It Takes A Janitor To Tell This Tale

anonymous tale of toil

Submitted by ludd on February 6, 2010

(tale of toil)

I'm a janitor in a downtown San Francisco Financial District building. I've been a janitor for about three years, since I was laid off my last job in industry. I have been a production worker most of my life, went to college for a year, but it just seemed like such a waste of time. I was older than the other students (the Vietnam era intervened in my life some) and they were mostly into getting a career and getting all set in some corporation. Today they are called Yuppies. Back then they were just hungry for money. I chose working in a shipyard over sitting in a classroom; nobody was counting on the industrial sector of the American working class being kicked out in the cold back in '74.

I've had occasion to regret not choosing a white collar profession, especially in the last couple of years. It's getting harder and harder to make a living as a janitor. The pay is a living wage if you don't mind living in an apartment for the price of a house with a yard, riding Muni to work crammed into a car full of strangers and eating a sandwich out of a brown paper bag to save money because you can't afford the prices of a decent restaurant or tolerate the stuff they turn out as food at McDonald's. It's the same story all over. Life in the City is disappointing and dreary, but there's no work in the outlying areas that pays enough to live.

The last place I worked paid less than scale ($10.24 an hour) because it wasn't covered by the Building Owners and Managers contract. Since I worked there less than the six months necessary to be considered "permanent'' personnel, I got laid off when they reorganized the night janitors to cut maintenance costs. The "reorganization'' involved adding work that was once the responsibility of "floaters'' to the already speeded-up schedule of the station janitors. As a floater, I had been assigned to scrubbing bathrooms (why they call a room where you go to smoke, shit, or wash your hands a bathroom, I do not know). Sometimes I vacuumed furniture or cleaned air convectors in offices. All of these jobs are more or less undesirable, but better than being unemployed. At least, more lucrative.

Sometimes, when a station janitor was sick I would have to do two complete floors. We all get sick a lot, probably because we're exposed to everybody's garbage and because they cut off the air conditioning at 6:30 p.m. to save money, meaning we breathe the stale, dust-laden air all night.

The Union

Everybody says the Union is gutless. The president of the local (Service Employees Union International, Local 87), Wray Jacobs, is perceived as a real adversary by the bosses. He promised to clean up the job-selling and favoritism in the local, but it still goes on. Used to be that the secretaries and assistants up at the union office were all related to the business agents; their wives, girlfriends, whatever. Union politics are perceived as the personal domain of those people on the "inside.'' If you try and talk about it, look into the recent history of the local, you get a lot of vague answers from everyone involved. Jacobs was removed from office once for squandering union funds on an expensive telephone system and a computer to keep track of dues. Dues doubled to pay for it.

There are a lot of immigrant janitors. Central Americans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, they tend to stick together and are a big force in the union. The janitors from the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, North and South Yemen, Iran, Iraq stick together, too, because they speak a language almost nobody else can understand. They can talk about the Supervisor with him standing right there, call him names, insult his mother, whatever--he understands nothing. A supervisor that speaks Farsi tends to be a two-edged sword, he acts like a defender to the Arabs and ridicules them to the boss.

The other major group is the Chinese and US-born older immigrants, and new immigrants from Hong Kong. They also stick together, but they are a very conservative influence on the union. Only the new guys from Hong Kong, the Vietnamese or the other Southeast Asians are very rebellious. The old Chinese are scared for their jobs, and hardly ever say anything to anybody.

The smallest minorities are whites and blacks. Where I worked we had about twenty-five guys, two whites, two blacks, and the rest were Asian, Central American, or Arab. The other white guy used to tell me that now he knew what it was like to be black. The foremen were Spanish-speaking. They favored C.A.s from their own country (Nicaragua) and always saved the real shit work for the whites and the blacks.

The job market for janitors is so over-loaded with unemployed production workers that I have seen fistfights at the Union Hall for a place in line to get on the sign-up roster. They changed the rules so as to eliminate that competitive aspect of job assignment, but there is always a crowd of people with that desperate I-gotta-get-a-job look in their eyes.

I'm waiting in line to pay my dues. The phones in the office haven't stopped ringing since I arrived. The secretaries and assistants and business agents are apparently all gone somewhere. One young woman wearing a skirt and looking harrassed keeps answering them and saying "Local 87, hold please'' "Local 87, hold please.'' As soon as she puts the phone on hold, the light goes out as the caller immediately hangs up and begins to re- dial.

The woman running the dues computer looks like she sincerely wishes she had a job somewhere else. "Name and Social Security Number.'' I tell her. "Yah. You owe for January and February.'' I asked her if she would take a check. "Yah.'' I pay and go sign up on the roster. The young college kid behind the counter tells me that dispatching will be at 3:00 p.m. at the picket line at such-and-such a place, where the Union contractor was recently replaced by a scab outfit from Washington state that exclusively employs Korean immigrants. We look at each other.

"You run a buffer?"

"You bet."

"See ya at three."

I have an unspoken understanding. I run a floor maintainer machine. He needs an operator, maybe I'll get the job, maybe he's bullshitting me.

