The Janitor And His Decoy Kitchen

[With thanks to R.]

In the course of my interviews with janitors, a surprising number of them let slip that, in the buildings for which they were janitorially responsible, they maintained, in addition to the appointed kitchen, a second, decoy, kitchen. For what purpose might a janitor do such a thing? That is the question I asked of all the janitors I interviewed, whether they kept decoy kitchens or not, for I intuited that the replies of those who kept just the one, actual, kitchen would be as enlightening as those of the janitors who kept two, a real and a decoy.

Not for the first time, my intuition proved to be wrong. I would not easily forget, for example, how I was caught napping by the Tet Offensive. And just as I wholly misjudged, on an intuitive level, the course of the Vietnam War, so now with my interviews with janitors. When I posed the question about decoy kitchens to those janitors, the majority, who did not keep decoy kitchens, they looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses. Their replies were not in the least enlightening. The general thread of their responses was to aver that the maintenance of even a single kitchen was not properly the province of a janitor at all, but ought in any sane and just universe be devolved upon a scullerymaid. As for the idea that a janitor might keep a decoy kitchen, that beggared belief. The most likely explanation, I was informed, was that those janitors who claimed to have decoy kitchens were pulling the wool over my eyes, playing a jape on me, engaging in waggery, or some such mischief.

It grieved me to think I might be the object of mockery or trickery by several janitors. After all, I had embarked upon my interviews with a good honest heart, I would go so far as to say a pure heart, such as one might find nestling within a pious Victorian infant slowly perishing from tuberculosis. I did not wish to believe that some among the janitors would give anything but candid and heartfelt answers to my questions. So I determined to reinterview a statistically sound sample of those among the janitors who claimed to keep additional kitchens as decoys. This would necessitate a revision of my schedule and put me in grave danger of missing my deadline. I comforted myself with the reminder that I had set the deadline myself, the entire project, to interview thousands of janitors, being wholly within my own remit, for the simple reason that not one among the many publishers I approached showed even a smidgen of interest in it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I could not count the number of times I was physically thrown out into the street while great imposing doors were slammed shut behind me. I bear no grudges and will not copy out the list of those publishers I have written in my own blood in a little black notebook with a skull and crossbones emblem emblazoned on its cover.

So I rejigged my schedule, adding a year or two to my time frame, and made appointments to visit, once again, some of the janitors who said that they had established, in their buildings, decoy kitchens in addition to the real kitchens. I devised a new and separate set of questions I wished to ask them. I did not give any of my subjects sight of this questionnaire in advance, as I thought the element of surprise would serve me well. Tied to a chair in a dark dank cellar, a Klieg light blazing in his face, even the steeliest and most self-possessed janitor in Christendom would quail and confess all when I put my queries to them in a blood-curdling screech. I practised this screech on a hamster or two, with chilling but satisfactory results.

It was my misfortune, however, that every single one of the janitors I arranged to reinterview sent me to decoy cellars in decoy buildings where I was met by decoy janitors. My project was in ruins. I intuited that the best idea was to slump in a gutter and let sweet rain fall upon my head. Alas, my intuition proved wrong, for the rain turned to hail, and then to snow, and I would have been buried beneath it had I not stood up, and dusted myself down, and pranced along the street, my head held high, my smile beatific, like that of a pious Victorian infant slowly perishing of tuberculosis who sees, dimly, through failing eyes, the ethereal glow of an angel of the Lord at his bedside, come to carry him to a better place.

The Janitor And His Spirit Guide

Few subjects have received as little attention as the relationship between a janitor and his spirit guide. All janitors have one, though many janitors do not acknowledge its existence, while others, both janitors and observers of janitors, confuse the spirit guide with the janitor’s dog. Of course, not all janitors have dogs, which rather proves the point and should serve to clarify the matter. We shall examine the janitor-dog nexus in a future essay, if nexus is the word I am looking for.

The spirit guides of janitors are clad, invariably, in raincoats, though being as ethereal as the guides themselves the raincoats are not visible to the mundane eye. This makes them no less effective as raincoats. Janitors’ spirit guides do not get wet in rainstorms. Were they so to do, in all likelihood they would dissolve and form a puddle of ectoplasmic sludge, a puddle which the janitor would be duty bound to mop up with his decidedly unethereal mop, a duty made all the more onerous because he would no longer have his spirit guide to guide the mopping, a sure recipe for janitorial catastrophe. Let me repeat that. Were they [the spirit guides] so to do [become rain-soaked], in all likelihood they would dissolve and form a puddle of ectoplasmic sludge, a puddle which the janitor would be duty bound to mop up with his decidedly unethereal mop, a duty made all the more onerous because he would no longer have his spirit guide to guide the mopping, a sure recipe for janitorial catastrophe. There is more wisdom packed into that single sentence than in anything else I have ever written.

