by Eric Green
The chairs stacked high in the corner of the large conference room seem as if they’re reaching toward the sky-high ceiling as the man moves toward them with a huge dolly to load them onto. Columns reach toward the arched ceiling, with sunlight shining through each of the one-square-foot glass window panes that add such distinct curvature to the top of the room. The lights inside of the Sunset Court inside of the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco are eventually turned down as day turns to night, as if a chairperson of the board was about to head to the front of the room and start his PowerPoint presentation at any given moment.
Jason Delgadillo, one of the hotel’s custodial and technical employees, moves the stack of chairs to one side of the room with effortless ease as he preps the auditorium-like room for cleaning. It’s his job to not only make sure the room is clean enough for the hotel’s upper business-class clientele, but to also ensure the audio and visual technical equipment is set up and ready for use.
“Today really isn’t as bad as other days,” he says with a hint of optimism in his eye, shortly before taking a metaphorical crap on it. “Sometimes some of the shit that I have to clean up is ridiculous. From food on the ground that’s been mashed into the carpet, to smashed and broken light fixtures, you name it.”
He’s just one of the People Who Clean. Along with over 2,090,400 other people in the United States, who combined earn $11.60 per hour on average, he has to focus on cleaning up after others people’s messes for work. Cleaning service is the eighth most populated vocation, according to a 2009 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to 23-year-old Delgadillo, custodial work is typically viewed as pretty low on the totem pole of job selection, and unappreciated labor that demands no gratuity when it’s probably the one job that deserves it the most. It’s coincidental that in the same report, the BLS found that cleaning service is the third most underpaid profession that anyone could choose to pursue.
The People Who Clean are the people who make the world turn. They’re the people who take the time to make sure everyone else’s lives are more convenient than their own, soaking up the stains of life with already-saturated rags, doing their best to clear up the blemishes of human existence. From the woman sorting through your trash and dumping your used napkins and soda bottles into assorted bins at a recycling plant, to the man stuck washing dishes in the back of your favorite restaurant. These are the people who make the planet its own fully-functional conference room.
It’s only fitting in the most ironic fashion that Delgadillo – known for never leaving the house without his grey beanie on his head –should have to cater to upper-management, bourgeoisie characters that get paid far more than the average government employee in order to earn themselves capital. The job gets him just slightly more than minimum wage would garner, and is one of the three workplaces that he currently holds. At times, Delgadillo says that he’s had to work up to five part-time jobs at once to support himself, and at one point, it even forced him to consider moving to a different city altogether.
“I grew up in a small town called Lemoore near Fresno, and would never want to return to that kind of lifestyle,” he says. “And that’s regardless of how much rent costs.”
It’s also coincidental that Delgadillo spends his vocational time cleaning and sorting through literal messes, only to go home to work out a mess of his own, by organizing and arranging colors on the canvas. An SF State alumnus and former art major, he continues his passion for paintingthat was once only displayed in the creative and fine arts buildings on campus at SFSU, in the confines of his garage-turned-art studio located in the Haight district of San Francisco.
While the exact history of cleaning and cleanliness may not be possible to pinpoint, its evolution can easily be traced back to the Romans. Ancient Roman cities would have facilities next to aqueducts that were used for self-cleaning as well as socialization; they even had exfoliating cleansers. Commonly referred to as the Roman Baths, this well-preserved historic site offers an insight into pre-modern personal hygiene.
Texts also show a lineage that dates back even further. The earliest recorded evidence of a soap-like cleanser was around 2800 BC, in ancient Babylon. They would create a concoction made up of a combination of ashes and oil, which were used to clean various objects. After centuries of humans developing standards of cleanliness, not only were people cleaning themselves, but they were cleaning their personal property, their walls, their floors, and anything else that had the potential to show a stain.
Whether or not one is responsible for their own personal cleanliness has a great effect on how they will turn out as a person. Take Delgadillo’s roommate, for example. He lives care-free off of his parents’ trust fund, which supplies him with money for rent, food, clothing and anything else he could possibly ask for. He doesn’t have to get a job if he doesn’t want to, and that’s just the way he likes it.
Spencer Combs, a SF State alumnus with a liberal studies degree, does not know what it is like to have to clean up after himself. Born and raised in a city south of Santa Cruz, Calif, he loves the notion of a ‘small town.’ Like many others around him growing up, his childhood household was shared by a “housekeeper,” who was responsible for maintaining the state of cleanliness in the house.