On the Job

When we start work at 5:00 p.m., usually there are still secretaries and executives in the offices. Some of the offices have people working a swing shift using computers or Wang word processors. Compared to ours, their jobs seems really free. They spend a lot of time talking on the phone and can drink coffee or a Coke whenever they feel like it. Day shift people are really condescending compared to swing shift office workers. They wear typical office clothes, little suits, heels, nylons. The night shift wears blue jeans and has less of a status-oriented attitude towards the janitors. I guess they figure we aren't all that much below a Wang operator when all is said and done. But there is still this attitude of geez-I'm-glad-I'm-not-scrubbing-commodes- for-a-living that sort of lets you know that they might go out for a beer with the boys from the mail room but there is a limit. Sometimes we get around to how-much-do-they-pay-you-guys-anyway and some are shocked to find out they make less "than a janitor, for god-sakes!'' But still and all, they are a hell of a lot nicer than even the most sympathetic executive types.

We can't use the phones at night--ten thousand phones and we have to go to the basement to make a phone call and race thirty other guys to be first. Personal emergencies have to wait--only hysterical calls with screaming children in the background get a foreman to take the elevator up to your floor and tell you to go down and call your old lady. And if you leave to take the kid to the hospital, they bitch.

If you got caught sitting down, you'd be fired. If you got caught talking on the phone, reading, looking out the window, you'd get suspended. Once, when we were buffing the hard floors in a transportation company, I opened a door to an office and caught two executives (one male, one female) making it on the desk. I just said excuse me and closed the door. They came out of there like a shot, staggering drunk and in disarray (she was patting her hair and murmuring over and over "You little bastard, you little bastard. . .''). I looked at the Central American guy with me and we both were thinking "Uh-oh, these guys are going to try and cover their asses by reporting us for something.'' The guy came back after a few minutes and tried to give us money. We wouldn't take it. The next day I expected to be fired for some bullshit story, but nothing happened. Of course, if anything like this had happened the other way around--Bam! We would have been fired in a heartbeat.

I used to have a set routine, every night. I had figured out how to make a job look like 7.5 hours of work when I could do it in a pinch in less than six. If I busted ass. If I did a crummy job. On a normal night I dumped trash for a couple of hours. It is one of the more disagreeable aspects of janitorial work, along with scrubbing shitters.

People put all kinds of horrible stuff in their trash cans. It really offends the janitors. "How can they put coffee in a trash can? Don't they realize it gets all over us when we empty the can?'' I hate those Cuppa Soup things and take-out Chinese the most. It's sticky and messy, and after four or five hours (or over a weekend), it stinks.

Trash tells a lot about people. Smokers are the worst, the can stinks like hell and it's real dirty and dusty. Our whole job would be easy and relatively clean without coffee or cigarettes in the office environment. Of course, without coffee and cigarettes, most offices couldn't even function. While I dump the trash, I use a feather duster on the desk to snap off the worst of the dust and cigarette ashes and little round punchouts from loose-leaf binders and computer print-outs.

After I dump the trash another janitor picks it up in a freight elevator and hauls it down to a collection point in the sub- basement where the garbage truck comes to get it via the sidewalk elevator. A foremen always supervises this so the garbage guy doesn't run off with a couple of Selectrics or something.

After dumping trash it's time to scrub the shitters. It's impossible to really ever accept this job. I've scrubbed a million of them, and I still find it distasteful. People smoke in the shitter, so there is a film of tobacco smoke all over the walls and mirrors. The foreman comes around and rubs a towel over all the vertical surfaces and if he finds grease, smoke or whatever you get a slip, or at least he bitches at you and you have to clean them again.

For some reason the women throw paper on the floor around the commodes. There is always water all over the place, too, and of course hair from hairbrushes thrown on the floor, make-up, etc. The little "sanitary'' boxes in the stalls are anything but, with all manner of junk in there besides sanitary napkins neatly wrapped in toilet paper. This means that the box has to be cleaned of mayonnaise, Coca-Cola or whatever else is spilled all over the inside. I can take Tampax, that's what the box is for, but I resent all the damned lunchroom garbage that requires extra time and effort to clean up. What kind of person eats their lunch in a toilet booth???

The men are not better. They piss on the floor around the urinals and it never enters their heads that it is their fault and they should bend down and wipe it up. Who trained these people in how to use a public restroom anyway? The last stall in line in every men's room is always the one with the Sports section of the Ex-Chron and usually the one with the sticky copy of Club magazine. How a grown man can masturbate in a public restroom during working hours is beyond me. I couldn't even do that as a kid, much less now. I always wonder who these guys are. Director of Marketing? Vice President in Charge of Bent Paperclips? The mail room kid? And of course, the butts. Always cigarette ashes and butts on the floor, sometimes booze bottles in the hand towel trash can. And why do men crap on the seat and fail to wipe it off? The women do, so what's wrong with the men?

Does this strike you as a gross subject? Well, hoss, I deal with it every night in the flesh, and I'M FUCKING TIRED of nasty, inconsiderate "superior'' people shitting on the seat and then acting like there is something wrong with the service people who clean up their little "accidents.'' Believe me, if I fail to clean up their little problem I definitely hear about it!