The averting of catastrophe is the most important contribution his spirit guide makes to any janitor’s day. But it is not the only one. In the course of my interviews with thousands of janitors, those who were prepared to admit the existence of their spirit guides mentioned a huge variety of ways in which these spectral raincoated beings from realms unseen give a helping hand to their allotted janitor. Many of the testimonies I heard were incomprehensible, if not exactly gibberish. My lack of comprehension was due to the fact that, not being a janitor myself, and thus not in possession of a spirit guide, my puny brain could not make any sense of what I was being told. An example will give you some idea of my difficulty. This is from Interview Transcript No. 849:

Me : Can you tell me something of earth-shattering excitement about your spirit guide and the way it aids you in the course of a typical janitorial day? Speak clearly into the microphone.

Janitor No. 849 : Hectic donkeys and the clicking of panic buttons or picnic buttons with unalloyed gusto pop ix pop vug then squelchy invasions usually hence hinged.

It is possible, if one studied that reply for several years, with the aid of glossaries and reference books and an atlas of the Other Side, that some sense could be wrung from it. But even in the absence of understanding it demonstrates, I think, that the ways of spirit guides are not our ways, and we can form only a partial, blurred, and vague conception of those ways. Is the same true of the janitors themselves? Do they have a clearer understanding of their spirit guides?

It is instructive, in this connection, to do as I have done, and to observe a janitor in the throes of his janitordom, all the while making notes in a notebook with a propelling pencil. When reviewed at leisure, at the end of the day, sitting in an armchair and sipping an egg nog, such notes can reveal startling insights. Of course one has to ensure that one notes what is noteworthy and not what is not noteworthy. I confess that on my first few exercises in this regard I made a complete ballocks of the whole business. I did not know what I ought to be looking for. I would, for example, scribble down my observations of a janitor’s mopping demeanour, while failing to make a single note about his pail (or bucket) frenzy. Such frenzies, I learned, are, or can be, the key to the janitor-spirit guide nexus. I am still not sure if that is the word I want.

Of course not all janitorial frenzies are related to their spirit guides. Let us not be silly. Let us, instead, sink deeper into our armchair, drain our cup of egg nog, and drift into a doze, in the hope that we may be granted a visit from a shimmering benevolent being from worlds beyond sense, clad in a raincoat, a raincoat, a rainc…..

The Janitor And His Pail

The relationship between a janitor and his pail is a matter well worth our attention. Some janitors will call their pail a bucket, but it is much of a muchness. It may well be that, for the pernickety, a pail and a bucket are not quite the same thing, but we are not pernickety, at least not today. Today we are having one of our non-pernickety days. Good heavens, we did not even time the boiling of our breakfast egg to the second, as we do on our pernickety days. No, today, we plopped the egg into the pan and set the burners roaring beneath it and we wandered away, picked up the post from the doormat, kicked the wainscot, kicked it again, God knows why, chucked the post into the wastepaper basket – it was all flyers, flyers – put the kettle on, extracted from our majestic bouffant a small beetle which had taken up residence, Peason-like, and placed it on the windowsill, opened the window, adjusted the position of the vase of hollyhock cuttings, turning them towards the light, though Lord knows there was little enough light, so early was the hour, and pottered and puttered in other dithery ways before returning to the kitchen to set the burners unroaring beneath the pan, without checking the time on our wristwatch, rather judging that a sufficiency had passed for the egg in the pan to be toothsome when shelled. On a pernickety day, on the other hand, we would not leave our post, by the cooker, but count the minutes and the seconds, gazing from wristwatch to pan and back again, and as the second hand on the watch tocked to its appointed spot we would immediately lift the pan from the roaring burners, extinguish them, hoist the egg from the seething waters and transfer it to its egg-cup – a souvenir egg-cup from an ill-starred seaside resort – sure in the knowledge that it had been boiled for a very specific and particular length of time as recommended in Blötzmann’s Manual of Egg-Boiling (second edition, lilac series). Thus the variation between our pernickety and our non-pernickety days, a variation designed to crack us from the bonds of rut.

