When I was leaving the office this evening our maintenance man was polishing or cleaning or buffing – something with a machine and big honking brush thing – the tile floors in the lobby. I greeted him as I do when our paths cross, and he turned off his machine and reached out to stop me. His hands were shaking as he pulled out his telephone and showed me a picture of he and his wife standing proudly next to a young man in graduation cap and gown.
His youngest grandson, the final of the 4, now a graduate from Cal Poly. Of his 2 sons and 4 grandsons, all are now college graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree. I can completely understand his enormous pride. One of his boys is a doctor, the other a police officer. Of the grandsons, 3 of the 4 are engineers, the other does something with computer software.
He is a man who loves his family and is unafraid to openly show his pride in their accomplishments.
Originally from San Salvador, he was just 20 when he came here with his wife, a toddler, and a new baby almost 50 years ago and has worked very hard every day of his life since to support his wife and sons. Those sons grew up, went to college, got married, each has a couple of sons themselves, the last of whom has now graduated from college.
We became friends when I started working with the firm, this 70 year old man who empties and trash and changes the lightbulbs and polishes the floors. At least a couple of Wednesdays each month I try to my lunch outside in the shade or in a small building lunch area, because months ago, on a nice day, he was looking for a place to sit and eat his lunch, and I invited him to share my piece of concrete bench. We spent a pleasant 20 minutes chatting as we ate, and since then, I try to make time to share a meal with him at least once a month.
To me, he is like someone from another era. He stands very straight, his full head of gray hair is always neatly trimmed, his uniform pants and shirt are always clean, neatly pressed, professional. This is his last summer in this building; he has told me previously of his plans to retire at the end of August.
To anyone else he is just the maintenance guy, the quiet, soft spoken man with the heavy accent. To me he is almost a lost hero, someone who works hard every day and takes pride in having a job and doing it to the best of his ability. He has been with the same firm doing building maintenance for 30 years this month, but he is working the extra month “just to be sure” because he once had to be off on disability for a couple of years into the job. There are no grand vacations for he and his wife into the future; their golden years will be spent in their modest home on social security and retirement money they have diligently saved. He wants to garden more to stay ahead of the tomato worms, walk his dogs, do more for his church. His wife likes to cook, so he will have to stay busy or get too fat. Every time he says that he pats his tummy and smiles broadly. After more than 50 years of marriage, he still loves his wife deeply and it shows. Sundays they have dinner with “the boys” as he calls his sons and their families.
I do not know precisely why we became friends, but we have. He is someone I am enormously proud to know and will miss once he moves on to his well-earned retirement. After nearly a year of regular conversations he still calls me “Mrs. Janelle,” the closest I can come to getting him to use my first name. Everyone else he speaks with is Mr. Smith or Miss Jones, always respectful with “yes, sir” and “thank you, miss” acknowledgments. I have met his wife on a couple of occasions – she’s a tiny little dynamo of cheerful energy. They are a truly adorable couple.
He is part of a lost era, with old-school, old-fashioned mannerisms that charm me and a work ethic that seems so foreign anymore.
And yes, he is kind of a hero to me. The man who polishes the floors in our building’s lobby and replaces the lights when they burn out or fixes small problems as they happen is a very ordinary man who has impressed me so completely with his simple values and priorities in life. I feel fortunate to have made his acquaintance and will miss him when I no longer see him during the weeks. Already he is training a replacement, a young man with tattoos up and down his arms and neck and a sort of sullen, skittish expression. The baggy pants and sloppy, untucked shirt is a stark contrast to the man he will be replacing. It is difficult to not compare them and find the young man wanting.
There will be no retirement parties for this sweet and humble man who has worked so hard and toiled so diligently all these years. Hopefully others will notice his absence on Wednesdays, the one day he is at our building the entire day. Our paths will no longer cross regularly come September 1, but part of me hopes he will still come by, perhaps with his lovely wife, for an occasional lunch. A girl can hope.
While I truly know nothing about the circumstances of his being in the US, our earliest conversation was about his citizenship day and how he takes the day off to celebrate every year. That impressed me; I found it endearing that it was still a significant, meaningful date for him after so many years. My fan-girl crush was born and has grown as the months have passed.
In the bigger picture, the building maintenance guy will go away, the new one will appear routinely instead. Most of the other people will notice that the older man is gone, the younger man is here. Probably if they ask, they will learn he retired, and no one will think anything further about it. Because he is just the building maintenance guy. Yet I am thinking that this person has made a far deeper impression upon me than any celebrity of recent vintage.
Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I wonder if character even matters anymore. But I am not very cynical and its facade that does not linger with me. I have to hope, to believe that yes, character does matter, and that good people will rise and finish well ahead of their lazier brethren. Only in our world as it stands right now, the quality of character seems to matter so much less than it should.
I believe it was the last Wednesday in December, we were having lunch and I was talking about some less pleasant aspect of life and in a generally pissy mood (see my post here from that particular Wednesday). He said to me, “be careful how you think and speak, Mrs. Janelle; you never know who is watching, who you are inspiring.” It made me stop and think, realize how much truth in his words. I made my January appointment with TM right after returning to my desk.
All around us are ordinary people leading ordinary lives and doing extraordinarily special tiny little things. Quietly. Invisibly. Because they have to, because they want to, because it is how they are wired. And because they are who they are, they prefer it that way and do not think themselves anything special.
And people like me, we get to feel the warmth they radiate by just being themselves. We are the lucky ones. So many of us do not even recognize or realize our good fortune; we are stuck in the ditch with vacuous ergo experts sucking up all the oxygen.
Until life puts a reminder firmly in our paths. Asshats are all around us, but bright stars and special snowflakes are as well, sometimes wearing a building maintenance uniform.