The Good Word

My mother is a Saint. Well, if not a Saint, at least a Christian Martyr. Lord knows she has spent her lifetime informing us of her sufferings. Her martyrdom has not gone unrewarded. My siblings and I like to joke that she has a direct line to the man upstairs. And by the “man upstairs”, I am speaking of course about the late Monsignor Schwartz.

As I have said before, Mom and Dad spent just about all their free time helping out at the parish in one way or another. Popcorn Balls, the Drum Corps, the Lawn Fete, Girl Scouts, St. Vincent DePaul, Bingo, the parish was their social life. My earliest memories involve sitting at my brother’s 8th grade basketball games, or at my sisters’ Girl Scout meetings, or riding in the van behind the little St. Joe’s Drum Corps as they marched in parades. Even when I graduated and went on to High School, Mom and Dad stayed involved at the parish. So it was no surprise that when I decided to find my first summer job, Mom was able to pull some strings and get me in at the parish.

It was not the first time that she cashed in some of those indulgences to find one of us employment. When my sister and her fiancé moved back to 20 Prospect after their graduation from Paul Smith’s College, Mom talked to Monsignor and got her fiancé a job for the summer. He worked at the Parish Cemetery mowing grass, and digging graves with the two full time grave diggers. As you might imagine, the grave diggers weren’t exactly what you might call normal folk. They seemed harmless enough, but were always just a little bit “off” if you know what I mean. One would bring his wife and kids to work with him, and they would sit in the station wagon while he dug graves and tended to the cemetery. For the entire day, day after day, all summer long, they sat there in the car just staring out the windows. No books. No radio. No talking. The five of them just sitting there in the station wagon.

So I was understandably relieved when Mom told me that Monsignor didn’t need me in the cemetery, but he could use my help around the Church and School. The benefit to working for Monsignor is he paid you under the table. When payday came I would stop by his office and he would pull out his money clip and peel off tens and twenties while he quizzed me about my plans for the evening, and told me not to spend it all in one place. No one knew where his money came from, but the good Monsignor never seemed to be hurting for it. He managed the parish like a family business. He would never pay for a service he could guilt a parishioner into doing for free, so I felt honored that he was willing to part with his beloved cash for 40 hours of janitor work.

Of course, his frugality did not apply to himself. He always drove the newest, and biggest Cadillac there was, and spent most of his summer afternoons golfing. Growing up I always had the impression that being a priest was a lucrative profession. For a poor German kid from Buffalo’s East Side, he used his force of personality and business acumen to great effect. As school children we lived in fear of him. If not for the threat of Monsignor’s volatile temper, Sister Eileen, our Principal, would have had no power over us.

The first morning of work, I showed up with a knot in my stomach and shaking knees. Even at 17 I still lived in fear and awe of Monsignor. He led me over to the school and introduced me to the janitor that I would be working with all summer. On the walk across the parking lot he prepped me for what to expect. “Bill is a special guy. He’s not exactly like other people. You need to take a little extra time to explain things to him. I know you’ll get along OK, but be sure to keep an eye on him, and let me know if he starts doing anything he shouldn’t.”

This was not the re-assuring speech I had expected for my first day in the working world. Apparently in the eyes of Monsignor I was the responsible one. When we got inside of the building it took us a while to find Bill. “See what I mean?” Monsignor said, “You need to keep your eye on him or he disappears and hides on you”. Eventually we caught him in an upstairs hallway, hurrying to get to the back stairs before we saw him.

Monsignor introduced us, and explained to Bill who I was, and what I would be doing. He just looked back and forth from Monsignor to me, and nodded his head “Uh-huh”. Monsignor ended by asking him 3 times if he understood him, before he left. When he was gone, Bill turned and started walking down the hallway.

I didn’t have a clue what to do, so I just followed him. He stopped in a janitor’s closet, and started busying himself with buckets. I asked him if I could help and he looked at me like he had never seen me before in his life. I explained again who I was, and why I was there. He nodded, “Uh-huh”, then went back to filling his bucket. I could see this was going to be a long summer.

