A Day in the Life of a Janitor

Last week I decided to apply for a cleaning job someone told me about. Given that my work as a writer has recently slowed down, I was eager at the prospect of some extra income.

Cleaning might be just the right sort of part-time job for me, I thought, since I could listen to audio books and courses while I worked. It would essentially mean that I could be paid to do the thing I loved most of all: listen to courses and audio books!

Thus it was that last Saturday I excitedly made my way to a spot in downtown Coeur d’Alene where I had arranged to be interviewed for a cleaning job. All I had been told is that I should meet a man named Igor, who organized janitorial crews for companies and had been having difficulty finding workers for one of his corporate clients.

As I approached the place I was supposed to rendezvous with Igor, my heart sank: it was in the worst part of town—the part of Coeur d’Alene where respectable people never venture. Coeur d’Alene has a law against loitering, but in this area the law was apparently not being enforced. A crowd of desolates and drunks eyed me suspiciously as I approach Igor’s office.

I was unsure if I got the address right, because this place didn’t look like an office at all. It actually looked like something out of a 1930’s gangster movie. I tried to peer inside, but the walls were all boarded up.

Maybe this job wasn’t for me, I thought. Perhaps I should just turn around and go home. I reflected that I am more of a bookish person and I would probably make a terrible cleaner. Moreover, I knew the pay was going to be terrible, only one dollar above the state minimum wage–hardly what someone deserved who was working on a second Master’s degree.

Just as I was preparing to leave, the door opened. I beheld a man staring down at me.

“Hello,” he said, in a heavy Russian accent. “I am Igor.”

Remembering what I had read in How to Win Friends and Influence People, I put on a big smile (my “authentic smile”) and reached out to shake Igor’s hand. He seemed taken aback, but I persevered with tenacity until I had located his hand and shook it for a few seconds. The shaking was all on my part, almost as if Igor wasn’t familiar with the custom. All the while, he eyed me suspiciously.

“Come in” he finally said. As I stepped over the threshold, he methodically bolted the door with an unnerving sense of finality.

This didn’t feel like an office. There was a strong smell of stale alcohol. Empty bottles and whiskey glasses lay around an assortment of janitorial equipment.

Igor ushered me into a dark room and opened up his computer to run a background check on me. While the background check was processing, Igor told me a bit more about the job.

“We need you to be part of a crew to clean a call center. You’ll be working at night when the center is closed.”

I felt a sense of elevation when he said I would be working at night. I never work at night. This was my escape route!

“I’m sorry for wasting your time,” I said as I prepared to leave. “You see, I never work nights. In the past whenever I’ve had to work at night, it has made me sick.”

Igor looked at me silently. “Ok, never mind,” he said, “I’ll put you on our day shift, working 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. Can you do that?”

Having come so close to being free of the whole thing, I wasn’t ready to back down so easily. “I’m afraid that won’t always work as well,” I explained. “You see, I often have appointments in the day, so I was hoping for part-time work that could be flexible around my schedule.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “If you can’t work a particular day, just text me and let me know. We can accommodate your schedule”

At that point, I began to get suspicious. What was it about this job that made Igor so desperate to get workers at any cost?

“Now tell me”, he went on. “Have you had any experience cleaning before?”

“None whatsoever,” I replied cheerfully.

“Hmm,” Igor said. “How are you at following instructions?” he asked.

“Oh I’m terrible following instructions,” I replied. “You see,” I said, feeling confident that the whole arrangement was on the verge of termination, “I am very slow at processing information, and people have to repeat instructions eight or nine times before I understand. I also typically have to ask between twelve and fourteen questions before I can understand anything.”

I was preparing to stand up to leave when I Igor said the last thing I expected to hear.

“That’s fine”, he said. “Can you begin next Monday?”

“Er…I guess” I replied.

“Good, it’s settled.” Then, as if adding an afterthought, he said, “By the way, the person who will be training you is a man named Vlad who doesn’t speak any English.”

I arrived at the work site ten minutes early this morning. It was a Fortune 100 company, specializing in debt collection services for corporate clients. Their massive office complex seemed to be modeled on progressive Silicon Valley work environments, complete with a cafeteria, gym and entertainment room. But I didn’t see any of that when I arrived at 7:50. Instead, I was greeted by the company’s security force, wanting to know what I was doing there.

“Uh, I’m here to clean,” I told the senior security guard, trying to sound confident as I spoke.

