Living the Good Life as a Custodian

Throughout my undergrad I lived in residence for 4 of my 5 years (I changed majors half way through and extended my program). By a strange twist of fate, the same custodian ended up working in every building where I was living, so we got to know each other pretty well by the end of my studies.

Towards the end of my final year, he was good enough to invite me over to his house for dinner. After a couple beers too many he became quite morose and shared with me how much he hated his job, primarily from how servile it felt to him and how he was treated by his supervisors and the students.

To put this in perspective, he had:

  1. A nice house in a good area of town
  2. A wife who was VERY attractive (notice that I put this AFTER the real estate)
  3. Two healthy, active, engaged children
  4. Plenty of food, and a wife who was a good cook (we had an amazing feed)
  5. An active social life (life can’t be too bad if you’ve got Mr. Cheap coming over to drink your beer)
  6. A good brain in his head (he used the word servile to describe his life, and I like to have intelligent conversation while I’m drinking someone’s beer)
  7. Good enough health that he was quite active in a competitive recreational hockey league
  8. A great life experience, having moved around and lived all over
  9. Two cars
  10. An active spiritual life with his whole family involved in the faith

I told him at the time, and believe to this day, that his life would be the envy of 99% of the world. Literally. Seriously.

If you wanted to look back in time, his modern life would be the envy of 100% of the world (he’s living better then any 16th century monarch – we can eat meat EVERY DAY if we want to). We live in a world where a writer can go from being on welfare to being richer than the Queen of England.

I think it’s easy to focus on negatives in our lives, but it’s also important to occasionally sit back and realize how good we have it. This is a GREAT time to be alive. Roger Williams (the author of the incredible The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect – if you start reading it, don’t stop after the first chapter) makes a point in a podcast interview about how a medieval peasant seeing our modern life would probably take the view that people would be happy all the time (think medical advances, consumer goods and improved working conditions). Our worries and fears about the obesity epidemic, a looming recession and the sub-prime meltdown would be bizarre and incomprehensible to him.

18 replies on “Living the Good Life as a Custodian”

Great story and I can see how he felt that way. There is definitely a stigma attached to being a custodial worker (despite the generally high pay). I’m glad you explained to him that he would be the envy of so many folks but the truth is, he still views himself as a ‘janitor’ 1st and foremost.

I bet he’ll be laughing when he’s retired at 50 and doesn’t have to discuss what he does for a living though. 🙂

What an excellent post. You could’ve been describing my hubby – especially the part about the really attractive wife – except he works in golf course maintenance not as a custodian but has the same feelings about his job as the man you describe. Still not glamorous. Anyway, you’re right that it’s so important to look around and see how great you really have it. I tell hubby that everyday when he gets all bummed out. His life would be and is the envy of many, he just hasn’t learned to appreciate all of it yet.

Mike: I wondered that myself (but didn’t have the nerve at the time to suggest it to him). He’s taken university courses, and done quite well (he told me he had a good memory). His wife worked, so probably they could have worked out a career change somehow… Maybe with two kids, it just seemed too risky to make the change…

PLUS, I think he actually likes his job! I told him a few times how I didn’t know how he could stand the heat in the summer (no AC in the residences) and he told me he love the heat, the hotter the better…

telly: I think you’re right. There’s a stigma and high pay associated with anything you do with your hands in Western countries these days. Probably the best strategy is to shrug off the stigma and laugh all the way to the bank.

Emily: Sounds like your husband is living the good life!

guinness416: Will do!

It sounds like he has everything he needs, but is too concerned about what society thinks to realize it. If you enjoy your job and take satisfaction from the work on its own merits, without factoring in what other people think, that should be enough for anyone. Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter, don’t mind.

Great post. As a university graduate student, I’ve also found that I “connected” with the custodians. I always enjoy my conversations with them, finding out how their families are doing, etc. every night when they come in to the office to clean out the garbage can.

I think you guys are right: There is a negative social stigma associated with being a custodian. It’s darn unfortunate, and I like to do my best to debunk that!

I am also a custodian. I love my job. It is not too strenuous, yet I am moving my entire shift. However, I don’t make a lot of money, just enough to pay our bills, and my wife works, too. What makes me stay is the appreciation I get from the staff and faculty, the time off at holidays, and the schedule that allows me a good amount of time with my wife and daughter. I know that I could find a job in the field I used to work in, and make 3 times what I make now, but the trade off is that I would be gone for weeks at a time, and that is not worth it to me. I was gone for most of the first two years of my daughters life, and, knowing that I cannot have any more children, I want to make the most of my time with her, while she is young. I don’t want to be like my father, gone working on the road, while she grows up wishing I were home to play with her, and go to her concerts and school events.
Custodial work is “servile” I guess, but who cares? As long as you are happy, and the bills are paid, that is what counts. You cannot take it with you when you die.

I too am a custodian. Y’know there’s more to a happy life than the stuff you have. You said he didn’t like the way he was treated by students and faculty. Combine this with, in my experience, mopping until you’re sore where you didn’t even think possible, wiping until you have arm and shoulder pain, inhaling the toxic vapors from cleaning chemicals while cleaning the excrement from 30 toilets per day, being on your feet so much you can’t even go for a walk with your family after work, and a pay that requires a second job to pay the bills(I have no consumer debt, a $300/month mortgage, no frills like cable tv, etc.) You want this “good life” and all the depressing, unfulfilling, mundane, lonely drudgery that goes with it? You can have it.

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