Just a Place
by Robert Cardos
Talk about him. Why does he do what he does? How does he do it? Is he smiling, or is there a bit of crookedness that is upturned in his face to make the appearance? Jones was sitting in the museum, watching the janitor as he swept either carefully or without consciousness, he couldn't decide which. He was in the lobby, still outside the ticket vendor and unsure if he would even rise to purchase a ticket to enter. He had walked there from 123rd Street, but it wasn't really a destination so much as where he'd ended up after walking for a while. Though he had a curiosity about the museum, his first thoughts upon entering were to find a vending machine and a place to sit down (what is the museum? is the type of museum important? could it be symbolic in a postmodern sort of way? The distance of the museum from 123rd street could say numbers—or words). As he ate a granola bar, chewing laboriously, he noticed the museum janitor working. He was cleaning the floor, treaded upon by myriad tourists and academics alike and that would continue to be trodden after he was done and so it would go incessantly until he quit, was fired, retired or died. He thought about the life of the janitor. He performed a necessary task within the context of the museum—but what else? How could he justify his existence in the sweeping of floors and the sanitation of toilets? He didn't look enthused with his position—hell, he didn't even look aware of it.
"Excuse me, sir, what do you think?"
"What do you think?" The janitor didn't reply, looking confused, and Jones walked away. It made sense.
"Excuse me, sir, what do you think?
"What do you think?"
"What kinds of thoughts?"
"That's none of your business," said the janitor, and he turned away and returned to his work. And that also made sense. Jones turned around and looked at the bench he'd walked from, a marble protrusion rising from the ground into the rectangular polygon. The geometry was oddly stunning, and the angle a view and lighting of the instance made Jones wish he were a camera, that he might set the aperture small and the shutter fast and preserve the image sharp and crisp forever.
Jones went up a bought a ticket from a teller whose existence he found equally difficult to justify, though her occupation was a might more sterile than the janitor's, and walked into the Museum of Seminal Persons.
He looked at Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Rothko—men of discipline, accomplishment and immortality. They'd each branded the world with their own seal and they would never die. Jones was fairly certain that he would never die himself—though it was difficult to say in which way he was certain: that of the naïve child untouched by death or the adult who has redefined what death and immortality is—and perhaps even during his lifetime he would become a seminal person in his own right, though he couldn't say through what.
What about Jones? Why should we give a shit about him? All he's done so far is infantilize other people without qualifying himself. He was tall and young, and sometimes that is enough. The education played a part, making him more eloquent and well-versed in the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Dostoevsky than most, and he even did well when he was being taught, earning high marks and the like, and that certainly played a part in his audacity. But mostly it was that brash youth, the thought that despite the overwhelming statistic Jones was not going to die, much less was he going to die unknown and unacknowledged. He was a student on his way to his doctorate, a dissertation started on latent connections between postmodern literature and ancient philosophical writings and myths. He would be an academic for life and publish groundbreaking critical theory that would dance and transverse the realms of literature and philosophy simultaneously, for though he felt the two were separate disciplines he always reveled in their intersection. He liked to say that ordinary things meant something significant when they didn't, because it sounded impressive and made the human experience seem richer. (Is the author being ironic?)
He wondered what the janitor thought. Did either conversation really happen? What if the second one happened? What were his thoughts? What went on in that mind that could hold him for eight hours a day all week long? What would Jones do if his life were something other than the study of literature, reading an array of books sporadically throughout the day, thinking about them during the interim and trying to malleate their meanings in new and interesting ways? Jones thought about what he might do if he had a nine to five, if he were relegated to performing the same tasks during the same eight hours each day—the grind. That's what they called it: the grind. Such a grotesque cliché.
He stared at a spreadsheet for eight hours with a look of stern criticism, as if to stare down the data before him into coherence and submission. He filed through a stack of papers and memos for the numbers he needed and typed them in whenever someone would walk by, but when no one was near he would just sit and stare bleary eyed at the computer screen and wait to lose his sight. He thought he might go blind and then maybe he wouldn’t have to plug numbers into hard drives like some kind of torpid peon, but then he also worried they may just give him a computer that operated in Braille—surely such things existed—and he would not be delivered from anything but his ability to see the beauty of the landscape, the concrete expanses of the city or the face of his wife, yet to exist even as a potentiality. His eyes darted down to the clock as his manager walked by and he rustled some papers looking for the next number he would enter. Five minutes had passed since the last time.