“She cleaned everything,” he said. “Toliets, dishes and laundry were just the start. She cleaned our floors, our carpets and our walls also. She also fed us and took care of us when our parents weren’t around.”
Having a Person Who Cleaned in his home from such an early age impacted how he looked at and thought about those kinds of people. Because he was never told he had to clean up after himself, it ended up being something that he put on the backburner, so to speak.
“It was never something that I had to appreciate or show thanks for,” he said. “To me, it was always just a service that we acquired.”
Today, his and Delgadillo’s shared house is what most people would refer to as a metaphorical pigsty. Dishes overflow out of the sink onto the kitchen counter, where they wait dutifully for someone to come by and wash the grease and grime off of them. The carpet is coated in a thick layer of grey dog hair that looks like it hasn’t been vacuumed up in months. Wrappers and empty cups crowd the living room table as if the two are trying to break a record for most items crammed onto one table. A pungent smell wafts down the hallway leading from the bathroom to the kitchen, and sears nostril hairs with an unmistakable old-sink-smell, much like a forest fire would.
“I know that I have a problem picking up after myself and cleaning in general, and I do try to improve,” he said. “In the end, it just comes down to who I am. In a way, it’s embedded into my personality.”
It’s just one of those things; grandparents tell you as a child, it will help build character. But there may really have been something to their seemingly trite logic. According to the book Character Matters by Thomas Lickona, helping out around the house and taking responsibility for one’s own mess is fundamental in developing a personality with high values and integrity.
“Housework, yard work, helping to prepare meals and clean up…These are the many ways we can provide our children with opportunities to practice good virtues.”
The phone had already made a few calls by the time she noticed it was missing. At least that’s what the phone records would show, anyway. She had cross-checked the time codes on the phone bill with her own memory of the day and she clearly remembered noticing her phone was gone before the calls had been made.
The kid probably called a couple of his friends to tell them how he had just snagged a brand new Blackberry Curve 9000, and how he was going to try to flip it quick to make a couple hundred easy dollars. She was talking to him about his performance and attitude in school and had only left the room for a couple of minutes when she came back and saw that her phone wasn’t where she had left it.
“That’s what I get for trying to better these helpless kids,” she thought to herself as she silently cursed the world.
She would never get the phone back, but that wasn’t the part that angered her the most. The infuriating aspect of the encounter was that out of attempted and intended help to clean up a child’s life came a complete act of violating hostility toward her. She felt as if she had failed the child, and failed herself as well, and could not clean up the mess that was this child’s moral and ethical boundaries.
Elisabeth Trevor, a former assistant teacher at Erickson School in San Francisco, recalls this moment as vividly as the day it happened. Sunset rays shone through the large window pane and glistened off of the tops of the children’s school desks, reflecting shimmers of sun onto the ceiling, just passing over the art collages and science projects hung on the wall by a teacher proud of his or her students.
“It wasn’t that the phone was stolen,” she explained. “I’ve had my car broken into several times. It was the contradicting circumstances of the situation that madethe betrayal feel all the more harsh.” She adds, “I was only trying to help.”
The non-public and non-profit school located on Hudson Ave. in San Francisco houses students ages 8 to 19 and is “an ideal place for students who are experiencing learning, emotional, and/or behavioral problems,” according to the school’s website. It is a completely suitable environment for the type of less-than-appreciated work that Trevor and others like her put forth, continuously tackling untidiness and clutter with a viewpoint that the world can, and should, be better.
Trevor worked at the school as part of her graduate program at the University of California San Francisco in order to obtain a PhD. Now a fully-licensed psychologist, she only hopes that the kid who stole her phone has tried to better himself in some sort of productive way. She still prefers to work with kids, and gains nothing but the upmost satisfaction from helping them clean up their attitudes and living situations.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call the work ‘thankless,’ but it’s not like I ever have anyone patting me on the back telling me that I did a great job,” she said.
One of the first children whom Trevor had ever professionally worked with was a young girl who continually ran into disciplinary problems in school, which translated to disciplinary problems at home. No matter what the subject matter was, the girl couldn’t maintain focus long enough and would eventually get distracted, and punishments just never seemed to work. Trevor had the idea to sit the whole family down, and lay out the ground rules for what she called “proper behavior for school and home.” She doesn’t know whether or not the approach ultimately got through to the child, but only hopes that the child, in some way, lives a better life.
