There are innumerable thankless jobs, and many of us worked them when we were young. But for those of us who were college bound, doing these jobs in high school, no matter how distasteful, was made tolerable by seeing light at the end of the tunnel - knowing full well that this was only a temporary position on a journey to an easier life. There was hope.
But the masses of the work force are employed in jobs knowing that despite any late night self improvement evangelists, the reality is that the thankless job they have is the end of the tunnel. Despite patronizing platitudes like "every job has worth," who of those with a good job and pay will trade it for the thankless job with its purported dignity? "Make the best of it," we are told, but few of us have the temperament to make lemonade from these kinds of lemons for a lifetime.
John Henry Black is a maintenance worker in Washington Square Park. He not only has a great attitude, but he makes a real difference for those who enjoy the park. Complaints about odors emanating from a sewer area where hot dog vendors dump their refuse water daily has John preparing and adding a cleaning solution to douse the odoriferous offensive waters. He is known to warn women tourists to look out after their handbags or to suggest to others that they should move from the bench they are sitting on, since it is located below roosting pigeons. John is also a harmonica player and will often take a few moments to join a music jam.
He is best known for his mantra, which he belts out in the evening making his final rounds: "The bathroom closes in 20 minutes. If you gotta go, you better go."* We who spend time there regularly find his words and routine to be a palliative, a familiar soothing balm. And, of course, many do appreciate these announcements, which were never made in the past, leaving those in need of a bathroom and unfamiliar with park policy unpleasantly surprised that Washington Square Park is open long after its bathrooms close.
John Black hails from Florence, South Carolina, and has lived in New York City for 25 years, currently a resident of Harlem. His job as park maintenance worker is seasonal. In the late fall, he fills in his off time with other jobs until the following spring. When I asked his full name, he proudly smiled and answered, "Black." Seeing that I was doubtful, he produced official identification that did indeed identify him as John Black.
Today, on Labor Day, September 6, 2010, I nominate John Henry Black for candidate as poster child for the American Worker, an inspiration to make the best you can of what you do. But don't wait too long, because the bathroom closes in 20 minutes :)
*John actually starts with a series of announcements, typically an hour before, changing his mantra to reflect the time remaining.