’t put this on my resume just yet, but I am now able to differentiate between Watermelon Bubblicious and Strawberry Hubba Bubba by sight at twenty paces. And by smell at five. To this day I involuntarily shudder when passing the gum in the supermarket candy aisle.
Concurrent with the gum removal project, Big Bill made us eradicate every last bit of graffiti from every surface in the building. This was accomplished by soaking one of those puke-green scratchy pads with a highly-toxic blue spray and scrubbing the living shit out of the spot in question until either a) the words disappeared, b) the varnish/paint came off, or c) your fingers stopped tingling (that was a really bad sign). Of course, the missives that were carved with knives still remain today, a permanent testament to teenage angst and lust for all to enjoy.
Believe me, if you want to find the kids who’ll someday be knocking on the door of the Pulitzer Prize award committee, just poke your head under your average study hall desk and soak up the abundance of creativity that awaits. One particularly insightful work by a witty bard in room 218 still brings a tear to my eye to this day: “fuck you, you fucking fucks”. Yes, the bitter vitriol and outright threats hacked into these surfaces inspired me to begin pricing Kevlar vests for the next school year. It also inspired me to call up Katie Stumpington, who was apparently as easy as falling off a log. But that’s another story.
Having finished that task, we moved onto yet another soul-crushing endeavor: that of scrubbing, mopping and disk-polishing every floor and wall surface in the entire school, be it a hallway, classroom, bathroom or locker room. (For my friends who may have wondered where I developed the ability to administer Ben Gay to my entire back with one hand, there you have it.) The best part was the locker rooms, for it was there that I discovered my coworker could stuff six tampons into his mouth at once. Not to mention that I became deadly with the jock strap slingshot.
If I thought I had seen the worst of it, I just didn’t have the vision required of a true masochist. For there was still the school gymnasium, the floor of which apparently needed to be cleaned within an inch of its life so that the basketball team could continue its impressive losing streak in style. This was truly a summer highlight — it took one pass of sweeping, then three passes of mopping with a highly toxic gooey white substance (it was not unlike mopping up whale semen). This was followed by two passes of swinging an unwieldy rotary polisher that weighed more than I did through yet more horrifically toxic fluids. The powerful centrifugal forces on this monster of a contraption made for a terrific battle of wills and physics, as it would just as soon swing me as be swung. My co-workers (it was here I fully realized the cruel irony inherent in the term “co-workers”) found this to be such a wonderful sight that their laughter would echo across the gym from their viewing stand on bleachers. This is where I really nailed the Ben Gay trick, if you must know. That, and I grew another eyeball.
To finish the summer off with all the indignity that it deserved, we scrubbed every last sink, urinal and toilet in the building until my boss (and I quote) “could eat eggs off of ’em!!” Not that he did so far as I’m aware, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past him. I still can’t talk about this part of the job without freezing up.
And So What?
It’s a shame that the terms “humility,” “self-deprecation,” and “indignity” don’t play well on a resume these days, because next to “chronic back pain” and “unlikely to ever have children,” these were the only fruits of my summer’s labor. That and a fair chunk of cash, giddily blown in a matter of weeks on video games, Funions, and case upon case of piss-water beer.
Well, everybody’s got to start somewhere. And me? I started in the toilet.