After five exhausting months, 61-year-old Thomas Brown has finally got back to work. His job as a housekeeper at Drury Pear Tree Inn St. Louis near Union Station, temporarily ended when the COVID-19 pandemic shut thousands of businesses.
According to a study published by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), nearly nine out of ten hotels nationwide have been forced to lay off employees or go on vacation due to the fatal illness.
For Brown, the loss was devastating. Getting hired at the Pear Tree in 2019 was a life raft. It signaled the end of a two year struggle with unemployment, a chance to deal with rising child support payments, and the ability to keep a roof over your head. Just as things were improving, the mysterious and widespread disease reversed Brown’s fate.
In a way, this was the path of Brown’s up-and-down life.
The word “special” was associated with him during his young life and it was not a compliment. Family can be cruel, and Brown’s 10 siblings took great pleasure in making fun of his crossed eyes and thick glasses. He admits he struggled with reading and writing in elementary school and was depressed when his mother agreed to be sent to Martin Luther King Jr. High School for disabled children in the city.
“I was angry that mom brought me to this school. I wasn’t disabled, ”Brown recalled bitterly. “I couldn’t understand why I was there with these people?”
Brown now admits that attending school was a “privilege”.
“I’ve seen disabled people trying to learn and succeed with what they had. I wasn’t blind, deaf, or in a wheelchair. They made me realize that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my shortcomings, that I was truly blessed and could do anything. “
His father was a chronic alcoholic, but Brown said his mother Evalena was his heroine.
“We were poor, but mom made sure that her 11 children were always happy and cared for. We always laughed, joked, sang and danced around the house. “
Brown was raised in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At a young age, he knocked on strangers’ doors and spread the gospel. This gave him an advantage.
“I was raised to talk to people and make them happy and hopeful. Religion helped me relate to different people. to Not being harassed by racism; To be the best that I can be “
Brown said college was never an option. Getting a job, any job after graduating from high school, was his only obsession. He worked in restaurants and temporary gigs until 1987 when he got a job in food preparation at the children’s hospital. It worked out fine there for nearly ten years, Brown said, until he filed a disability claim for a workplace injury. After that, his relationship with his superiors deteriorated and he was “fired” in 2008.
Corrective glasses fixed his eye problem. MLK High School helped build his self-esteem. Brown said he developed a strong work ethic and an infectious sense of humor. He said he was the employee who kept his employees on their toes with jokes and impromptu impressions from celebrities like William Shatner and Elvis Presley.
Before he lost the hospital job, however, he noticed Mr. Eugene Henry, an entrepreneur who ran his own cleaning company. Henry, visiting his grandson in the hospital, took Brown under his wing. He worked with Henry cleaning bureaus after hours and eventually became a full-time employee.
“Mr. Henry treated me like a son,” Brown recalled. “He taught me the art of cleaning, which made me feel responsible and proud. He kept saying I could have my own cleaning business one day. “
Brown married in 1990. He and his wife Tonya had two children. Tonya developed heart problems after giving birth to her daughter. Her speech was hazy, she lost her sight and balance, and was eventually confined to a wheelchair. A diagnosis was made on Tonya Multiple sclerosis and died in 2006 of related complications.
The next 13 years were a series of major setbacks for Brown. The opportunities with Mr. Henry dried up. He and his two children hopped from place to place for two years as he struggled to find steady work. Eventually he was forced to let the children stay with his wife’s family, who applied for and won custody in the courts. With no money for legal representation, Brown feels like a victim of a biased judicial system. He was looking for social help Advocacy agencies but has not yet received Custody or visiting rights. Most of his paychecks and unemployment benefits are garnished by the courts.
Brown relied on his entrepreneurial skills to get through. With his rusty but reliable 1990 Chevy pickup, a buffer, carpet cleaner, and lawn mower, he managed to survive on vacation from the hotel. Just when he felt like he was on the way to recovery and maybe even got custody of his children (Brown also has two children from another relationship), the coronavirus added to the fragility of his life.
In February he returned to the pear tree with a new cleaning system. Drury, a Missouri company with more than 150 properties, has partnered with Ecolab Inc. – a global leader in hygiene and infection prevention solutions for the hospitality industry. Under the new protocol, Brown must follow a detailed checklist to ensure that all frequently touched areas – including handles, baggage carts, elevator buttons, and more – are sanitized frequently throughout the day.
Brown is just happy when guests return to the hotel. In contrast to cleaning empty office space late at night, nothing makes him happier than keeping guests happy and letting them complement his work or service.
“My hours are not the same as they used to be, but hopefully when this virus gets under control that will change,” Brown said. “But I’m back to work, back to cleaning, back to the real Tommy. For me it means that I have a chance to fight. “
Sylvester Brown Jr. is the St. Louis American’s First Deaconess Fellow.