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The Street Sweeper, Page 2

Elliot Perlman

  ‘I said I want your number, motherfucker! If I’m gonna lose my job, you gonna lose yours too …’

  Addressing Lamont again in a furious whisper, the younger black woman said, ‘You gonna just sit there?’

  ‘Well, I don’t –’ Lamont began. What did she want him to do?

  ‘He’ll just make it worse,’ the older woman interrupted quietly.

  Surely the bus driver was going to break. Sooner or later he had to respond in some way. Lamont noticed a large truck gaining on the bus on the left side. Should he do something? What should he do? He had a whole plan for getting back on his feet. He had a job. He had a daughter. That idiot might have a gun. The man was crazy. Lamont understood his own crazy, but this was Puerto Rican crazy. He’d seen Puerto Rican crazy in prison. It had to be respected. The bus driver might have a gun. ‘Call the company,’ the older woman said in an attempt to placate the man.

  ‘It’s the MTA. I need his ID number,’ he said in reply and then turning back to the driver, ‘Just give me your fucking number, bitch.’

  ‘Will you sit down, please? You’re causing a danger to my passengers.’ Finally the bus driver spoke. His voice was quiet, his accent Jamaican.

  ‘You the fucking danger, pal! I want your number, maricón!’

  ‘Will you please sit down, sir?’ the old bus driver repeated calmly.

  ‘You gonna make me? I want your fucking number before I sit down.’

  ‘Oye, el número está allá,’ an older Hispanic woman called out.

  ‘Where?’ the angry man asked her. The Hispanic woman pointed to the panel above where the man was standing.

  ‘Cálmate. Basta ya. Coge el número, and sit down, OK?’

  The man looked up and saw the identification number. It was there above him as she had said. He was running out of reasons not to sit down. He was thinking. All the passengers watched him thinking and he watched them knowing that whatever they were pretending to do, they were watching him. Why did they have to stare like that? The bus was moving and he now had the driver’s number. But he didn’t want to sit down yet. Not yet. That would let the driver off the hook much too easily. This bus driver had kept him waiting twenty minutes and was going to be the cause of his unemployment. He was going to lose his job while the bus driver got to sit down for union pay, driving only when he felt like it. What in hell was he going to do with the driver’s number? Everybody knows they all stick together. But he’d made such a show of asking for it and now he had it. The man looked at the number and pulled out a pen from his breast pocket before frisking himself with one hand. ‘Anyone got some paper?’ The bus driver handed him his copy of the New York Post. He took it, wrote the number on the bottom of the front page, tore off the scrap and handed the newspaper back to the bus driver, who accepted it without taking his eyes off the road. The man put the scrap of paper and the pen in his breast pocket and walked with embarrassment down the aisle of the bus. For the first time, he imagined the way he must have looked to the other passengers on the bus. He sat down in the seat in front of Lamont. ‘I don’t usually curse at my elders,’ he said quietly to both the older and the younger black women.

  ‘It’s okay. I’m sure you don’t,’ the older woman said to him.

  ‘It’s not the way I was brought up, but … twenty minutes he just sat there, and now … I mean, I could lose my job.’

  ‘I’m sure it will turn out fine,’ the older woman said, giving a small wink to the younger woman who turned away from the Hispanic man to face the front of the bus again. Lamont noticed the younger woman roll her eyes at him as she was turning to the front. What did that mean? Why had she done that? There was no trick in making her think well of him. He didn’t need her to think anything in particular. Fools thought that was the trick, fools and younger men. There was a woman like her on every bus and in every subway car. He had only one daughter. He had a job. This could all have been much worse. He wasn’t late for work. Not yet. It didn’t matter what this woman thought. Lamont watched the bus driver and saw him rub the back of one hand over his forehead.

  ‘Since the MTA … they … put the fare up to five dollars. I wouldn’t … I wasn’t brought up to curse at my elders … It’s just that it’s my job,’ the Hispanic man said quietly to anyone who could hear him.