What does all that have to do with janitors and pails or, if you prefer, janitors and buckets? Little or nothing, like the littleness of the light as we tuck into our early morning boiled egg, like the nothingness at the core of our all too mortal soul.

The Janitor And His Mop

Few relationships are as close, and as intense, as that between a janitor and his mop. He may sense an attachment to his bunch of keys and his pail and his dog, but he cherishes his mop more than anything.

I have spent several years interviewing janitors, and invariably they volunteer the information that their mop is their most treasured possession. They will say this, loudly and with vehemence, even when their dog is sitting obediently at their feet, gazing up at them in adoration. I am sure there is a monograph to be written, one day, upon janitors and their dogs, but I shall leave that joy to another scribbler. It is not that I am averse to dogs, well, I am, but it is not my aversion that dissuades me from writing about them. Were a janitor to spout effusive folderol on the subject of his dog, during one of my interviews, I would note it down accordingly and include it in my finished piece. I do not provide verbatim transcripts, preferring instead to give the reader an impressionistic or expressionistic or borderline hysterical portrait of the janitor through gorgeous words. Not all of these words will have been spoken by the janitor, nor by me, but they seem to hover in the aether in the janitor’s vicinity. That is what I try, as best I am able, to communicate.

It remains a remarkable fact that the thousands of janitors I have interviewed over the years have expressed boundless love for their mops. Often they are moved to tears, or, contrarily, to gales of unbridled glee, or sometimes both, turn and turn about. It is an emotionally wrenching experience, for them to be interviewed, and also for me, as the interviewer, broaching the topic of the mop and not knowing whether I will need to provide a napkin for them to dab at their tear-stained cheeks, or a similar napkin for myself to wipe off the flecks of spittle sprayed over me by janitors in the extremes of happiness. It occasionally happens that the dog, if it is frisky, will try to catch the napkin, either of the napkins, in its jaws, and scamper away with it, as if it were a bone. They are mysterious creatures, dogs, and often quite stupid. The mop, being inanimate, is much more predictable, and much less bother.

For reasons I have not yet been able to fathom, no publisher has expressed an interest in my book of janitorial interviews. It thus remains in manuscript, hand-written, with a butcher’s pencil, in a series of exercise books, some lined, some unlined. For the past several months I have had these books stored in a cupboard on the ground floor of a large building in a central location, near a bank, into the vaults of which I wish to transfer them for greater security, when I can afford the fee to do so. In the meantime, the cupboard is kept locked and watched over by a janitor, one of the few I have not taken time to interview. He prowls the corridors, rattling his bunch of keys, deploying his beloved mop, and followed everywhere by his dog. Insert apt Latin phrase to conclude this piece with a freight of significance.

On Maddened Janitors

Janitors can become maddened for a variety of reasons. It is important to learn to recognise the telltale signs, among which are an empurpled face, wild dishevelled hair, and grunting. If you find yourself in a locked building with a maddened janitor, the best thing to do is to confine him in a cupboard while you desperately seek a key to the locked door, thus allowing you to flee.

There are several accounts of people upending the janitor’s bucket and cramming it over his head. The idea seems to be that, robbed of sight, with an upturned bucket on his head, the maddened janitor will be rendered harmless. This is absolutely wrong. In these circumstances, the janitor merely becomes more maddened, and brandishes his mop the more menacingly, plodding sightless along the corridors of the locked building like unto a zombie. If he manages to corner you, and whack you on the bonce with his mop, you will fall unconscious, and when you awake you too will have become a maddened janitor, destined to roam the corridors and cubbies of the locked building forever more.

In any town or city you are likely to see buildings shuttered and abandoned, boarded up or slated for demolition. These are the haunts of whole colonies of maddened janitors, roaming eternally in the darkness. Sometimes one of them might stumble upon a bunch of keys, and rattle them, and seek to find a door they will unlock. To date, no maddened janitors have ever managed to escape into the open streets. It is thought they would perish at the instant of leaving their building, but nobody is quite sure. That is why boardings-up are made as fast as possible, not just with hardboard but with planks of wood and chains and electric alarm systems and, in some cases, patrolling dogs.

It can happen that one of the smaller and stupider patrol dogs will find its way into the building through a duct or flap. It is unlikely ever to emerge, for it will be set upon by the maddened janitors with their mops, and no matter how shrill its yapping, it is doomed. To what purpose the maddened janitors put the battered corpses of small and stupid patrol dogs is a matter of conjecture, one which we may not wish to dwell on if we are ever to get a good night’s sleep.

