A clean getaway
How I was careful not to offend the Arab cleaning workers.
Soon it will be dark and I can leave work. I have to make sure no one sees me leaving the office, going into the stairwell, down to the lobby and from there all the way to the car. I can still hear noises in the building and from my office window I can spot one more car in the parking lot besides mine. I had no choice; I just had to clean my office. Okay, every once in a while I do wipe down the desk with a damp paper towel from the bathroom, but that didn’t cut it this time. I had to clean the floor and the doors, and go over the window, too. It was getting unbearable. A thick layer of grime seemed to cover everything and I was afraid that putting off the cleaning operation for just one more day could be seriously detrimental to my health.
“You’re an idiot,” said the redhead director, the only one with whom I shared my cleaning problem at work. “Sometimes when I look at you, I wonder just what kind of creature we’re dealing with.”
“You just don’t get it,” I retorted.
Once, when he got up and announced that he was personally going to ask the building’s cleaning crew to take care of my office, I threatened that I meant every word when I said I would cut off all contact with him in such an instance, and would not allow him in my office ever again.
“You just don’t understand,” I said.
“What is there to understand? It’s their job, it’s their work. All day long they clean the offices of this shitty company. So why not yours?”
“I don’t want it,” I told him. “I just don’t want them to clean my office, and that’s it.”
“What’s this all about?” he asked, taken aback. “Tell me, what exactly is your problem?”
I don’t know what my problem is exactly, but I know that I’m not ready to have Arab cleaners clean my office. I simply can’t conceive of it. I always lock the room when I go out. And when I run into one of the cleaning staff in the building and he asks me, in Hebrew, “Is your office okay,” I always nod without saying a word and continue on my way. I don’t want them to enter my office. I don’t want them to clean the room for me. And I don’t want them to have any idea that I’m Arab.
“You mean to tell me they don’t know that?” the redhead director asked me once.
“I don’t think so,” I answered. “Anyway, I’ve never spoken Arabic with them and they’ve never spoken to me in Arabic.”
“So you’re telling me,” he said, tugging on his hair, “that the whole building, the whole company, the whole world for that matter, knows you’re Arab − with the sole exception of the Arab cleaning staff here?”
“Yes,” I said.
They really don’t know, and I don’t want them to know. As far as I’m concerned, let them think I’m some weird guy who doesn’t like to have his office cleaned, just as long as they don’t find out that I’m an Arab. I don’t know how to explain it, except that aside from the cleaning staff I’m the only Arab in this company, and I have an office with an air-conditioner, desk and computer. And that just makes me feel uncomfortable, even pains me sometimes. As if my natural place should really be with them, lugging around those mops and carts, roaming the corridors and popping in every so often to check on the state of the bathrooms. How can I tell them I’m an Arab, and what sort of relationship will I have with the cleaning workers when they know that? Chummy, friendly? How will they look at me when they see me joking around with other company employees, eating lunch with them, taking a smoking break with them and asking how they’re doing?
No, it’s no good. They mustn’t find out. I won’t talk to them and they won’t come into my office. And anyhow, I just don’t feel comfortable with the thought of having an Arab clean my room. After all, I’m an Arab too. I could do it myself. In fact, I have done so.
Last night, I went to bed even before the eight o’clock news, and set the alarm for 5 A.M. By 5:30 I was tiptoeing out of my apartment building with my briefcase, plus a bucket and mop and cleaning supplies. All I needed now was for one of the neighbors to spot me and think I was cleaning the stairs to supplement my income. By 6 I was at the office, and within half an hour my room was gleaming like new. I hid the cleaning supplies behind the couch, and no one aside from the redhead director knew anything about the whole operation.
“Actually,” he said when he arrived for work and came into my office, “you are really quite thorough. Cleaning is obviously in your blood.”
“The important thing is that it’s all clean and that I’m relieved that I didn’t hurt the workers’ feelings,” I replied.
“Way to go. Well, see ya.”
“Hi,” I said to my wife on the phone, as I gazed out of my office window at the dark parking lot that evening.
“Where are you?” she asked, not waiting for an answer. “I’m here, stuck with the kids. Soon it’s time for their showers and you’re there hiding out from the Arab cleaning workers?”
“Hang on just a minute,” I told her, and then I saw the lights of the other car in the parking lot flashing and two figures approaching it. “Okay, I think I can leave here now. And like we said, when I get to our building I’ll call and you send our daughter down to take the mop and the bucket, okay?”
I could swear I heard her mutter “Idiot” before she hung up.
I pulled the cleaning supplies out from behind the couch, turned off the light in my office and quietly made my way outside.
“Sir,” someone called to me from behind, and I froze on the spot.
“Sir,” he called again, and I turned around to find one of the Arab cleaning workers − only instead of the shirt with the company logo, he was in civilian dress.
“Why?” he asked in Hebrew. “Why do you have this?”
“What do you mean?” I answered in Hebrew. There was absolutely no chance I could hide the mop and bucket.“Because of people like you, they said they would fire me, sir,” he said.
“What?” I sputtered. “Why? But I’m not even...”
“But why are you doing this to us?” he persisted, still speaking in Hebrew. Now all I wanted to do was flee, run away and never ever come back to this place. “Is it because we’re Arabs?”