“What’s the name of the company you’re with?” he asked. I racked my brain, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of Igor’s janitorial company. As I stood there nervously, I was mentally rehearsing where I would run to if I had to bolt. I had identified the quickest way back to my truck when a stern-looking man in his sixties approached. He said in broken English, “He’s with me.” It was Vlad.

After collecting a security badge to give me clearance throughout the complex, Vlad issued a series of instructions in Russian. I had no idea what he said, but I able to intuit that he wanted me to follow him.

Vlad rarely smiled, but that is typical for Russians. A friend of mine from Moldovia named Virgil once told me that if a Russian person smiles too much, people will think he’s an idiot. After centuries of wars and poverty, it is normal for Russian people to look stern. Vlad was no exception, but that didn’t mean he was unhappy. In fact, throughout the day he hummed contentedly to himself, but without ever losing his stern countenance.

Once Vlad realized that I couldn’t understand any Russian, he spoke to me in a strange mixture of Russian and broken English. By focusing on the English words, I was able to decipher about 20% of what he meant as he trained me.

The first job Vlad gave me—he seemed particularly relieved to be able to delegate this particular job to me—was going around to all the ladies’ restrooms, poking my head round the door, and yelling, “Excuse me, is anybody in here?” If I didn’t get any response, I proceeded to the next stage, which was peering tentatively inside to visually confirm that all the stalls were empty. Only after this stage was completed would I signal the all-clear to Vlad, who proceeded into the room with all the cleaning equipment. It didn’t always go smoothly, however. Sometimes I would receive a startled reply back from a female, wondering why a man was so interested in coming in.

As we worked, I learned a little about Vlad. He was from the Ukraine but considered himself Russian. He had immigrated to America three years ago and had worked at this job for the past two years.

Vlad was fun to work with. When it was time to clean the recreation room, he challenged me to a ping-pong game. He took lots of long breaks, in addition to stopping for meals every few hours.

Still, the work was hard. Throughout the morning, I was plagued by an abiding fear that I might get separated from Vlad in the complex. The offices seemed to be a multiple-story maze, laid out as a confusing labyrinth of cubicles, offices and conference rooms. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a solid sense of the geography of the place. So I simply stuck close to Vlad, trying to understand the instructions he issued in 20% English and 80% Russian.

About 10:30, I had the misfortune to say “Spasibo” to Vlad, the Russian word for “thank you.” Soon after speaking the word, I realized my mistake: Vlad happily issued all remaining instructions in a torrent of Russian, apparently on the assumption that I was now fluent in his language.

By about noon, following a number of cleaning blunders on my part, it finally dawned on Vlad that I hadn’t understood any of his instructions during the preceding one and a half hours. Finally, he resumed speaking in 20% English. Once again, I was able to pick up a little of his meaning at he tried to train me.

Vlad took great pride in his work, but there was always one final test he had to perform before he could be totally sure he had done a good job. He would pull out his smartphone, get his wife on Skype, and show her a video of how clean he had made one of the rooms. Only after she smiled in assent could Vlad be sure he was on the right track.

As we emptied waste baskets, washed windows and dusted table surfaces, I tried to wrack my brain for any more Russian words I could remember. I imagined myself at the Russian church in Spokane that I occasionally visit, and I remembered hearing the Russian immigrants speak to me. Halfway through the work day, I suddenly remembered the Russian for “God bless you.” I was just about to speak it, when I had second thoughts. Things had started to go comparatively smoothly once Vlad finally realized that I didn’t speak any Russian. He was making painful strides to find the right English words with which to issue instructions. I didn’t want a sabotage this by speaking any more Russian words.

Still, I felt a sense of swelling pride that I had managed to remember another couple Russian words. An internal battle began to rage within me as I tried to side with my better self and not demonstrate my knowledge of another Russian word. Still, there was a growing urge that I couldn’t hold back, until finally, almost involuntarily, I suddenly blurted out the Russian for, “God bless you!”

Vlad’s stern face was instantly transformed to one of childlike joy. Suddenly I was inundated with a torrent of Russian, which I was sure meant something like, “So you do speak Russian after all!” For the rest of the work day, Vlad issued his instructions to me in Russian, apparently on the assumption that I now perfectly understood the language.

When the end of our work day approached, I was pretty tired. In fact, I even fell asleep during one of our long breaks. But I felt satisfied with the day’s accomplishments: after all, I had survived with only minor disasters. And I had put in an honest days’ work.

As we headed out to our cars, Vlad surprised me by speaking in perfect English, “I will see you here tomorrow, right.”

“Yes,” I replied.