by Hari Balasubramanian
I've noticed that it isn't easy to strike up a meaningful conversation with someone who doesn't fit into your professional or social circle. Even among strangers we look for clues and – understandably – seek out people with whom we might have something in common. This behavior appears to erect subtle barriers between groups of people who live or work in the same physical space – say the same neighborhood or even the same building – but hardly interact.
One example of this I experienced dates back to my graduate school days. I worked as a research assistant for six years (2000-2006) on the fifth floor of the engineering building at Arizona State University. I noticed I could easily strike up a conversation with professors and fellow graduate students, who were from very different backgrounds and countries. But I somehow found myself shy in the afternoon and evenings in talking to the janitor who cleaned and maintained the two dozen rooms on our floor. I wanted to connect with him but found it difficult to step out of my comfort zone. I wondered what the reason was. Was it because our work was so different? Because we were from different countries? Would I have managed to strike up a conversation more easily if he too was from India? Was it his personality?
Mark was a constant presence in the hallways and restrooms every weekday from four in the afternoon. Most times you just heard his presence: the clink of his thick bunch of keys; the rumble of the large trash-can-on-wheels; a pause; a knock on an office or lab door; the emptying of trash; and then clink and rumble again before the next pause. And at times you heard an insistent squeak in the hallway – that was Mark using his sneakers to erase a smear off the linoleum floor.
Mark was probably in his early sixties. He was balding, but had a thin ponytail. Most days, he wore a light gray shirt, blue jeans, and glasses. He had a gray-white beard, and an intense, withering gaze. His movements were short and abrupt.
He took his work very seriously and did it well. He worked with such verve that the offices, labs, and hallways of our level might well have been a cherished, sacred space to be meticulously guarded and maintained. He would stand and stare at a blemish on the floor as if it were a personal affront. With a look of annoyance and a few mumbled words, he would angrily set about effacing it. I remember how my friends and I had once played a makeshift version of cricket in the lab (with a squishy ball, and a notebook serving as a bat) and left scattered imprints of our soles with our frantic running. Mark noticed these imprints later that afternoon; he was puzzled and looked long and hard and intensely at them.
I wasn't the only one mindful of Mark and his moods. Others – students, staff and professors – were keen as well on ensuring they cooperated with him. Mark chatted with with only one or two faculty members. He was closest to Dan Riviera, a professor who worked late, and with whom he developed a lasting friendship. I heard them talking often when I stepped into the hallway: Dan, leaning against his office door, and Mark with his mop or trash can; or just-arrived Mark still with his cap on and with his dinner in a blue and white box.
That was exactly the kind of connection I too sought. But I never managed it. There were a lot of hellos but I never went beyond the preliminaries. I was nervous, and there was a reason for it.
Mark once put up a notice on our lab door requesting everyone to leave by 5 pm. He was going to wax the floor and clean the room; it would take him all of that evening. He came in punctually at the appointed time and announced to those of us still working that we had to leave. So we packed our bags and left but I went back in a minute later.
“I need to get a textbook for the evening,” I told him.
“Get out of here!” he said.
I thought he was just joking, so I smiled sheepishly and continued to stand in the middle of the room, though hesitantly.
“Don't screw with me,” he said, his rage now plain. “Get the fuck out of here!”
He was carrying a long wooden pole with a brush at one end for cleaning the ceiling. It looked like a weapon to me then. I left in a hurry, shaken, my knees weak and wobbly. I wondered if he would always remember me from that incident. But I don't think he kept track of such things. Mark was just sincere about his work; he abhorred interruptions and I had interrupted his work – it was the interruption he had yelled at, not me. Anyone who upset his work routine was at the receiving end of his ire.
I did not know anything about his personal life. There were only glimpses. He didn't come to work one day. I wouldn't have noticed, but he came to our lab the next day (presumably, he went to other labs and offices too) and said with great earnestness, “I'm sorry I wasn't able to come yesterday. My little dog wasn't feeling well.”
And on November 02 2004, Election Day – the day John Kerry lost – I thought I could talk to him about politics and start a conversation that way.
“Have you already voted, Mark?” I asked.
“No, I am not a registered voter,” he said, smiling.
I hadn't expected this response – for some reason, it threw me off. I couldn't go further, thinking that to ask why he wasn't registered would be too intrusive. Besides he was busy.
But I did know that his health wasn't good. He looked exhausted most of the time. I saw him once next to the sink in the hallway, holding on to the ledge of the sink for support, his head bowed. At other times, he seemed to just will himself on despite his fatigue. I learned later that he was epileptic and had diabetes. He had suffered a collapse once in the hallway. And it was his health that eventually put an end to his work. When he stopped coming, I asked Dan Riviera what had happened. He told me Mark had had an amputation because of health complications, and had claimed for disability.
I last saw Mark in the loading area behind the building a few months later. He was using crutches, walking with some difficulty. I stopped and said hello. His face lit up when he saw me and said: “Hey, how are you?” I was surprised because I'd never felt that he knew or could recognize me. On that final occasion, like all other, we talked very little – a friendly sentence of two. Nevertheless Mark's personality and uncompromising work ethic left a lasting impression.
I graduated the next year, and two years later, I starting teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. At the new red brick buildings I frequented, I got to know some of the custodians and janitors. One of them, who worked the evening shift, always greeted me with a booming voice – “Hello Professor!”– and admonished me playfully when I stayed late: “What are you still doing here?” Another, who worked in a different building, turned out to be an outspoken supporter of Trump – he'd voted for Sanders, but after Sanders' loss in the primary, immediately turned to Trump, and in the months leading up to the election, was visibly angry with the establishment and mainstream media, was sympathetic to the conspiracy theories making the rounds, always warning of a wave in favor of Trump in the forgotten hill towns of Massachusetts where he was from.
And there was B., a polite, soft-spoken man in his sixties who worked in the morning, and spoke with nostalgia of his past jobs – the numerous construction projects he had been part of. He had been part of a bridge or dam project in Vermont which had to ensure that species of fish could easily continue their journeys unobstructed. He spoke of the extensive network of pipes and other infrastructure underneath the UMass campus, a subterranean world that he'd traversed and which enabled heating during the winter months. As a custodian, he understood the faults of the decades old building he worked in, its electricity and water supply. Even without a college degree, B. knew far more about mechanical and electrical systems than I did. Although I had majored in manufacturing engineering and interned in automobile assembly plants in India, I had never tinkered with anything; I only had a half-baked, textbook knowledge of how an engine or motor worked, if at all. Since graduate school I had moved even further away from traditional engineering, to the field of operations research, which involves abstract mathematical modeling, playing with numbers and algorithms that are stimulating as mental exercises but are well removed from physical reality.
B. wanted to share some of his hands-on experience in construction projects, and wondered if there were professors who would allow him to speak in the classroom. This seemed like a great idea. The difficulty was that the engineering professors who might have been interested were so absorbed in their day to day academic activities that they wouldn't even know that someone like B., whose knowledge in certain domains might have exceeded their own, worked in the same building, walked the same corridors. There aren't many occasions where the two worlds meet.