Blood, Sweat & Soap

tale of toil by jay clemens

Submitted by ludd on May 4, 2010

The hospital is a vast labyrinth of bright linoleum and enameled tunnels. People seem to wander about aimlessly, carrying linens, pushing strange apparatuses of gleaming metals, pushing wheelchairs. Patients in ill-fitting green gowns shuffle around, glum and bored. At the far end of a long corridor is the sign, with an arrow pointing downwards: LAUNDRY ROOM. At the bottom of the stairs, the hall gets narrower. I go through two big swinging green doors that say EMPLOYEES ONLY. At the end of this corridor is a big black door with a smaller door cut into it, emanating a low roar of machinery. I walk through the door and am pounced upon by my new supervisor, Mr. Crumley. Crumley is wearing a white shirt and tie and is sweating profusely in the room's heat. Strange machines are clanking and whooshing. A mad pace of activity fills the air. Crumley wastes no time. "Fine, glad you made it. You'll be separating."

"Separating?" I ask myself, as soon as Crumley is out of earshot. I follow him around a big machine where women are placing bright white sheets on long conveyor belts, past a row of enormous industrial dryers, and into a corner where three other young men are pulling linens out of a large rollaround canvas bin.

"Here's your man, train him well," says Crumley, and disappears. The skinny blonde-haired one instructs me.

"Grab an article, shake it out and throw it into the right bin." He points to four bins parked against the wall. "That one's sheets, that one's OR, that one's other white linens, and that one's gowns. Got it?"

"Yeah, sure."

I lean over and stare into the bin. A strange, unidentifiable odor assaults my nostrils. The others are jamming their hands in and pulling things out without hesitation; but I want a few minutes to check out what's in that bin. I gingerly pull out a patient gown--thin green cotton--and throw it unceremoniously into the Gowns bin. Hmmm, what's next? I come up with a pair of white cotton drawstring pants. "Where does this go?"

"Other White Linens."

Now I pull up a long white sheet. Into the Sheet bin it goes. This isn't so bad, the bin's almost empty.

The skinny blonde kid walks towards the back wall, where there are about thirty stuffed-full drawstring cotton sacks--stuffed full, presumably, of dirty laundry. He drags a few back over and dumps them into a bin. "Fill 'er up," he says.

I pick up my pace a little, get into the swing, sheets here, towels there, gowns in the other one. Very quickly, I learn to grab with my eyes as well as my fingers. Avoid the excrement on the gowns, the vomit on the towels. There's some pretty funky stuff in here. I pull up a green, stiff square of cotton material, four feet by four.

"What's this?" I naively ask.

"Operating room sheet."

The skinny blonde kid is Jack, the Black guy is Tony, the short dark-haired one is Scott. Jack has seniority, he's been there two months. Tony's been there one month, Scott one day. I don't feel like such an intruder; these are not oldtimers here.

I go with Jack to get more sacks for the bin. Dump it in and sort some more. I'm really flying now. I pluck up a dark green OR sheet and hurl it into the OR bin. There's another one all bunched up. I grab an end and shake it out. A sickening mass of deep red, bloody ooze sloshes all over the gown in the bin and over Scott's hands.

"STAINS, STAINS!" scream Jack and Tony, doing a little dance around the bin. Scott and I recoil in disgust. Matted hair protrudes fron the slimy ball of bloody matter in the bin. Jack runs over with a stick, still yelling, "STAINS, STAINS!" He pokes at the bloody sheet, picks it up, and flings it into the corner of the room. It slaps the wall and slides down onto a dried-out pile of more bloody green OR sheets.

"That's the Stains pile," says Jack, his face slightly flushed. "We don't touch that stuff."

"That shit's too messed up," adds Tony. "Let them worry about that stuff."

Jack picks up some other bloody gowns and sheets and tosses them into the Stains pile. My stomach is queasy. I pick things up by the tips of two fingers, looking carefully for any other surprises.

It's break time and us separators go our separate ways. I grab a cup of coffee from the vending machine and stroll around the hospital. When I get back, there are just three of us. We start separating again. About a half hour goes by and Scott is nowhere to be seen.

"What happened to the other guy?" I ask.

"Probably quit, like most people. We get some that don't even make it through one whole day."

We keep on sorting away, not talking much. The pile of laundry bags gets smaller and smaller. The CLANK CLANK CLANK of the folding machine in the other area is getting on my nerves. The WHOOSH of the huge dryers drowns out my thoughts as morning edges towards noon. Those dryers put out a lot of heat, too, and we're burning up. Tony switches on a ceiling fan; the breeze helps a little. I come across some new clothes.

"What's this?," I ask, pulling out some stiff white jackets.

"All right!" say Jack and Tony, as they come around to my side and go through the pockets of the jacket. Tony pulls out a handful of coins.

"Eighty-five cents!"

"Doctors' jackets," explains Jack. "There's always change in the pockets. They must buy stuff from the machines and then just dump the jackets in the chute without checking."

Tony puts the money in a white styrofoam cup on a ledge.

"We divide up the money at afternoon break," he says.

This is the way to keep your mind off work--look for doctors' jackets. We get a couple more by lunch time and have over two dollars already.

I have a milkshake for lunch, basking in the sun on the lawn outside the main hospital doors.

Walking back down to the laundry room is like entering a furnace; the hot, arid air from the dryers hits you in the face. The contents of the bins look increasingly unappetizing after fresh air and sunshine. What diseases are lurking in all this shit and piss and vomit, not to mention blood and body parts? The sweat trickles down my forehead. No more doctors' jackets. At least the laundry bag pile is almost gone now. Could that mean breaktime or other work? I drag over the remaining bags, dump them in the bin, and we go through them in about twenty minutes.

