Do it clean

The worst job I ever worked involved scientists, shit, an incinerator, and dead bodies. Lots and lots of bodies. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I went to college in a state that was less than friendly to labor unions, and as a result, students worked most jobs at the university — not just typical work-study fare, such as bookstore clerk and library exit monitor, but things usually relegated to a permanent staff, including grounds crew and custodial work. At the beginning of my freshman year I spent several weeks applying for jobs in the school’s libraries and museums, and just couldn’t land something. Running out of cash fast, I took a job as a custodian on a graveyard shift.


Now, I have nothing against janitorial work per se. Not only do custodians keep much of our society running efficiently, they often do it with great care, and they deserve to be treated with gratitude and respect. Moreover, some aspects of their jobs are kind of sexy. They have access to secret worlds — to the inner workings of institutions, offices, places of business, often in total privacy in the middle of the night. Though the work can be tedious, the possibility exists for a bit of fun or information gathering now and again.

For example, when I was a kid, my grandparents, who were retired, picked up a little work a couple nights a week by cleaning a grocery store. Occasionally my dad would take a couple of my siblings and we’d go give them a hand. I loved being able to use the store’s intercom system to make scary noises, and sometimes we’d carry out items that were damaged and thrown away. I also had a friend whose parents cleaned the local theater. I never passed up a chance to go along with them if invited. We’d run back and forth in the aisles, looking for fallen change. My friend once found a twenty folded and kicked beneath a seat. And then there was the simple pleasure of gaining access to the projection booth. The janitor’s freedom to visit such places is aptly symbolized by the giant key ring clinging and clanging at his side.

The first job I worked my freshman year didn’t have much of that kind of fun to it. I worked from 11 pm to 4 am, pushing a dustmop up and down hallways, emptying trash cans, mopping floors. I can’t remember if we were allowed to wear headphones, but my memory of the personalities of the shift supervisors makes me think we probably weren’t. Having worked there for years, still working night shifts, these were not happy people. They may have had a grudge against all the college students from the get go, given the fact that we were clearly in school to get better jobs than they had. But they seemed to take pleasure in writing people up for being late or, worse, falling asleep on the job, which could result in firing. They scolded if you didn’t handle a dustmop properly, or if you didn’t mop floors fast enough, or if you put toilet paper on the roll the wrong way. (The sheet should come from behind, not roll off the front.)

it should come from behind

The building I worked in was interesting enough — it included offices of professors in psych and family counseling, some of whom had big books about sex in the cases behind their desks. Though I could probably have lost my job for it, I made my way through a big illustrated sex manual from the 50s, night after night, four or five minutes at a time. I owed to that book (and to the good professor who owned it) new knowledge about something called “erogenous zones” and their role in sex play, information I sought to put into practice as quickly as possible.


But mostly that job left me miserable and sleeping through classes. At the semester break I found another that had better hours; the only catch was its location: the science building.

Each night you’d get a different assignment. It might be relatively straightforward: sweeping and mopping classrooms, bathroom duty, mopping stairwells. Classrooms, though, could mean cleaning out the cadaver lab rooms — spending fifteen or twenty minutes alone with half a dozen carved-up corpses, some zipped, some unzipped in their brown vinyl body bags. Though this could be cool in company, I admit to being terrified when left alone with them. And besides, you always came out of that room smelling like formaldehyde.

Bathrooms in the science building were for some reason dirtier than the psych and counseling kids had left them. To this day I’m stunned how many people think nothing of leaving public toilets unflushed — or worse, clogged with stuff that never should have gone in there. And then there are the people who sit down on a used, unflushed toilet and add to the crime. The worst thing I ever encountered along these lines was left by someone who’d obviously been running to the bathroom and just didn’t quite make it: shit smeared on the toilet seat and fallen on the floor.

But nothing in the science building compared to the ninth floor. To access it you had to have a special key in the elevator. Stairwells were locked. If the general student body had known this floor existed, surely there would have been protests.

To your left when you exited the elevator stood a half dozen galvanized garbage cans, each labeled with warning signs that the contents were toxic, as well as with handwritten notices: Place Dead Animals Here.

Offices on this floor all had Far Side cartoons taped to the door, one mad scientist joke after another. Lab rooms were filled with all manner of living creatures in all manner of conditions. Most of them looked normal as could be: cute little chicks and bunnies and rats running through labyrinths, even an occasional monkey in a cage. But others were worse off, barely noticing your arrival. I was shown how to remove trash can liners without running the risk of a needle poking though the bag and told to stay out of reach of certain cages. On occasion there’d be animals on the chopping block in some stage of dissection, but usually the labs were simply full of the condemned — clucking or squeaking their last nights away. Can animal experiment subjects long for a cigarette?

do you have a lighter?

