A janitor’s genius: Retire first and *then* go to work

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“This retirement at 60 is for the birds,” says Dale, as I knead the thick, tight cords from his shoulders.


When I’m not tapping away on a keyboard, I’m often thumping away on someone’s back. This may come as a shock, but my weekly newspaper editor’s salary covers expenses about as well as my favorite old size 8 tank top covers my larger-than-size-8 body. So, I supplement my “salary” (oh my God, that’s so precious!) with my own massage practice.

Dale was one of my first clients, and he’s a “talker.” Some people prefer to slip silently into the space between awake and asleep during their massage, while others like some light chatter. Dale is one of the latter. He has a photographic memory for everyone and everything that ever existed in Winters from the mid 1950s to the late ’90s, when he worked as the Winters High School janitor. Yes, “the” janitor. He did it all himself, from top to bottom.

Besides being a walking, talking library of local history, Dale often blurts out some truly novel, witty quips and ideas, such as his denouncement of retirement.

“Everybody should retire when they’re 21,” he went on to explain. “Your 20s and 30s — those are the golden years.”

“Ah, I get it,” I replied. “Spend your younger years having fun and exploring the world, and when you hit 60 and everything starts getting stiff and achey, and you’re already old and cranky anyway, then waste your life working.”

“Right!” he responded with gusto.

Now, I have to admit… and you’ll have to, too… that “eat dessert first” logic is very tantalizing: Have fun while you can, and when you can’t anymore — go to work. Think about it: Wouldn’t retirement be way more fun when you’re still young and hot and strong than later on when all the energy you have left for that free time is to watch Netflix with your cats because going out just seems like a hassle? Wouldn’t you rather be “retired” at 21, wearing a skimpy onesie on a sun-soaked tropical beach, sipping a rum cocktail decorated with a pink paper umbrella and checking out all the guys from under your sunglasses? Do I even need to justify that with my response? Surely you know me better than that by now.

But, that’s not how it works in real life, is it. Not because it’s preposterous, but because few people bother to re-evaluate a “given” situation. But Dale did.

Over the years of Dale’s many stories and observations, I’ve concluded that he’s a genius in ex-janitor’s clothing. One of my favorite stories illustrates this perfectly:

Back in Dale’s janitor days, mid 1960s or so, he had a daily frustration: He’d go to clean the girls locker room and every day he’d discover waxy red kiss marks on the mirrors, and every day, he’d struggle to get the mess off. He pointed the problem out to the PE teacher and principal, and when the girls were asked to stop doing this, the problem only escalated. Some of the girls started leaving little messages like “Hi Dale!” written in lipstick on the mirror, just to stick the knife in and twist it a little.

(Side note: Teenage girls are horrible. They’re mean, vindictive, diabolical little foxes; unlike boys, who will solve a problem with their fists and get it over with. Girls prefer relentless sabotage and psychological torture.)

One day, Dale had had enough with the daily lipstick cleanup, so he asked the PE teacher to gather all the girls together in the locker room so he could show them what he had to go through to get the mirrors clean.

So, there they were, huddled in the locker room, stifling smug giggles and thoroughly enjoying the relentless torture of the high school janitor.

“Here’s what I have to do to get those mirrors clean,” Dale told them.

Then, he grabbed his bucket, dipped it in a toilet and filled it with water, dunked his cleaning swab into the bucket, and proceeded to slowly and carefully wipe the mirror, from top to bottom, strip by strip, until all the kiss marks were gone. And then he just turned and looked at them.

Nothing but silence, except for the sound of gag reflexes being stifled.

“And there was never lipstick on the mirror again,” says Dale says with a grin.

Now, just in case you’re stifling your own gag reflex, relax. After the girls shuffled away in disgust, he cleaned the mirror for real. And of course he never really cleaned the mirror with toilet water. But I ask you — who amongst us would have crafted such a beautifully sly solution?

That’s what happens when you turn a situation upside-down and look at it from a new way: Brilliance. So, maybe when Dale suggests that retirement is wasted on seniors, we should stop and consider that a little more carefully. Take raising kids, for example.

Consider the impact on our children if we retired and spent our time actually participating in their daily lives rather than rushing them here and there, and dumping them at this and that activity-disguised-as-childcare. Imagine the impact on juvenile crime, failing grades … drug abuse and teen pregnancy. Imagine if we had plenty of time to really help kids with their homework, and expose them to art, music and theater, which have all but disappeared from today’s curriculums because those things aren’t useful for passing standardized tests.

If you have kids, you’re probably having an epiphany about the exponential value of spending your retirement on them. If you don’t have kids, you may be imagining sleek, sexy boys from under your sunglasses and thinking, “Eh … kids are overrated.” Or, maybe you have kids, and are also thinking that. Hey, I raised kids. I get it.

Reverse retirement — I never would’ve thought that up on my own. Or cleaning a mirror with toilet water either. But then again, I’m no genius.

— Email Debra DeAngelo at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com

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