A Kind of Christmas Story

After college and before graduate school, I spent about three years in the "real world." Even though I've found the academic environment to be a good fit for me, I think it messes people up if they have never been in an non-school environment. For this reason, I will try to scare students away from graduate school if they're showing interest while they are still an undergraduate. I try to chase them out into a real job of some kind so they can find out if they still crave school.

When I graduated from college, I did not want to stay in school. I wanted out. After a year or so, I decided to be a writer. What a marvelous and naive dream! I had some favorites back then, Richard Hugo, William Stafford, Raymond Carver, Wallace Stegner. All of them were college professors, they taught creative writing, but in order to be a writing teacher, you kind of have to be a writer first, and I wasn't quite sure how to do that. Raymond Carver advised young writers in one of his essays (I've lost track of which one) to get a job as a night janitor or security guard, which he says will give you time, silence, and solitude. Since that was the only advice I found at that time, I followed it, applied for a job cleaning banks. 

When the manager asked why someone with a college degree wanted to clean banks, I said, "I'm trying to become a writer."

She looked at me for a while, and then smiled. "I don't know what that means, but you look like a hard worker."

It was easy, meditative work. I'd go to my first bank around 6:30 after getting a cheese burger at Dick's (the start of a dire habit). Usually the bank would be empty and dark. I had a key, which made me feel strangely powerful.

I'd start with the bathrooms, which I hated most, and which were filthier than you'd think they'd be in a financial institution. This is also where I learned that the ladies aren't the immaculate angels they claim to be. After the bathrooms, I'd clean the break room, the manager's office, then head out into the main lobby of the branch. Vacuuming was last.

The big epiphany of those first few shifts was the discovery that my key opened everything but the vault and the safety deposit box room. What a massive amount of trust these people had put in me, without a background check. When you think of janitors, you think about that ring of keys on their belt. I didn't have a whole ring, just one key, but it ruled them them all. Moving freely through a bank at night made me feel like a guy in a heist movie. It was kind of a thrill. 

After cleaning everything, which took about ninety minutes, I would situate myself at the drive-thru window and use the type writer. I made it clear that I was using scrap paper, in case someone was reviewing security footage. There were one or two smokey plastic domes in there, but I had no idea if there were real cameras inside. 

From that drive-thru office, I would write. I mostly stuck to poems because I had another bank to do, but I'd also work out story ideas, or just free write. From my stool, I could see the neon of the neighboring retail shops, cars whizzing by, and in the background was the looped music, lite jazz, lots of nylon string guitars and soprano saxophone.

Come Christmas, the music shifted over to Christmas carols the day after Thanksgiving, the carols were mostly secular, and also mostly lite jazz. By the second week of December, the "Carol of the Bells" sounded like Casiotone version of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. It was a cold winter in Seattle, so occasionally a little bit of snow would swirl through the night sky, only to melt on the ground. 

The week before Christmas, I walked into the break room after cleaning the johns, and there were two men on the far side of the room, talking quietly. I recognized one guy, the branch manager, but not the other. The only reason I knew the branch manager was the fact that he kept a photo of himself and a deer he'd shot on his desk by his cup of ball point pens.

The branch manager did not look up when I came in. The other guy's eyes went to the floor, then back to the branch manager. Never over to me.

I thought of leaving, but no one said anything, I crossed the room and pulled the trash bag, tied it off, and reached down into the can for a replacement liner. The longer I stayed it became clearer to me that this wasn't friendly banter. Still, no one said anything to me, so I moved about the room, with my wheelie cart, cleaning as quietly as I could. Eventually, I got close enough to hear the conversation. 

The employee had been caught embezzling money. He'd been given responsibility for the vault and ended up skimming money off the final count. The branch manager outlined what was going to happen. "You're going to resign. This is your letter. You'll sign it and submit it to me. I will submit it to the regional office." The employee took the paper and looked at it. "You will repay the money you stole," the branch manager continued, "on this schedule." He handed the employee another sheet of paper. 

