Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving with Housekeepers

One of the great ironies of my life: the period when my job centered on building community and making people feel at home was also the time of my life that I felt least at home and most lonely.

I spent two and half years managing dorms at a university. The job provided for some excellent professional growth. I got to meet some fascinating personalities, and living where I worked saved a lot of money.

All of that said, I don’t feel my personality at the time meshed particularly well with my colleagues, and, freshly removed from my own college experience, where I’d cultivated a pretty substantial and diverse social network, my time at my first full-time job felt a lot more insular, and I never felt quite reached a comfort zone.

My second year on the job, I sat alone in my office on the ground floor of the dorm. Most days, there was plenty of foot traffic, plenty of pleasantries exchanged, meetings to attend, etc. But things were different on the day before Thanksgiving. Since I was only an hour from home, I opted not to burn any vacation days, and instead worked my usual schedule, only in a dorm that was all but abandoned, less than 10 percent of the residents in attendance.

The housekeeping staff was still on. By late morning, the scents of a turkey dinner wafted from their break room by the loading dock, down the narrow hallway, past the laundry room and vending machines to my office. Just a few minutes before noon, when I had planned to escape upstairs to my apartment for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some Ramen, one of the housekeepers popped his head in my office. He was a skinny guy with a lazy eye, patches of stubble that never seemed to grow thicker and that he never seemed to shave away from day to day, compulsively clad in a plain red baseball cap. “You coming to lunch?”

Lunch, it turned out, was a potluck affair between the whole housekeeping crew. Though, I had nothing to contribute, they insisted I join them. I marveled at the spread--a twelve-pound turkey, homemade stuffing and mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, pumpkin and pecan pies. Bill, the manager, sat at the head of the long table, a patriarch. Donna, a dead ringer for Melinda Doolittle from the season of American Idol that would follow a few months later, poured clear plastic Solo cups of grape juice and cranberry juice to pass around the table.

And I made small talk with James, a middle-aged housekeeper with an accent from Wales and an ornate tattoo of a cross on his forearm. We chatted about the college kids on the fifth floor who had routinely made messes that year, most recently leaving a Jackson Pollock-like display of vomit in the middle of the women’s bathroom floor.

I said I was sorry he had to deal with all of that.

“Don’t be sorry.” He took a bite from a drumstick, tearing a scrap of turkey skin free with his teeth. “If they didn’t make a mess, I wouldn’t have a job.”

I thought of this man, literally thousands of miles from home, making ends meet on a housekeeping gig in a college dorm. And I thought of myself, just at the start of my career, just an hour drive removed from most of my friends and family, and the places I knew best.

I looked around that table. At people who scrubbed toilets and mopped floors to earn their paychecks. At people who had invited me into their fold when I sat alone at my office computer, the day before Thanksgiving. These people who were thankful for their jobs, their lives, their community.

Trite as it may sound, in their midst, I felt pretty thankful, too.

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