Cleaning After Hours

Mohamed Zaker, a janitor at Harvard University, talks about his work and life.

Mohamed Zaker (Rebecca Clarke )

A scene from the 1985 film The Breakfast Club perfectly sums up how many people refer to custodial workers: When the school janitor strolls into the detention room one students tries to embarrass another by telling the janitor that his friend wants to pursue a career in “the custodial arts.” The janitor retorts, “You guys think I’m some kind of untouchable peasant? I am the eyes and ears of this institution my friend.”

Janitors maintain the physical spaces of many of America’s most prestigious institutions. Despite working in Silicon Valley tech offices, elite colleges, and successful Wall Street businesses, they are not particularly highly paid—the median wage is $23,440 per year—and they often don’t command much respect in workplace hierarchies. Often people will leave behind egregious messes, not thinking about the person who will have to clean it all up.

This is the case at times for Mohamed Zaker, a janitor at Harvard University. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Zaker about what his job entails, how he feels when people don’t appreciate his work, and the idea that being a janitor is easy. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What were you doing before you became a janitor?

Mohamed Zaker: Back in Morocco, I owned a small shoe store with about six guys. I was the manager, and we worked as shoe designers. When I came to the United States, I worked as a supervisor in a bakery for about a year. I was just looking for any opportunity. I had a friend working as a technician [at Harvard], and he inspired me to become a janitor because the job has good benefits and the option to go to school. I moved near the Harvard campus to be a janitor in 2005. It's been 11 years now.

Green: What are your responsibilities as a janitor?

Zaker: Right now, I'm a crew chief. We're responsible for all the things that need to be done in the building, such as setting up for the meetings, cleaning the labs, cleaning the offices, corridors, kitchens, and changing lights. I start at 3 p.m. and work until 11:30 p.m. from Monday through Friday. Sometimes, we'll also have to work the weekends for events.

Green: You met your wife while you were both working as janitors at Harvard. What is it like to work with your wife?

Zaker: It's actually nice to work with my wife. We used to work together in the medical school, and had the same schedule. We would go [to work] together in the same car, so it was less expensive to drive and park just one car. But, now we are in split shifts. She’s at the law school and I'm in other departments. She works in the morning, and I work in the afternoon. We have to take separate cars, and we actually live 45 minutes away from Harvard, so it’s more expensive now to commute to work.

Green: What would you say is the most challenging thing about your job?

Zaker: I’ve seen people [who worked] here for a long enough time, and don’t know how to use certain machines because they are scared and don’t try them out. When I seen a machine, I go online, look it up, and learn about it. Then when I try it, it comes easy to me. Some people say, “Oh, it's not my job. I don’t have to worry about it.” To me, even if it's not my job, I have to learn it because one day, it could be my job.

People think that you just have to empty a trashcan and vacuum, but there’s a list of small details you have to do. You are the janitor, but the work is not really easy. I clean the vase, the doors, and the glass cleanings, wash the trashcans, work with the machines, and strip the floor. If I don’t go through them all, the customer is not going to be happy. For example, if you shampoo the rugs and you don’t dry it the way it’s supposed to be, there could be mold, and people might get sick. If you don’t mix the chemicals for the floor correctly, it’s going to damage the floor and be very ugly.

Green: Do you think that the people you clean up after respect the work that you do as a janitor?

Zaker: Some groups, they do respect me; others don't even know who cleans their area. Sometimes, instead of just throwing the trash in the trash can, they just play basketball: Boom, [the trash] hits the trash can and goes somewhere else. So it's more work.

It's very minor, and it's not everyone. There are people who appreciate what you’re doing when you take out the trash in his or her office. Or when you come and vacuum his or her office, he or she is happy, and will say “thank you so much.” It makes you forget an ignorant person who will say, “Oh, I'm busy right now, just leave it” when you’re trying to do a service for him. Sometimes, people don’t know how to say it nicely, like "I'm busy or I'm in a meeting, can you do it later please?” It's the difference in your responses that matter.

Zaker: Well, it makes you feel bad because there is a trashcan and it's a university. As an adult, when you see the trashcan, you can just use the trashcan. If you throw a piece of cake and it falls out, even if you throw it in the trash can [afterward] it's still a mess. It's just causing more work and sweeping. When you see a person do that, especially when they do it in front of you, you just feel useless. [They’re saying,] “That's your job, to clean up whatever I do.”

Green: Do you think it's important to you personally to feel respected at work?

Zaker: Of course. Everybody loves respect at work. It's part of humanity. We’re under pressure from the supervisor to keep everything neat, but you’ve got a mess. Someone could be just an adult about it and not make that mess. When you get the phone call saying, "Oh, we have a office spill here," and then you find that something small could have prevented that mess. Just because someone is throwing things [around] irresponsibly, it costs you more work than you have to do.

Green: In spite of that, do you think your job is rewarding?

Zaker: Well, sometimes in life, you don't have another better option to leave for. You have responsibilities: a mortgage, kids in the school, payments for the car. Even if you say sometimes, “I hate this job,” I don't have a better one. If I leave, then who's going to pay the mortgage? Who is going to pay the car payment? Sometimes you say, “You know what? I'm just going to sacrifice.” I'm suffering, but I will look for better opportunities to come up.

Green: How was working in Morocco different from working as a janitor now?

Zaker: Well, when I worked in Morocco, I owned the shop. It was my business, so I felt more freedom because I was the owner. I was working, but I did it the way I wanted. When you're working on another team, there is another person directing you. If something makes sense to them—even if it doesn’t make sense to you—you have to do it. The system here is not the same system over there. Over there, you have your nationality and your culture. When you come here it's a different culture, it makes you sometimes feel like you're doing it their way and not your way. I'm looking forward to more education to move on. I don't think I'm going to retire as the janitor.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a doorwoman, a trash collector, and a cleaner.