Some people who did such things had master’s degrees, Jones thought. Learning wasn’t a way out, and further it could only exacerbate if it wasn’t a solution to the drudge of daily existence and unjustified presence.
But all this pensiveness and no explanation. Character it’s all about. The struggle has only shown us one person and a vague interaction with the world around him. How can you care about a man who is not human? Oh an intellectual but that doesn’t necessarily make you nice or even interesting. It’s not all about the one hundred dollar words and transcendental struggles with self and other. Put him into conversation with the janitor. He walked up to Jones and said “You’ve a lot of balls to come up and pry into my life like that. Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Excuse me?” taken aback by his frankness.
“You know, I work pretty hard doing this. It may not be the most appealing job or the smartest, but I care about it, okay? How I make my living is my business, and maybe I take pride in it. Just because I’m not some kind of genius like you or whatever doesn’t mean I’m not a man.” So audaciously blue collar. There’s a lot more human and interesting about him if you’re only around him a while. His name is Hank, a classic, but his name tag says Henry because that’s more proper and he’s not personal with anybody in the museum. He who knows him calls him Hank—not just he, but she too, like his wife. He had a family in a small rowhouse in Brooklyn. It was just him and his wife now, but for a while his children were there too, and he had great ones—two boys—who liked the outdoors and went to the park and played baseball and catch with the dog, when the dog was still around, until they grew up and got wives and families and dogs of their own. He’d been at the museum as a janitor for twenty-five years now and could honestly say he was glad for it. Sure it was a bit of a dirty job but it was an honest one. He didn’t think he was better than anybody and somehow that made him better than everybody.
What could he say? He being either of them. Both were taken aback, Jones by the force of the janitor’s attack and the janitor by his own audacity. Jones would never do this but what if he complained, the janitor wondered? He could lose his job. He was old, there were always young men who could take his place. His dismissal on such grounds would exempt the museum from paying anything outside of a very basic unemployment. He knew what that would mean and didn’t think his wife or children would have it. His dog was dead now and he didn’t want to see his son’s dog daily for it might remind him.
Jones for his own part, the part he must play, was thinking about just “who the hell he thought he was,” and his “balls” (he would have preferred “nerve,” but vernacular is what it is) and why he was here in the first place. The postmodernist would eschew the meaning, but then they would always do that, and in truth if all they do is eschew meaning then they’re just writing a lot about nothing and then why is Jones so concerned about connecting the postmodern to ancient philosophy, which was so concerned with finding out something with the meager pith of the mind about life? Garbled tenses, rough drafts are shit. These are things to think about sometimes.
The stare down, the timidity:
They look at each other confused because neither knows what the other will say next. No one wants to make the move because none knows what the move will be, let alone what it is supposed to be. Jones gets caught in the fading eyes of the janitor, once a deeper blue, and the janitor focuses on the stubble of Jones’ chin, unwilling to look into the dark auburns for fear of the incendiary bombs exploding within them. He’s trying to humble himself while taking a stand. And no, it doesn’t mean anything important really, not in the long run. But how this turns is going to affect both for the rest of the day latently at the very least and overtly at the most extreme. The mood is everything and it doesn’t matter how trivial its origin for it is often that a paper cut does the worst damage. Days weeks months from now this may be forgotten but it will have always happened to them it will have always existed even if it ceases to exist in their minds.
One thousand cells die; one thousand cells duplicate. The janitor scratches his arm and Jones runs his hands through his hair. They do an awkward laugh that is rather comical and most assuredly contrived. “Sorry” the janitor says, playing humble, “I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.”
“The more I think about it, the more realize it might have been rude of me to ask you that.”
“It was rude, but I was rude also.”
“I guess that means we break even.”
“I guess so.”
They stare at each other again, figuring the math, and the janitor ran his hands over his balding head and Jones scratched his arm. They laugh awkwardly again. They could end it, say “see you” and move on into their disparate lives, but for some inexplicable reason (could it be explicable? What should be explicated—this could be important) their eyes stay concentrated, now at one another and now the janitor sees those dark auburns that have softened since their first encounter.
(Too late) “You don’t come here often. I know all the regulars—the professors and students and such—and I’ve never seen you.”
“No, this is my first time here.”
“What brings you?”
“Nothing really. I was out. It was just a place.”
“You’re right. It is just a place.”