Distance From The Hole

Tiny - Posted on 27 August 2011

The poet Charles Bukowski wrote that it is sometimes necessary for a writer—addressing a particular subject—to have some distance between him (Or her) self and said subject.  It has been a quarter of a century since I worked at a church in the capacity of sexton—also known as janitor. I currently occupy the position of door attendant at an upscale apartment complex in the city.  I cannot afford to live at this complex, nor can I afford the array of polo shirts I see clinging to the various in-shape—and sometimes out-of-shape--bodies as they make their way past the desk.  I sometimes feel like a beauty contest judge as I watch this passel of humanity saunter—and occasionally limp—past me.  Where is the beauty, I ask?  I see lots of new clothes and very expensive shoes which bring to mind a quote by H.D. Thoreau:


“It is an interesting question how far men would retain their

relative rank if they were divested of their clothes”


The quote is liberating—so much so that I copy it on an index card and slip it in my back pocket.  I read the quote and get the urge to run through the halls of this high end apartment complex, stripping myself of clothing, shedding them like leaves.  I picture myself running across the halls, banging on doors and running away.  I imagine myself naked and free, people looking at me as if I’d lost my mind as I call on them to join me in this new found freedom.  Then I hear a siren followed by two very large men who seem to occupy the space between two words: Stolid and stupid.  They are wearing clothes—uniforms—blue, to be exact.  They proceed to toss my naked ass in the squad car.  Peace restored.


Which brings me back to 25 years ago when I—fully clothed—was hired as a sexton at a church about 6 blocks from my current place of employment.  The church was large, Presbyterian, with a congregation of mostly elders.  The staircase was imposing and the entire structure was topped with a precise roof.  A friend’s mother, who knew I was in school and in need of a job, suggested I see a fellow named Art--the maintenance supervisor--at the Church.  She had attended the church years ago and stayed in contact with some in the congregation.  Art, apparently, was looking for a part time janitor to carry some of the load following his 3rd heart attack.  “It’s all set up” my friend’s mother said.  “I told him you’ll be there tomorrow, at 2”. 


I arrive at the church door at 2. I look at the grain of the wood.  The door would be appropriate in a fortress.  I feel like a dwarf.  I surmise it would take 2, maybe 3 people to push it open.  It is beautiful.  A metal door ring is affixed to the door.  I get the crazy idea that knocking would hurt the wood.  I stand and look at the trees a few yards away near the sidewalk’s edge.  I consider walking away but I need a job.  I lift the ring and give the door three reverent knocks.  No answer.  I give three more knocks--this time irreverent. 

“Hey…Hey!” a voice calls from outside.

I descend the stairs and look both ways. 

“Over here!”

I look down.  A man’s head is sticking from a window, hands waving.  I walk towards him.

“I’m here for the janitorial—“, I begin

“I know, I know” he says, waving me over.  “Come on down to the glory hole”.

He closes the window. I walk past a few skinny trees and bushes and head down a flight of stairs and into the glory hole.


The glory hole is stuffy—smelling of holy water, urine and rancid meat.  The ceiling is low.

“Come on in…I ain’t gonna hurt ya”.

I wade through a path lined with paint cans and industrial cleaning supplies and head towards a desk strewn with papers and partially crushed soda cans.  I take a seat.

“My name is Art Carney” said the man, moving papers, searching for something.

“Art Carney?” I said.  “You mean, like the guy on—“

“TV…yeah, I know.  I’ve heard that a million times.  But I aint’ him and he ain’t me”. 

I looked at Art’s face—fat, slightly freckled, receding hairline.  The room looked like an adult playroom.  Cassette tapes were lined on a shelf next to bottles of beer.  I scanned the walls for a picture of Jesus. 

“You do janitorial work before?”

“Yes, with my dad”


“In the city.  He had a janitorial business”.

Art shook his head.  He searched my face, as if to verify something.  He reached below to open the desk drawer but his belly was in the way.  He backed away, pulled it open.

“Fill this out…it’s an application” he said, tossing a tablet with applications towards me.  I tore one off, leaving one behind.  I begin writing my name. 

“Where it says position applied for…you write in sexton”.

“Sexton? I thought it was janitor?”

Art looked at me, inhaled.

I put a line through the word janitor.

