When head custodian Carl James opens the door to the basement at Pulaski Street School, a setting very familiar to him, he’s greeted by the sound and warmth of humming boilers.
Across from the massive heating equipment is Mr. James’ office, where a large, shiny-black chair, found for him by a friend about 25 years ago, towers behind his desk. The chair, with armrests desperately held together by duct tape, dominates the space between Mr. James’ desk and the desk that once belonged to his former boss, Walter Budd, who hired him nearly five and a half decades ago.
“For some reason, I just held on to it,” said Mr. James as he opened a top drawer filled with keys that go as far back as the 1930s and open locks that no longer exist. He keeps the functional ones — three rings of about 50 keys each — in his own desk.
As Mr. James scanned the room — walls plastered with his achievements and old photos — he called the 10-by-15-foot office his “little home away from home.”
Now 78, he has been a Riverhead School District employee for 53 years — longer than any other school district staff member from Riverhead to Orient. In February, he’ll celebrate both his 79th birthday and his 54th anniversary at the school.
“I’ve been doing it so long, it’s like what I should be doing,” Mr. James said. “This is just my way of life.”
After graduating from Riverhead High School when it was located at Pulaski Street School, which now serves about 700 fifth- and sixth-graders, Mr. James joined the U.S. Army and toured Europe with his unit. After serving for two years, he returned to Riverhead.
At that time, some schools in this country were still segregated, although Mr. James said he’s never encountered prejudice in his workplace. However, racism is not unknown to him.
“It somewhat bothered me because I had been in the service and there were still places [in Riverhead] that I wasn’t allowed to go,” he said. “I couldn’t understand that. I’m not one to make a lot of stink about things, but if you go downtown, you had to go over there. If you wanted a drink of water, you drank over there and the other ones drank over there.
“I’m wearing Uncle Sam’s uniform and I gotta go through this? It just bothered me a lot, even until today,” he said.
Although he wanted to become an electrician, Mr. James accepted a custodian job at Pulaski Street School when he was 23 years old.
“I was hired right on the spot in the hallway,” Mr. James said. “They asked if I could start the next day. I said, ‘I can start today.’ ”
His first responsibilities, he recalled, included the hallway with rooms 112 through 118. A bathroom was also added to his workload. After about 12 years, he was promoted to head custodian and later started a professional office cleaning business on this side. That folded in 1993, however, when downtown offices began to close in a struggling economy.
An education and a career weren’t the only things Mr. James found at Pulaski Street School.
He and his wife, then Rose Cherry, met there and got to know each other better through church. They’ve been married for 41 years and have four daughters — Lisa, Carlene, Tina and Doreen — and nine grandchildren.
Family is very important to Mr. James, the second-oldest of five children. He and his older brother would work on farms along Sound Avenue, picking fruit before and after school.
He said his mother, Estelle, who lived to the age of 101, “taught me that you have to work hard for the things you want in life.”
Mr. James said he treasured his mother’s guidance and support and would go out to lunch with her downtown during his break.
He even went the extra mile by building a home in Northville that would have allowed his mother to move in, should her health decline.
“I told her that if anything happened to her, she didn’t have to worry about nothing,” Mr. James recalled, holding back tears.
Luckily, he said, his mother was “blessed with good health” and even continued to drive until she was 95. She moved into a nursing home during the last two years of her life, Mr. James said, and the family gathered around her bedside right before she died.
Just as his family helped shape Mr. James into the person he has become, he’s helping others who cross his path at Pulaski Street School.
Custodian Tony Madonia, who has worked at the school for six years, said Mr. James is always there to lend a helping hand.
“He has knowledge about everything that is going on here,” Mr. Madonia said. “It’s very unique because this is a building that should have at least two head custodians.”
Claude Pragliola, a 1982 Riverhead High School grad who also attended Pulaski Street, started as a custodian at Pulaski Street about 28 years ago. He said he enjoys working with Mr. James.
“He’s wonderful,” Mr. Pragliola said. “He’s a great man. A great man. He puts up with a lot from a lot of angles and I try to learn his patience.”
Mr. James said his workday starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. if he’s lucky, although he may not be not be coming in much longer.
At his family’s request, he is thinking about retiring this summer, though members of his staff will say they don’t believe he’ll go through with it.
“I’ve heard him say ‘one more year’ since I started in 1995,” said custodian Taylor Wayland. “He’s got about five more years.”
Soon after Mr. Wayland made this statement, Mr. James got a call on his walkie-talkie: “Carl, there’s a puddle in the boy’s bathroom.”
“OK,” Mr. James responded. “I’ll send Taylor.”
“You heard that Taylor?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Mr. Wayland said from down the hall. “I heard.”
Asked if he gave Mr. Wayland that task as payback for bugging him about staying with the district until he hits the 60-year mark, Mr. James laughed and said, “Of course.”
But even though his staff of seven custodians fondly pressures him to stay on, Mr. James admits he thinks about retiring every year.
“I might just say, ‘OK. That’s enough,” he said of the possibility he really will retire at the end of this school year. “But if things look promising and upbeat, I may say, ‘One more,’ like I have been saying for the last 20 years.”