TOMS RIVER – Do you hate your job, and the people at it? The narrator just finished telling his readers that his boss is something that rhymes with “brother trucker.” This boss’s official title, more bureaucratic and possibly more ridiculous, is “Director in Charge of Revenue Savings.” The boss likes to make people suffer and doesn’t spare even his own family members from his vindictiveness.
From the book: “But I’m smarter than your average broom pusher. Well, smarter than most of the teachers and administrators in this dump, let’s put it that way. If I’ve learned anything from years toiling away in this place, it’s that each decision you make affects your future. Or rather, make sure you think three or four moves ahead of everybody.”
But this boss, Mr. Sanders, is just one of many. As the narrator tells us, when you’re the school janitor, everyone is your boss. In the evolutionary pool of the public school system, janitors are the pond scum – no, no, lower than pond scum – on the chain.
It’s the microcosmic dystopian satire in “The Day I Clean My Last Toilet,” the first novel-length work from author and Toms River native J.R. Warnet. Warnet, 37, a graduate of Stockton University, has degrees in creative writing, general education and marine environmental science. Its setting and nameless narrator, “The Janitor” (no relation to the Scrubs character*, whose name was eventually revealed in the season eight finale), point to bigger realities outside institutional bureaucracy.
“[The story] is about what can happen in a job that you work at for so many years and you need to spice things up a bit,” Warnet said.
Writing the book was medicine for him. He started it back in the early aughts, not aiming for a book per se, but a way to release his creativity while struggling through health problems, college, a full-time and second job.
“I needed a creative outlet, to try to put things down on paper. An artist will paint. A musician will write songs. I needed a way to put things out there, so I started writing satire, fiction. I needed to put something on paper so I didn’t go stir crazy.”
His fictional janitor graduated college and found there were no jobs waiting for him. The promises attached to the degree evaporated. So he stayed in a job, and stayed in a job, and stayed in a job he hated, to make ends meet.
Two of Warnet’s writerly heroes – novelist Stephen King and memoirist David Sedaris – started their work lives as janitors. Warnet has also worked in the custodial arts for more than 20 years. Does anyone really know the school janitor? They emerge at the end of things: end of lunch, end of the assembly, end of the day, and end of the school year. What is their point of view of jobs and life and messes?
“Nobody really knows the school janitor. They go unseen. You might see them but you don’t interact with them. There’s a nostalgia in that, in society, that you’re not supposed to interact with the janitor. Or, this person is obviously doing this for a reason. They can’t work anywhere else. So I thought it would be interesting to see things from that point of view.”
The novel started as vignettes, little glimpses in time of a janitor’s day interacting with staff and students at some nondescript Ocean County school. The reader sees The Janitor’s compassionate side with down-on-their-luck underlings; his taking down Mr. Sanders’ right-hand man that involves Ancestry.com and Guinness; his receiving sage advice from a jaded union lifer who told him not to be a “dumbass loser.” He might be a loser, but he’s a three-steps-ahead loser.
Warnet never had one particular job on his Curriculum Vitae that birthed The Janitor, or the book.
“A lot of people have to go to school or go to trade school. They’re ready to take on the world. And when they leave college or trade school, there are 10,000 people waiting for one job. So people have to take odds-and-ends jobs to get by. People work jobs they’re severely overqualified for, but they still have to do it. Everybody’s got health insurance they need. You get to a point where you have to make certain sacrifices to get by, and you do it,” Warnet said. “Some people wake up every day loving their job, other people don’t. But both still have to do their jobs.”
In a 2014 interview with Maclean’s, comedian and author Martin Short said this about comedy: “Comedy is so subjective. If you trip and fall down, some people will laugh and some people will say ‘Oh, physical comedy is so pedestrian.’ Some people look at Three Stooges as lowbrow; some people consider them artists. No one is wrong. It’s just a personal take.”
Warnet let his own sense of humor guide his writing, although The Janitor thinks himself a tragic figure.
“If it makes me laugh and I can’t stop laughing, I know it’s going to be good. For the longest time I’ve watched stand-up comedians. I’ve always had a bit of a dark sense of humor. When I would write and read it out loud, I would try to get the character’s voice. I would read it aloud and if it sounded funny, I would work with it. If it didn’t, I would scratch it and edit it and try something else.”
His book has gotten solid reviews on Amazon.com. “I couldn’t put this book down. The first few chapters I laughed my butt off and the last few chapters, I was captured by the crazy characters and couldn’t wait to see how it was going to end. Pick up this book if you are looking to laugh! Such a page turner!” one reader praised.
Warnet has been giving readings at Barnes & Noble bookstores. His next book signing is at the Menlo Park store July 27. Details aren’t solid yet but he has a radio interview in the work with a New York City station in early August. He’s also recording an audio version of his book, and a second book told through The Janitor’s eyes.
“A lot of people find a lot of humor in the book, and it’s a different angle that they’re very receptive to,” Warnet said. And his audience he meets encompasses all sorts, not just disillusioned college grads with mortgage-sized student loans living in their childhood bedrooms. He agrees that not everyone will find “The Day I Clean My Last Toilet” funny or appreciate and understand its often rough language. That’s okay. He wants people struggling to find work or find fulfilling, full-time work to laugh at the absurdities.
“The days of working your dream job are over. You always have to make money somehow. We’ll just hit the lottery, which is what I’ve been trying as well.”