Robert, a young, black aspiring writer, supports himself by working as a janitor in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, apartment building. In “the days of the Gold Coast,” the old building near Harvard Square had been a haven for the rich; later, poet-novelist Conrad Aiken lived there; now, it is rather run-down. Even seedier is Robert’s predecessor, James Sullivan, an elderly Irishman who has been forced to retire. Sullivan lives in the building with Meg, his half-mad wife, and their smelly, barking dog. He is technically Robert’s supervisor, and most of the story concerns their relationship.
Robert likes being a janitor because he is confident of a bright future as a writer, and he also enjoys making the white liberals he meets at parties uncomfortable by talking enthusiastically about his duties, which include, he insists, being able “to spot Jews and Negroes who are passing.” His youth and confidence make him pity Sullivan: “He had been in that building thirty years and had its whole history recorded in the little folds of his mind, as his own life was recorded in the wrinkles of his face.” Sullivan acts the role of an all-knowing mentor forever dispensing advice to his young “assistant.” Excessively proud of his Irish heritage, he repeats stories of sitting in bars with James Michael Curley, the longtime boss of Democratic politics in Boston, and of knowing Frank O’Connor when the Irish writer taught at Harvard.
Robert considers one of the pleasures of his job the opportunity to find material, assuming “that behind each of the fifty or so doors in our building lived a story which could, if I chose to grace it with the magic of my pen, become immortal.” However, the tenants prove too ordinary to supply what he...
(The entire section is 717 words.)