I followed him around until I figured out that he was mopping the floor in the cafeteria. All 4,000 square feet of it. So I suggested that maybe I could help him with the mopping, and he paused for a moment then said “Uh-huh.” He left the bucket, and walked back to the janitor’s closet to fill another. Now we were getting somewhere. I picked up a mop and started in.

I discovered that the pink soap they used to mop the floor was the same pink soap that they put in the bathroom soap dispensers. Just the smell of that pink soap transported me back to my years at St. Joe’s. I also discovered that there is more to mopping a floor than just swabbing a mop around. Bill showed me how to do it, and every five minutes when I started doing it a different way, he would stop, come over and show me how to do it again. The day ticked slowly by, but by the end of it the cafeteria had been mopped. At four o’clock, we said goodbye, and I told him I would see him tomorrow. He looked at me, and said “Uh-huh”.

The next morning, I introduced myself all over again. He seemed to vaguely recall having met me before. I followed him around until I discerned what task we were up to that day, and then I started in helping. By 9 o’clock Monsignor had stopped by to see how we were doing. He gave Bill his list of instructions for the day, and reminded him three times, making Bill repeat the instructions back to him before he left. After he was gone, Bill winked at me and smiled. “The big guy golfs on Tuesdays, so he won’t be back until two o’clock.”

This was the longest conversation we had to this point, and I was heartened that I wouldn’t have to take a vow of silence all summer. I tried to strike up conversation with him as we worked. It wasn’t much use. You could ask questions, but mostly he just replied with an “Uh-huh.” That got old fast.

The morning of the third day, when I arrived at school Bill looked up, smiled and said “What’s the good word?” He seemed to finally be warming up to me, but to be honest I was just relieved to see he remembered who I was. Eventually, over the course of the summer I learned the two or three subjects that Bill liked to talk about. He had worked as a janitor at Dohler Jarvis until the layoffs. He was married and lived out in the country. He had sisters in the area, who he said “keep him out of trouble”.

By the 15th morning of being greeted with “What’s the good word?”, I thought I was going to lose my mind. I am ashamed to admit it, but spending the days washing walls, mopping floors, and cleaning out desks in silence was better than holding the same three conversations over and over. Trying to talk about anything else never really worked.

Bill’s life at St. Joe’s was one of routine. He had certain chores, that he did a certain way, on certain days. So long as we stuck to the plan, he was good. Whenever he got a task that was new or different, he’d get very nervous and start mumbling to himself. I only saw him get testy a few times, after Monsignor had stopped by and chewed him out for forgetting something.

I liked Bill. He truly was a gentle and harmless soul. He worked hard at what he did, and took great satisfaction from life’s simple pleasures. Tuesday morning’s were his favorite, because if there was pie left over from Bingo on Monday night, the kitchen staff would always leave it in the fridge for him.

As for me, my summer dragged by. I appreciated having the beer money, but the boredom was excruciating. And then there were the ghosts. Working in my old elementary school just conjured memories of my childhood. I could walk in the footsteps of my past, sit in the desk I sat at in 7th grade, and stare up at the same mute statues of Saints. Every room, every object, held a memory. I would try to think of the present, but kept finding myself drifting back into the past.

I began to feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, only without the axe.

All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.
All work and no play makes Mr. 20 Prospect a dull boy.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there. Where was I? Right.

So one morning when I got to work I found Bill with his car door open, lying on the floor of the car, looking under the front seats. I walked up behind him and asked “What’s the good word?”

“I got a mousy in here.” He replied.

It was only 8 o’clock in the morning, and I was still hung over from drinking behind the Blind School the night before, so it took a few seconds to wrap my head around that.

“Why do you have a mouse in your car?” I asked.

“He was in the garbage” he replied, as if this made perfect sense.

Now I was really confused. “If he was in the garbage, how did he get in your car?”

“He got out.” he told me.

“When?” I asked.

“When I was driving to work.” He answered.

This Abbot and Costello routine continued for about fifteen minutes until I pieced together that he was bringing his garbage to work to throw it in the dumpster, when a mouse ran across the dashboard, and down the seat. After a further 15 minutes of fruitless searching, we left the windows open so the mousy could get out and went inside before Monsignor caught us goofing off.

