Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The value of labor, the value of work

The new academic year began yesterday, and I spent much of last week in school and department meetings, preparing syllabi and working out schedules. In a break from the usual, I chose to do much of my preparation for the new semester at the RIWP office because it's far removed from the central traffic of campus, it houses a copier that is at my disposal, and it is deliciously quiet over there these days. Also, I put in several work orders to have computers and printers at the RIWP updated and to also have the massive pile of recycling carted away, so I was also there waiting for the technicians and workers who were slated to arrive.

When I got to the RIWP offices, ready to get down to working on my syllabus for my writing class, I noticed how dusty and grimy the desks in our office were. I thought, "Geez. These desks probably haven't been wiped down in months." But, I couldn't wipe the desks off until I removed all the piles of papers from the desks, papers that hadn't been sorted through for months. So, I sorted the papers into folders, recycle bins, and trash. Once the tops of the tables and desks were ready for the accumulation of a new year's worth of stuff, I got to spraying and wiping them down, keyboards, phones and all. Once I had sorted and wiped and cleared and cleaned, I needed to get to work on the computer, generating emails that had been neglected for trips to the beach and backyard barbecues. So, I sat down at our former program assistant's desk (we no longer have a program assistant), and I tried to channel her efficiency in getting right to work. There were many boxes to be checked on my To Do list.

But, just as I began to write the first of many emails, a RIC custodian came walking up the stairs, into the office, and asked if I requested that the trash and recycling be hauled away. I said, "Yes," and then asked him his name. I stood up, introduced myself, learned his name was Mike, shook his hand, and we started talking about why the Physical Plant doesn't assign a regular custodian to clean the RIWP offices. Apparently, the custodians in the Physical Plant on our campus operate on a rotating schedule, with some custodians assigned as "floaters." The RIWP generally gets the "floater" custodian, Mike explained to me, which is why we have to call in our requests for trash pickup. While Mike was working--breaking down big cardboard boxes, hauling reams of paper downstairs to another office, cleaning out the upstairs bathroom for me (even though I didn't ask)--he and I continued talking. I learned that, in the rush at the end of the summer to get the campus in tip-top shape, the staff members working for Physical Plant get all the overtime they want, while, during the summer, their hours got cut back. Mike also talked to me about his brother who used to work for a big company and who, accidentally, once recycled some very important papers from his boss's office. He got in big trouble. That's why, Mike told me, he's hesitant to recycle anything in our office until he's gotten the go ahead from me. What had seemed to me, just minutes before, to be a simple, mindless task (recycling paper) now took on a certain moral complexity. I learned something right then about custodians, recycling, and the business of cleaning up after others.

After Mike had finished with the recycling upstairs, he asked me to walk downstairs with him so he could show me the bathroom. He had cleaned it, he said, and he wanted me to see the difference. Also, he noticed that the toilet wasn't working. "The flush isn't flushing," he said to me, suggesting that I go upstairs and submit another work order to have the toilet fixed. But, to Mike's surprise (his face gave it all away), I lifted off the top of the toilet tank, reached my hand into the tank water, and reattached the chain that had come undone and had caused the flush valve to malfunction. Once the chain was reattached, I put the top of the tank back on, gave the toilet a flush, and looked at Mike with a glow of self-satisfaction. Mike smiled at me and asked, "Do you own a house?" When I replied, "Yes," he said, "Well, if you own a house, you learn how to do everything, I guess." I think Mike might've learned something at that moment about women and professors and assumptions.

After our interlude in the downstairs bathroom, Mike and I parted ways, though I told him I'd probably be seeing him around, even if he was assigned to another building, since I do a fair amount of "floating" myself as a teacher on this campus. I went back upstairs to the office and to my To Do list. I emailed and invoiced my way through the afternoon, but I couldn't stop thinking about what a nice experience I had with Mike that day and how appreciative I was of his bright personality, sense of humor, and pride in his work. I had retreated to the RIWP offices, originally, to seek solitude so that I could finish my work. As it turned out, I had a good afternoon--productive enough--made better by interacting with one other worker. On that day, in those moments of that afternoon, we were just two workers, doing our jobs, sharing in the day-to-day labor.