This isn’t the janitor at work, but a janitor at a high school in New York, with his valedictorian daughter who’s now in college.
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I’ve been thinking about the janitor at the place where I work.

I recently started a new job, sitting at the front desk at a research organization. And after the novelty wore off, and my sheer relief at having a job, I noticed something. I do a lot of the same stuff, over and over.

I answer the phone. I get the mail, throw away the junk, distribute the mail in the mailboxes. I accept delivery of packages, and I email the recipients to let them know their package is at the front desk. I ward off callers who say they’re customers of ours, but really all they want to do is sell us something. I check out temporary key cards to people who’ve forgotten theirs. I greet visitors, have them sign in, and tell them where they can wait and where the bathrooms are.

Over and over. Every day.

Then, one day, I saw the janitor waiting for the elevator, and I thought of something.

He does the same thing, over and over, every day. What’s more, he deals with garbage, bathrooms, and toilets. Nothing he does is ever permanent. There’s always more garbage, more water dripped onto the countertops in the bathrooms, more nasty toilets.

His name is Tekie, and given his appearance and his accent, I’m guessing he’s from the Horn of Africa, from Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somalia. He’s medium-complected, with a round face and curly hair, maybe 5’8″ or 5’9″.

I know his name because I introduced myself to him, one of the first days I was there. I’ve never been a receptionist before, but when I googled “what makes a good receptionist,” one of the tips I found that I hadn’t thought of was, get to know everyone, including the delivery people and the janitors.

Now I wonder, what did Tekie do in his native country? I realized that I’d assumed that, like an American-born janitor, he was doing what he could do. But who knows? Maybe he was a teacher in his native country. Maybe he was a computer technician. Maybe he was a software developer, a data scientist, a doctor, or a disease researcher – some of the jobs people do where I work, but he doesn’t speak English well enough to do it here in the US.

What’s more, even though my job is repetitive, I get the chance to do some interesting things. For example, I wrote a Ruby script to pull our ordering data from Costco by parsing HTML files on their website. My supervisor expected me to need a couple of months to get this data, but I was able to do it in a few days.

Tekie doesn’t have the same sort of opportunity, I’ll bet.

I’d been trying not to be impatient or snobbish about my job. I’d been reminding myself that my in-laws did repetitive work for most of their careers: my father-in-law maintained and repaired looms at the Dan River textile mill, and my mother-in-law started in data entry and worked up to being a secretary.

Now, since I’ve thought more about what Tekie might be capable of doing, but he’s working as a janitor, I’m trying even more to be patient with my work and to find the joy in doing it.

But when the organization was interviewing for someone to take the place of my coworker at the front desk, who’s been promoted, one of the things some of them said about the candidate they hired, was that she genuinely liked being a receptionist. She didn’t see it as a stepping stone to doing something else.

Well, I do see my job as a stepping stone to doing something else. I’d like to work my way up to being a data scientist there, taking classes in statistics, data modeling, and software development. The organization does research on the impact of disease worldwide, and I find that fascinating.

In fact, the fact that the organization does meaningful work is one of the few things that helps me enjoy my job. My front desk coworker feels the same way. She’s done this kind of work a lot, and this is the only place where she’s felt her work had meaning.

I wonder if the janitor feels that working for this organization gives his work meaning. But he may not even know what the organization does. His English is limited, and I don’t think many of their materials are written in Tigrigna or whatever language or languages he speaks. Maybe some of them are written in Arabic, which he might speak.

I’d like to ask him some of these questions. But the only language I speak is English. And maybe my questions would be intrusive. The only reason I know some of the languages he might speak is because I looked it up on Wikipedia.

Tomorrow morning I’ll go to work. I’ll distribute more paper to the printers. I’ll give, to the 10 new people starting as data analysts, post-bachelor degree fellows, and publication officers, the key cards I spent two hours preparing for them. I’ll say good morning to everyone as they pass the front desk.

And when I see Tekie come off the elevator with his protective gloves and his two garbage cans on the wheeled platform, I’ll say hello and ask him how his weekend was.

Of Course There are Lots of Black People in Saginaw, Michigan

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