WHEN THE ALARM AWOKE HIM at 5 a.m., he was deep in a dream of shiny floors. Thick fingers brushed through his mutton-chops as he ambled from the little bedroom, threw the several locks on the apartment door and reached for a copy of "Spotlight," a little paper that circulates in his Southeast Washington neighborhod. He is washing off when he remembers this is not an ordinary day.
Most of the time, Ozetar Gaskin, janitor, is noticed only when he is absent. For when he's not there, butt-laden ashtrays and wastebaskets with mountains of trash are there. But today is different.
"Snap" Gaskins, as he's called, is one of the tens of thousands of office cleaners in this paper city. He may be in the minority, but he finds purpose and satisfaction in the sweat of his brow. And if the texture of his life is polyester, not silk, he still laughs, loves a woman, pats a full belly and feels a sense of fulfillment.
There is no simple way to judge a man like Gaskin, even on a day when he will be lifted momentarily from invisibility. For while our society pays lip service to the worth of working with one's hands, it pays homage to working with one's mind. Many people feel it is uncreative and boring to labor. How many workers, they may ask, have left an imprint on the sands of time? Workers often feel put down and they know they're often not seen, not remembered for their work. So while their story largely is of limited opportunity, disaffection may be largely in the eyes of the viewer.
Before he leaves for work, Gaskin gets the trash ready to take out, has a cup of coffee and pulls on washable work pants and sneakers. His wife, a clerk at Real Cleaners, is asleep. By 6:15, he is on his way to catch the bus to get to the Superior Court Building at Third Street and Indiana Avenue NW.
On the evening, Gaskin's employer United Services Inc., which contracts with the D.C. Superior Court for cleaning services, will honor him and 80 others for outstanding work. Mrs. Gaskins will be absent tonight. She is taking their son, Michael, 4, on a visit to North Carolina.
At 7 a.m. Gaskins punches the clock in the basement. He makes his mourning checks for trash outside, and inside, checks the judges' chambers, then grabs his big No. 42 red dust mop to begin the first of endless back-and-forth across the floors. His age only 33.
"It's rather exciting because you have all these people from the courts in the lobbies. I have to ask some of then to move to keep dusting. Sometimes they don't want to move. I get 'em eating lunch. My job is to rush over and get things up."
Gaskins gets a little nervous thinking about the award tonight, the applause and all. But he's proud of his work. Yet at times, people have thrown lighted cigarettes in front of his mop, apparently just out of meanness. t
"It's when people in the big suits do it that I resent it most. I figure a man wear a suit like that he shouldn't do a thing like that at home.That's not giving me any respect at all."
By 8:30 a.m., the courthouse is ablaze with people. Sunlight pours in through a front window. Gaskin picks his way around the buzzing secretaries, lawyers and witnesses. He uses a smaller mop now -- the No. 42 is too big.
"I'm actually very comfortable with what I'm doing," he says tooling along. "If I was a supervisor there would be a lot of things you have to ask people to do. Right now, I'm not ready."
"I never got to finish high school -- stopped at junior high. But my father died and there were six of us and we didn't have proper clothing. That's the main reason I went looking for a job. My mother didn't want me to do it but when the money started coming in she stopped complaining. I told her I would go back. Later I went to work in New York City. I worked with the port authority and then I learned service work with a company called Perfect Building Maintenance. It's just honest hard work. I'm proud of helping my sisters finish school.
"When I was a boy [growing up in the Shaw area], each holiday my mother loved to have the floors cleaned. Sometimes I took two days -- scrubbing, shellacking, shining. Everybody in the neighborhood wanted to know how I did it. I learned to strip and buff. I really enjoyed it."
At lunch, the crew laughs and talks about the Bullets. "I'm so proud of him," says a woman. Gaskins literally beams.
In the afternoon, he cleans the lobby ashtrays. "My big boss always recognizes me," he says. "They have certain people who clean the judges' chambers. . . . They always say you did a nice job."
There is an emergency around 3 p.m. A fire in a trashcan is smoldering in an office. Gaskins handles it deftly. Then he takes the escalator to the basement to the janitorial headquarters.
"I used to work at the telephone company.People there were nice," he continues. "They'd clean behind themselves so they wouldn't make so much work for me. . . . "
"Did you learn any secrets when you walked into executive offices?" he is asked.
"Not many, not many." His silence seems a code of honor.
Gaskins earns $540 monthly, just enought to get by. Television is his culture; the Kennedy Center is as distant as Spain. He has neither transportation nor family doctor; no house and no hope of one.
At 6 p.m., Gaskins is hailing a cab to go from him home on 15th Street SE in Washington to the Gramercy Inn on Rhode Island Avenue. He's wearing slacks and sport shirt, V-neck sweater and cream-colored jacket. He picks up a coworker. It is quiet in the hotel hall as the dignitaries gather. There is Jery Davis, president of the minority-owned Unified janitorial services firm, and Courtland Cox, the city's minority business opportunities director, representing the mayor.
"Each one doing a good job creates a building block toward the growth of this minority firm," somebody says. Unified has grown from a staff of one to 500 since 1971.
Gaskins savors the prime rib, sips the red wine. When it is his time to step onstage, he's jittery. Then he calms down. He wants to say how much he appreciates the people he works with. But nobody else speaks, so he doesn't either.
As he steps down, he can't resist a hard look at the terrazzo dining room floors. He frowns slightly, too polite to say what he's thinking as the limelight snaps off him, ending his big day in a flash. He's thinking about that the prime rib was fit for an executive, but could have done better on the floors.