I did not see but read of Hitler’s Germany: Jews were forced, as a measure of public humiliation, to clean streets with a toothbrush and a pale of water.
The first was an act of love and the second an act of hate. But they gave me an idea.
In my home, there is a charming deck on the second floor. It has specially treated cobalt-gray wood for flooring and an attractive white railing running around it. There are tall, beautiful firs and oaks all around the deck and I wanted to be able to see them without the interference of a sizable railing. I ordered a special railing, distinctly thin, that would obstruct the view as little as possible. It has a gently curved top rail, and especially thin bars to the floor, permitting a good view of the surrounding scene. In fact, one can sit on the deck and feel in a garden ringed by an honor guard of protective trees.
I sit on the deck often and read and write. I have planted a large umbrella that shades me when there is sun or rain. I enjoy my time on the deck so much that I have overlooked that, over months a layer of dirt and dust has collected on the railing and its bars. The sparkling-white railing is no longer white but has patches of gray and dark gray. That gave me the idea that I should restore the railing back to its pristine color with a toothbrush. The top rail is curved and its supporting bars are square, and a toothbrush seemed the right instrument.
The top surface of the railing had the biggest collection of dirt and I decided to address it first. It was also the easiest part of the work, for I could do it standing upright. I dipped the toothbrush in soapy water and started scrubbing. It was amazing the time it took to remove the last speck of dirt from the top of the railing.
Several hours later, I came to the last part of the railing. Sweating, I finished the cleaning with a flourish of relief. To top off my accomplishment, I brought a fresh toothbrush and went over the railing in selected placed a second time, giving it a fresher, brighter look. It remained only to sit back and admire a gleaming white railing around my deck.
Jerome, a neighbor, came to take a look. His first question was why I didn’t hire somebody to do the cleaning. I explained that it would then be somebody else’s accomplishment, not mine. His second thought was his bewilderment that I should use a toothbrush – and spend hours rubbing it – rather than spray a strong chemical and then wipe it off with a disposable napkin. I could have argued against the indiscriminate use of chemicals, but I realized he was missing the heart of the matter.
A maid comes periodically to clean my home. In between her visits, a robot whirrs all over the house and picks up dirt. Besides taking out the well-packed garbage from time to time, I labor over nothing in my home. Labor is something I see others doing, not something I ever do. Looking over the last several decades of my life, when I was provided cooks, maids, drivers, nannies, even valets sometimes, I had a scant encounter with physical labor of any kind.
Some would take this distance from labor as a badge of dignified existence and credit me with an aristocratic style of life. They would be wrong. I am plebeian enough to believe that to be a stranger to labor is to be estranged from real life itself, the life that vast numbers of my fellow beings live.
To clean a very visible part of my favorite deck is therefore to get closer to life itself, to bridge a little of the distance between me and many others. I want periodically to work and to sweat so that I remember my connection with the people around me.
If that sounds a little too philosophical – or, forgive the pun, too labored – let me tell you that even Jerome, my skeptical neighbor, was impressed how splendid looked the railing on my deck. I had something to show for what he (and others aristocratically inclined) might consider wasted hours: a beautiful, gleaming-white railing, sparkling in the sun.
I had created something pretty. All with a toothbrush or two.