"Whew!" I exclaim, "What now?"

"Now for the really shitty work," Jack replies disgustedly.

I follow him to a door next to where the pile of laundry bags had been. Beyond the door is a solid wall of laundry bags. He tugs at the wall, and dozens of the dingy cotton bags slide onto the floor. In the dark little room beyond, I can see an enormous aluminum conduit chute slanting down from the ceiling.

"This is where the laundry chutes from the whole hospital wind up. The stuff we worked on today was fresh laundry from yesterday because the laundry room was backed up. Now we can work on our backlog." He starts dragging bags over to the bin. My heart sinks.

"Trouble with this stuff is," Tony says, "it's been sitting here a long time. It's sure to be really ripe, especially with this heat."

He dumps out the first bag. A sickening stench of curdled blood and body waste rises from the mound of laundry.

"Oh Christ."

We stand back, letting the fan blow away some of the worst odors. We are sorting a lot slower now. At afternoon break we take the styrofoam cup of money into the vending machine room, where we split the loot and buy Cokes. By the end of the day, my stomach is terminally ill. I leave the hospital gasping for fresh air.

The next day's a scorcher. I'm sweating profusely at seven in the morning on my way to work. By first break, the laundry room thermometer reads 110 degrees. There's a new pile of bags by the door again, fresh laundry that wouldn't fit in the chute room. We do that relatively fresh laundry first, before again getting to work on the backlog. The backed-up laundry is even worse today, literally cooking in the heat. We hit another sickening pile of Stains, a mass of curdling blood with some unidentifiable body parts, bits of fat and hair. WHAP! It goes onto the ever-rising pile of Stains, which nobody had removed since yesterday.

A little after morning break, a new guy comes in from the temporary agency, an older man smelling of alcohol. After fifteen minutes, he goes to the bathroom and never came back. But Jack and Tony and I are going to tough it out. We start showing off, poking into the Stains pile with the stick, trying to identify things. Jack finds a piece of cartilage that he thinks looks like a letter J.

"Hey, look at this, I oughta wear it around my neck, what a find!"

"Looks like a calcium deposit if you ask me," Tony says. "Put that thing down. That's disgusting."

"No, really man, I'm gonna keep it." He slips it into his pocket.

Tony dives after a doctors' jacket. "Hey, great--OUCH! OH SHIT!" He holds out his finger and looks at it with concern. "Damn needle...Fucking doctors..." Carefully, he extracts an uncovered hypodermic needle from the doctor jacket pocket. "They're supposed to cover these things up and throw them in a separate box, but they always forget. You gotta be careful about that." The jacket doesn't even have any money in it.

At lunch time, the lawn in front of the hospital is covered with people sunning themselves; but I want to escape the heat. We sit under a tree and eat ice cream cones for lunch. When we get back to the laundry, the thermometer on the wall reads 117 degrees. The ceiling fan just throws back the hottest air in the room, so we shut it off. We soak our t-shirts in the water fountain to keep us a little cool. By now we're actually making a dent in the backed-up laundry. There's probably enough room for the next day's laundry to come flying down into it.

The next day, as I take up my position at the sorting bin, the supervisor comes over to tell me that a laundry folder didn't show up and that he'll need me to fold laundry. Jack and Tony are snickering a little, probably because the laundry folders are all women.

The supervisor brings me over and introduces me to Helen, an older woman in a pale blue apron and blue plastic hairnet. We stand in front of a bizarre contraption about ten feet wide and thirty feet long, a mass of whirling canvas strips and belts and loops, clanging metal arms and rollers. All I have to do is pick up a clean towel or sheet and feed it into the machine, which whisks it away clenched between rollers and smooths, flattens, presses, and folds it. Amazing. The first towel I send through is rejected, however, because I forget to snap it.

Helen shows me how. She grabs the towel by the end corners and snaps it so hard that it cracks like a bullwhip and fluff flies off the other end. It takes me many attemps to get that action down.

At first I am tremendously relieved to be off separating, especially in this heat--though I feel a little guilty about not suffering with my comrades. In about ten minutes, though, my arms are tired from so much snapping and feeding items to the hungry machine. A few minutes after that, I come to the horrible realization that this job does not permit one to put one's arms down, not even for a second. The receivers at the other end need a steady stream of pressed laundry and complain if it doesn't come fast enough. They're paid bonuses on piece rate. God, how I want to let my arms sink to my sides for one minute or even ten seconds! By the end of the day, I'm anxious to get back to sorting--blood, guts and all.

Luckily, the next day I get my wish. But I always pause to look at those women's arms when I walk by.

The heat wave lasts about ten days. The laundry cooks, the blood curdles, the Stains pile mounts towards the sky--and one day mysteriously disappears without a trace. We start a new pile with a fresh blob of bloody tissue from some recent--hopefully successful--operation. Jack gets stuck several more times with syringes, and we pull in enough money from doctors' jackets to buy our afternoon snacks.

The heat wave fades away, Fall comes, the months drone by. One day, I am offered a dishwashing job in a restaurant. I jump at the chance of steady work in such a reputable occupation, and give my one week's notice without regrets.

Some weeks later I'm scrubbing out the grease traps from the grill and listening to the news. Freddy the cook is out unloading slabs of cheese for his cheddarburgers. Nothing much happening in the news that day, except for the last story. The entire state has run out of gamma globulin and is appealing to the federal government for extra supplies. A terrible statewide epidemic of hepatitis has been traced to the laundry workers at the hospital where I used to work. Apparently, every single hospital laundry worker contracted hepatitis and spread it to family and friends. Fortunately for me, my eyes don't show a trace of jaundice; that's one souvenir I didn't carry away from the sorting bin. But I still always snap my towel when I'm at the laundromat.

by Jay Clemens