Here’s to the cleaners

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, October 11, 2014

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The only time I ever saw Modesto (yes, that was his name) was when he was pushing a dust broom down the hall of my high school.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

With his beard and long hair (it was the ’70s) he was younger, better-looking and, well, just cooler than most school custodians – but that’s what he was.

Then my senior year, we had a talent show and my friend Bobby Gonzales brought his band – a big band with not just guitars and drums, but trumpets, trombones, saxophones. We knew Bobby played in a band and that they were very popular, playing for quincea eras, weddings, dances and parties in a hundred-mile radius.

But most of us had never heard them.

When they hit the first notes of “Jungle Boogie,” the auditorium erupted. They were really, really good. Then they started covering Santana’s “Tell Her She’s Lovely” and I noticed the lead singer and guitar player looked familiar.

Sure enough, it was Modesto. Our “janitor” as we called them back then. And Carlos Santana would have been honored.

At some point in life we all discover there’s more to people than their jobs. That was it, for me.

Since then, I don’t believe I’ve ever used the phrase “just a janitor” or “just a custodian.” As a husband, dad, employer, employee and homeowner, I have vacuumed, mopped, swept, emptied trash, washed dishes and scrubbed far too much to ever look down on someone who does those things for a living.

In fact, I’m a little in awe of that kind of patient, persistent servanthood.

Without them, we’d live in a dirty world – and it wouldn’t take long for it to get that way.

I’ve also been privileged to sit on a hospital board for several years, and in that capacity you develop an entirely new appreciation for those who clean. It is not an exaggeration to say that our lives depend on them.

Most of us know someone who has gone to the hospital and gotten an infection. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that on any given day, one in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare associated infection (HAI).

Based on a large sampling of U.S. acute care hospitals, a 2011 CDC survey found there were an estimated 722,000 HAIs – and that about 75,000 hospital patients with HAIs died during their hospitalizations.

Certainly, sloppy housekeeping didn’t cause all of those infections – but it helps you understand why hospitals are so obsessive about cleaning, wearing masks and gloves, sanitizing hands, taking every precaution they can to make sure those facilities are scrupulously, spotlessly clean.

I guarantee you, doctors, nurses and hospital administrators do not look down on the housekeeping staff – not if they have any sense.

Sadly, now that the man who brought ebola to Dallas has passed away, the importance of cleaning has been magnified for the public as well. Suddenly everyone wants to know how they handled his apartment, the ambulance that took him to the hospital, the waiting room, the ER – everywhere he was before he was diagnosed.

Public health caseworkers have become detectives, diligently tracking his movements and the movements of everyone he came in contact with.

And in every case, the soldier on the front line, who goes in and makes that area safe again, is a cleaning person.

It’s not romantic work. It’s humbling work – but it’s also extremely important work.

The folks who do it are often treated as second-class citizens, their work as an annoyance underfoot. We would do well to remember that Jesus washed feet.

Certainly, all custodians aren’t rock stars.

But in a sense, they are saviors.

Bob Buckel is editorial director for the Messenger.

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