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Published on Thursday, April 13, 2000 in the Miami Herald
Justice For Janitors
by Shawn Hubler

You start with the bathrooms. You are to wait until they are empty. The building's occupants must not be disturbed. It is 6 p.m. Five floors of bathrooms, two bathrooms per level. Your uniform is dark pants, T-shirt, sneakers, blue apron. You push your supply cart noiselessly down the plush, carpeted hallway. Executives brush past, ending their day as yours is beginning. There is no eye contact. They are expensively dressed, unlike you.

You start with the mirrors. From your cart, you pull your feather duster, your spray bottle of industrial-strength glass cleaner, a fistful of paper towels and a plastic jug you've rigged to hold a toilet brush. You dump clear blue solution onto a towel to polish the mirrors. The fumes hit you like a faceful of Windex.

Quickly -- because, besides these 10 bathrooms, your shift requires that you clean five floors of offices, a job the size of five single-family houses -- you unlock the trash bins and pull out the trash: wet paper towels, strangers' gum, wads of Kleenex with red lipstick on them. You change the trash bags, lock the bins up. You swab out the sinks, start with the urinals and toilets. Lift the lids, wash them top and bottom, clean around the base, down the sides.

Dunk the brush in a solution of water and urinal cleaner. Hold your breath as more fumes rise from the suds. Try not to think about the dried rivulet under the toilet seat, the brown deposit of unflushed feces. In the ladies' room, go stall to stall , disposing of bloody tampons. As night settles in -- over this city, your unseen form, your sleeping children -- use aerosol stainless-steel cleaner and a damp, soft cloth to swipe at the scent, almost more palpable now than you are, of rich strangers' excrement.

To understand the strange, ragged vehemence of the janitors' strike that has dominated Southern California for a week now, it is necessary to experience -- just for a moment -- the job. This isn't the case with all strikes, which tend to be variations on the old theme of what work is worth in the new economic order. But the janitors' strike has an extra dimension, one that has brought to the surface something deeply resonant about the lives of all of this nation's working poor.

It is a dimension that, with time and rising middle-class prosperity, has become so accepted as to go unnoticed, in the same way that no one at the Landmark Square high-rise in Long Beach, Calif., on this particular evening, notices Maria Castel. This is last week, days before the rolling strike will hit Castell's building. She is 51, a short woman with pinned-up hair, a silver front tooth and two tags on her apron, one bearing the name of her employer, the American Building Maintenance Co., the other reading ``Justice for Janitors.''


Castell and 10 other janitors (``Manuela, Cristina, Antonio, el otro Antonio . . . '') are paid $6.80 an hour to clean this 24-story building every night until 2:30 a.m. Her two girls are home with their father, whom she'll see for two hours before he leaves for his work. Janitorial jobs, the women say, are tough on marriages.

Tough on bodies, too. Maybe an hour into your shift, the knees start to twinge, and the back starts throbbing. ``They promised us benefits a year ago, but so far we haven't seen them,'' Castell confides in Spanish, parking her cart in front of the fifth-floor men's room. But that's not the side of the work that eludes the public. Cleaning is hard, but it can have a satisfying, almost moral feel.

No, to understand, you must let the silence fall as you spray and wipe and breathe the glass cleaner. To shine even the silver doorplates with their symbols for ``Men'' and ``Women'' until you can see the reflection of someone -- an executive in a white shirt, coming toward the men's room.

It is then, as he brushes past you -- without acknowledgment or eye contact, leaving just the fresh smudge of his handprint -- that you finally understand. There is a dimension now in which whole human beings can be rendered invisible, just erased, by the classes, by the millions. And something wells up, something palpable, as you consider that silver doorplate. Something like: I exist. I demand.

Shawn Hubler is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.

©2000 Los Angeles Times


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