Service of Hidden Stories: What Do You Know About Support Workers Where You Work and Live? What Do They Know About You?

June 20th, 2016

Categories: Secrets

What do you know

I hadn’t seen the young woman who cleans the ladies’ room at the office for so long I didn’t think she worked here anymore. But I saw her last week and asked how her classes were coming along. She told me that she got all A’s this semester in such college courses as biology and chemistry. English is not her native tongue. I’m in awe.

Some office building front desk staffers can hardly grunt a good evening in return or look up from their newspapers as late-leaving tenants pass them. Others are more like one night guard who has much to discuss if you give him a chance. Recently he was weighing options his kids had suggested for his father’s day gift. A former night doorman now porter told me how much he loved his cats—more than any girlfriend past or present—describing his menagerie with love and in great detail. His pals call him “the cat man.” This morning he worried about his youngest who, he hopes, suffers only from a hairball.

Those we don’t think are listening or observing know plenty about us. The morning doorman at our apartment has worked there for 30+ years. He told me that he remembers the birthdates of some of the tenants—there are hundreds–and that he also knows which ones don’t want to be reminded.

newspaper on floorThe elderly fellow on our floor whose door is almost directly opposite ours isn’t friendly so I didn’t knock one noon when I dashed home for something and his morning newspaper was still on the carpet outside. I mentioned the unusual behavior to the door person on my way out—a porter subbing for the doorman on his break. The next morning the doorman volunteered that the neighbor was fine, that he checked on him before resuming his door duties and that this neighbor had simply forgotten to get the paper. He thanked me for speaking up and said that over the years he’d rescued a few tenants who had fallen over a weekend and had spent many hours on the floor.

arroganceIn the day there were articles about how to become successful that warned readers not to bother with “the little people,” a Leona Helmsley reference. They weren’t worded this way—you were advised only to deal with people who could enhance your career. Has this changed?

Do you chat with the people who work around you or do you ignore them? Have any of them surprised you with their hobbies, accomplishments and lives beyond their day jobs? Do you think they know anything about you?

who is listening

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12 Responses to “Service of Hidden Stories: What Do You Know About Support Workers Where You Work and Live? What Do They Know About You?”

  1. ASK Said:

    The support people in our co-op not only know what the residents are up to (and vice versa), several showed up at my husband’s funeral in 2014 to pay their respects and offer condolences. Several of these people are really long term employees and knew us as long term residents. At work, I always paid attention to the maintenance and security staffs, and was rewarded with prompt service when a lighting fixture needed replacement or the air-conditioning broke down, or I was trapped in an elevator at 11 PM at night. My best experience was with the ICU nurse who told me about “step-down” care when my husband still needed monitoring after serious surgery,and was to be transferred to a “regular” room where he would not get the close attention he continued to require. In my view, those of us who ignore the “little people” do so at their own peril.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What wonderful, lovely people work at your co-op.

    Yikes…the elevator incident reminded me of something that happened at McGraw Hill a million years ago and I didn’t understand how it could have happened then nor do I after all these years. A reporter was working late Friday night and dashed out for a snack. On his way back to his office, the elevator stopped and didn’t open. He was left there for days–a nightmare of mine. I don’t recall how many days. At a big operation like that a door guard generally sits by a panel with information about all the elevators, if not photographs of the insides. Did he/she not hear the alarm? I can’t believe he was ignored because he didn’t acknowledge the door staff!

    When my husband was in the hospital with such a high fever his perspiration would frequently soak the sheets one of the aides we spoke with when she did her chores in hs room showed me where to get new sheets if he needed them before we could rouse a staff member to help change the bed linens.

    Everyone is happier in a cheerful atmosphere whether at work or at home.

  3. Judy Schuster Said:

    I am retired now and what I miss most is the companionship of the people with whom I worked. One individual who retired several years before me said that what he missed most was lunch. That really sums it up, although by the time I retired we were all eating lunch at our desks because of our heavy work loads. Nonetheless, I still miss the companionship I found at work. I was close to the people with whom I worked, whether they were located in the same place I was or not. Some were hundreds of miles away and I rarely saw them, but they became phone friends. I believe that is typical when you work hard for long hours. Your best friends are the people with whom you work. Sadly, you don’t have time to nurture many close friendships outside of work. Now my two closest friends are retirees like myself and I look forward to bimonthly meetings of retirees like myself. We call ourselves the Has Beens.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    True that the people around you and those you work with–even though you’re not in the same city– are the ones you tend to keep up with most.

    For those who share personal information, Facebook serves this role information-wise at least. You see that person X is in Europe; person Y’s child is off to college; person Z’s kid turned three; person Q’s mother is ill; person B’s family celebrated their 50th family reunion etc.

    You aren’t Has-Beens! You are leaders of the retired set.

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Treating people a la Helmsley is a policy which usually returns to bite. Stewart and Spitzer also come to mind. All three were famous for arrogance along with disrespect and bad treatment of those working with and under them. When trouble came knocking, they stood defenseless in the face of their enemies, and lost their battles. The American woman, in eyes of many, has no business being successful, so the fabled ugly dispositions of Helmsley and Stewart only furthered their predicaments. Even with many friends, one can lose to adversity, but at least there will be less rejoicing!

    People keep track in surprising ways. The other day I entered a local tire shop. I hadn’t needed help in a long while, and was startled to see my name & address show up on the computer screen before being able to state the trouble, let alone identify myself. If that counter person isn’t the owner of that establishment, it’s safe to predict he will be. I don’t know what memory kicked in to produce so impressive a move, but it’s safe to say there are many observant folks out there, and that it’s impossible to know who is watching, and why.

