3 Janitors

Calvin Dong
3 min readNov 16, 2018

My dad liked to tell me this story in the long, hazy, car rides back from tennis practice. I couldn’t say I paid much attention at the time. After six hours of tennis in those muggy summers it was enough to make me pretend to doze off in the car before we even got home. It didn’t matter much to my dad, though. He kept with the story all the way, even when my responses came further and further apart and my eyes started to close.

“My PhD program gave me nothing. I had a scholarship, but it covered school fees and 10k extra. My English wasn’t good enough to teach classes, so I couldn’t get paid from that either.”

“I was a janitor at the University of Cincinnati to pay the bills. People were really so evil. When the trash filled up, they just threw it on the side, and the ground. Who do you think has to clean it up? The janitors.”

Usually at this point in the story, he’d get more animated, and he’d punctuate his sentences with sharp strikes of his hand. “You know what’s even worse? People are so lazy. There were three of us. The two others would just stand against the walls, talking and smoking. It’s like they didn’t care about their families. It’s like they didn’t care that they weren’t doing a damn thing to earn their money. I was the only one who did any work, and I did almost all of it, everyday.”

“The funny thing was, is that they loved me. They would greet me everyday with a smile, and a friendly “Hey, Yan!”. They didn’t feel even a bit self conscious that I was picking up food scraps from the concrete alone, by myself, every single day. I was doing what I had to do to survive, so I didn’t mind much at the time. But now, when I think about it, most people aren’t like you or me, son. They’re lazy. They will shirk their work. And they will stay in the same place their whole lives.” By this time, we were parked in our driveway. My dad opened the car door and slammed it behind him. I followed behind, just wanting to fall on the couch and rest. “And son, I’m a professor now. Do you know how hard it is to become a research professor? Most schools hate Chinese professors. They think they can’t speak English well, and don’t have enough creativity. Of all my friends who are in America, I’m the only one who’s become a tenured professor. I know how to work hard.”

I sprawled out on the couch, eyes closed. My dad was already loading up the ball machine, pouring it full with our basket of tennis balls.

“Son, lets go do some drills. You know you have to work on your footwork, right? It’s holding you back from getting better. Are you tired?”

I forced my eyes open, but I didn’t need to think too hard to know what I was going to say. “Of course I’m not, dad. Lets go! It’s getting dark soon.”

I wanted to be like my dad, the janitor who barely spoke English. It would be so disappointing if I wasn’t.