  What did it mean, the way she had looked at him, Lamont wondered. The trick is not to hate yourself. It’s funny what you remember. He looked out the window and still couldn’t get the song out of his head.


  the first frozen apple juice,

  enriched with vitamin C.

  He had drunk that apple juice as a child. His grandmother had bought it for him then, and she was buying it for him again now. What good did vitamin C actually do? Does anyone really know, Lamont wondered. The Hispanic man was sitting quietly. The bus had almost reached midtown. Perhaps the worst was over. Lamont’s grandmother swore by vitamin C – vitamin C and Jesus. Do people still talk as much as they used to about vitamin C? Lamont didn’t think so. Jesus was still good, though. With all the work they’re doing on cancer and stuff, you would think they would have finally found something vitamin C could cure. Probably not, judging by how quiet vitamin C had gone, compared to when he was a kid. His grandmother had left a glass of apple juice for him. This was how the song got fixed in his head. He had forgotten to drink it, forgotten all about it until he saw it on the kitchen table as he ran out the door not to be late for the bus. The traffic was crawling.

  ‘Oh Jesus,’ Lamont said under his breath when he saw the Hispanic man getting up at 59th Street, just as he was. As he headed for the door, Lamont waited for a moment. He couldn’t help himself, and turned in the direction of the young black woman who had been sitting near him. Was she aware he was getting off? Had she seen his eyes? Did she have a grandmother who poured her apple juice? She was younger but they probably grew up eating the same food, catching the same childhood diseases, seeing the same local doctor. Growing up in the neighbourhood, they’d been warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. Had she really rolled her eyes? Lamont stood up slowly. If she’d grown up where he had, she had to understand. Did she understand anything? He took one small step. The bus was slowing. This was as long as he could wait without missing his stop. She wouldn’t look at him. He saw the Hispanic man disappear in the crowd on 59th Street as he started to walk to 57th Street to catch the 31 all the way east to York Avenue. She wouldn’t look at him.

  Lamont was the first candidate in a new outreach program deemed suitable for hiring by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The hospital had agreed to participate in a pilot scheme that would see non-violent offenders with exemplary prison records given an employment opportunity in an area that entailed a chance to, in the words of the program, ‘give something back to the community’. It was only by luck that Lamont had heard about it. On learning that Lamont was eligible for early release, a friend in prison had told him to go to a place in east Harlem where they might be able to help him find a job. That place turned out to be the Exodus Transitional Community. Lamont hadn’t remembered the name, but somehow he had remembered the address – 104th Street and Lexington. Cobbling together private donations, a trickle of intermittent government funding and as much goodwill as it could find, Exodus Transitional Community had managed to secure the participation of Memorial Sloan-Kettering. But the agreement had not amounted to much because Exodus had not found any ex-prisoners who satisfied the hospital’s strict requirements. The successful ex-prisoner was required to have no history of violence or substance abuse, and a permanent domestic address. None of Exodus’ clients until Lamont Williams had been able to satisfy all of these conditions. The importance of his participation in the ‘trial’ was impressed upon him by both parties to the agreement.

  Once he had been screened, approved and accepted, Lamont had been treated like any other new employee at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and placed on six months’ probation. The first three days had gone
well enough and now, notwithstanding his humiliating paralysis in the face of the bus driver’s ordeal, Lamont had arrived on time for day four. He liked the fact that he was working in a hospital. It pleased him. He liked being able to ask someone from another department a question by simply picking up the internal phone, dialling the other person’s extension and beginning with, ‘This is Lamont Williams from Building Services …’