    We are all unique, which makes for millions of similar experiences, hopefully most of them good.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Two great examples of people who were punished for their arrogance. There are some on the political stage today who might similarly suffer. We will soon see.

    I have a friend who, like the person at the tire store, never forgets a name or a face. What a gift! In another example, I walk into a dry cleaning shop upstate and Anita says, “Hi Jeanne,” and never has to ask for my phone number to pull up a bill. I envy this skill.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia sent me an email which she identified as Golden Oldies [though I don’t recall having seen any of them]. Its title: “Five Lessons.” Because the first lesson fit this post, I quote it here:

    During my second month of college, our professor
    Gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student
    and had breezed through the questions until I read
    The last one:

    “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?”
    Surely this was some kind of joke. I had seen the
    Cleaning woman several times. She was tall,
    Dark-haired and in her 50’s, but how would I know her name?

    I handed in my paper, leaving the last question
    Blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if
    The last question would count toward our quiz grade.

    “Absolutely, ” said the professor.. “In your careers,
    You will meet many people. All are significant.. They
    Deserve your attention and care, even if all you do
    Is smile and say “hello..”
    I’ve never forgotten that lesson.. I also learned her

    Name was Dorothy.

  8. Martha Takayama Said:

    Your lesson learned is wonderful! It is like the old saying “You better be nice to the people you meet on the way up, because you don’t know whom you will meet on the way down.”

    We are friends with our office cleaning person since she confessed to us that she didn’t know what to do with her 6+ year old daughter who wanted to be a singer when she was 5! My husband, a classical musician by training gave her music materials. After learning that at seven she could audition for Boston Children’s Chorus, Mother, daughter and I went to her vocal audition. She started with the chorus then and is now 13. Her youngest son seems to be an artist at 9, and I often send him interesting materials, and we shared in her happiness at her older son’s acceptance to12 colleges this year. We learned of author/educator David Updike because of her literature course.

    The security guards in our office building are bright, gracious, multilingual and have a number of academically outstanding children whose paths we follow. I still am very close to friends I made years ago as an interpreter.

    We seem to be in the midst of an all time social and ethical crisis represented by Donald Trump, the incarnation of vulgarity and deceit. I shudder at the Helmsley philosophy as I do at his, but would have hoped our thinking to have evolved in these difficult times. Acknowledging the people around you not only makes a more pleasant, slightly safer environment, but for a richer life experience.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your generosity with information and support of your office cleaning woman and her children is not only remarkable, it combines paying it forward with “there but for the grace of God go I.”

    You roll up your sleeves and share your vast experience expecting zero reward. It’s mentoring under the radar–the most commendable kind. I predict the amazing oldest son of the cleaning woman–12 colleges????!!!!–will finish college and return the kind of favors you have offered his family to many others. And the other children will follow. You have transformed their lives.

    The only thing the two top candidates running for office are interested in is money: One boasts about it and the other rakes it in. My guess is that they would think we are losers for admiring those who help others for free–and who, like you, do it without cameras flashing and credits splashed all over the media.

    May there be millions more like you.

  10. hb Said:

    My comment may be pedestrian and obvious, but it describes what I found applies when one deals with one’s subordinates and superiors in hierarchical relationships. Make sure you pay attention to the customs and mores of the society in which you are living and working.

    For example, if you are working with, or for, traditional Arabs from many Middle Eastern cultures you are better off being a “he” and doing business on a handshake. Mutual trust best lubricates your relationship. Aggressive lawyers and burdensome contracts will quickly and hopelessly foul the engine driving it. In dealing with your help, be polite and formal. Contain your curiosity and leave it entirely up to them to decide how much they want to open up to you.

    On the other hand, I remember when I briefly worked in one Southern U.S. city, the automobile mechanic who was servicing my car had, within the first hour that we had first met, told me his, albeit limited, life history and his wife had invited me to Sunday services at their Church.

  11. David Reich Said:

    Interesting, Jeanne. I always talk to people who work around me, regardless of what their position might be. I know there are many who wouldn’t bother talking to a porter or another “lowly” service person unless they needed them to do something for them.

    I speak with service people just because they’re people too, and some of them have interesting stories. And isn’t it so much nicer when you have a pleasant – even if brief and superficial – exchange?

    When I was at a big PR agency, I would take a break periodically and get coffee, which was next to the mailroom. I would always chat with the guys in there, and I knew them all by name. Most of my fellow senior VPs didn’t have a clue what their names were nor did they care.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    That may have been just about the time I mentioned in the post, where executives were taught not to waste time with anyone who couldn’t impact their careers. Even though, knowing you, you spoke with the mail room staff because you liked doing so, this action may have impacted your career in that if you needed copies made or a package to go out that day your project was the first they attacked. A person I’ll call Mr. Vuitton, because all his vast luggage collection was matched Louis Vuitton [and if that overpriced company made underwear, I used to joke, he would have theirs, too], who worked at a similar agency when I was there probably had to ask again and again. I was low on the totem pole–they made up the title writer as I was too green to be an account exec–and he could barely look at me much less address me. Imagine the trouble he had with mail room staff!

    Many treat others well or poorly depending on how they see them on the social or success scale. I worked with a woman who seemed perfectly nice until one day when she was late to a doctor’s appointment and wanted to drop into the ladies’ room before exiting the office. When she got to the door she saw that a maintenance person was cleaning the room. Instead of saying, “Can you please let me in for a sec–I’m late and I apologize for interrupting your work,” she let out a string of four letter words at the top of her lungs, ordering the person out. It was memorably nasty. She flirted with male clients and bosses and would never have spoken with them like that. You can be sure she’s not enjoyed learning of others lives she deems below her either then or now. I wonder how she behaves with others in front of her children and how they’ve turned out.

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