I walk to work most mornings. My walk used to take me through one of the industrial areas of my home town; now I walk along one of the main thoroughfares, which is slightly longer but safer (I got followed, once, through the industrial area. I didn’t like it much). Now, most mornings, my walk takes me past the same council employee, whose job it is to sweep the streets.
He has a wheeled trolley, and a bright fluorescent shirt and a floppy blue hat, and a straw broom and a dustpan made of the cut-off bottom of a plastic container attached to a stick, and he appears to spend his mornings sweeping dust and dead leaves and the miscellaneous rubbish of the night hours into his dustpan.
And here’s the amazing thing: he’s always got a smile. Whether it’s hot, or raining; whatever revolting thing he’s forced to sweep up; however deep the disregard and disrespect with which he is treated by those who walk past him unnoticing – or worse, noticing and choosing to ignore him as a mere menial labourer – he always has a smile. And he’s always gracious enough to give that smile to me as I walk past him.
I have no right to expect that from him. I can’t imagine that to him I would have been any different to the other commuting pedestrians who walk past in their work attire and expensive trainers, on their way to professional jobs paying a damn sight more than a minimum-wage street-cleaning gig, in an air-conditioned office and a recognised career path. I can’t imagine that I would have been any different – but for the fact that one day I smiled and said good morning. And he smiled back, and said g’day.
And now we say good morning to each other when we see each other, and I wonder at the grace of a man who can be so upbeat, so friendly, and bring so much light to his small patch of world even as he does a job – cheerfully – which to me would be soul-destroying in its capacity to make whoever does it invisible. Because no one notices street cleaners. No one takes the time even to look, let alone to smile.
Which is sad for them, really – because here’s someone who could really brighten their day. A little bit of connection and a small dose of admirable cheerfulness to start the working day.
I’m profoundly grateful.