By Chris Levister –
Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say: Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Meet Robert Elston, street sweeper, toilet cleaner, window washer, patron greeter, Carousel Mall maintenance man extraordinaire.
Watching him through a prism of predawn light, his movements are precise and almost poetic and his head turns continually as though engaged in a rhythmic dance.
“I pay attention to every detail,” he says.
Something of an understatement considering Elston has been paying attention to detail at this once thriving downtown retail center since 1975. Long past the mall’s heyday, he still shows up before daylight with a singular determination: to keep the lights burning, clean and sanitize urinals, toilets, sinks, replace tissue, hand soap, fix light fixtures, unclog drains, polish, sweep, mop, wax and strip floors, clean windows, countertops and desks, empty waste baskets, wash walls and mirrors and while he’s at it greet passers-by.
“And that’s just for starters,” he says with a big grin.” We’ve got the parking lot cleanup and grounds keeping to do.”
Easton is a mild mannered man of few words, suggesting the media rarely have positive things to say about his profession.
On this morning he and teammate Everick Tarver push large gray trash bins down a cavern of barren hallways, past empty benches, and bare shells of chain stores, plant holders which used to hold foliage sit vacant with dirt while the Visa, MasterCard, Discover logo can still be seen in the window of a defunct jewelry store.
Several people could be seen taking a walk around the perimeter of the ghost-town of a mall lamenting times when the rambling complex was bustling with customers and when it was hard to find an empty bench.
Carousel Mall opened to popularity and fanfare in 1972 as Central City Mall part of an urban renewal project for the city’s downtown district. In the late 70s a rise in gang violence, and competition from nearby Inland Center mall sent shoppers fleeing.
Anchor stores Harris’, JC Penney, and Montgomery Ward eventually left and parts of the mall were turned into office space. The handful of mostly mom and pop shops that remain continue to limp along.
“This place used to jump with shoppers,” remembers Elston.
“Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of changes here.” He admits feast or famine, as long as these doors remain open there’s plenty to do.”
“I take a lot of pride in my work. It’s not just a paycheck,” he says.
Former Harris Company employee Gary Shandle remembers Elston and his crew as, affable workers who took great pride in keeping mall restrooms sparkling clean and floors shining like glass.
“You never got the feeling that they thought what they did was any less important than that of the mall manager.”
It’s 10:00 a.m. , Elston and Tarver ditch their mops for a cache of power mowers, edgers, rakes, pruning shears and other grounds keeping equipment.
Stalwart, steadfast and courteous, Tarver has been on the job for seven years. The hum of his power edger shifts into high gear drowning out the constant roar of passing buses and trucks. He performs his task with the grace of a symphonic conductor.
The men acknowledge a knot of homeless people, gang members and transients huddled at a nearby boarded up tire store. “You see every conceivable human situation,” said Tarver.
“There’s a lot of desperation out here. Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused,” Easton says shoveling mounds of leaves, paper, aluminum cans, dirty diapers and cigarette butts into a gray barrel.
“My take is you spend a substantial portion of your life at work.
Why not make that time as professionally and personally rewarding and fulfilling as possible?” said Tarver.
Call it an art or maybe even a science. Either way, maintaining the city’s countless commercial properties is no simple task. Ask Johnnie Mae Barnes.
Heaving a large container of rotting garbage and trash into a dumpster Barnes takes a page from James Brown’s post-prison lament “It’s a man’s world. But it would be nothing without a woman or a girl….”
“No big paychecks, power lunches, or Wall Street bonuses here,” the 31-year-old wife and mother of five, adds with a belly laugh.
“It’s brutal on your back, neck and shoulders. It’s also mental,” she says. “You have to be disciplined and detailed. Misplacing an important file or breaking something can get you fired.”
One morning Barnes accidently broke the handle of a letter opener.
“I had no idea it was an antique. The woman was so mad. I offered to pay for it. She smiled and said ‘You couldn’t afford it’.”
She admits women are harder to please. “Some of them want heated toilet seats and toilet tissue made of silk.”
She says keeping the ladies from flushing feminine products down the toilet is challenge number one. “They ignore the posted signs. I just keep unclogging and singing.”
“You get used to people hollering at you. When someone complains I don’t wage war. I smile and take care of the problem. You have to love what you do or you burn out fast,” said Barnes.
“We’re lucky to get a thank you,” she says. “People tend to turn their noses up at you because you’re the cleaning crew.”
Yet Barnes and her colleagues willingly return day to day taking pride in their work.
“My dad was a maintenance man,” she said. “He would tell us kids I can ‘pimp’ a restroom better than Mr. Clean.”
“Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet once said ‘Work is love made visible’,” explained Barnes.
“I believe if you hate your work, don’t work at all. Otherwise you’re doing more harm than good, both to yourself and others.”
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