I Still Clean Toilets for a Living
In the late spring of 1989, just a few weeks shy of my fourteenth birthday, I got my first paying job.
My neighbor’s son-in-law, Ray, had spotted me at some yard work and asked, “Hey–you looking for a job?” as he drove by in his truck. It hadn’t even occurred to me that perhaps I was. “Sure!” I excitedly replied. Ray worked for a company that provided janitorial services to Phar-Mor, the now long-defunct discount drug store chain.
“How old are you?” he asked. I tried to deepen my voice, “I’ll be fourteen in a few weeks,” I told him proudly. He thought about it for a moment or two. “Okay,” he said, “We’ll just keep you off the books until you turn fourteen.”
The work required being picked up by Ray at 5:30 AM to be dropped off at one of the stores scattered throughout southwestern PA. We covered stores from Greensburg to Swissvale, South Hills to Robinson Township. A crew of two (or by yourself if the other guy didn’t show) would clean and buff the floors from 7 AM (when the managers arrived to open the store) until 9 AM (when the store opened to the public.) That’s right kids: not all stores were open 24 hours-a-day back then.
Sometimes we’d get a strip job–wait for it–not what you’re thinking: the worn wax would need to be stripped from the floor and replaced with new wax. Such a job required at least a four man crew, and we’d get locked in the store over-night while we swept the floor of debris, threw down warm stripper, scraped the wax up by hand and by a single-disk scrubber, mopped the floor clean, and then applied four coats of new wax by mop. After all that, we’d run a propane-powered buffer as loud as a jackhammer over the surface of the new wax to bring out a high-buffed shine.
Like most people of a certain age, when I tell teens today about what I did when I was young, they scarce believe it wasn’t illegal child endangerment! Some scoff that their overprotective parents would never let them do the stuff we did. “I would get dropped off in East Liberty at 6:30 in the morning with nothing but a propane tank for company while I waited for the manager to arrive and open the store,” I recalled to a young client.
“What if somebody tried to rob or hurt you?” he asked.
“I guess most of the robbers and kidnappers in East Liberty were either asleep at 6:30 AM or they didn’t have any use for the tall, skinny kid in sweatpants sitting on a propane tank.”
“Did you have a phone?”
“In 1989? Yeah–they were attached to booths and you had to put money in them to use them. They were called ‘pay phones.’ Look ’em up.”
Working on those all-night jobs and on those early mornings taught me a lot about responsibility and hard work; I can still remember the awful smell of the ammonia-based stripper that we used and the callouses on my hands from manning my mop–all for a whopping $3.35 an hour!
Cleaning floors at Phar-Mor wasn’t so bad, though, and Ray was a kind and friendly boss (still one of the best I ever had). His company also cleaned the two area Bally’s Scandinavian fitness clubs (also now long gone). That was work that I didn’t enjoy. Vacuuming and sweeping around people doing cardio and dusting weights between people doing sets was drudgery–cleaning locker rooms and the sauna were among my least favorite things. And then there were the toilets. Oh, the toilets.
You have to understand that, as a teenager from Brownsville, the South Hills gym-goers seemed fabulously rich and endlessly sophisticated to me, which made it all the more frustrating when they left the toilets in–shall we say–various stages of ill-use. With apologies to anyone who patronized the male locker room at Bally’s from approximately 1989-1992, “Rich pigs!” is what I’d mutter to myself as I cleaned the row of toilets. I couldn’t appreciate then the valuable lessons in humility they were unknowingly teaching me; but I did resolve then and there that I would always be fastidious in my use of public restrooms.
I got to thinking of my time as a gym janitor the other day after joining a health club (a gift from my wife–read into that what you will). I made a point of introducing myself to Dan, the friendly custodian (another resolution of mine from my Bally’s days: be nice to service personnel and never forget that I used to be one!). I couldn’t help but think of how blessed I am to be able to attend a gym instead of having to clean one.
I went to use the restroom at my office earlier this week, and someone had done something unspeakably vile to the commode. Looking down at the wretched mess and realizing that the cleaning crew had already come and gone, I knew that, if this thing was going to get clean, only one person was going to do it. I don’t want this soiled toilet to be a representation of my business. With breath held and teeth gritted–I cleaned my first public toilet in years.
Gentle reader: life loves circles. Janitor to gym patrons–gym patron–janitor once again. Life doesn’t ask how many degrees you hold when life wishes to teach a lesson. Dirty jobs don’t end just because you have your own business cards.