Monday, August 15, 2011

Cleaning Yale: My New Haven janitor, Sherri B.

“I would definitely consider leaving here. In a heartbeat.”

Sherri B.’s hips are hanging over the sides of her chair. When she shifts her body, the fat sways, a consequence of her middle-age operations. She doesn't seem to notice.

There is no hiding certain signs of her rough upbringing. Freckles and oblong black bumps dot the contours of her cheek. Her chin falls into folds of skin; they move rhythmically as she speaks. Her face, distinctive and wholesome from afar, is in reality a haphazard amalgamation of beauty tips. She turns her body and looks at me. “Would you consider living in New Haven? You wouldn’t live here, would you?”

Sherri is my janitor. Every day between ten o’clock and noon, she climbs the steps of my entryway, jerking a sanitation cart in her left hand and a sopping mop in her right. Her rounds have become more difficult since she had knee surgery two months ago, and by the time she is at my room on the fourth floor, she admits to being out of breath. When Sherri walks, the small bulge of keys in her front pocket jingles, announcing her entry—insofar as a janitor can get noticed. 

It wasn’t like this eighteen years ago, when Sherri first started working for Yale. She headed her own small division in catering, where she met all the celebrities: “I was doing catering parties for the president of Yale, I done saw presidents from different countries, I done seen secret service from different presidents. Actors, actresses.” She loved the job. 

In 2005, she fell in a basement and needed multiple back surgeries. Two years later, she transferred into custodial services. Her current work is menial, uninspiring, and sometimes painful. Sherri has gotten over the demotion. “We make 17 an hour. It might not seem like nothing but you’re not going to go nowhere else and get that kind of money. Everyone in the inner city want to work at Yale University.”

Her time at Yale has been her personal blessing. She met her second husband, now of fifteen years, while he was a cook in the Calhoun College kitchen. At her catering job, she had the power to recommend others, and as a result Sherri’s friends and eldest daughter are all working forty hour weeks. Due to Yale’s generous first time house-buyer program, Sherri and her husband have a home in West Haven, and Yale has paid for twenty five thousand of the down payment and two thousand towards taxes every year for ten years. Her six children, four with Maurice, are taken care of for college: Yale subsidizes half their tuition at any place of higher education. But perhaps most importantly, Yale has taken her out of New Haven’s grittiest neighborhoods.


New Haven has long been a notoriously violent place to live. In 1878, Mary Stannard was poisoned with arsenic and had her throat slit; three years later, Jenny Kramer died from arsenic poisoning and attempted rape. The ensuing trials drew the attention of America and birthed an era of sensationalist media. In the past two decades, the deaths of Christian Prince, Suzanne Jovin and Annie Le have perpetuated and prolonged New Haven’s stigma as a dangerous city. The bombast is supported by fact: violent crime rates here are twice as high as an average US city of comparable size—this, despite a fifty percent decrease in crime during the past two decades. Since the dissolution of New Haven’s manufacturing industry post-WWII, the city has faced a painful economic turnaround—the per capita income now is around $16,000—and in the late 1980s crack cocaine turned the Elm City into a breeding ground for criminal gangs. The turf wars that sprouted in the 80s and are rooted in New Haven today, were the epicenter of Sherri Brown’s previous life.

“I lived right in the midst of where it was going on. I walked outside my door, it was right outside. Five minutes away from Yale.” Sherri says. “Right where I lived was in the middle of the drugs, the everything. It was so much shooting, and drugs, and kids killing each other. It’s kind of sad, you become accustomed to it.” 

When Sherri talks, her voice traces around her words, lilting up and down at points of emphasis. “Is there something particular you want to ask me, because I done seen it all.” She fiddles with a limp plastic glove as she talks, and rips it in half accidentally; a piece slides across my notebook. She hastily swipes it back and interjects. “Where are you from?” 

I told her I was California. “Now that’s the beautiful life," she says. "That’s a whole ‘nother world over there. That’s a blessin’ for you not to experience this life.” 

Sherri was born in New Haven in 1969, and has never left. Shortly after birth, she was abandoned, adopted by a working class family, and then taken back by her birth mother at six years old. The two lived in the streets, and for the longest time, Sherri thought her mother was actually her cousin—though she was always skeptical, because she and her looked exactly the same. 

Her teenage years were typical for the area. She graduated from high school, fell in love, became pregnant at 19, became pregnant soon after, then divorced her first husband. He didn’t take it too well. “He was trying to really like kill me for real. Like, dead serious kill me. Like, I almost died some years back…I had a mishap real bad.” Ironically, it was her rough and tumble community that issued an ultimatum to her former husband, and he never came back. Sherri started working at Yale a month later.


It is towards the end of our interview, and a stack of blue trash bags has just fallen to the floor. They look awkward, disheveled, and flimsy as Sherri bends down to scoop them up. I ask an innocuous question, one I think will smoothly transition the two of us back to our daily lives: “Do you want your kids to stay in New Haven?”

Her body immediately straightens up in the brown chair, and her hands mime her words on the table. “Absolutely not. Absolutely not.” She looks at me with concentrated, measured eyes, and her words spill out in a deluge of feeling and expectancy, slightly tinged with acrimony and her slight drawl. “In ten years, New Haven’s probably going to be a beautiful place to live. I want them to get away from here. My daughter was going to get up and go to Florida a year ago—I wish she would have left. I think there’s opportunity, I just don’t, I just don’t think you…” 

A theory suddenly pops into my head: the measure of a city’s health is if you want your kids to stay. I tell Sherri. She pauses, contemplative. “I want to have grandchildren. I don’t want them to grow up in this environment. I want to probably tell them the story of the things I been through, but I don’t want them to go through it.” She looks slightly shaken, and the dialogue stops—it’s a brief second, but when she starts talking again, the mood has become more confident, more resilient. “My daughter is a very smart girl. She likes writing. Love writing. She had did a paper on abortion. She had wrote the paper with the actual kid talkin’ out of his stomach. If you had read it it was really awesome.”

“But you and your husband are here for sure, right?” Sherri cuts me off before I even finish the question. “If I had the finance I would leave here without even thinking. In a heartbeat.” She shakes her head emphatically.  “If my husband were well right now I would just boom—credit card—done.” Her lips suddenly purse, as if trying to solve a particularly hard logic puzzle. Then her shoulders slowly slump, and her words come out pensive, slightly resigned, peacefully hectic. “I’ve been through enough in my life that I’m tired—I’ve seen a lot of heartache, I’ve seen friends, people close to me die from being shot, people overdose—I done saw a lot. I thank God for my job, believe me without this job I don’t know what I’d be doing, at this point, but you believe me I don’t know how, how much—would you consider being in New Haven? I work here but…it’s been a good opportunity but I wouldn’t…no. If I didn’t live here I wouldn’t come here to live.”

Sherri pushes off the table and pulls herself upright, pants and shirt crumpled, slightly sticking to her body. She slowly gathers her garbage bags and fistful of keys and wayward walkie-talkie, then turns around and walks away, back to entryway D, where she still has two hours of work left.


  1. Very nice piece of writing, Peter. Thank you for sharing a part of Sherri's life with us.

  2. Thanks guys! Crazy thing: senior year, Sherri didn't remember who I was.

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