Forty years ago, in one of those Midwestern cities where flat avenues end in clusters of convenience stores, I worked as a janitor.
There were seven men on my crew, and we worked 4 a.m. till noon cleaning the bars, restaurants, hallways, lobby and public bathrooms of a large hotel.
Every one of us pronounced “breakfast” as “brefast,” “Valentine’s Day” as “Valentime’s Day” and the Christmas giver of gifts as “Santy Claus.”
Five of us were black, and two were white. I was made crew boss because it was 40 years ago, and I was white. The black men on my crew didn’t seem openly resentful of what all of us knew to be inevitable. The crew’s other white man was a mentally challenged man in his 50s who was unsuited to be a boss by even the hotel’s loose standards. When I left, they moved a white guy out of the laundry room and made him boss.
To this day, I can tell you the order in which we cleaned the bars, restaurants, hallways and lobby of the hotel, though I know better than to tell people.
One year, the chain that owned the hotel decided to rehab the breakfast restaurant off the lobby. Unlike the hotel’s “fine dining” restaurant, this place opened at 6 a.m. to feed the business folks who were either catching an early flight home or heading out for a day’s work in a city where they were only staying for a week.
The breakfast place was given more of a “country” feel. There were chickens on the wallpaper when it reopened.
To test the place out, and see how the newly rehired staff would perform, management decided to offer all of us janitors, maids and laundry room workers a free breakfast, along with management. We’d go in, order, eat and the staff could use us to see how prepared the restaurant was for normal business customers.
Management sat at two tables, over on the left side. The rest of us sat throughout the restaurant, segregating ourselves — not by race or sex but by job. My crew ate together, as did the maids, as did the laundry room workers. We were given coffee and menus, and the waitresses came around to take our orders.
Nearly all, if not all, of us ordered the steak and eggs, which was the most expensive thing on the menu. Some of the people at the management table ordered the fruit cup.
I heard later from the guy who managed that restaurant that he’d hoped we’d order a variety of things, so the cooks could get accustomed to the “improved” menu. I thought the man was a fool.
Faced with a free breakfast, most of us had ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, which was steak and eggs. If caviar had been the most expensive thing on the menu, we would have ordered caviar, even though at least two-thirds of us would not have known what we were ordering.
I’ve often wondered how the people who ran the hotel could have known us so little that they thought we’d choose the oatmeal over the much more expensive steak and eggs. They saw us every day, didn’t they? They knew the job paid $3.35 an hour.
Did they know that the job of cleaning out the ashtrays in the hotel lobby was coveted because of the longer, still smokeable cigarette butts you could salvage? Did they know we took home half-empty bottles of wine we found on the room service trays left out in the hallways?
I was the youngest one on the crew, and maybe the only one still alive. I hope some of us made 80. I liked us.
In the wreckage of commentary, in the burnt shell of compromise, I think that the steak and eggs story tells everything about America since President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
— Marc Dion is a columnist at the Fall River (Mass.) Herald News and author of The Land of Trumpin’, a collection of his columns about the man who heads what was once the mightiest nation on earth. Contact hin at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter: @MARCMDION. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.