As I get ever closer to celebrating my 49th birthday I often think back to stories from my youth. As I reflect on the many lessons that I have learned over my life, I am reminded how many of the lessons occurred when and where I was working at the time. For me, work came early in my life, when as a husky yet eager 11 year old I took over my brother’s newspaper route. I became a paperboy for the Pittsburgh Press (the afternoon daily) in 1972. As I grew older, I began to work part-time in local restaurants, ultimately during my senior year in high school making my way to be THE pot washer at the local diner. To this day, that role at the diner was one of my favorite jobs ever, but I’ll keep that story for another essay. Suffice it to say that I worked a number of part-time jobs through high school and college and this story emanates from one of those jobs during the summer of my freshman year in college.
It was the summer of 1980, and instead of heading home, I traveled to Syracuse, N.Y., to spend the summer living with the family of a good friend from college. Jeff and I had become pals during our freshman year and he offered to have me come up for the summer assuring me that we could find good jobs in his home town of North Syracuse. In hindsight, it was exceedingly generous for his parents to allow an “unknown friend” to live in their home for a whole summer. I am sure that I never thanked them enough.
Good to his word, Jeff did indeed find work for us in North Syracuse. In fact we found two jobs; during the day we worked as janitors at the North Syracuse High School and most evenings we worked as bus-boys/dishwashers at the local Ponderosa Steak restaurant. Not quite the exalted heights of being THE pot washer at the diner, but not bad. This work schedule didn’t give us much extra time to get into trouble, but we did make pretty good money for those days and was able to save a bunch to take back with me to college. It was on my first day at North Syracuse High School that I heard about Floyd.
That first day reporting to work at the high school was straight out of a movie. There was quite an odd collection of individuals that gathered in the parking lot that June morning. There was Jeff and I, a few other “summer workers,” and the rest of the group were the regular janitors from across the North Syracuse School System. There were probably 10 – 15 of us in total. As we stood there waiting, a nameless person from the school districts’ administrative offices came out of the school and announced that unfortunately the head janitor, “Floyd,” was sick and wasn’t able to be there that day. Regardless, we were told that he had made work assignments for all of us and a freshly mimeographed sheet was passed out (yes, for those readers old enough, it was blue and had that memorable smell!).
The assignments were organized by school, some of us being assigned to the high school, others to the junior high or an elementary school. Each school had a list of activities, organized by week. As an example,: weeks 1-2 — remove all desks from rooms, use putty knives to remove all gum, clean/paint over all graffiti, repair as best as possible; weeks 3-4 — with desks in gym, mop all floors, wash all walls, clean/paint over all graffiti. The list went across the entire summer, ending with waxing the floors and replacing all the desks in their respective rooms. Jeff and I were assigned to the high school along with a few “full timers” and were told that paychecks would be handed out each Friday after work here in the parking lot. It seemed pretty straightforward to us, the work plan was very clear, and the summer was ahead.
The administrator left and we went looking for the others that were assigned to the high school. The years have faded my memory of their names, but there were two or three full time janitors also assigned to us and their first move was to offer us a cigarette as they all lit up. Jeff and I thanked them for the offer but said we didn’t smoke, which raised a few eyebrows. As we pulled out the work lists one of the smokers told us that we were lucky that Floyd was sick because he was a monster! I started to ask an innocent follow-up question and a cigarette filled hand was lifted in my direction and I was told “college boy, mind your own business. Just stay away from us and whatever you do stay away from Floyd!” Jeff and I were “assigned” the upstairs and we began to work the list.
After a few days of finding our way around, we got down to the work at hand. Quickly we started to realize a few things. First, the work list assumed that we were doing the work extremely slowly, and second, there no sign of Floyd. We worked our way through the desks a few days early and started working ahead on the list. At first, the downstairs “smokers” didn’t say too much, but after a few weeks we were stopped on the way in to work. They weren’t sure what we were trying to prove, but we needed to follow the work list because it was Floyd’s list and he was the boss. If we knew what was good for us, we would stick to the list! It was strange to be 19 years old and be somewhat “threatened” by a group of adults, and on top of that there was the mythic, unseen Floyd.
