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Chapter 2 of "The Cleaners - An Adventure in Filth"

‘Cleaning is not about removing filth but about revealing what is already clean.’ The Cleaners

Standing in the foyer my mind was rummaging through all the scripts of what I was going to say. I was nervous and fidgety, with my mind, feelings and body all going their separate ways. I surveyed the main doors every five seconds waiting for someone recognizable as Rick.

I checked again. It was right on 7:00pm. Where could he be?

“Are you waiting for me?” a voice said calmly from behind.

I was a little startled but remained composed and turned around. It was Rick, but not the Rick I remembered.

He was wearing a uniform that looked familiar, but I was used to seeing him in an Armani suit and gold cufflinks. Standard attire for his relentless pursuit of outcomes and uncompromising attention to detail. He always made budget and always made time.

Our project team affectionately called him ‘Pitbull.’ If you wanted a job done, no matter how tough, he was your guy. He took shit from no one.

Now, even though his face seemed the same, there was something different about him. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Only much later could I confidently describe him as more quiet or contained, in a relaxed way.

I felt an urge to ask him why he’d become a cleaner. Before I could open my mouth he gestured to follow him, and in the same calm tone said, “It is good to see you.”

We quickly came to a small room off the side of the corridor. We entered, and to my surprise the room contained only two chairs, positioned in the center and facing each other at a slight angle.

It was unusual because in any city building space is a premium. To see four bare walls, no pictures or paintings, just carpet with two chairs in the middle, gave a very strange impression.

I also recalled how the room was exceptionally clean. I don’t mean by normal standards. One can go into any room and without much effort find imperfections, like marks on the walls, dust on the blinds, a bit of grime here or there.

What was astonishing was there was nothing like that in this room, and not for want of trying to see it. It seemed that every part, from window pane to door frame, even the ceiling was immaculately clean. I supposed I should’ve expected this from a cleaning company, but still, there was something unexpected about it.

Saying nothing he motioned me to sit, and he did likewise. I still had the burning question of why he’d become a cleaner, but he slipped in first and said, “How have you been?”

I was caught mid-stream but instinctively replied “OK, I guess.”

There was an awkward silence for a few moments but I gathered some strength, “I was going to ask you the same thing. How have you been?”

“Why?” he curiously replied.

“I heard on the grapevine that you’d quit your career to become a cleaner?” I said.

“Is that why you are here?” he asked with a look of fascination.

“Well, sort of. I had to find out for myself. I considered you a mover and shaker in the business. You know, a lifer—someone who’d go all the way to the top. But to hear what had happened to you…well…I needed to understand?” I said.

“Why?” he asked again.

“What do you mean, Why?” I replied.

He leaned forward with firm attention and said, “Why do you need to understand?”

I was again caught off-guard. I’d half-expected that if he’d suffered some kind of breakdown to leave his career, that he’d most likely spill his guts, tell me of all his sorrows and what had happened to lead him to such a pitiful end. Maybe I would find something in it to understand my own fate, but suddenly, it was me that was under the spotlight.

For the second time that day I felt twisted and turned inside. I struggled between wanting to respond in such a way as not to reveal myself and wishing that I could cut through all the bullshit. I was full of so much tension that the sweat began to pour out of me, and I was very self-conscious about the uncomfortable chair.

I noticed Rick slowly leaning back in a thoughtful gaze. With a friendly face and sincere manner he said, “I would like you to meet someone. I think they might help to make clearer what it is that you seek.”

The interruption was a relief and suggested that this was a good idea.

It was only after we left the room and were walking to wherever it was we were going that I found the idea of meeting someone else rather strange. And the manner in which he’d spoken was very different to how I’d known him a few years ago. However, it felt OK so I went along with it.

We walked down the corridor and exited to some stairs where we climbed a couple of flights. Why we didn’t take the elevator was confusing.

When we’d reached the right floor we entered a typical cubicle-arranged office area that looked like it would accommodate up to fifty employees. In this space were about twenty cleaners performing their duties. Walking through produced another unusual impression.

What struck first was the complete and utter silence of the cleaners working together. It was deafening. I’ve worked in many places with many people and one thing I could count on was that more people always produced more noise. There was a whole psychology built around team dynamics and communication as I'd learnt in a myriad of workshops I was compelled to attend.

It took us a reasonable time to walk from one end of the office space to the other, and in that time I didn’t here a peep. The only thing that came through loud and clear was the sound of my heart thumping and heavy breathing. I felt awkward, or more accurately, clumsy, for all the noise I thought I was making in this sea of silence.

The picture of these people working together was graceful. The more I recall and reflect on this singular memory, the more I’m amazed at the quality of movement and activity between the people working there. Though there was, at least for me, an unnerving silence, the participants seemed very relaxed with each other.

As we were walking, one scene particularly caught my eye.

A worker was washing a window on top of a small ladder, and as they finished another worker, who was occupied with something else some distance away, immediately came over to take the squeegee from their hand and replaced it with a dry cloth so the work could continue uninterrupted.

This all seemed quite reasonable at first glance, but what was amazing was this was all done in silence. The worker washing the window did not have to turn around and ask for a dry cloth, or even wait for one to be given. And the worker occupied with activity some distance away did not have to be prompted with any verbal or visual cue.

It was as if both workers ‘knew’ what the other was doing while they were performing their own work and acted accordingly. I had never seen this type of silent, relaxed and highly coordinated activity before.

There was one thing though that I didn’t understand, Why were twenty people needed to clean this space? Surely less would have sufficed?

When we’d reached the other side of the office Rick asked me to wait while he went on ahead. He disappeared through a door and I was left wondering who I was going to meet.

I didn’t have too much time to think because a few minutes later he came back and asked me to follow him.

Up until this moment, the last couple of days were filled with storms of emotions, unusual impressions and strange coincidences. I’d been close to taking my own life and became intensely interested in the life of another. Through all this, and everything that had lead up to it, I could sincerely say that I understood nothing of what was happening. How could I be so successful in life and feel like this? Was I crazy? Depressed? I simply didn’t know.

But what happened when I went through the door turned everything upside down, put everything into question. It was, as they say, a ‘turning point.’

It was Rick who opened it, but I was the one who went through the door. As I walked into the room, standing there, with a calm presence and a compassionate smile, was my Samaritan. Here…in this room….was the man who’d saved my life. And again, I was frozen where I stood, simply shocked, paralyzed by the presence of someone who had shared my most vulnerable moment.

I can’t give reason to what happened next. Was it the events of the past couple of days? Was it everything that life had brought me? Was it simply the presence of these men? I don’t know. What I do know was that for the next couple of hours, without a single word, I cried so much and so hard that exhaustion set in. Drained, I thought I was dying.

All I remember were faint images of being taken home, and slept like a baby that night and the following day. When I finally awoke, Rick greeted me with smile.


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