Nothing in the labs prepares you for the task of emptying that row of garbage cans by the elevator. I was shown how to take a deep breath, remove the lid, tie the bag as quickly as possible, and lug it to the next room, where I’d throw it into an incinerator. Then I’d move to the next. You never knew what you’d find: a can full of baby chickens, limp and yellow? Animals in whole or part? A pack of dead rats?  

The incinerator doubled as a disposal mechanism for the cadavers. When they were all used up, they’d be brought upstairs with the animals. We’d scrape the furnace down and burn out any leftovers — get it nice and clean. The boss would be on hand. He’d say something kind and vague about people who donate their bodies to science, make sure we knew how important it was not to mix their ashes with anything else, which is why we were extra careful preparing the oven. And then we’d open the door and in they’d go. Once or twice we’d have to open and knock things around a bit, help the process along, and after a couple hours we’d let things cool so we could eventually retrieve the ashes and send them off to next of kin.

The worst night on that job didn’t involve cadavers, though. Only animals. Quick intake of breath, lift the lid, prepare to tie — I did everything right, only to find a living mouse staring up at me. He sat perched on a pile of dead poultry, damp sour feathers fluttering in the draft from an air conditioner. What could I do? Up went the corners of the bag, a quick, cruel knot was tied, and in the furnace he went. Poor little fellow. I really wouldn’t have wanted you to go like that.

don't look at me that way!

The next year I landed the library job. 



10 responses to “Do it clean”

  1. Lane says:

    Wow this is up there with “Arizona Gothic”

    Now that tenre is in the bag, can your novel be far behind?

  2. Dave says:

    Just the other day I was thinking that it might be a good idea to donate my body to science, but I hadn’t thought through what happens when science is done with it. I guess what you described isn’t any less respectful than what they showed on Six Feet Under. But I don’t know how I feel about a college kid cremating me.

  3. I had wanted to include in this post a satirical poem I wrote in 1993 based on this event, but I didn’t have it at home this morning when I was writing this post. I’m at work now and just dug it out. I wrote it for Student Review, a magazine I edited together w/ another TGW contributor [name withheld to protect anonymity] for a time in the early 90s while we were undergrads. (Dave worked on it too, though later, as did some other TGWers whose anonymity I’ll respect.) From time to time the Review would publish a set of poems written from the perspective of student employees. The first one I remember was “Library Exit Monitor Poems.” Here’s what I wrote as my contribution to “Custodial Poetry”:

    9th Floor Widtsoe Building
    (Experimental Animal Labs)

    You sat among dead chickens
    in the can marked
    the stench of death around you.

    Your beady mouse-eyes plead
    for mercy, your trembling
    body diseased, shot full
    of AIDS or caffeine.

    You stood on two legs, nose twitching.

    O! Abinadi, my mouse friend:
    how I took the bag you were
    in and turned my back
    after heaving you into the
    incinerator’s flames,
    that Moloch’s mouth that
    swallows petrie dishes and
    dismembered cadavers.

    Your little body cackled and
    popped, your mouse-voice
    heaped curses on my head
    as I stepped into the elevator.

    (Student Review, 13 Oct. 1993)

  4. I can’t believe that was almost 15 years ago!

  5. Miller says:

    Great post. This reminds me that I thought I wanted to be a scientist in high school, until my anatomy class took a trip to the science dept. at a local college. Though I didn’t have the intimate glimpse into this world like you did, I could tell that I wasn’t going to have the cool detachment needed to throw my work away under a “Place Dead Animals Here” sign.

    I also find the female erogenous zone model fascinating. Is it saying that a woman’s mind is an erogenous zone, or just the top of her head? If this is the same model from the 50’s, then I’ll guess the latter. And cheeks? Hmm…

  6. Marleyfan says:

    What a fitting name for your mouse.

  7. WailerFan says:

    I guess they won’t ask if you have a mouse in your pocket…

  8. Jeremy says:

    aw, i’m sorry i didn’t give you any comment-love, bw!

    (you know i love you. and this post! and that poem!)

    and this reminds me of my worst job… (oh wait)…

    thanks for doing the bad-job post justice.

  9. dave —

    i hadn’t noticed your comment about donating your body to science before.

    there’s always this option, you know.

    at least they put their air conditioners on the roof this year instead of on the street. you know how i hated those air conditioners.

  10. okay — as for the link in #9, i just re-read that post, and damn it if it didn’t already have the burned mouse story in it. i’d already done that one! i’m already recycling. but it seems to fit the mood this week: think of how many of this week’s posts it anticipates.

    then again, there are only 3 comments on that post, one of them from me. i know it was early in the TGW game, but you all (lurkers included) suck, nontheless.