Down in the dumps

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Allan Woods

One night, janitors emptied 186 cans of garbage from the basement of Jorgensen Hall. 

Tonight, Skip MacLeod has six.

“This is a slow night,” Skip says.  “Usually you get ten or 12.”

The garbage bags and small mounds of litter and dust stand like plastic sentinels over the washrooms and offices in the basement of East Kerr Hall.

As he passes each checkpoint, he picks up the bag with one hand and tosses it into a large grey bin.

The bags barely peek over the rim of the bin.  The litter and dust will be swept up later.

Skip’s business is garbage, as it is for the 55 employees of Ryerson’s custodial services who clean the school, collecting about 1,300 kgs of trash each night — about the same weight as a Honda Civic.

The night crew — Skip and about 15 others — must clean their share of the classrooms, offices, bathrooms and workshops at the university, tidy whatever mess remains in the halls and get the trash out to the dumpsters in time for its 3:30 a.m. pickup.

As a recent debate in Toronto’s city council has shown, garbage is big business.  Amid four days of protest, councilors voted to ship the city’s residential trash north to an abandoned mine near Kirkland Lake.

Ryerson pays more than $90,000 each year to have its solid waste removed each weekday and its recycling removed several times a week.

In the middle of the night, at a building on Bowes Road in Vaughan just north of Highway 7, a garbage truck driver is getting ready for work.  In a little more than four hours, he’ll be stopping at nine locations around campus, including the north end of Jorgenson Hall on Gerrard Street East, the bookstore and the south side of Kerr Hall.

Meanwhile, Skip’s work starts at 11 p.m.  He heads up to his station in the basement of East Kerr Hall to prepare the supplies he’ll need for the night.

Skip carries his cleaning supplies on a brown plastic cart.  He’s armed with a mop and bucket, a box of garbage bags, a spray bottle, bleach, rubber gloves, a broom and dustpan, rolls of toilet paper and one wooden door wedge.

The night begins in front of a washroom.

Skip reaches into his right pants pocket and pulls out a long, thin chain attached to a nest of keys.  He holds them in front of his face and sorts through them, looking for the right one.

The keys don’t belong to Skip.  The owner, Edward, is on vacation in Florida for the week.  The basement of East Kerr Hall is normally his domain.

Skip is what they call a floater, filling in while others are sick or on vacation.

After half-a-dozen tries, Skip finds the right key and pushes open the door to the men’s bathroom, sliding the wooden wedge in the jamb to prop it open.

First he turns on the taps at the three sinks.  The noise from the force of the water pelting against the porcelain bowls bounced off the tiled walls and floors.

Skip then snatches up the loose newspaper pages, toilet paper that has escaped the flush and discarded food wrappers strewn across the floor.

“You find skin mags sometimes,” he says, “but you pick them up with rubber gloves.”

Everything is thrown into the garbage can by the door.

From his cart, Skip pulls a foot-long brush and a small Labatt’s Blue pail filled with soapy water, dousing the sinks and taps, the urinals and toilets.

It’s a fast operation, one that’s not necessarily scientific.  When he’s finished, the doors beneath the sink are soaked and the walls behind the urinals are wet.  But it’s no matter.  All that can be wiped up later.

Skip runs the scrub brush under the hot water in the sink and repeats his steps to rinse away the soapy water.

A far-off thunder rumbles when he flushes the toilets, then the pipes groan like a sick cow’s moo.

Skip sweeps his mop across the floor to wipe away the puddles.

“I’ll make somebody a good wife someday,” he jokes.

Before shutting off the lights and locking the door again, Skip changes the bathroom’s garbage bag, leaving the full one in the hall outside the door.

In an engineering lab down the hall, Skip walks into a strange world of three-metre-high tubes filled with tiny metal balls and about 50 valves on the outside — a bewildering sight, to say the least.  He doesn’t bat an eye.  He turns on the light, sweeps the floor, and puts a fresh bag in the garbage can.

Skip isn’t a part of the Ryerson community in the sense that students and faculty there, but there is a connection.  If archeology is the study of what other civilizations leave behind, then Skip and his colleagues embark on a nightly dig of student life.

Skip can tell you students chew Excel and Trident over any other brand of gum.  “That’s the only two brands I ever see,” he says.

“I’m surprised they don’t get more of the metro and FYI newspapers lying around,” he says, picking up one of the commuter papers from a desktop.  “I remember last year when they were handling out the National Post for free.  They were all over the place.  And they were unopened.  I know because you can tell when a paper’s been read.”

The custodial staff has watched Ryerson’s student population grow since it became a university in 1993.  More students means more garbage, says John Moreira, a custodial services supervisor.

“When exams come in two or three weeks you’re going to see more people here,” he says.  “You’ll see kids studying all over the classrooms.  We have to work around them, but we have to clean.”

And you’ll know if it’s Skip who’s come to clean the classroom you’re studying in.

He wears brown safety boots and an old black baseball cap — the kind with the mesh black and adjustable plastic strap.

He’s tall and thin and has a moustache, and his neat, blue Ryerson golf shirt is tucked tidily into his blue work pants.

When he asks you to move to another classroom you might hear a bit of that Cape Breton twang in his voice.

He’ll tell you to come back when he’s finished, but remind you to clean any mess you’re likely to make before you leave.  If the classrooms aren’t clean and the desks aren’t straight each morning, it’s his neck.

But the work always gets done.  When students arrive on campus each morning, the bags are gone and the bins are empty

The trash is taken to a transfer station in an east end industrial area near the waterfront at Unwin Avenue and Cherry Street.  It stays for less than a day before being loaded onto a transport truck for the last leg of the nearly 300 km journey to a privately owned landfill in Sarnia.

Garbage may be Skip’s livelihood, but for most, it’s still just twist-ties and trash bins.

“Where I come from,” he says, “they recycle.”

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