March 29th, 2005


Svetlana, or thereabouts

She looks like her name should be Svetlana, and her movements have a Ukrainian gymnast’s precision. I see her everyday. She is tall with pale skin, and thick wavy hair the color of a beach at sunset. It's usually pulled back, sometimes up in a net.

We make eye contact that carries more weight than most of the woman I notice in this enormous building with its two thousand workers, and a full-scale dinosaur in the lobby. There’s fire and pride in her eyes, and she never breaks her stare, nor do I.

When she speaks to her boss, though, the crew chief of the massive maintenance crew that gives any smudge or speck of dust a short shelf life, it’s in Spanish, and my dreams of her less-than-perfect stuck landing in a failed Olympic career fall away. Like our entire cleaning staff, they’re new immigrants from Mexico with contingent worker status, and they spend their days making certain our surroundings are sterile.

I watch their routines; sometimes on their hands and knees rubbing out a scuff from a shoe, or they’re wiping down the counters of any splashed water in the rest rooms every hour on the hour. It’s a rigorous, non-stop system, which keeps this place as clean as my mother’s plastic-covered furniture.

I smile, nod, sometimes wishing her a good day. She looks at me with a burning softness, a self-possession of knowing she belongs somewhere else, anywhere other than dragging around a mop and pail through the building’s endless corridors, and when she looks at me like that, I know she understands it’s not my fault. She knows that I’m just another piece of the machinery.

She may not be a Svetlana, but she carries herself with the beauty and grace of a champion. I hope she finds that dream that burns inside her. Whether she’s a dancer, singer, or an aspiring dental assistant, I believe that fire won’t be smothered, and one day she will soar.