Several bright minds have pondered the possibility of somehow unmaddening a maddened janitor. Can they be proffered gifts, perhaps, to placate them? One brave researcher worked his way through a hamper full of possible offerings, including buns, biscuits, ice cubes, pre-stunned puppies, new mop handles, linctus, and feathers. The results varied. Maddened janitors by turns quaked, groaned, had convulsive fits, or thumped their heads repeatedly against walls. But not one was unmaddened.

It might be thought demolition of the building housing a maddened janitor colony would finish them off. But no. Often, from the rubble, in the night, groans can be heard, and the clank of mop handle against bucket, and the faint rattling of a bunch of keys. They are down there somewhere, furious now, madder than ever, waiting only to rise up. But as they cannot bear the open air, they wait, and wait, until such time as a new building rises in place of the old. Its gleaming new corridors and space age swishy automatic doors and CCTV cameras promise a new dispensation. Tenants are not hard to find, sprightly young dotcom startups for example.

One night, a few months after the company has moved in, an eager young whippersnapper is working late at his desk, sweeping his fingertips back and forth across the screen of his iFaff, generating a revenue stream. He is tiring, and in need of coffee, so heads off along the corridor to the hot drink dispenser. The only sound is the low hum of nocturnal light and power. As he approaches the machine he rummages in his pocket for coinage. The clinking of metal is enough to rouse, from the subterranean depths of the building, a maddened janitor. He is one who had a bucket upturned over his head. He brandishes his mop, and clambers from the pit, into the boiler room, and along the basement corridors, through the fuse cupboard, to the stairs. And up he comes, sightless because of his bucket, implacable, grunting, feeling his way forward with his outstretched mop. Were you there, a fly on the wall, you might just be able to see bits of small and stupid dog entangled in the strands of the mop.

The keen young web entrepreneur has made his selection from the numberless coffee choices available, and is listening to it hiss and glug into a paper cup. It is the last thing he will ever hear, because he is an inattentive young man who knows nothing of the hidden world.

But you do, now. And you will not be inattentive, as you trudge in the autumn rain along the boarded-up high streets of your dismal town. You will hurry your pace, your collar pulled up, puffing on a gasper, listening for the yap of patrol dogs, muttering a prayer.

On The Song Of The Grunty Man

Apparently, the Grunty Man, that figure of childhood nightmares, has a song. It begins:

I grunt at the sun, I grunt at the moon, my grunts do not follow a tune.

I grunt at the stars, I grunt at the sky, my grunting makes household pets die.

One day in March 1967, the Grunty Man went into a recording studio. He was accompanied by a hand-picked gaggle of musicians who later became some of the biggest names in prog rock, including future members of Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Spooky Tooth. Also present was the youthful Gordon Sumner, now known to the world as ‘Stig’ [sic], who was drafted in for his ability to whine in a high-pitched caterwaul. I say they were hand-picked, but in fact the Grunty Man arranged for each muso to be plucked from their mundane doldrums by the Claw of Gack. It was an experience none of them ever forgot.

Eschewing the use of a producer or sound engineer, the Grunty Man barred and bolted the studio doors and whirled about in a grunting frenzy until all the musicians were suitably cowed. It would be unkind to state which of the ELP trio was so frightened that he hid in a cupboard and piddled in his loon pants until coaxed out with the promise of Garibaldi biscuits.

Ten thousand years old and covered in sores, the Grunty Man had recently started to use a guide dog. This dog, Alan, was some kind of beagle, and was hopelessly inadequate for its task. It was blind itself, in one eye, suffered from muscle spasms and liver failure, and harboured a doggy desire to take part in the space programme rather than have to drag around with the Grunty Man. It spent most of the recording session curled up inside Carl Palmer’s bass drum, dreaming of the stars.

The Grunty Man decided to call his one-off band Ruddiman’s Rudiments, after the Latin primer used by generations of schoolchildren. With such a name, he thought, he would not be dismissed merely as a grotesque grunting ogre from the earth’s primeval past, but as a somewhat more sophisticated being. Having a hit record would give him even more charisma, and his long-cherished desire to win social acceptance would be fulfilled. Perhaps he wanted too much.

Certainly the auspices were not good, as the band huddled in a corner of the studio quaking with terror, Alan snoozed, and no one bothered to locate the light switches. When little Sumner whimpered that they would need at least some light to work by, the Grunty Man unleashed great bellows of his sulphurous, phosphorescent breath. The studio was lit by a dim green mist which hung in the air, and the band stumbled reluctantly to their positions.They ran through the music a few times, but never to the Grunty Man’s satisfaction.

