I can’t recall a particular moment that instilled my love of storytelling, but I’ve always needed to weave depth and details together to form a plot line. I have a particular affinity for nonfictional accounts. Personal narratives are incredibly fluid and compelling. People aren’t stagnant — so why would our tales be any different?
Enter Domonique, a custodian I stumbled upon while on assignment at Tulane University. I had to tell her story.
We met when I strolled into one of the buildings on campus and saw the young woman wearing a blue-collared shirt with thin purple and orange stripes, a work apron and white tennis shoes. Domonique carried cleaning supplies in one hand and lugged a trash bag bigger than herself in the other.
Though I was reporting a story on the social invisibility of custodial workers, I was afraid to approach her. I didn’t want to assume Domonique felt invisible, but I needed to ask. I just hoped she’d open up to me.
Thankfully, she did.
I learned that Domonique, a 24-year-old New Orleans native, is the mother of two young, rambunctious boys. Her oldest son’s father died at 19.
“He got killed. Wrong place, wrong time,” Domonique said. “Story of New Orleans.”
His death pushed Domonique into the workforce sooner than she anticipated. Though she graduated from high school in 2008, she had to drop out of college because she couldn’t afford school and child care.
I quickly realized that my interest in Domonique was shifting the more I learned of her life. She was no longer Domonique the custodian, she was Domonique the woman, the mother. By the end of the interview, I knew that she was a Christian with a deep faith, had a close relationship with her grandmother and took her sons to friends’ birthday parties in her spare time.
But she did tell me there have been times when she felt invisible.
“Sometimes you can be in the office and somebody will walk in and they won’t even speak to you,” she said. “They just look at you as the custodian.”
And some don’t see people like Domonique at all.
I recalled being a student sitting in one of the dining halls at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I watched a cafeteria worker clean tables. Students and university staff members were sitting at these tables as the woman wiped them down. She moved chairs from one occupied table to another, refilled napkin dispensers and picked up trash without being acknowledged.
It isn’t hard to overlook the people who clean for you. They often move silently, in the background of our lives, keeping our schools and workplaces tidy. They want their work to be appreciated just as much as you and I crave praise for the things we do.
But Domonique says she doesn’t take it personally.
“It’s just a job,” she says. “It’s something I have to do.”