It was a cold March night in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was working through some mundane piece of code trying to get it to work, my head buried deep into the program. The only sound around me was the faint humming of the computers and the HVAC on the 16th floor of that building which was my first office in the United States. It was the year 2000. It was the first time I was in the office past 7 PM and was determined to get the program working. That’s when I heard faint footsteps behind me. I knew there was nobody in the office at that hour and was a little nervous on realizing a possibility of another human being (hopefully) on the floor at that time – it was about 8:30 PM. I turned back and saw this stocky Hispanic woman of about 30 years walking into a cubicle next to mine and emptying the trash can. She lined the empty trash can with a new plastic bag and moved on to the next cubicle. It was for the first time that I found out who actually kept a clean trash can for me every morning when I walk into the office. She came into my cubicle and reached for the trash can under my desk without even acknowledging that there is a warm body sitting a couple of inches away. Her focus was on the trash can – she emptied the many candy wrappers, a coffee cup, some torn receipts and a half eaten apple. She lined the trash can with a new plastic bag in a mechanical motion which had the kind of efficiency which comes with experience. If she did not acknowledge me, I had the urge to do so, and mumbled a diffident ‘Thank you’ in the general direction of her. She lifted her gaze from the task at hand and gave me a faint smile. I smiled back and buried myself back in the program. She moved on to the next cubicle.
Over the years, I changed cities and offices, graduated from a cubicle to an office of my own, along with growing responsibilities, my contribution to the trash bin also grew. I started spending more and more of my evenings sitting in my office. Stress levels rose, and so did the coffee intake and the empty coffee cups. It will be ten years since that chance encounter in Manchester in March 2010. I imagine the amount of junk I created each and every workday (and some weekends). It would have probably filled up a football field if it wasn’t for the cleaning lady who cared to empty it every night without fail. It’s this vast silent army of cleaners and janitors which make the civilized world a livable place for those of us who produce trash in copious amounts. In a society where over consumption, excess and non-re-usability is the norm, it takes a lot of work from a lot of people to dispose off this junk to make room for more. It is quite a thankless job – they show up at times when the “creators” of the very trash they are removing, aren’t around. So it’s obvious for the ones who create it, to think that the trash disappears magically and the receptacle is clean and ready for them to pile it up with more junk.
I am not trying portray them as saints, and we, who create trash as devils – we are each doing our bit in this world. However, in most cases we get our due recognition and acknowledgement for the jobs we do, and we forget to pass it on to these individuals who work behind the scenes so that we can do our jobs efficiently. Hence, I believe it’s an ennobling thing that these individuals do on a daily basis for a menial amount of money and no recognition. We as a society will always want someone to pick up after us; we need them more than we need traffic lights, social networking websites or sliced bread. Since that evening in Manchester, I make it a point to thank each and every one of the cleaners or janitors whenever I run into them. Most of the times, I get surprised looks from them, some times I see a faint appreciation in their faint smiles (or it could be my imagination). Regardless, what I want to convey to them is that if it wasn’t for them, the entire world would be a big stinking trash can. Thank your cleaning person, thank them with all the sincerity and the respect they deserve. This I believe.