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Jamichael Caldwell, owner of Caldwell Cleaning Solutions, and his family: from left, Jaeda, wife Shawntae, Jaxson, Jasmine and La'Renta in the red shirt. (Contributed photo)

All persons in Hamilton County shall wear a facial covering or mask which covers the mouth and nose at all times when indoors in all public and private buildings — Hamilton County Executive Order

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On Friday, July 31, hundreds of local Republican leaders attended an annual fundraiser at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

It was a coat-and-tie affair, with red and white linens and beautiful centerpieces. Organizers called it their largest fundraiser ever.

Yet based on photos from the event, few people wore masks.

Not the county sheriff.

Not a school board member.

Not candidates for U.S. Senate.

Not hundreds of others.

It is difficult to find the right words to respond to this. Do I write in anger? At what feels like such outright dismissal of coronavirus suffering? Do I write in grief? Over the way leaders are supposed to hold things together instead of helping them fall apart?

With more than 163,000 Americans dead and, as of Friday, 40 of our own citizens fighting for their lives in intensive care beds just blocks away, our local leaders — including the man charged with upholding our mask mandate — meet in a crowded indoor room, smiling for cameras, without masks ... to fundraise.

Normally, I would roar in criticism and judgment.

But these aren't normal times. I don't want to write such words right now. Often, when I do, I end up angrier than before.

I'll just say this: I hope no one gets sick. (It was later reported someone testing positive had attended the event.)

I hope you all are healthy and well.

And those around you, too.

Including the people who were the last to leave that night: the men and women who cleaned that convention center room.

Your plates. Your used napkins. The crumbs from your tables.

Across this county, while most of us sleep, men and women go to work cleaning: doorknobs, offices, conference-room tables, toilets, classrooms, hospital beds, elevators, locker rooms, buses, anything and everything.

They're cleaners: the after-hours professionals who, during this pandemic, have become some of our most essential workers.

Part of our reopening and recovery hinges on their ability to do their job.

The least we can do is wear a mask for them.

Play this new form of I-Spy: wherever you go, whatever room you're in, someone has to disinfect and clean it.

Otherwise, our city falls apart.

I'm not doing the cleaning. Are you? I'll confess to a certain middle-and-upper-class psychology about cleaning — this is not our work. We are better than this.

We ask others to handle the things we don't want to. Our waste. Our trash. It creates an elitist division of labor. Years ago, Gandhi tried to counter this, telling all his followers to clean toilets. It was both practical and spiritual advice.

He even told teachers: "You will make your institution ideal, if besides giving the students literary education, you have made cooks and sweepers of them."

These days, such work is service: to risk your life for the safety and well-being of others.

Such servant leadership must be honored: what policies can we enact that honor the livelihoods of the people who clean this county?

"If it wasn't for us or anybody else that works, the world wouldn't go around," said Jamichael Caldwell.

Caldwell, 36, just started his own business: Caldwell Cleaning Solutions.

"I clean businesses. Residential. Commercial. Homes. I also do churches," he said.

This makes him one of the most essential people in this city.

For Caldwell, it's not just cleaners.

"Everyday work people," he said. "My wife is a nurse. Policemen. Firemen. Preachers. Anybody that goes to work every day to make the world go round is essential to me."

I met Caldwell last year at a banquet on hope and second chances; he was a guest speaker. I saw a man of integrity, resilience and faith.

"A person who wants to succeed in life," he said. "Someone who loves the Lord."

Growing up in Brainerd, he dearly loved two things: football and his grandmother.

He played for coach Stanley Jackson at Brainerd High, then the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Tusculum University, where he was an all-conference receiver.

Adversity struck when his grandmother died. Caldwell, distraught, made a string of bad decisions, which led to prison time for a drug charge.

He moved home. Started working. And excelling. Now, he's a family man to his wife Shawntae and their children, Jaeda, Jaxson, Jasmine and La'Renta.

"The love of my life," he said. "We have a good blended family. I want to be a good role model for them."

And for the rest of us, too.

If you need professional cleaning, contact him at 423-385-0923 or jamichaelacaldwell@gmail.com.

"I am an excellent person and trustworthy," he said. "You can always count on me."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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David Cook
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