Mopping instead of designing

Sanjesh Prasad works alone, and mostly after dark. He is in a nightly struggle against time: a race to beat the clock and complete his mission. He rarely finishes before midnight, and only after he has defeated every one of his filthy adversaries.

Prasad is a Country Day janitor, one of three custodial staff members whose combined job consists of vacuuming, dusting, mopping, wiping, sweeping and spraying every cleanable surface on campus.

Prasad’s assignment is cleaning the lower school building from top to bottom. Actually, according to him, he begins on the bottom floor and works up.

Twice I accompanied Prasad on his nightly rounds, once in May and then three months later.

His night begins in the first floor of the Winters Library. As he plugged in the vacuum, I asked him what his days were like.

“I start at 4 p.m. and end at 12:30 a.m. Every day is a crazy day,” he said, after a long sigh.

He began to crisscross the carpeted floor, moving chairs and tables to get at hard-to-reach places. He flicked the vacuum’s power switch off in order to be heard again.

“I’m a night man, living in the building here. I don’t have anybody to talk to. I think of Indian songs sometimes to pass the time,” he said.
As I sat on a child-sized chair, watching Prasad mow down dirt with unrelenting strokes of the vacuum, I couldn’t help but assume things about the man.

“He probably didn’t go to college,” I thought.

But I was wrong.

A native Fijian, Prasad came to the United States in 2009 after his wife was granted citizenship. Not only did he finish grade school and high school, but Prasad studied for six years at the Fiji Institute of Technology, earning a degree in graphic design.

He went on to work as a graphic designer at Punjas, a marketing company based in Lautoka, Fiji. Within a year, he became a manager at the company.

Years later, and some 6,710 miles away, Prasad surveyed his work. The library floor was spotless, and faint track marks were just visible on the carpet.

As he dug around in his custodial cart, he said to me, “This is the hardest work I’ve done. Back home I was sitting in front of the computer in an office. Designing, you know, billboards, magazines, you name it. I did stock control too. One time I had $3 million of stock at my hands.”

He found what he was looking for, a feather duster, and set upon the tops of bookshelves with a vengeance.

After a minute or so of silence, I had to ask it.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m dusting, can’t you see? It gets dusty up here,” he said.

“No, I mean here, as a janitor,” I said to him. It seemed like a rude thing to say, and I regretted asking.

“I was totally lost when I came here. Whatever job came, I took it. I couldn’t be sitting around, eh?”

He didn’t seem offended and pondered the question more.

“I’ve found myself saying, ‘What am I doing here?’ before. But jobs are tough to find. When I first came here (to America), I worked at Carl’s Jr. for a little while. Sometimes you have to take it.”

The kindergarten classrooms were next, so I helped Prasad roll his cart into the hallway. It held several weapons of mass disinfection: spray bottles filled with green and blue liquids, aerosol cans full of unknown contents and one jug of liquid which proclaimed “Eliminates 200 billion microorganisms per gallon!”

As he wiped table surfaces and emptied trash cans, I asked about his homeland.

“I lived on a very small island in Fiji. I lived there for 20, 25 years,” he said.

Today, Prasad has an 8-year-old son in the third grade at Mary Tsukamoto Elementary School. I met his son several years ago when he attended Country Day summer camp, and the likeness was striking.

What does Prasad do in his spare time?

“I love to fish, man. In Fiji some times we would say, ‘Hey, let’s forget work and go fishing today!’ I used to go all the time, catch all sorts of big fish. Here the fishing is not as good, but I still go every once in awhile.”

When I walked out to his car with him, I noticed several fishing poles in the back seat, leading me to believe he fished more than he let on.

“What were the people like in Fiji?” I asked.

“People are very friendly. They always say hello to you when you are walking by, offer you food if they have some. You know lots of people. Here it’s none of your business to talk to somebody else.”

It was time for the windows, so he picked up a rag and a spray bottle.

“It’s safer here, though. In Fiji, you couldn’t walk the streets at night. People come up, punch you, take the wallet from you,” he said as he wiped. I asked him if that had ever happened to him.

“Two, three, four times, maybe,” he said nonchalantly.

The first time I talked to Prasad, his wife was studying to earn a degree in dental assistance from Anthem College in Sacramento.

Three months later, he told me that his wife had completed her degree. And then he asked if I knew any dentists.

“I know a couple, actually,” I told him.

“Really? See if anyone needs an assistant, part time,” he said.

After the kindergarten rooms, Prasad donned a pair of latex gloves and disappeared into the bathroom, disinfectants close at hand.

I waited until he was finished before thanking him for letting me accompany him.

“No. Thank you,” he said.

“Just make sure I get a paycheck for this,” he joked.

As I headed out into the hallway towards the exit, he called after me, “And tell me if you meet any dentists!”

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