Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mop and bucket

Tonight you're in Vegas.

Tonight, in a back room of the Starbucks-cafe part of a Barnes & Noble, I put my hand on the handle of a mop.

Someone had spilled a drink. The cafe was packed with Georgetown people, expensively dressed and graduate-degreed. I paused for just a beat. I had to push something inside me down, squelch it, before I could go back into automatic motion and heave the mop and wheeled plastic yellow bucket out there. I struggled with the heavy objects, props that felt as if they belonged to someone else's life and not mine, objects that therefore have not yet acquired the gravity they'll have when they finally belong to mine.

The wheels of the bucket wanted to curl and run sideways, not back-and-forth. So I dragged the bucket instead, groaning, reluctant object that it was. In the vestibule between the private back room and the public cafe, I arranged myself. I would perform this task with grace. I would have good posture. With my hair pulled back into a ponytail that reveals my swan neck, wearing a skirt and ballet flats that were really too dressy for cafe duty, I tried to seem aristocratic, academic. 

Out there in the cafe, the light glaring, I maintained a serene expression, hoping the cafe patrons were thinking that I must be a graduate student, working here the way poor bohemians magnetize to bookstores and cafes. I thought of castes in India; I thought of the rigid and impermeable class barriers in England. I held my head high. Studious people at tables moved their chairs for me when I asked them to in as polite and assured a voice as I could summon.

When I reached the spill, a clear topaz puddle, I pulled the mop up out of the cloudy water in which its yarn-head had been submerged. The woman at the nearest table smiled in something like an apology for having spilled the drink, in something like embarrassment at having a stranger clean up her mess, the embarrassment of the person with the luckier role.

It's possible that I allowed them to see me struggling a bit with the mop and bucket, as if to say: "I am not accustomed to doing this. What a funny twist of fate." It's possible that I found it morbidly amusing, thinking of what the cafe patrons might have imagined my life to be like -- the stories they create to explain why a nice, young, smart-seeming and well-dressed girl like me is playing janitor.

I changed the spill into a shiny-wet slick on the cafe floor. I warned the woman to be careful walking on it when she left.

Then I went on, doing my job for the next six hours, routine and recipe and procedure. And then the night ended, and that was that. A seamless blur of moments, except for one:

That moment, in the back room, when I put my hand on a mop for the first time as someone whose job duties include mopping -- I stopped, and thought of how you're in Vegas, and of how far you are, and for that moment I could not move.

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