  He entered from First Avenue and signed in, but was told that as soon as he was in his uniform he should go immediately to the York Avenue entrance. He was needed for something and he would be told what it was when he got there. When he arrived at the York Avenue entrance, he couldn’t see anyone from Building Services, and certainly not anyone senior to him. He looked around and decided to wait a little while. Maybe the supervisor was just about to arrive? Although he was wearing a watch, he had forgotten to take notice of the time he’d got to the York Avenue entrance. He had not expected to be interested in what time it was precisely that he had got there – it couldn’t have been long after the shift had started – but now it seemed to him as though he had been waiting ages. Surely it had been only minutes? Maybe he was meant to be waiting outside, on the street side of the entrance. Maybe that’s where the supervisor was already. He quickly stuck his head through the doors to the street side of the York Avenue entrance, but he couldn’t see the supervisor there either. Should he find an internal phone and call someone? Maybe he had misheard the instruction in the first place. This was only day four. This was a good job. He had to get past probation. It was only six months. They told him that after twelve months, you were eligible to have the company pay for your college tuition if you were able to get into a college. How good would that sound – a hospital employee for twelve months and going to college? How good would that sound to a judge? If he had to apply to a court to see his daughter, how good would that sound? He asked one of the others if he had understood the policy correctly. It sounded too good. ‘Yeah, when you get into Harvard, they’ll pay.’

  Probation lasts six months. This was the first hour of day four, and the supervisor wasn’t to be found outside either. Maybe Lamont was meant to see the job at hand, to identify the problem himself and show some initiative. He looked outside to see if there was anything that looked like an obvious job for someone in Building Services. Everyone outside was smoking under the hospital awning – paramedics, anxious family members, even patients themselves. It didn’t make any sense. Maybe they were all just about to quit. Maybe the patients among the smokers had a cancer other than lung cancer, and needed the comfort of cigarettes to get them through it. Whatever the explanation, there was no doubting the pile of cigarette butts scattered on the sidewalk near the entrance. Could that be what he was meant to do, get rid of the cigarette butts from the sidewalk at the York Avenue entrance? It didn’t look like anyone from the previous shift had done it, but it didn’t look so urgent, either.

  There was a storeroom not far away. Lamont was aware of it. He could get a broom and pan and be sweeping up the sidewalk when the supervisor arrived. Maybe the supervisor had been delayed. Wouldn’t that look good – Lamont sweeping up the cigarette butts off the sidewalk when the supervisor arrived? Lamont was turning to go back inside to the storeroom for the broom and pan when a man entering from the street stopped him. ‘Do you know Yale Bronfman? He’s in Regulatory.’

  ‘Sorry, sir, I’m in Building Services.’

  ‘You don’t know Yale Bronfman?’

  ‘No, sir, I’m –’

  ‘Is this the right entrance for Regulatory Affairs?’

  ‘I don’t know, sir. I’m in Building Services.’

  ‘But … You don’t know the building?’

  ‘Maybe you want to ask the man at the information desk there, sir … ? I’m sure he can help you.’

  ‘Jesus Christ!’ the man said, heading inside towards the information desk.

  Was Lamont meant to know everybody who worked there? Was he meant to know where Regulatory Affairs was or even what Regulatory Affairs was? Had he been told? Had he already forgotten? He went to the storeroom as quickly as he could. It would be best if the supervisor arrived at the York Avenue entrance and saw Lamont working while he waited for further instructions. At the end of every twelve months of employment, the supervisor awarded you a score between zero and five. That score represented your pay increase, and it was a percentage of your salary. No one in the history of the hospital had ever got a score of five. You could get three, or three-point-seven, or four-point-two, but no one had ever got five because a score of five represents perfection, and, as everybody knows, nobody’s perfect. The supervisor had a lot of power. He determined how close you got to perfection.

  Lamont was sweeping outside the York Avenue entrance, and still there was no sign of his supervisor. Clouds of smoke blew across his face and through his hair. He sneezed. It was probably hay fever. The trees across the street at Rockefeller University could traumatise a sensitive nose. Lamont had already been told to blame a sneeze on the trees at Rockefeller University, or else on the smokers’ cigarettes at the entrances, because you were not permitted to come to work sick. You were permitted a certain number of hours off sick a year, but only a fool would take them because the supervisor would see it on your record and hold it against you. If you sneezed, you’d better blame it on the trees at Rockefeller. If you were really sick, it was best to come in anyway, and then after a little while you could report that you felt sick. They would send you home immediately, but it wouldn’t show up on your record. It would look good. You made the effort to come in. Remember the trees at Rockefeller. They can help you. Lamont knew this already. He had been told this unofficially by the man who had shown him around on his first day. No one had said anything about Regulatory Affairs. If they had, he didn’t remember it. It’s funny what you remember. It’s not up to you.

