A Cutter


“You’re not a cutter. I’m a cutter.”

This is a scene from the amazingly brilliant and classic movie, Breaking Away. If you’ve never seen it… close this now, and go do whatever you have to do to see it. Buy it… rent it… download it… whatever. Invest a couple of hours (and not even that). You won’t regret it. And I’ll wait right here for you.



Twenty-five years ago, I got my first job. I worked for a housekeeping department in a hospital.

I’d like you to close your eyes for a second. Before you do… this is what you need to prepare for: (1) Clear your mind of all other thoughts. (2) Reflect on the types of messes someone working in housekeeping at a hospital might be called in to clean up. (3) Clear your mind again, and then seriously, think about the types of messes someone working in housekeeping at a hospital might be called in to clean up. (4) After about thirty seconds, shudder, open your eyes, and come on back.

(Ok… go ahead… close your eyes, and then run through one to four.)

It’s a funny thing about some jobs and people. As Mike Rowe so eloquently puts it at the beginning of each episode of Dirty Jobs: “These are the people doing the work that makes civilized life possible for the rest of us.”

No one wants to think about who is cleaning the floor of an operating room after the surgery… or getting called in to the bathroom or hallway when someone is sick… and yet the hospital is full of these moments. Every day. Every floor.

I worked at a hospital, in housekeeping, while I was in high school. I was a part-time employee working regular hours… every weekend, no real benefit time building up… with extra shifts in the summer. (I also worked part-time in a pizza place… different stories… another time.)

While I was there, I worked with a lot of people in the department that were working there full-time. I can’t remember a single one of them that would consider it career employment. But for most of them, it was a job. A way to pay the bills. A way to provide for their families.

And… often… yeah, to do so without the respect they so deserved.

For years, a friend of mine used to have the “Billy test” for potential boyfriends. She had a younger brother. (Yes… Billy.) When she left for college, Billy was 2-years-old. During her senior year of high school, she developed an interesting way of gauging how good a boyfriend was. She would introduce him to Billy.

But it wasn’t a casual introduction. This was a test with deeper significance. She was looking to size-up a potential long-term situation. So an afternoon might be cleared out for a trip to the zoo. Or a mysterious set of events could take place at the last minute, resulting in her needing to cancel plans in order to babysit (with an offer then extended to join her). And… then she watched.

Was he patient with Billy? Dealing with Billy running around with a plastic bat could be trying for anyone. Was he able to relate with Billy? …in a way that suggested he would be good with kids?

Honestly, it was a brilliant test. In one way or another though, Billy had a way of bringing out the true character of potential suitors.

Back at the hospital, there used to be sleeping quarters for the doctors. A room with a bed. A desk with a chair. Usually a television. A place to catch a nap, or maybe sleep when working an overnight on call.

Guess who cleaned the room and made up the bed after the doctor left?



You would be amazed at some of the things left behind. It wasn’t even so much whether or not they were disgusting things left behind. (Yes… there are stories worthy the current adult magazine of record.) Instead, what offended us in housekeeping the most was the incredible lack of respect it showed for the people that had to clean up after them.

Example… dirty dishes.

Not just paper cups and take out food. We’re talking about cafeteria trays with real dishes and silverware on them. (Often featuring the remains of a meal or a snack several hours old.) All left behind because… you know… sure… doctor… important… don’t have time to go back down to the cafeteria… housekeeping will clean it up and even return the tray.

True character on display. In fact, I remember one time…

The hospital provided scrubs in the operating room. You know the surgical scrubs of which I speak. On our rounds of cleaning, we walked into the room, started stripping the bed and getting a vacuum ready, and we found dirty scrubs on the floor. The most basic idea was enough: this doctor figured we should pick up the dirty clothes, and didn’t even bother to bring them to the hamper… a hamper located by opening just one door and walking all of twenty feet. Just dumped them on the ground.

In the movie The Breakfast Club, the kids try to make fun of the janitor, Carl. Trouble for them is, he quickly shuts them up by letting them in on a little secret. He knows everything about them. All of their most private thoughts and actions are to be found in the moments he occupies nearby and the trash that he sees.

Convert that to housekeeping. We knew the jerks of the staff and the standout fabulous people. We knew who to go above and beyond for… and who to give a half-assed effort with. We knew who had a quick hand to report us, whether justified or not, and who was willing to let us get our work done… properly… and perhaps cut us some slack as well.

Figuratively, I have been a cutter. I have done the work, seen the sights, and understand where people show their true character.

And for you… I offer a simple thought. The next time you wonder how people see you… the opinions about you… all you really need to do is consider the messes you’ve made or opportunities you’ve passed on. Because the people cleaning up your messes know how you treat them. They remember. And such things do matter.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com