The dark and tiled carpet soaks and absorbs a light, soapy moisture and feels damp under his feet when walked on, even while wearing torn and beat-up Nike tennis shoes. The shoes trudge along behind a power steam carpet cleaner, which mows the aisles of a San Francisco Best Buy from the early morning hours of 4 to 6 a.m.
These particular shoes belong to Francisco Reyes, a Bay Area native born and raised in Oakland. He works for Sparkling Carpets, a Northern California carpet upholstery servicing company that gets commissioned by the electronics retail giant to steam clean the carpet once a day. It ensures for maximum cleanliness as well as a flawless and immaculate shopping experience. In the hours of daylight, hundreds of people will walk over and benefit from the man’s hard work and laborious endeavors and never come to learn his name. Yet he is merely one of over 1.5 million people in the United States who specialize in making sure consumers get the privilege of walking on clean ground.
“The bathrooms are what I hate the most,” he says as we march to the beat of the carpet-cleaning contraption. “Compared to that, this old steamer really isn’t a problem for me.”
Reyes also doesn’t mind the all-too-often commute to the city that offers him such unique and pleasurable employment opportunities. He and his wife support three kids on what they describe as minimal salaries, and according to him, do whatever is necessary to turn a dollar. He tells me that along with cleaning the retail electronics giant, he stops by an elementary school, a church, and some office buildings to make sure middle management doesn’t have to look at the crumbs and crumpled up pieces of paper that they left behind the night before. The next day they’ll have the convenience of coming in to the office with a new suit, new pants, new shoes, and a new floor.
Reyes spends around two hours actually cleaning the retail store. He allocates 40-50 minutes to clean the carpets of the 25,000-square-foot building at the intersection of Geary and Masonic avenues. He then spends 15 to20 minutes to sweep and buff the hard tiles, before moving on to the men and women’s bathrooms.
“As soon as one job is done I move to the next,” he says to me with determined eyes. “If I can get out of here early, I can get home earlier to see my family.”
Within the 100 square-foot bathrooms, his workload depends entirely on the level of destruction caused between the current time and when he last saw them. Today, the men’s bathroom is worse than the women’s, although neither are a pretty sight to behold. Toilet paper and throw-away towels explode out of the trashcans onto the white and green 6-square-inch tiles that line and pattern the floor, and everything seems to be wet.
The room smells sticky, and when the bottoms of your shoes stick to the floor with every step that you take, it’s only more affirmation. The faux-marble countertop that lines one side of the room drips water down to the floor, where it all mixes into a collective puddle made up of soap, water and urine.
Frank, one of the store’s managers, asked Reyes to specifically clean some graffiti off of one of the stalls, and to take out all three trashcans across the two bathrooms. Before the store opens, he’ll spray disinfectant on the toilets and wipe them down, Windex and disinfect the mirrors, sinks, and countertops, clean and mop the floors, erase the graffiti off the stall, and take out all three garbage cans across the two bathrooms. But someone must have really taken their time with the artwork inside of the stall. Reyes said the graffiti tag looks like it was done in Sharpie and will probably take a couple thorough washings to come off completely.
The previous night before closing, a child had also vomited outside, and the digestive expulsion sat overnight waiting for Reyes’ perfect touch to clean it up. The next day, thanks to him, the deed was done. No thanks was ever uttered to him that day, according to Reyes.
But the customers will come through the door the next day, and trample all over Francisco’s hard labor, creating a perpetual cycle of never-ending work that drives Reyes to different locations to continually clean up after others. At the end of the day though, he’ll get home to see his family, and eat dinner with them. It’s just his one last hope that he’s not the one who has to wash the dishes.
The thing to remember about the People Who Clean is that they are people first and foremost, each with a face and their own story to tell. All too often with computers and technology becoming more and more an integrated part of society, and society itself becoming more and more fast-paced by nature, simple things get overlooked. Like the man picking up your trash can every week so that the filth doesn’t pile up, or the street sweeper who makes sure the pile of leaves on the side of the road doesn’t do the same. Thankless as the job may be, they perform day-in, day-out, each on their own personal clean streak.