In the middle of the afternoon, as I was cooking for a friend and Ginger was sermonizing, as she calls it, she started reading MLK quotes to me, ending with this one, which she introduced by saying, “Here’s one I didn’t know.”
If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even 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.
Beyond its newness to us, the quote stood out because it made us both think of her father, Reuben. If there is anyone on the planet who took pride in the job he did, day in and day out, it was Reuben. He is the incarnation of the words from Jesus’ parable, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Reuben was first a milkman and then later a deliveryman for Golden Flake potato chips. Both the angels and the checkers smiled when he walked into a store.
I thought about King’s words later in the evening at the celebration of Rev. J. C. Cheek, who has pastored Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ here in Durham for forty years. The ballroom at the local Hilton was filled with friends and parishioners, full of laughter and stories about this man who has poured his life into his city and his church. One of his childhood friends turned to him and said, “Thanks for letting me say these things now, rather than at your funeral.” What a gift, indeed, for both men.
Last Sunday night, I caught the end of the Golden Globes when I got home from work. The festivities kick off what some in the entertainment industry call “Awards Season” (summer, autumn, winter, awards, spring), as the weeks ahead are filled with a bunch of different congratulatory celebrations, including the Grammys and ending with the Oscars. I like watching for the moments when someone is caught genuinely by surprise by the recognition, and a year doesn’t pass that I think about how fortunate they are to have chosen a career where awards are part of the package. Most people on the planet go unsung, regardless of how well they do their jobs.
One of the things I learned when Ginger read the quote was Mac McAnally must have read King, because the quote is an obvious inspiration for Mac’s song, “It’s My Job,” which Jimmy Buffet made famous. The first verse says,
in the middle of late last night
I was sitting on a curb
I didn’t know what about
but I was feeling quite disturbed
a street sweeper came whistling by
he was bouncing every step
it was strange how good he felt
so I asked him why he swept and he said
it’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
and that’s enough reason to go for me
it’s my jog to be better than the rest
and that makes the day for me
If you walk into the Dunkin’ Donuts in Charlestown, Massachusetts on any work day morning, the express line forms to the right. These are regular customers only getting coffee. Behind the counter, there is a Lebanese man who has been at the shop since it opened. Next to him is a woman at the cash register. The man knows his customers so well that the only words spoken are ones of greeting and gratitude. He simply looks about two people back in the line, smiles, makes their coffee they way he knows they like it, and then hands it to his coworker at the register. It’s his job.
At the Durham Ritz Car Wash on 15-501, you might think the small army of guys armed with towels would just give your car a quick once over before waving for you to drive away. Instead, you should plan on standing there a good ten minutes after your car has ridden through the automated wash as they hand dry the vehicle, clean all the windows, and even spray the tires clean. It’s their job.
On any given night he is working, my coworker Abel is out to make cooking history. He watches every detail, preps his station beyond expectations, and watches out for those around him and what they might need. If the night is slow, you will find him in the walk-in, cleaning and straightening things for the folks who will come in the following morning. When he gets ready to plate an order, he moves efficiently and intentionally, making sure his food is the best it can be. Every shift. It’s his job.
I wish the Golden Globes had categories for all of them. I hope those around them are extravagant with affirmation of their excellence. I pray for a spirit that doesn’t depend on affirmation to motivate me to offer my best work. I offer this poem by Marge Piercy, who does excellent work of her own and also knew of what King spoke.
To Be of Use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Amen. I think I will ask Jimmy Buffett to sing our closing hymn.
P. S. — There’s a new recipe.