Mr. Janitor & Mr. Footsie

MARCH 21, 2001; CHICAGO, IL: The janitor pounded on my door yesterday afternoon.

At the time, I was sleeping off a tough, early morning shift of steaming milk and brewing espresso shots. The tough part isn’t pouring mochas, lattes, and cappuccinos. The tough part is ignoring the angry eyes of caffeine addicts who gather around the espresso machine and lean over the pickup counter. They’re commuters, late for work, who haven’t had their morning bump. They want to blame the barista for their grogginess, the alarm they forgot to set, their bad hair day, the knicks earned from a rushed shave. Hours of gimlet eyes can wear you down. I cope by sneaking hits of crushed Oreos, chopped Snickers, diced chocolate mints—anything that’s intended to top the fancy-schmancy espresso drinks. This is how I’ve paid the rent for the past six years. I’m on my third coffee shop. But I’m not moving up. I’m moving sideways. I have gone south, though…by about twenty-five miles. What’s clear why my alma mater’s School of Theatre awarded me a BS instead of a BA.

But let’s return to the janitor, the one who knocked. When I opened the door, he stepped inside. In other words, I didn’t invite him in. “Need to see clean apartment,” he said, in his husky Eastern European voice. “For insurance company.”

This was a first.

Some questions I could’ve asked: 
  • Why does the insurance company need eye-witness evidence of clean apartments? 
  • Will the degree of cleanliness affect my rent? 
  • Why would the insurance company take your word for it?
But I was sleepy, confused, and a little bit flattered. Besides, you never want to challenge the janitor when you’re renting from a slumlord. Another question I might’ve asked: Is my tiny apartment the only one that isn’t a sty? It might explain the roaches and the mouse turds. No doubt I’m single-handedly keeping the Raid and Combat brands alive.

But it’s possible—even likely—that I’ve fallen victim to a red herring. (As a red-haired man, you’d think I could spot one, or at least smell one, a mile away. Then again, I do need new glasses and I don’t need to trim my nose hairs every day. But I hate the sight of them—nose hairs—particularly when they sprout out from within my nostrils. I hate them almost as much as I hate the sight of roaches and mouse turds. I can handle the sight of mice. Anything furry is potentially pettable. Surely I’d feel differently if roaches had fur. Then again, I wouldn’t want to pet a tarantula. So the order of hatred is: roaches, nose hairs, mouse turds. But then, if my eyesight were so bad, I wouldn’t see the nose hairs, would I? Hm.)

Two important questions I’ll never ask: 
  • Had the janitor knocked as a test to see if I was home? 
  • And if I wasn’t, had he intended to look for, or at, something in particular?
I’m not hiding anything illicit. But Mr. Janitor didn’t even perform a cursory inspection. Then again, a quick glance is all you need to take in the entirety of my tiny “efficiency” apartment. A Yugo and a Harley would fit within my four walls—better make that half a Yugo—but little else. I’m not sure if it’s the smallest apartment I’ve rented. My first place was longer but half as wide.

Anyway, while I had Mr. Janitor, I pointed out the leaky faucet in the kitchenette.

“I come back later,” he said. 
He never did. 
Or, if he did, 
I wasn’t around, 
and he still didn’t fix the leak.

But what if, 
when I’m out, 
he likes to sneak in? 
On a regular basis? 
I don’t have much
and none of it ever goes missing.

When you haven’t much room to begin with, it’s hard to misplace anything. For example, if you can’t find your keys, maybe try turning around.

Maybe Mr. Janitor has one of those smelling fetishes. After all, one dude’s funk is another dude’s fragrance. Case in point: There’s a Chinese takeout place near the intersection of Belmont and Halsted. A few days ago I stopped to look at the menu posted to the window. Out of the blue, a soft-spoken, clean-cut, completely sane-looking young man walked up to me and asked to smell the socks on my feet. I was flattered. The image of sitting on a park bench with this dude on all-fours sniffing my little piggies, while the rest of the neighborhood strolled by, inspired a smile. I wasn’t all that hungry and I had some time to kill. But for all I knew this was how Mr. Footsie acquired new shoes. I apologized and politely explained how I wasn’t comfortable with his proposition. I wonder if his MO involves lying in wait for people who peruse posted menus.

Back to Mr. Janitor. What if he lets himself into my place to play video games on one of my Atari consoles? I wouldn’t mind sharing. It would explain why the joysticks wear out so quickly. (Some history: Not long ago I acquired two Atari 2600s, two 7800s, and well over a hundred cartridges thanks to an unhealthy relationship with eBay. Growing up, we didn’t have Atari. We didn’t even have a color TV until 1985. My folks waited until the turn of the century to get cable service.)

Mr. Janitor strikes me as the short-fuse type. It could be that he gets so worked up playing Space Invaders that he forgets to fix my leaky faucet. Perhaps he doesn’t know that most classic Atari video games weren’t designed to be won (unless it’s a two player situation). But I’m rather impatient myself, so I could be wrong. All of my high school teachers said I had a learning disability. Maybe they were right, and it wasn’t simply a matter of laziness or apathy or boredom. But they never gave Darth Vader the chance to teach algebra, now did they?

What if Mr. Janitor has a learning disability, too? There’s a reason he’s not fixing leaky faucets for NASA. In a perfect world we’d bond over our shared inability to finish Pitfall, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Yar’s Revenge and all the others. Video games can bring people together or drive them apart. But then, in a perfect world, everybody could finish Pitfall, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Yar’s Revenge, etc. In a perfect world, algebra and Star Wars would be equally exciting. We’d all enjoy the whiff of a stranger’s socks. If everything’s perfect, why not? Socks would smell like French fries. Or freshly baked cookies. But then, in a perfect world, everything and everybody would be really boring. We’d be cows. Basically cows. We’d have a whole lot more in common with them. For fun, they’d tip us over. We wouldn’t need espresso drinks and we wouldn’t want to play Atari. There’d be no desire. We wouldn’t even moo. There’s no mooing in utopia.


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