Jay and the Janitor

Anyone who’s killed some time on social media will have noticed the curious popularity of listicles about introverts. You know the type. All odd numbers and appeals to your ego. 27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand. 23 Things All Introverts Are Guilty of Doing. 19 Things That Are Basically Porn to Introverts. All real titles of actual articles, and if the murky world of Twitter is anything to go by, this type of navel-gazing is not only striking a chord; for some, it’s bordering on free therapy.

There is an obvious but delicious irony in people taking to the internet to publicly proclaim their introverted nature and share it with their 300 closest friends (“OMG this is totally me! #truth”). The online world being what it is, the backlash against such pieces and the people who love them has already begun: Witness Scientific American’s piece 23 Signs You’re Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert.

As tempting as it is to mock, let’s take a minute to recognize social media for what it can be: a Club Med for the socially awkward. A digital sanctuary where eye contact is optional and responses can be delayed, considered and crafted at will. What better place to let your introverted neuroses out for some fresh air and frolics?

It wasn’t always this easy. Back in the 80s, my first-ever indication that there were other kids out there who sometimes just enjoyed being alone came, of all places, from McCain Superfries. In a TV ad that has since gone on to become something of a Canadian cult classic, a small boy named Jay sits alone at the kitchen table, snacking on fries and chocolate milk as he intently reads a comic book through thick bottlecap glasses too big for his tiny face. We can hear the sounds of other kids playing outside as he reads, and the ad ends with a smooth voiceover that proclaims Superfries as being “For the strong, silent type.” To this day, there is something inherently appealing about that ad to me.

In those days, I was a hyper self-conscious seven-year-old who had just emerged from a “shy phase” where I simply stopped going to class. For some reason, I was convinced that entering Room 4B meant that everyone would stop what they were doing, turn around and look at me. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the introvert-narcissist theorem after all. In any case, in my mind, walking into that classroom was only one step below sauntering into a pit of snakes, and I held my ground for nearly a week, hanging back in the hallway or the bathroom or even outside the school, out of sight, as the bell rang and the other kids piled in.

With everyone else in class, I soon came to the attention of the only other person still roaming the halls – the school janitor. He was a scrawny-looking fellow with a brown mullet, bad teeth and a lazy eye, and it was that week that I discovered he took a cigarette break on the back steps outside the library just after nine o’clock. Despite the shyness, I was always more comfortable around adults than kids my own age. So, before long, I started talking to him.

“Did you know that cigarettes are really bad for you? My mom says they’re full of poison.”

He paused mid-drag and looked over, unamused.

“Oh yeah? And did you know it’s after 9am? Why aren’t you in class?”

I didn’t have an answer for that one. He was pretty cool about it, though.

In hindsight, I don’t remember him ever talking to any of the other staff or teachers there, unless there was some spill they wanted him to clear up, though I’m sure he must have spoken to someone at some stage. In my mind, however, he is a Lone Ranger type of figure in a pale blue button-down shirt and sensible navy pants, striding slowly down the green tiled hallways with bucket and mop in lieu of horse and gun.

Though our conversation was at an end, he made no move to leave. He stayed seated on the stoop, slowly savouring his smoke as I looked on disapprovingly from a short distance away. It stands to reason that in a situation where two loners are put together, they will invariably end up disliking each other.

Eventually my teacher cottoned on to my absence, and the principal got involved. I chose the tactic of showing up early to avoid the death stares of my already-seated classmates, which of course were all in my head. I still didn’t want to go back to class, but felt somehow emboldened from daring to have criticized a grown-up and sneaking out to where I wasn’t supposed to be. Today, I think what I really appreciated the most about my encounter with that janitor was the time and space he gave me to do my thing, to gather my thoughts before facing my peers, which is all an introvert wants at the end of the day. I wonder if he’s on Facebook.

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