Sunday, December 05, 2004

Nostalgia: The Past, Only Better.

Depending on where you see it, the definition of nostalgia is one of the following:

The good old days multiplied by a bad memory.

[n] a feeling of remembering the past as a happy time


longing for something past

I am feeling somewhat partial to the first one. I was leaving my gym yesterday when I passed in the lobby a Latino man with one of those vacuum cleaner backpack thingies on his back while he, obviously, vacuumed the lobby. Without having any idea where it came from, I heard myself say, "Man! I wish we had those in the 80's!" This was immediately followed by a rush of somewhat crappy memories and an equal rush of somewhat happy nostalgia.

Back in the day, my dad's second job was as the sexton of the presbyterian church. It was his job to ready the building for Sunday services, including the sanctuary, kitchens, classrooms and social halls, as well as any other events during the week. It was a classic job for immigrants, which I sometimes have to pinch myself and remember that we were.

The crappy memories were of having to spend my Friday nights at the church vacuuming every damn inch of it--ALL of which was lushly maroon-carpeted. I could hang out with friends on Saturday nights, but Fridays were family night at the church. My dad mercifully didn't make us clean the toilets or restock the toilet paper, but each of the kids had a job to do because the building was so big and it all had to be spotless and ready to go on Sunday morning. (I will spare you the details of the hell that was our life on a Saturday night--after a Saturday wedding--to get it re-cleaned for the next day...).

Anyway, when I saw the man with the vacuum cleaner backpack, and the rest of my gym members who almost didn't even notice his existence except to ensure they didn't walk right into him, I felt my throat catch. I knew that feeling: "Don't mind me, I'm the apparition cleaning up after you; I may or may not actually exist as a human. Feel free to be the only other person in the room with me while still managing to somehow not acknowledge my presence." If you haven't ever had that feeling, I highly recommend it. I assure you that you will never look right through another human being again simply because they are doing some kind of manual labor that you know that somewhere in your heart of hearts you thank god you yourself don't have to do for a living. {Who knows? Maybe that's why we avoid the social contact?}

So that's the crappy part. But like I said, the crappy memories of second jobs and embarrassing work hours with my parents instead of fun hours with my friends was immediately followed by a tremendous nostalgia for precisely those days.

We would sometimes go to the Y Family Swim before going to work on Friday nights, so we'd vacuum and mop with wet hair and tell tall tales about who was lamest in the water (me) and who was the best cannonball diver (my brother) and who was just so bored with the whole thing regardless(my sister). I would turn on the sound system and "test" it by singing songs like Dream On by Aerosmith or Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics to my audience of four relatives. My mom would then tell me to stop playing with something that is not a toy and get back to work. The three kids would then offer to mop the social hall (which contained a piano) so that my brother could play chopsticks and his one other tune which I think consisted of about 15 minutes of only the opening piano riff of Don't Stop Believin' by Journey. Then, come 9 or 10pm, we'd head home. All done till Sunday night when my Dad and Mom would head back to do it all over again. We got a reprieve due to it being a school night.

Even as I am writing that I am thinking, "Man, that SUCKED! I shoulda been at the mall with my friends! My parents should have been home relaxing after a week at their other full-time jobs." And yet something about seeing that man with his vacuum cleaner backpack made me long for it. Not, of course, for the work and the angst and the hassle and the embarrassment of having your classmates see you cleaning their church floors, but for the family time, the stupid sibling time, the opportunity to play a piano which we would never otherwise have had access to, the opportunity to learn the following valuable lessons:

1) There is never any shame in doing any job well. Especially if it supports your family and pays your bills.

2) I am more than what someone thinks I am at first look. You might think I am the mop girl, or [in college] where I am the cafeteria worker girl and the print shop girl. You can treat me and characterize me however you want to, but just because YOU say it's so, don't make it so.

3) I am lucky beyond measure. I look around at my life today and cannot believe that I am where I am. I make more money alone than my parents did combined... ever...and they put three of us through college! I work hours that I choose, on projects that I like, and I don't really USE public toilets, much less clean them.

3) Nobody is "just" anything. No one is Just The Mailman. Or Just The Janitor. Or Just The Housekeeper. Or Just the Mechanic...Or Just The Sexton. For just a moment, picture the quality of your life without Just The Garbageman or Just The Janitor or Just The Roto Rooter Man. They seem kind of important now, don't they?

4) A cleaning burden shared is a cleaning burden halved, especially if you're jammin' to Don't Stop Believin' while you work.

5) If they'd ever let me set foot back in that church and get up on that microphone, I'd rock the holy hizzouse!

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