Contemplating the emotions and sensations around our normal reluctance to get going on cleaning the house, brought up some memories of my time as a professional cleaner. Short as it was, there were lasting lessons.
The years of travail in mid-1970s Edinburgh partly revolved around the lack of a career plan, but as with current cleaning, needs must, so one had to find a job of some sorts. The Edinburgh Cleansing Department, maybe now inflated to Department of Environmental Health, wanted street sweepers, given mock dignity by the euphemism of Street Orderly. I had my cart with a dustbin, two brushes, one consisting of twigs bound to a pole, and a shovel. And each of us had a beat. The depot might have been in the Grassmarket, from which we would spread out to cover the central area of town. I remember working in the Royal Mile, and also at the West End, scanning for the dross and muck of city streets.
At the time, I was making tentative moves to improve a semi-ruined property rashly bought with an inheritance, and had approached an eminent architect who specialised in restoration of historic buildings. The eminent architect was passing by the grand Caledonian Hotel, as I was patrolling with my cart, clothed in official Cleansing Department uniform. Saw me, recognised me, eyes met. But ne’er a word of greeting. I mean – could have been a bit much to have expected him to stop and say:”Well, Ian. Keeping things in order! I knew you were interested in Conservation, but here you are keeping Edinburgh clean as well!” Then again I could have hollered at him: “Iain …” that was his name. “What brings you to these parts?”
Apart from the invisibility and tedium of a low status job, there were cold, brilliant November afternoons, skies above a sharp vivid blue, the wind as a knife. Scalding milky sugary tea at lunch break: hot mince pies, doughnuts.
In those days job seekers would scour the Edinburgh Evening Post. Worn out by the interminable demand Experience Required, I went along to Dario’s Pizzeria on Lothian Road, to apply for the post of Dishwasher. I do have experience. It was great, paid cash in hand, £1.00 an hour. I had my corner, a stool, an array of towels, and two sinks.
I was getting the hang of the dishwashing life, so maybe I could branch out and get an additional part-time dishwashing job? So off to interview in an Italian restaurant in Leith Walk. The owner said: “All the other dishwashers are women. You wouldn’t fit in. But I’ll take you on as Trainee Chef.”
Didn’t take up the interesting offer, because I was about to go back to University, but it illustrated that humble anonymous jobs might lead to something. The many students I taught over the years didn’t always appreciate the great discovery that every form of work is a form of service.
The dishwashing career ended when I became a night porter in a hotel (yes, more cleaning too!), while attending University during some of the waking hours, which would allow me to take up teacher training in Religious Education the following year.
Very happy in that dishwashing job. Had just started on a spiritual path that combined the teachings and the contemplation practice searched for since mid-adolescence. One of the books someone told me about at that time was The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. He was a lay brother and they gave him humble work tasks, including dishwashing. Despite lowlier status, he attracted listeners; he radiated something, and these conversations evolved into this now famous text.
At the interview where I gained my first teaching post, one of the school governors said:”Street Orderly? You really had to do that?” (shakes head)”Yes, Sir. I did”.
But it was dishwashing that started me on the up and up, and not only in outer career, but inner appreciation. I’ll never forget it.