56° Good Afternoon
56° Good Afternoon

The leavening ingredient: respect

After a school custodian died recently, his obituary

After a school custodian died recently, his obituary read that he was a 20-year employee at North Shore High School. It didn't say he was a custodian. Why?

When I was in college, I was smitten with a woman named Cathy. She was in my journalism class and was delightful, intelligent and gorgeous (like the actress Lee Remick).

She seemed to like me, so one day, summoning all of my courage, I asked her out to dinner. She said yes, and before our first date, I was dreaming of her in a wedding dress. Off we went to a nice restaurant with hopes for a grand evening.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Cathy treated the waiters with contempt. She was rude and condescending. Suddenly, Cathy didn’t look so gorgeous to me. That was our first and last date.

I think about Cathy often because in these turbulent times, it seems we’ve made little progress when it comes to respect.

Recently, I was at an outdoor concert. A meek-looking older man struggled to direct traffic. He was clearly overwhelmed. Horns honked and one sharply dressed fellow in a sports car with a female companion, yelled, “Hey! What do you make? Two dollars an hour?”

The driver chortled, the woman laughed and the man cringed. So did I.

Why do we treat people in such a way? Even in death, we delegitimize their existence.

When a school custodian who I worked with died recently, his obituary read that he “was a long time employee at North Shore High School for over 20 years.” It didn’t say he was a custodian. But, when an elementary school teacher died, the obituary reported he was a “teacher.” I see that often.

Was it a snub? I hope not. Funeral directors I spoke to said obituaries are written according to the wishes of the family.

I don’t know about you, but I am in awe of our custodians. In fact, their job title is incomplete. They are electricians, carpenters and plumbers. I am amazed at their skills.

When I bought my house in 1983, the main stipulation was that it had to be in excellent shape because I couldn’t repair a thing. Still can’t. Indeed, when I screw in a light bulb, flick the switch, and the light goes on, I feel like Thomas Edison.

The author William Zinsser once took a job as a sanitation worker in Manhattan to write about life as a blue-collar worker. One night, a driver pulled up, asked him directions to the theater, but before Zinsser could reply (Zinsser knew the location), the driver yelled, “Oh, you wouldn’t know. You’re only a garbage man.”

People deserve respect. I try to do my small part by writing thank-you notes to clerks, receptionists and sales representatives. (Macy’s could paper an office wall with my letters.) And I contact their bosses, telling them how lucky they are to have such dedicated employees — and suggest triple raises in pay!

I’m always brought back to the scene at the end of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” when the wife of the beleaguered Willy Loman cries out in support of her late, much-abused, overworked husband, “Attention must be paid!”

“Death of a Salesman” was written in 1948. Seventy years later, those words of wisdom are still waiting to be heeded.

Reader Saul Schachter lives in Sea Cliff.


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