“Less Herman’s Hermits! More Scriabin!” he shouted, and as they could not understand his grunts, he clawed the words onto the walls with his talons. But none of the band, not even the bombastically-inclined future Emerson Lake & Palmer, were familiar with the works of the Russian composer*, and they stuck to a toothsome sort of pop pap. The Grunty Man kept bellowing to maintain the phosphorescent light levels. Alan woke up briefly and savaged Carl Palmer’s piddle-stained loon pants. And then a janitor arrived.

Old Ted Cargpan’s intention was to throw the intruders out of the studio. In the event, he saved the situation. Completely calm in the face of the hideous Grunty Man, and contemptuous of the young musicians, he at once sized up the scene, set the tapes running, and put the whole lot of them through their paces. Even the Grunty Man deferred to the janitor, retreating to a spot up in the rafters and allowing the little Sumner boy to take on the lead vocal, while Alan the guide dog, refreshed after his nap, howled backing.The instrumentalists, too, seemed energised by the crusty old janitor’s presence, Greg Lake in particular demonstrating the sort of skills that would, in a few years time, make Brain Salad Surgery such a millstone. Sorry, I meant to type ‘milestone’.

The track finished, Old Ted Cargpan sent the musicians packing and brought the Grunty Man down from his perch near the ceiling to record the B-side, a duet with Alan the guide dog. The Grunty Man grunted, Alan slobbered, and the janitor moulded their din into a majestic three minute miniature rock opera, subsequently plagiarised by everybody from Ultravox to swan-eating Peter Maxwell Davies.

So whatever happened to the recordings? Some say that the adult Gordon Sumner, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice but still, as a middle-aged man, calling himself ‘Stig’, opposed any reissue of the disc and even had the master tapes destroyed. Another rumour has it that Alan the guide dog somehow managed, in 1977, to get himself blasted towards Saturn on a space rocket, and took the tapes with him. The Grunty Man himself remains silent on the subject, merely grunting horribly in his cave, or next to his pond, haunting the nightmares of tiny children, tuneless once more, and resigned to his immortal fate.

* NOTE : Much of the work of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was written for piano. This is surprising when one considers how tiny his hands were. Indeed, there were two occasions during his short, fraught life when he injured them while relentlessly practising piano pieces which called for hands larger than his own.

Tiny his hands may have been, but this puny neurasthenic Russian cultivated a pair of decisive mustachios.

Scriabin

Among his orchestral works, the Poem of Ecstasy, opus 54, is a supremely bonkers piece which, long before Spinal Tap, goes up to eleven. One critic imagined he was hearing a graphic portrayal of the players all having sex with each other. Another refers to the “malignant sneers from muted trombones… was music ever more evil-sounding”?

Not everyone appreciated Scriabin at the time, of course. The man who was chosen to conduct the premiere of his Second Symphony complained “After Scriabin, Wagner lisps sweetly like a suckling babe. I think that I will go mad any moment now. Where can one hide from such music? Help me!”

My favourite Scriabin piece is the Mysterium. This was designed as a total art work, involving an orchestra, dance, light, and exotic perfumes, to be performed in the Himalayas, its playing ushering in Armageddon. Mysterium would be “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world” and the emergence of a Nietzschean Superman. Whether this Superman would have tiny little hands and decisive mustachios we do not know, for Scriabin succumbed to septicemia when the composition was barely begun. It thus has a place in the museum of lost or non-existent works of art, about which I shall write more soon.

[Previously posted in 2006.]

The Qualities Of Janitors, No. 4

Among Sam’s other attributes was the gift of divination. He was the primitive man, a part of nature’s self, and he looked upon the truth unblinded, undimmed by the veil of knowledge formalized. In this respect he was absolutely uncanny, a person to be discussed and analyzed in remote rooms or upon quiet walks. Sam never talked about these supernatural powers, and so far as I know the Society for Psychical Research never had him under inspection, but he had these powers, abnormally, unhumanly developed, not only had them, but used them, nightly… Sam had but to cast one searching, secret-revealing glance at the luminaries of the college heaven, and there was nothing that would fain be hid that was not revealed, revealed not merely in broad outline, but in tiniest detail, threatening disorders forecast to the very quarter of an hour.

from Samuel Osborne, Janitor by Frederick Morgan Padelford (c. 1913)