That was the highlight of my summer job right there. I have never been so glad to see a summer end as I was that year. I think that was the moment that I realized that I don’t handle boredom very well. Still, the next summer I was back, cleaning the school, and taking Monsignor’s cash. It was too lucrative to turn down. When I said goodbye to Bill before I left for college, he just smiled, and shook my hand, then went back to mopping the floor. I saw him again in later years, whenever I happened back in town for the Lawn Fete. I’d walk up to him to say hello, and he’d always ask me “What’s the good word?”

It’s been 25 years since that summer. In that time I have worked a lot of different jobs, in a lot of different places. I have worked with people from different races and creeds, from every continent but Antarctica. One of the things I have learned along the way is that the dignity of a job does not come from the title, the salary, or the place it holds on a organizational chart. It comes from the worker. Any job can be done with dignity if the worker chooses to. I realize now that Bill was the first person to show me that.

But I’m still not sure what the good word was.


13 thoughts on “The Good Word

  1. Given the corporate smarm I find myself sometimes surrounded by, I am betting Bill would be a welcome, upstanding change of pace these days. Integrity. Pride in a job well done. Something to be said for that.

    • Amen. Sometimes I wish I could have the same dedication to my work. Then I remember that I’m in the service of my dark corporate overlords, and I say “nah! Slacking off is my way of sticking it to the man.”

      Unfortunately, I am “the man”

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Good Word « 20 Prospect --

  3. yeah, i can’t get it up for my work, either. at least bill knew what he wanted to do and was content doing it. i envy anyone who likes what they do and is passionate about doing it.

    ps: boredom is THE worst feeling. scares the bewitched out of me.

    • Yeah, I’ve been kicking around the idea of getting a frontal lobotomy for awhile. The only problem is that I’m not sure I could handle getting promoted and putting in all that overtime.

  4. I’ve been singing the Dexy’s Midnight Runners’s classic since the 5th paragraph and the mention of your principal. This calls for some bah-bappa-oom-mah-mau-mau to get it out of my head.

    • Sorry about that. Wait! No, actually, I’m not. (hysterical cackling!)

      He nickname was Hawkeye. She had this occult like ability to know when rules were being broken, and instantly materialize to drag children back to her lair by their ear. Bony, icy cold fingers like the hand of the Grim Reaper, reaching out to snatch your soul.

      Catholic School was so warm and nurturing back then. Still, having deranged, mentally ill Nuns ruling over us prepared us well for life in Corporate America.

  5. We had a nun that was nicknamed “Battlestar Galactica” I used to sit for hours and wonder about the possibilities of that moniker.
    Anyway, I had friends who worked in the rectory and we used to sneak in when all the collars were out drinking to raid the fridge and make prank phone calls that couldn’t be dialed at home.
    Memories of noshing on lunchmeat platters and breathing heavy into the receiver will never get old.
    Oh ALSO… where is the LIST??

    • Oh, just wait until I write “An Altar Boy’s Life”. There is a wealth of stories to tell about my 6 years as an Altar boy. (4th grade until Sophomore in H.S.) Lots of fun and sodomy-free hi-jinks in the sacristy. Don’t let the cassocks fool you, altar boys are like Marines (minus the don’t ask don’t tell policy). Boo-Yah!!!!

      The “List” is coming Monday. I already have it complete and scheduled. I thought it would be a better Monday piece than a Friday one.

      PS – Jeez! Now I have to write a post about prank phone calls, and door bell ringing! We really lived on the edge.

      • You might have to do a little catholic “duck and cover” when that list hits the interwebz.
        Oh also, I saw an altar boy catch on fire once when he stood too close to a candle.
        I’ve never seen a priest move so fast in all my life.

      • No kidding. That’s why I scheduled it to publish Monday morning at 6am. I figure that gives me three days head start to find a hiding place. Any suggestions?

        As for great Nun names, there was a Sister Alien (Aileen) in High School, and a Sister Godzilla (Gonzaga) at St. Anthony’s. I have a feeling she would have been your favorite.

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