I tell people even today it was the best job I ever had, though then I was only 16 and had not had many.  As it turned out it was the job where I gave the most and ended up getting the most back.

Each afternoon, along with thousands of other students, I walked out of the glass doors of the urban high school I attended. But unlike most of them I walked home, did a little homework, ate some food and then returned to the school, this time to the rear service entrance where I joined small gang of guys whose job it was to scour the school each day.

My job was mopping; along with a buddy I shoved a giant steel bucket and long-poled mop through the long, darkened, silent hallways, where hours earlier thirty-six hundred energetic adolescents had trooped like a mass of Huns traversing Upper Germania.  My buddy and I, we cleaned the bathrooms, men’s and ladies alike, which were in the condition one might expect after a long day’s service to teenagers.  Our job was to return the rooms to what they were supposed to be – a pristine space where further waste and grime could be left behind so that the massive brood could once again more closely resemble their essential selves.

My buddy went on ahead, cleaning the sinks ands toilets, so that by the time I banged my wheeled bucket through the doors everything from the floor up was shining in the luminescent light.  Stainless steel sinks and faucets – the kind that will give an impatient teenager four seconds of water – gleamed in neat rows.  But the floors, on the floors was the dross of three thousand adolescent days – hairpins, cigarette butts, food wrappers, random pieces of plastic and of course lots and lots of tissue paper, a virtual sea of tissue paper, a monochromatic marsh of toilet paper rippling slowly above the hard tiled floor. And then there was that spongy level of mystery mess, a fetid, partially congealed substance that results when excessive protein must be somehow excreted from undomesticated life forms involuntarily confined for eight hours a day.  These wastes I disposed of in the typical way, minus the yellow hazmat suit. There was no sense in wasting disgust on necessary work; it just had to be done.

The floor was then an open space that could be scrubbed down and polished with the thick-handled industrial mop and squeegee.  This process was nothing less than miraculous; it is remarkable what, when energetically applied, an industrial mop and squeegee can do to a tile floor.  When I left minutes later, I knew that at least the first ten of the bathroom’s users the subsequent day would see themselves reflected in its aqueous surface.  The transformation was profound, and relatively quick.

It was that kind of job; one that demanded attention and gave some satisfactions, but also allowed for a measure of distraction, the kind of job where the level of focus required to do it well was significantly less than that available to the average teenager.  Therefore it was the kind of job where you could both work and think, and think I did, as I swung the mop in its long arc; I thought with the same power and directness that I applied to the long metal pole I used to grind off the day’s gum and grime and goo.  I thought about the many things that will occupy the occasional sixteen-year-old’s mind; I thought girls, of course, but I also thought about time and destiny and existence and death. I thought about freedom and randomness and purpose.  And, most of all, I thought about my favorite topic, “order in the universe.”  What I meant by this last is hard, was hard even then, to say.  “Order in the universe” had something to do with the general coherence of things, with the implicit presence of a sacred something somewhere, with the possibility, and perhaps even the necessity, of compassion in this world. Whatever it meant, it meant a lot.

The fact that my passionate pursuit of this meaning might have something to do with the fact that I – like so many of my friends and classmates – left a violent and abusive home to go to school or work each day did not even remotely occur to me, for the purity of sixteen year-old thought is not to be sundered by the second hand tripe of sociology.  Escaping from a difficult reality into books, I had read Sartre, Nietzsche, Marx – not very much, and not with much comprehension, but enough to fill me with the essence of their spirit, with Sartre’s heartfelt pessimism, with Nietzsche’s zany passion, with Marx’s ascetic intellectual rebellion. My thinking stewed in their thick juices as I swung my mop.

Time, freedom, death, order in the universe, I thought and thought as I maneuvered the mop into corners and behind stall doors, sweat dripping to the shining floor as I threw myself into mental and physical labor.  Order in the universe, I thought – what does it mean?  Is it possible?  Is there a purpose, a god, a theme for this song of sadness?  Is there somewhere a mother, a father, a harmony restored to this imbalance?  Can I, as limited and frail as I am, be a part of all this, or must I leave, must I separate myself and remain utterly alone?

My spirit, my heart, asked these questions of the universe, of the world, as I pushed before me my bucket of suds.  I clattered down the long silent hallways, poling the rolling bucket like some lost and landlocked gondolier, asking once more, again, order in the universe, is there a place where I can live?

I was about halfway through the rooms when it came upon me, without sign or warning, just as I swung the mop so its tendrils brushed the baseboards of the bathroom walls, thinking hard, hard as I swung.  It came upon me like a light, a soft and amber warming light, so strong that its power led me to stop mid-swing and stand there leaning on the handle of my mop. It began, I must admit, as only a glimmer, no brighter than the floor I cleaned, and then it grew and grew until my whole self was occupied by a light blazing, but clear and kind; it grew and grew until it went beyond me, far beyond me, taking in I knew not what or where or why, filling me and more with understanding, though “understanding” seemed too mean a word to stand for this pure, pure light.

I stood there, amid the shining toilets and the sinks, transfixed, flowing forth into this natural high.  Was I having a seizure, the kind of noxious cerebral event one bears in final moments?  But no, no, I realized, this is light, this is purpose, this is that very “order in the universe” I had sought for so long; there is a thought, somewhere and everywhere  and right here, right now, in which we are all the same.  Not the sameness of redundance but the same of coherence and balance, of inversion and extension, of peace and mindless play and timeless joy.  I “understood” at last, was inhabited by the more than me, given, without warning or expectation, the gift of being somewhere that truly is forever. I knew this not by inference or logic but by pure unmitigated immediate experience.  I felt relief, I felt an ease, standing fast as a modest witness to that which coheres, if you will.

I remained there in the dim light as this sense slowly receded, grasping to hold onto it even as I knew that it must leave.  I wanted to remember it, to fix it in my mind, but I knew that memory has not the tensile strength to contain such visions. It left as gently as it had arrived, leaving me a trifle larger, but still with half a floor to clean.  Slowly I continued with my work, saddened and a little frustrated by wisdom’s inevitable escape, but also thrilled that such a moment had chosen me for its stage.  “Order in the universe,” I said to myself again and again, struggling to recapture just a taste, just a glimmer of that light, but no; when bliss arrives unasked it must also go, whatever may be our need for holding.

Eventually I caught up with my partner and, as was our habit, we spent a few minutes sitting on the couches in the teacher’s lounge, yakking about high school life, relieved to have the night’s work done.  Of course, I had mixed feelings, as I do to this day, since there is always sadness in a lost satori – perhaps it is the same sadness that is felt when a wonderful childhood comes inevitably to an end.  I knew little of that, but I knew then that a clean bathroom is a wonderful thing and sometimes it brings more joy than – well, everything.

So, I know too now, decades hence, that I may never know a better job than the one I had that night. Perhaps it was just a sixteen year-old thing, but I know that for a moment I had known, and known that I had known, and that, what ‘ere befalls, I had known peace, And for that, I am deeply and forever grateful.