At mid-morning the din was minimal, save for hollow-sounding wheels that rumbled over the wide grouting in the stone-tiled floor. They struck a discordant note in the relative quiet, making loud hiccupping noises that echoed in the large, open room. Turning in the direction of this auditory asymmetry, my eyes lit upon an older man leaning heavily on a large green trash cart of heavy-gauge plastic. Using it for support, he pushed it from pillar to pillar, clearing tabletops of the crumbled leftovers of class notes and the customary college staples – half-eaten cheeseburgers and French fries in Styrofoam containers – as he did so. Having contextualized the noise and satisfied my curiosity, I went back to taking note of my surroundings.
I’d told my students to go to the café in the Student Union and take notes on what they saw there. “Make some observations,” I had said, “then focus on one that interests you the most and develop a coherent essay.”
We discussed what this entailed, as well as my hope that their commentary would segue into a social statement of some kind. Intending to model the writing process we’d been talking about for the past two weeks, I accompanied them, making my own observations – of them. Gradually, my students drifted to other parts of the Student Union and soon disappeared from my view entirely. First from one corner, then another. It became clear I would need to rethink my own essay’s focus.
I caught sight of the older man again as he re-entered my peripheral vision. Slowly dragging his cart with one tired hand, he pulled it alongside a group of students who absent-mindedly tossed their refuse into its open mouth as he passed. His shirt bore no nametag and he had, until now, no face either. Identification was established by the work he performed. Like the cart he pushed, he was more or less invisible. I hadn’t even thought to describe him myself.
But now I took a closer look.
His protruding lower jaw obliterated the rest of his face. On it hung a large, full lip too heavy to pull itself up and join the more manageable shadow of itself which rested against his upper teeth. Small rounded shoulders pulled his upper body toward the floor creating a discordant line that would, in a few years, become even more egregious. Inordinately large hands dangled on the end of elongated arms, forming a silhouette that conjured up the image of an orangutan. Not the occasionally aggressive ape of a Sumatran jungle defending his territory but one, perhaps, of this academic jungle. Solitary. Peaceful. Keeping to his own territory. He struck me as out of place here. A never-was amid a throng of young men and women in pursuit of a better life.
What had happened to his, I wondered.
By default or by choice, maybe by accident, he’d wound up a nameless, faceless trash collector in a crowd of purposeful achievers each heading somewhere. I wondered where he was going. Where he had been.
Except for the cart, which students occasionally sidestepped, he moved undetected amid the vignettes taking place around him. Both cart and collector mere props in a mise en scène in which primary roles are won by practice and hard work. A scene from which my students were still missing. One which I’d asked them to color with their impressions.
Was one of them destined to endure the same fate as this contemporary Sisyphus – his or her tomorrow bringing with it nothing more than a similar cart pushed toward other poles?
The collector’s eyes cast themselves downward, scanning the tabletops once more for discarded trays. For remnants forgotten by busy students with places to be, and roles to play. Once his circle of the room was complete, he traded his cart for plastic gloves, a broom, and a dustpan with a closable lid. With a lumbering gait now unsupported by the cart, the collector set his feet on a well-worn road, reconnoitering errant trash from the cold, stone floor, brushing dirt and crumbs into the maw of a dustpan whose lid emitted an audible snap after each conquest.
My class time at an end, I walked toward the door, deliberately taking a path that would converge with his.
“Good morning,” I said, attempting to make eye contact.
The collector, his eyes glued to the stone tiles on which he was standing, nodded. My face was one of many in the crowd that he did not see as he, almost imperceptibly, stepped aside to let me pass.