Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just the way things are

I’m in a house, working on a burglar alarm. Or a fire alarm, I can’t remember which. The house I will never forget.

Not so much the house—a house is a house is a house, no matter how simple or lavish, four walls, a floor and a ceiling, bathrooms, bedrooms, basements and hallways. Sure, some are nicer than others—I’ve seen some doozies, the kind where you lower your voice and tiptoe because you sense the envelopment of perfection—but in the end, a house is just a three-dimensional box.

This particular box was at the end of a cul-de-sac in a posh, exclusive neighborhood frequently patrolled by members of the Denver Police Department and private security agents. If you didn’t belong there, eyeballs tracked your every move. A sign by the front entrance advised that unless a compelling reason to enter existed, it would be best to go elsewhere. There were other signs, some advertising various security companies and, at the house in question, one by the street that forbade anyone other than the residents to park in the driveway. The owner, I was told, didn’t want oil stains desecrating its pristine surface.

The owner did not want us to enter the house wearing shoes, either. Her children could run down the street or cut through the neatly landscaped yard and blow through the front double doors without slowing, but we could not. Our shoes apparently contained diseases, microorganisms or filth picked up in less-stellar enclaves.

It was a trying place to work unless you understood your placement in the social strata of the greater metropolitan area. You were a human being when you walked up to the door; once past those portals, you were an object.

So it was no surprise that late one evening I’m working on the alarm when I overhear a conversation in the next room.

“Is someone here?” a woman asks.

“It’s just the alarm man,” the owner replies, and her tone, haughty with class privilege and the arrogance of one who segregates the world into those within her social circle and those without, is a lash that snakes around the wall to lacerate me where I stand. I wince at the impact and think of the French Revolution and how common people dragged the rich from their estates and stuck their heads on pikes. It’s a nice thought, one that warms me as I return to my task.

But decades later I will remember not just her inflection but the qualifying word that relegated me to a worthless thing.


I am me.

You are you.

I am just me.

You are just you.

One little four-letter word makes a quantum difference in significance. Among its diverse meanings and usages, the Oxford English Dictionary defines just, adv., as “No more than, merely, barely; qualifying a verb or adjective, or with a noun.” An example dating to 1884 goes: “Doris is not a Cleopatra ... she’s just a Highland lady Touched with an Eastern strain.”

She’s just. For such a common grammatical modifier, its inclusion is a verbal wrecking ball, demolishing pretense or worth or status, a ruthlessly efficient diminisher. One word, properly inserted within the structural integrity of a sentence, elevates one while simultaneously deconstructing another. It sets apart; it tears down; it puts others in their place.

Which is odd considering the noble lineage and uses of the word. Think of justice, justify, or justly, or any of the other uses it takes as a modifier; just a minute, it’s just as well, there’s just so much to do, we got there just in time. The word is a veritable chameleon, popping up here and there with a different outlook, a mood shifting effortlessly from dark to light and back by a simple rearrangement. Just is just, just is unjust. As a word, it’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all the way.

The unjust usage of just reared its head recently while I was at work wrapping up the morning’s chores. A new guard poked his head through the door and saw me.

“Sir?” he asked. “I have a guy here supposed to meet someone at five for flu shots.”

“I predict they’ll be here at 4:59,” I said. It was 4:40 a.m.

“You’re the only one here?”


The guard turned to a man standing outside and opened his mouth to speak, and suddenly it was as if time slowed to a sluggish crawl and we three balanced on the edge of possibilities and potentialities forever linked to what would come next, that the guard’s words would be the catalyst for transformation, for better or worse, even as I knew with unwavering certainty what would transpire, that my status as a person was damned to nudge a few notches into something approaching invisibility or uselessness, and I wanted to shout out for him to stop, to reconsider, that I was a photographer and a writer and a man who deeply loved his wife and children, a man who served his community and paid his taxes and lived a good and decent life, a man who loved wild bunnies and music and the brush of wind through dried cornstalks, and I couldn’t, the words wouldn’t come, I was powerless, I could only watch as he turned away and uttered the fateful word.

“Let’s look in the plant,” the guard said. “He’s just the janitor.”

From “sir” to “just” in 30 seconds. The door swung closed with a whish of cold air. Behind me, the wall clock ticked away lost seconds in sonorous notes of unmitigated finality. In spite of everything, I laughed. So entrenched within our language is the word that offense should be taken only when warranted. The guard was blameless, and there was still work to be done and then the dark drive home to a place where I was anything but just a just.


Deb Southerland said...

Once again you leave me nearly speechless. I have been guilty of using this four-letter-word in such a horrible way, never even thinking for a minute that I was demeaning or limiting, but rather, saying, it's okay, it's okay, no need to worry. Rethink, rethink, Deb. You never know what effect your words may have. Thanks, Tom, for the eye-opener.

Tom Parker said...

Deb -- I might have gone a little over the top (me?) but it struck me last week how the word modifies a noun in such a dramatic way. I had fun playing with the concept while, hopefully, opening a few eyes.

Bud Simpson said...

Another remarkable essay.

I, too, have associated with modern checkbook aristocracy and have felt my sense of self fade as my visibility drained away. In spite of my talent, my education, my good works, I cannot, ever, elevate myself to their self-assumed plateau of superiority.

'Qu'ils mangent de la brioche' - If the pike fits ...

Tom Parker said...

"If the pike fits..." Ooohhhh, what a delicious phrase. Next time, if there is a next time, I shall stare wolfishly at the pseudo-aristocrat and draw a single finger across my throat. Viva le revolution!

Anonymous said...

As someone who was also once 'just the janitor', I must say that I ramped my way up in society's ranks when I began to refer to myself as 'a practicioner of the custodial arts'.
Mark in KC

Tom Parker said...

"Custodial engineer" also works though I sometimes refer to myself as "Yo mama." I feel like a mother cleaning up after recalcitrant children.

Carol said...

Nice piece, Tom. You are a masterful writer. I shall always think highly of you.

Janet C. Fish said...

Wow Tom, this is amazing writing.

I've been a "just" a few times. I was just a cleaning lady, just a housewife, just a volunteer (as opposed to someone making money doing nearly the same job,) just his wife (first husband's attitude.)

But at some point I "found myself" and "just" has lost its sting. I think I'd chuckle visibly if some haughty so-and-so spoke down to me at this stage of my life.

Thanks for a great article. You're just great! ;-)


Tom Parker said...

Janet -- And I'm just glad you're reading my stuff! Thank God for the little people, the rich are no fun at all...