After lunch we usually vacuumed the rest of the night. You start in one corner of the office block and just pick a direction and start vacuuming. I vacuumed straight, two and a half or three hours a night. Every night, five days a week. My forearms got quite strong. Once I got tendonitis from it; my wrist hurt like the dickens, and I couldn't vacuum. They put me on garbage detail, hauling the heavy paper sacks of garbage thrown down to the pick-up area.

While you're vacuuming you can hardly hear anything; my ears would ring from the noise. Commercial vacuum cleaners are built without any noise reducing insulation. I understand that Hoover once marketed a soundless vacuum cleaner and it crashed because people associate power with noise and thought it was wimpy. Sometimes I used to turn around and find the foreman, watching me vacuum, with his arms crossed. I'd cut it off and ask him if I was doing a satisfactory job of running a damned vacuum and he'd just walk away.

Janitors where I worked were once prohibited from wearing Walkman-type radios. They said it was too distracting and slowed down the work. After a while though, everybody was wearing them anyway and the Foremen were having some fairly hostile conversations with people so they got off that trip. It was building towards some genuine militant union activity, so they dropped it. I was surprised. Guys who wouldn't even attend union meetings were willing to stab a foreman over a Walkman radio. Well, they were willing to threaten to stab a foreman over it anyway.

There is rarely any way to get a decent meal on the night shift. First we had a little coin-operated lunchroom, but it seems like the goddamn change machine was always out of order or there was nothing but sawdust sandwiches in the sandwich machine. Then there was the Ptomaine Truck. One of the best deals in town is the M & M Cafeteria that takes lunch orders by phone. If you really beat feet, you can get down to the M & M, wolf down your chow and get back within the lunch period. Dave lets you run a tab for meals and beer (he doesn't care if you drink your lunch).

About a quarter of the guys I worked with were alcoholic and they drank everywhere. The guys with passkeys to various "secured'' areas were the worst about stashing booze there or in telephone connection boxes. Most janitors had to make do with swilling down a six-pack on a thirty minute lunch period and then coasting until they could get off. I saw guys breaking out a pint on the way to their car, for crissake. The kids smoked dope. Stick your head out into the fire escape staircase anytime, and the fumes would dilate your eyes right there.

Out of high school, no money for college, the kid gets a "good job'' (i.e. one that pays a living wage) and when he looks up five years later he's locked in. It takes tremendous effort to go to school and work full-time as a janitor. Everybody was doing about three or four different things at the same time, trying to start their own business, going to City College part-time, going to Auto Mechanics School at John O'Connell, something.

People's personal lives were usually talked about only when someone had a baby or a death in the family. If the person was popular, a collection was always taken up. If nobody liked the person, no collection--no matter what disaster befell him. Sometimes I felt like personal lives were better left undiscussed.

We had a few janitors who used to "be somebody'' and were now sort of in "reduced circumstances.'' Some of the women janitors were divorcees who had been out of the office environment too long to be able to cut it, some just preferred to spend time during the day with their kids and left the rug-rats with their husband or their mother while they worked at night. They had a tough deal, mainly working with men, isolated most of the time. It gets spooky in those buildings at night. They were jumpy and I don't blame them. Almost everybody carried knives for "scraping carpet stains,'' and the supervisor used to bitch like hell. If he caught you wearing a buck knife in a belt pouch he'd make you take it off. He was scared of getting cut if he harrassed people too far and they went off on him.

I had a couple of daytime jobs. I was relieving some older guy who had a ton of seniority and had worked his way (at last!) to a daytime job with the contractor and was on vacation or something. You can't be a day janitor and maintain a bizarre appearance. Some places have uniforms for the janitors, some do not. If the employer requires uniforms he must provide them at no cost. He must also provide work gloves and some other clothing associated with the job. Try and get them! You'll immediately get laid off if you persist. Some places even frown on beards, or long hair or whatever.

I always kind of liked the bicycle messengers since they are a crazy element in a uniformly dull world. But I have a message for all bicycle messengers from the janitors: "Please stop writing graffitti where bosses can see it. We have to clean it up, and usually it's not even very interesting graffitti. If you must write things in the elevators or hallways, do it in indelible ink, so I won't have to scrub it. Pencil, crayon, and paint are no good. Use Marks-a-Lot. Thanks.Usually everybody ignores the bicycle messengers if at all possible, but when I work days we always have something to say, hello, howzit goin' or whatever. Occasionally I get a negative response, but most acknowledge our common oppression with a nod or a grin or something. Even if pierced noses do freak me out a little, I still have more in common with a sweaty bicyclist than I do with some asshole who makes his living manipulating other peoples' lives.

All of us, the Wang operator, the VDT jockey, the receptionist, file clerk, temp, janitor, engineer and even the bicycle messenger (Hey buddy, he's radio dispatched. Do you need a radio to stay in minute-by-minute communication with where you work?) are all victims of/vital components of/supporters of/plotters against the system of modern business life (if you can call this shit a life). I'm up for it. Unplug the fuckin' system.