This janitor works by the booksGod's library needs...

SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

October 08, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen

This janitor works by the books

God's library needs constant dusting.

"I thought it would take me a year to get to the sixth floor," says Kim Stevens, the patron saint of cleaning. "But I can't seem to get off the first floor."

Wipe a finger along half of the first-floor bookshelves at the George Peabody Library. Mr. Stevens has been there. The crinkly historical books are dust-free. Mr. Stevens, the library's janitor, has only about 270,000 more books to deal with -- out of 293,000. But the stunning fact is he can't wait to get to them all.

This is a man (born in White Marsh, age 40) who has spent 27 years cleaning businesses and homes. But never had he tackled 61 feet of cast-iron balconies bulging with books. He interviewed seven times for this part-time job of dusting books with a vacuum cleaner, sometimes replacing 50 light bulbs a week, hand-scrubbing 36 floor mats embedded with cookies from pricey wedding receptions held here.

"I'm the guy for the job," he said and said before getting the job in February.

"Want a dust rag?" is his opening line to visitors.

The library -- so profoundly peaceful -- has this certain smell, which could be Mr. Stevens' bleach habit. He was appalled that someone had used Comet to clean the floors. There will be no Comet under Mr. Stevens' janitorial watch. And he works with only a toothbrush and a scrub brush.

When dusting, he handles each old book as he would a newborn. He catches in his hands fragments of life -- love letters and, once, a four-leaf clover pressed for decades between pages.

"You're opening up a part of history."

In these moments of discovery, the cleaning man of the George Peabody Library has recorded goose bumps.

"No matter how mad at the world I get, I can come in here and be happy," Mr. Stevens says. "And nobody messes with me."

Hey, wait, you've seen this guy before.

Wasn't he the cranky customer in "Diner"?

The crusty school principal in "Avalon"?

The casino security guard in "Rain Man"?

The cantankerous elevator operator in "Disclosure"?

The crabby medical examiner in "Homicide"?

Sure enough, Ralph Tabakin of Silver Spring is director Barry Levinson's best-used character actor.

He's a grouchy Everyman, "just a face in the crowd, a typical working guy," whose distinguished lack of distinction well serves Mr. Levinson's penchant for grounding his work in the commonplace.

When the new "Homicide" season premieres Oct. 20, look for Mr. Tabakin in full autopsy mode.

"Every time you see the body, you see me," he says.

He will also play a prison warden in "Sleepers," Mr. Levinson's coming film adaptation of the best seller.

Mr. Tabakin, 74, and Mr. Levinson met accidentally in the early 1980s, when the director was casting "Diner."

Distraught viewer

Before he knew it, Mr. Tabakin, who runs a Wheaton acting school with a partner, was auditioning. He won the memorable bit part of a customer distraught that the "Bonanza" ranch looked fake on a circa 1959 color television.

Among Mr. Tabakin's favorite lines are those of the elevator operator in "Disclosure" who sternly directs cyber hunk Michael Douglas to a law office:

" 'Down the hall, to the right.'

"I like that one," Mr. Tabakin says.

He doesn't work for just the Baltimore-born director.

Mr. Tabakin is a veteran of scores of training films, television dramas, and commercials for Murray's Steaks, the chiropractic profession and other enterprises.

But working with Mr. Levinson, whether in Bangkok, London, Seattle or New York, is clearly the highlight of Mr. Tabakin's who-would-have-guessed-it career.

"I just feel honored he uses me all the time," Mr. Tabakin says. Mind you, "It's not like he calls me. I've got to call him. He makes me audition."

Stephanie Shapiro

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