"How do you spell sexton?" i ask 

“You’ll start this Sunday” he said, not hearing my question.  “Don’t be late”

“I won’t"


I got there on time.  I, as my uncle would say, sexton’d my ass off.  I cleaned toilets with a red solution that resembled Chambord liqueur.  My uncle was also a janitor, working for the city and county.  He would mention to his friends that I was a sexton—implying that it was a higher class of janitor.  His friends, not knowing the term sexton (They kept pronouncing it sexin), thought it had something to do with sex.  When he mentioned that I was working in a church, they were convinced.  “Tell young blood to watch his ass” they’d say.  “You know about them priests…the moment you bend over to change the toilet paper they gettin' off inside yo’ ass”.  I checked the soap dispensers, cleaned the toilets, sink and changed the toilet paper—making sure to be mindful of my surroundings prior to flushing. 


Art Carney seemed fairly decent.   He began opening up to me, slowly.  One day we were washing the church windows.  He stood holding the ladder which I ascended, intent on illustrating my glass cleaning artistry.  I used the squeegee like a paintbrush, gliding left to right, turning the curves as if painting a rubenesque female in the presence of saints. 


I look down.


Art was leaning on the ladder more then steadying it.  His red face was sweating in the chilly air.

“Don’t waste time being fancy.  Just use one motion with the squeegee…top to bottom…up then down”


I lifted the squeegee, brought it down in a cutting motion.  It was faster this way but I found it boring—no variation—like sex performed in one position—up and down—heaven or hell, right or wrong—no room for argument. I stepped to the bottom of the ladder.  I lifted it onto my shoulder.  Art inspected my work.  We headed back towards the glory hole. I felt powerful, balancing the metal ladder—heavy but not overly so.  We stopped at the door.  Art dug into his pocket.

“They never told me” said Art


“That red meat was bad for you”

“Is that how you got 3 heart attacks?”

“No…the red meat was responsible for 2 of them”

“And the other?”

“I got it from a nigger”

I looked at Art.  I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, or did I?”

"You mean niggah...right?"

"I meant...nigger"

"Well, i mean...there is a difference you know, between nigger and niggah.  And it is well documented that niggah's aren't always colored people?"


"You've heard of N.A.A.C.P. haven't you?

"What's that?"

"Never mind.  How about a hamburger?"

“This nigger popped out of the bushes” Art continued.  “Scared the shit out of me.  I fell to the ground wishing I had my gun.  Anyway, the guy helps me up, asks me I could give him a dollar.  I tell him to take my wallet”.

“Did he take it?”

“Yeah...he took it, opened it and took a dollar out.  Then he walks me to the glory hole, sits me down, calls 911 and leaves.  Can you believe that?”

Art finds his keys, opens the door. The conversation about nigger vs. niggah was disconcerting.  I felt the urge to kick him in the balls but--even if i did--given Art's girth in the midriff area, i doubt i would hit anything other than fat.  I follow his 3 heart attack-having, two-ton redneck ass into the glory hole, the ladder heavy on my shoulders.


I spent one more month cleaning toilets, making coffee for the church ladies—who took me by the wrists and told me what a nice boy I was.  I cleaned the toilets, mopped the floor and blew leaves of the sidewalk with a very loud leaf blower. I would have to vacuum the main sanctuary at night, which was scary.  There were air pockets, or perhaps holes, that i wasn't aware of where air would come through.  The noise sounded like ooooooooh...oooooooh.  I always hurried through that portion of the job.  Mostly I did what I was told: Stay down in that glory hold until the service ends.  I ended my service leaving only my keys behind.


That was a quarter of a century ago.  I sometimes think about Art.  Is he still alive?  Did he improve his diet?  Did his wife stick with that yoga class?  I sit here at my present job, watching the affluent go by—one by one.  I take my rag and buff the French door windows.  I see myself, the kid I was washing the church windows—one motion: up/down/, right/wrong, heaven/hell.  I’ve come far in a distance of six blocks. 


Photo courtesy Davis Wiki-- http://daviswiki.org/

...their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes”

I think the author misinterprets Thoreau. Unless he is in far better shape than his sedentary occupation suggests, I suspect that in the idealized world he speaks of, he would still be a janitor.

Thoreau. However, the same cannot be said for your response--in which the word "Misinterpret" would very much apply.

i wouldn't want to see you in the nude

your meds. Good, keep taking them.

Too bad your insurance refuses to pay for yours.

talk, the more i realize that i'm not too far from a hole of a different kind

the black hole that sucks the logic out of your thoughts. Sadly, you're right.


is obviously a comment on your self-image.


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