At this point the employee was openly crying. The branch manager ignored the tears. "We are not going to involve law enforcement at the point, provided you keep to your payment schedule. If you miss a single payment, or if you are late just once, we'll call the police. This is your warning." The employee nodded and said thank you. The branch manager handed the employee and envelope. "This is your final pay check. After this, we're done. Do you understand?"

"I do," the employee said. "Thank you. I'm so sorry."

"That's enough," the manager said.

"Okay, I know...You've been kind. You didn't have to—"

"I said, that's enough. I'm going to get my things. You need to leave, so I can lock up." The branch manager left the room, leaving the employee and I alone in the break room.

The man gathered up the papers he'd been given and then saw me. "Hello," he said.

"Hello," I responded.

"Merry Christmas," he said.

"Thanks, same to you."

"Are you going anywhere for the holidays, or are you staying put?" He asked.

"My mom and sister are coming up from Portland."

"That's good," he said, "Family is important, really important. Have a good Christmas."

"You, too," I said, "I mean, do your best."

I hated myself for saying that, and I was waiting for the man to cry again, or snap. The only thing that happened was the guy slowly crossing the room. When he got close, he clasped my hand and shook it vigorously for a few seconds. I can safely say his was the clammiest hand I had ever touched. I looked into his eyes, which were red-rimmed and tearful. He was dark-whiskered, and the day's growth make him look sick.

He said nothing, but his look was a question: "how much of that did you hear?"

In my head, I replied, "Enough. I heard enough." Then my thoughts broke away for a moment as a realized I was living through a Carver short story. This was the experience you needed in order to write stories like that, and to value them. You can't learn it by reading it; you can only recognize it because you've lived it.

He shook my hand again, and said, "We're going to her parents this year."

"That's good," I said. "Godspeed."

I actually said "Godspeed" to this guy, like I was some bit actor in a Shakespeare play. He dropped my hand and left. In the end, I think he didn't hear me. Would I have have been listening to the janitor after I'd been fired for stealing? The guy had a small box of personal effects, like everyone who's ever been fired in a television show. After he left, I got my spray bottle and wiped down the tables, then I moved on to the rest of the bank.

After I finished the job, I went to the drive-thru with my stack of scratch paper. Just as I was about to take my seat to try and capture what had happened about an hour ago, I looked over my shoulder at the smokey plastic dome. I remember saying aloud, "Not tonight," and then I remember thinking, I can't steal this story from this guy, when his next move is to tell his wife he lost his job. Then I wondered if he was going to lie to her, tell her he had some vacation he had to use up or they'd take it.

I left the bank and stopped at Dairy Queen for some fries and a sundae. I tried to write it there, in the booth, but it was already too late. I was out of the moment, and filled with sadness. After my little snack, I cleaned the other bank after checking all the rooms to see that I was alone.

Since that day, I have thought about this moment hundreds of times, I've tried to write it, too, but I never could. The thought for me was never about how crazy it was to see a guy get busted for embezzling. The thought was always: Why didn't they stop talking and wait for me to clear out or ask me for some privacy? Why did all of that go on with me in the room?

It took a while for me to figure it out, but the answer was that they didn't see me. I was beneath them, so I didn't register. I had to see this kind of thing go down in other contexts before I understood it.

How often does this kind of filtering happen? How often do we, because of our privilege, overlook all the people who take care of our messes? Even worse, how often do we look away, because we know that we're all brothers and sisters or indistinguishable from each other on the genome. And yet some of us are the mess makers and some of us are the mess cleaners? How often do we realize that it's unfair and unkind to divide ourselves this way, but we like how things have worked out for us, and we're unwilling to trade places.

Because of the time of year this story took place, Christmas often triggers my memory the most acutely. It makes me think about December 26th, Boxing Day, and its tradition of giving gifts to the help. It seems like a both a kind gesture and crappy one. Through the gift, or the tip, we reinforce the basic inequality of our culture.

I'm a tenured college professor now, which is a tremendous privilege, but I've been a janitor, and I've dug holes for a living, and I've driven a day care van, made pizzas, bagged groceries, and sorted recycling. Now I grade papers and go to meetings, and janitors clean my office. 

I try to "see" them when they are there. I try to talk to them, but it seems to embarrass them, so I've stopped. Sometimes there is more dignity in going unnoticed.