As the summer wore on, Jeff and I worked on a sort of solution. We would take Wednesdays and Thursdays off from the list and do extra work around the school; tasks not on the list. One week we washed windows, another week we painted railings, another week we bleached toilets. In this way, we pretty much stayed on schedule with the work list, and kept the criticism to a minimum from those working downstairs. While there were no actual sightings of Floyd, the stories of him only grew. We learned that he had an office down by the main furnace (as I said, straight out of a movie!). We also learned that he was an angry drinker, that he drank at work, and that he smoked Pall Malls. I wasn’t sure what to take from that cigarette reference but it was clear that none of the downstairs crew would EVER smoke a Pall Mall!
As the summer came to a close, the floors waxed and dried, with the desks finding their ways back to their rightful homes, an alarming event occurred. On the last Monday morning of the summer, there was a note taped to the front door of the high school saying “Jeff and Bill, the summer upstairs boys, report to my office at the end of the day” and the note was signed in a scratchy hand, “Floyd.” The downstairs gang took one look at the note and absolutely flipped out. They wanted to know what outrageous act we had done to cause the note. Had we been smoking pot upstairs (absolutely not!)? Had we been drinking on school property? The questions continued as they lit up and pondered our fate. To be honest with you, I was pretty freaked out about the note, not the least by the fact that Floyd actually knew our names! It was one thing for us to know his name, but he was Floyd, the feared head janitor. Who were we but some summer help?
The day was pretty shot. We moved a few desks around but Jeff and I spent most of the time wondering what we had done wrong. Sure we went off the list a bit, but was bleaching the toilets that bad? At lunchtime, we ate our ham and Velveeta (yes, Velveeta) sandwiches outside still wondering about the end of the day. One of the downstairs gang came over and kindly suggested that we could just quit now and head home. Sure we would miss a few days of pay but we could avoid Floyd; that’s what she would do! I guess we were just too much a pair of poor college students but we prepared for the afternoon “meeting.”
As the day was coming to a close, we made our way downstairs, into the basement of the high school, and headed towards the big furnace. We had been to the basement a number of times, but never anywhere near the “lair of Floyd.” It didn’t take long to find the furnace and there, just beyond, was THE office. Like two children, we shuffled up to the door and meekly knocked. “Come on in boys” was the quick reply from inside. We stepped into a small but tidy office, clip boards hanging up on a number of nails, a few spare mops in the corner. There, sitting at the desk was a rather regular looking guy with big black plastic glasses. Here was Floyd! He looked up and apologized for not having anything for us to sit on, and asked if we had had a good summer. We were speechless. Not a sound came out of me nor Jeff. He said that he had noticed our “extra work” and really appreciated it. He couldn’t pay us anything extra, that was up to the admin office, but he did say that if we wanted a job next summer he would love to have us. It was incredible. Floyd was thanking us! To this day, I am not sure what we said in response to his generous offer, we just murmured that we had had a good summer, and that we didn’t know what our plans would be for next summer, but thanks.
We never spoke a word about the meeting to the others who worked downstairs. They didn’t come near us, and we kept our distance. We finished up the week, picked up our last paycheck, and headed back to college. The next summer brought different job options (yes, one working in a restaurant) and I never went back to the North Syracuse High School.
I share this story because I often think back on this specific experience for a few reasons.
First, I learned a lot working at part time jobs when I was in high school, college, and graduate school. The value of being on time, doing a good job, taking pride in your work even when it seems pretty menial, the pleasure of cashing a hard-earned paycheck, etc., all big lessons for me, all coming from early job experiences from my youth.
Secondly, while the mimeographed sheet seemed pedantic at the time, my opinion of the simplicity and the clarity of the document has dramatically improved over the years. As a leader, I often wonder if I am being clear of my expectations of the team, and whether I have painted a clear picture of success. Floyd certainly did!
Finally, the whole “myth” of Floyd was something to remember. Rather than finding out for myself and giving him the benefit of the doubt, I got caught up in the fear mongering of my fellow workers. I had kept my distance from that fateful basement office, filled with the nonsense stories of others. If I had heard that Floyd had needed some kind of help, would I have volunteered to help, or walked the other way? Across history, individuals, groups, races and countries have often demonized others to advance their own agendas. Somehow by spreading fear about others, a strange and possibly dangerous sense of community is formed. I often think back on that innocent summer and try to remind myself about Floyd, and try to be open and inquisitive to those things, individuals, or ideas that might be new and strange to me and to try to NOT be like the downstairs gang!