Janitors give voice to otherwise silent roles on campus

A member of the custodial staff empties the trash in the Retreat. Many members of Vassar’s custodial staff have worked here for years and enjoy interacting with students on a regular basis. Photo by Joshua Sherman
A member of the custodial staff empties the trash in the Retreat. Many members of Vassar’s custodial staff have worked here for years and enjoy interacting with students on a regular basis. Photo by Joshua Sherman
A member of the custodial staff empties the trash in the Retreat. Many members of Vassar’s custodial staff have worked here for years and enjoy interacting with students on a regular basis. Photo by Joshua Sherman

For many, becoming janitors wasn’t planned. Lamark Murray became a janitor at Vassar by chance. He said, “I ended up in my line of work by accident. I was actually going down the street to Pizza Hut, which used to be close to Vassar, because they wanted drivers. But I didn’t have my driver’s license at the time, so I came down to Vassar. It was not even planned.”

Similarly, for Venus Valera, who has been working at Vassar for nine years, custodial work wasn’t her original job. She said, “I pretty much just clean bathrooms all day now. I used to be a desk receptionist at the ROC. But they eliminated that position so this was the only other thing that was available within the union, so I ended up working here. So I’ve worked as a janitor for six years.” Cesar Jimenez, who works with Valera, laughed, “I married and my son was born. I needed a job with good benefits. I had two years of work in communication, but they don’t pay you that well in the beginning. My father always said, ‘Learn to do something else because you are never going to have the job you want’ and that’s true. In communications, I could go to many places looking for TV channels or whatever, but I have kids. I can’t go to New York City and leave my kids.”

Murray grew up in the Brooklyn side of town where baseball was big. He said, “When I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a baseball player for the Yankees. I was good. I got invited to a Philadelphia Phillies training camp when I was 17. And somehow when you get an invite like that at 17, you have to pay your own way. You need at least 5,000 dollars to travel to Florida and stay a whole month. But at 17, I didn’t have 5,000 dollars. So I couldn’t go.” To this day, if Murray could have his dream job, he said, “I would work for the Yankees. I actually tried to put in an application for the Yankees. And I haven’t heard anything back, but that’s a job I would be happy to go to everyday. I would want to be a scout.”

That’s not to say these janitors don’t like their jobs. In fact, they find immense satisfaction in the respect of their work. Jimenez said, “People think that if you have this job, you are nothing. But you have this job because you want to make money decently. You want to show your kids that you need to work in a nice way and provide food to the house and not do stupid things like drugs, robbery and stealing. Any job, it doesn’t matter what it is, you do with respect and people need to respect that.”

It’s the simple things that make these custodial workers’ days. Murray remembered, “One time, when I first started, and I was doing kitchen floors in the THs—and I wasn’t even hired by Building and Grounds yet—I was just helping from the kitchen and a supervisor at the time said she only wanted me to touch the floors. And I was like ‘Oh, okay. I’m not even on the team yet, and you’re telling me that I’m the only one to touch the floors!’ That was a good moment when I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. I must be doing something right.” Valera smiled, “Sometimes the students give you a Christmas card of a little present or a little mug. Last year, they gave us all Starbucks gift cards.”

Students often come up to Valera and Jimenez and say thank you. Jimenez said, “In the fifteen years I’ve worked here, I’ve never had a problem with a student. When the students see you do your job, they respond to you very well. When I was working in Main, the guys were very nice and helped sometimes.”

These custodial workers integrate what they have learned from their work to life outside of Vassar. Valera said, “I’ve learned to treat people with jobs like mine with dignity and respect. So if I see somebody and I’m out shopping and they’re cleaning, I make sure to get out of their way and say thank you.” On the other hand, Murray learned a different lesson, “Stay to yourself. Don’t get in the in-crowd. Don’t do what everybody else is doing. Just do what you do and that’s it.

Perhaps one of the most satisfying parts of being a janitor is getting to know students over a long period of time. Murray said, “I like the communication between the workers and the students so that they get to see you on a daily basis and know who you are. They share their stories and you share your stories and somehow you find a bond within those four years that they are here.”

Murray became lifelong friends with Asaf, a student who graduated a few years ago. He said, “I still talk to him this day. He graduated a couple of years ago. We still communicate and keep in touch. I visited him down in Atlanta and I went to his school where he teaches and helped him decorate his classroom. And the four years we were here, we were really good friends. And there are other cool guys I’m friends with, but Asaf stood out the most. He used to come in my house and we’d hang out all day. He was the DJ at the radio station too.” Murray smiled, “He used to give me a shout out on the radio.”

Jimenez also remembers a student: “I forget her name, but I remember a girl who was very nice, but she was a lonely person and many times she cried. And you know, I have a daughter so every time I saw her I felt terrible. So you go and try to say, ‘Excuse me, do you need help?’ and she talked to me about many things. She just needed to let it out. We all have problems and sometimes we just need to let them out. The students are very open with you.” He continued, ”And there was a boy too, poor guy. Thank god he didn’t do anything stupid. I talked to him and told him to talk to his parents because I saw many occassions that he wanted to do something stupid. The students are very open with you. Like a family, actually.”

Valera also had a close friend. “Her name was Sarah and this was when I was a desk attendant. I saw her everyday and we started talking. She was such a nice girl and we used to go lunch. She was singing when she was here and now she is still singing and has her own record label. She is doing really well. She went for it and she inspires me to do something that I dream of. I will always remember her. That was six, seven years ago.” These janitors and students are not all that differen: both are living out and sharing the stories of their lives.

As summer approaches, some will leave forever. But as shown by Murray, Jimenez, and Valera’s memories, they won’t be forgotten.

For now though, Murray plans on enjoying summer. “I always throw a big barbeque every year. I want to throw one this year, but not as big because I have my family reunion in August. But I still plan on barbequing and playing softball all summer. I just want to enjoy life.”

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