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Joe's Neighborhood

A beautiful floor

7/24/2013

You first notice the smell of wax. It clings to your nose even after the reflected sunlight causes you to look up from the polished surface. Wow, that is glossy smooth. You slowly bend to get a closer look, and your gaze involuntarily drifts down the entire stretch. Lord, it runs the length of the building and is twice as wide as most folks’ work cubicles. Shadows of dark and light play over the top. And mirror images appear on the surface, opening up as windows, illuminating different scenes and different places. It is truly beautiful.

joes2And then a group of men and women get off the elevator. They scuff the polish, chase away the shadows and shatter the magical windows. Is this some evil entity sent to destroy art? No, it’s just employees walking down the hall going to lunch.

The creator smiles with pride.

Gordon Avritt laughs easily and often. He’s a janitor. He’s cleaned for the State of Iowa for 40 years. At 62 years old, he stands straight, looks you in the eye and wants to talk — about his work.

“I began at Des Moines General Hospital back in 1971,” Avritt said. “At that time there was little carpeting. I loved looking at that terrible floor at Des Moines General and seeing the beauty I could put on it when my work was all done. I seen the satisfaction I had at how beautiful that floor was.”

From then on he was hooked.

For the last seven years, Avritt has worked at the newly remodeled Oran Pape Building, which houses the Department of Public Safety.

joes3“I love working here, and I love the people here and what I do. Probably ‘what I do’ is No. 1 to me… In the morning I clean bathrooms and that,” Avritt said. “Then we vacuum for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Then I do some dusting. Then trash probably the rest of the day. If I get done with the trash, then dusting some more. Here, let me show you another higher floor.”

Again, he beamed with pride.

“They treat us terrific here,” he said. “And I guess I feel very special to even get an opportunity to work in this building, because this is a building (that) you have to go through so much security to work here. And I’m proud that I’ve always been a good person and not in trouble in my life.”

Avritt works 40 hours a week as a janitor for the state, and then spends both days on the weekend cleaning at Calvin Community, a retirement community. His wife, Norma, works also, and they send any extra money to their adult son who has serious health issues.

“Both my children are adopted from Korea,” he explained. “Now, when you write this, don’t say we adopted to save them. We adopted for me and my wife. We wanted children and couldn’t have them.”

Avritt talked as he emptied the trash.

“Daughter and two babies live with us. I help on the babysitting part. I’d much rather deal with the people here. The kids can be more work,” he laughed. “I love them to pieces.”

joes13“I take pride in the work,” he said as he continued emptying trash. “We just got done doing the hallway floors. The satisfaction of looking at that floor and how pretty it is. And when people walk in the building, they see that.”

But doesn’t it all just get dirty again tomorrow? Isn’t this discouraging?

“No, huh-uh. If they didn’t dirty it, I wouldn’t have a job. Job security,” he said, laughing loudly.

Avritt said he never sees himself as truly retiring.

“I’ll work here another four years until I can get my social security,” he said. “I’ll always work a part-time job somewhere. That’s just me. I’ll always be doing something. If my health lets me. I’ve got a lot of old-people diseases. I’ve got high blood pressure… It went up a little higher with the grandchildren.”

Again, knee-slapping laughter.

And for fun?

“When my brother was well, we’d go to the Hawkeye football games,” he said. “Me and him.” Avritt looked sadly away. His brother is two years gone.

Anything else?

“I was always so proud of my work.” CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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