[part 1] [part 2] [part 3]
The floor is brown from the city muck that the students track all over the building. I push the mop forwards, watching the sluice of water become murky as it slides across the tiles. Outside the snow is banked onto lawns, leaving the sidewalks under an inch of slush. The progress of winter in Toronto can be tracked through the gradations of grey; December is almost white, January is the dappled colour of a horse, and February looks like old asphalt. The clean swath of floor behind me is off-white, which means it continues to look dirty. Soon I will need to get some new water to replace the muck in my bucket. Most of the other custodians don’t bother. You can see the smears their mops leave at the end of the night, big long streaks across the hallway floors. Sue, one of my coworkers, told me that the trick is to make sure that you start to mop from the opposite end of the building from where you began the night before, so you wash with clean water tonight what you washed with filthy water yesterday. That way, no one area gets too dirty and the bosses won’t notice. I prefer not to take shortcuts.
My mother hates my job. When I told her I got work as a custodian, she was silent. I thought I’d lost the phone connection. Eventually, she asked “Why don’t you go back to school?” She was thinking why don’t you get a real job? But she said that I was smart enough to be whatever I wanted, and she hated to see me throw away all that potential. To help her be less ashamed of her janitor daughter, I explained that as a university employee, I get to take free classes. I heard the smile come back into her voice: “That’s great, Sam!” She could tell her friends about my job after all. I imagine her explaining that “my Sammy is working at the university. It’s just a cleaning job, but it means her tuition’s taken care of.”
I notice I’m panting. Lost in thought, I’ve been mopping more and more rigorously. Now my back is moist with sweat. I put the mop down in the bucket, and go to get a drink of water. The library is warm and stuffy. The air is always dry in this building, the moisture absorbed by thousands of thirsty books. I’ve been meaning to buy a metal water bottle. At least each level has a water fountain. It gives me a reason to take little rests. My first night on the job, I was repulsed. The fountain was covered in green scum, and old wads of chewing gum were clogging the basin. I put on my rubber gloves and got to work. Now I disinfect the fountain’s head every night. One evening, before the library was closed, a student noticed me scrubbing the drinking fountain. He came over and thanked me. “That shit was undrinkable before.” I should let my Mom know that I’m changing the world, one dirty fountain at a time.