  It felt good to be sweeping up. At least for a moment, he knew he was doing the right thing, and was doing it well. It wouldn’t take long, and he had decided that if the supervisor hadn’t appeared by the time he was finished sweeping, he would go back to where he had signed in on the First Avenue side of the building.

  ‘Excuse me.’ Lamont heard a voice, but assumed it asked for someone else’s attention. But when it persisted, he turned around. ‘Excuse me,’ an elderly patient in a wheelchair asked. ‘I was brought down from my room for some air, but there’s too much … It’s too smoky, so I should go inside. Can you take me back to my room?’ The old man – he spoke with some kind of accent – was attached to an IV drip.

  ‘You wanna go inside, sir?’

  ‘Yes, it’s too smoky here. I can’t believe they all smoke.’

  Lamont looked around. Another thing he remembered being told was that the customer was always right. This sick old white man with a foreign accent was a patient, so he was a customer. ‘Well, see, sir, I’m in Building Services …’

  ‘What are you?’

  ‘Building Services.’

  ‘Yes, in the building … on the ninth floor.’

  Lamont looked around. ‘Wasn’t there someone who brought you down?’

  ‘Yes, from the ninth floor but it’s too smoky.’

  There were rules about the transportation of patients. Only certain members of staff were permitted to move patients from one place to another. Special warnings needed to be given about steps and elevators. Training was essential for this. The hospital’s insurance policies made it all very clear.

  ‘Sir, wasn’t there someone from Patient Escort Services who brought you down?’

  ‘Yes, of course. Someone brought me down. He said he’d be back and now … Now he’s not back. Can you take me back up … on the ninth floor?’

  ‘I’m not supposed to.’


  ‘I’m not allowed to …’

  ‘It’s too smoky … with all of them.’

  ‘Let me see if I can get you someone from PES. I’ll be right back.’ Lamo
nt clutched his broom and pan in one hand and went inside to the concierge. ‘I got a patient out here who wants to go back to his room. Isn’t there supposed to be someone from PES with him?’ The concierge rolled his eyes. ‘Fucking Jamal! He left the patient on the street! And his probation ends next week. I hope he’s cramming for his test. He’s got the HIPAA test.’

  ‘Well, he left the patient out on the street. What’s the HIPAA test? Will I have to –’

  ‘Shit! Okay, you go back and stay with the patient. I’ll try to get hold of someone from PES. Fucking Jamal!’

  Lamont went back to the old man in the wheelchair. He was sitting there, holding his robe closed with one hand, among the smokers on York Avenue. A breeze blew through his wisps of hair. He looked alone. ‘I’m sorry. The man, the other man, he shouldn’t have left you.’

  ‘I agree with you,’ the old man said.

  ‘Someone should be here soon.’

  ‘’Cause it’s not a smoking jacket, you know.’


  ‘It’s not a smoking jacket,’ the old man said with a smile, pointing to the bathrobe.

  ‘No, no, it’s not.’

  When the man asked again for Lamont to take him back to his room on the ninth floor, Lamont explained again that he was not permitted to do it. He explained that it was against the rules. He repeated what he had been told about the hospital’s insurance. The supervisor was never coming. Or maybe he had been and gone while Lamont was with the concierge. Jamal had almost made it to the end of his six months’ probation. ‘It’s the rules.’

  ‘You know something? I bet you would be very careful.’

  ‘I can’t do it.’

  ‘But if you could, you would watch out for the steps.’

  ‘I’m sorry, sir. I can’t.’