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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Janitor

                                              Photo source

Dan was a quiet man. As he walked calmly, his slender figure seemed almost unnoticed in the halls of the nursing home where he worked. He was our janitor. 

“If you give him more than one task at a time, he gets all confused,” I heard some of my co-workers commenting about Dan. ”He is slow,” one remarked. “He was supposed to clean the ice chest and he didn’t,” another said. 

I knew little about Dan, but I sensed some injustice in my co-workers’ remarks. I felt Dan was merely judged by his facade of a shy, uneventful man. I wondered if anyone had taken the time to learn about his life, his family, his projects, his thoughts, his past.   

Dan normally responded to my greetings with a polite smile. He wasn’t eloquent. Many would say he was a man of few words. The fact is that I never saw Dan stopping his work to chat with others, he was normally doing something, even if it was at his usually relaxed pace. 

A few times when I bumped into him in the lunch-room, I took the opportunity to start a trivial conversation. For instance, I would bring up the latest news in town, or would mention the weather, or food preferences. He was always a pleasant man, although our conversations were normally brief. 

I once read a book about how the FBI profilers analyze people not by their appearance, but essentially by their behaviors. Dan certainly gave the appearance of being unable to multi-task, and needing a supervisor to tell him what to do. Yet in the long run, Dan often accomplished his work, and occasionally, took a TV or a piece of furniture with him to get it fixed at home and return it. 

“Thank you Dan for helping to solve the problem last evening.” I told Dan once, in front of his supervisor. “I appreciate your help in many of those situations.” 

Dan’s supervisor looked puzzled, but said nothing. 

“You’re welcome!” Dan said, drawing a half-smile. 

Later in the day, Dan came to my office. “Thank you for your nice comment in front of my boss. No one has done that before.” 

“Dan, you’re a hard-working guy, even if people don’t notice it, or don’t tell you.” I said with sincerity. “Unfortunately some people are more likely to complain, than to give praise. Keep up the good job.” 

I thought of the many times Dan came to my rescue in the evenings when staff brought me unexpected maintenance-related problems: 

“The telephone in room 514 quit working!” 

“The cable signal in Ms. Johnson’s room is gone!” 

“The toilet in Mr. Hale’s room is suddenly not flushing.” 

“We need a room change right now, there’s a situation...” 

Dan resolved these and many other emergencies, when all of the other maintenance and housekeeping personnel had already left for the day. Dan’s shift was normally extended through the evening. 

Shortly before New Year’s Day, as everyone was preparing for the New Year’s projects and resolutions, I was going through an exhausting day at work, helping some highly stressed families and a few anxious new residents. I hadn’t had lunch, and by the afternoon, I decided to reach for my “emergency lunch”—canned tuna and soda crackers I kept in my office. 

I headed to the break-room to eat my meal. As I walked in to the room, I noticed Dan sitting at a table, talking on his cell phone. I reached for my manual can opener and wrestled with it for a minute or so.

“Excuse my comment, but canned tuna is “poor boys food!” Dan said, with a near mischievous smile.

I laughed. “Dan, it’s been a crazy day. This is my emergency meal since I didn’t bring lunch, and I don’t have time to go out.” 

“I’m just joking.” Dan said, in a respectful tone. 

I was grateful Dan made me smile. That was the first time he showed me his sense of humor. In such a stressful day, those humorous seconds felt therapeutic. 

“I was just talking with my son.” Dan said. “He lives in Texas and wants me and my wife to be there to celebrate New Year’s Eve with him and his family.” 

I sat at the table, devouring my tuna and crackers, and attentively listening to Dan. I was thrilled that he was confident to talk with me about his son. I immediately engaged in an enthusiastic conversation about Dan’s personal life. Dan was a happily married man, with two sons. His son in Texas was a surgeon, with a military career, holding a rank of Captain. Another son lived in the area, and held a management position in a fast-food restaurant. Dan’s wife worked for a local hospital. 

“My wife has worked in that hospital for ten years. You know, she has sent us some people for rehab... she talks to people about our facility.  She knows this is a good place.” 

I was dazed at getting to know about Dan’s family, and their successful lives. I was marveled at learning of his loyalty to our company. It was as though a portal had opened, unveiling shining gems and golden bars in front of me—Dan’s principles and virtues glowed right there. I could no longer see Dan as the bashful janitor people would sometimes make fun of, or harshly criticize. I saw Dan now as a dignified man, a humble gentleman, devoted to his family and work, with integrity and honesty. 

Dan rushed to go back to his job, and as he stood up and collected his phone and placed it in his shirt pocket, I fixed my gaze on him, attempting to say something quick out of the multiple thoughts swirling in my mind, and my evident astonishment. Dan was almost by the door, when I finally managed to exclaim:

“What a great family you have, Dan. Have a safe trip, and a Happy New Year!”