Excerpt from Waste

Sloper’s big thick body promised great strength and he resented the obligations this seemed to confer, as certain people resent the burden of physical beauty. Once the guards fully appreciated this reticence they were no longer afraid of him. They would sometimes give him a bad time about giving him his keys at the start of his shift.

They were just kidding, he didn’t mind.

There were a great many keys on his ring, most of them practically identical–he didn’t rate a master. Even after months on the job they still looked alike, so he went to the trouble of color-coding them with small round stickers.

Once he picked up his keys and all the stickers had been removed. Another time all the stickers had been switched around. There wasn’t much point in complaining–the keys went through a lot of hands during the day–but Sloper had to wonder about the guard who sat behind the console on Mondays and Tuesdays, Dedlow or Ludlow, a big indolent kid, almost as big as Sloper, rosy-cheeked, with a sparse blonde mustache and a mouth full of small brown stones. He did not like being asked for keys–it would take him away from the monitors, especially those looking out on the exterior entranceways and alcoves, where street people frequently came to pee or defecate. These locations were fitted with loudspeakers, and the kid would watch and wait for that singular relaxed moment critical to the act before barking into the microphone: “This is not a public restroom! Take your business elsewhere!” Some fled though they’d already gotten started, and some finished what they’d begun.

When asked for keys the kid would, with the elaborate discomfiture of the mortally inconvenienced, roll his chair back from the console to the key box behind the desk, groping inside with considerable difficulty and reluctance, looking only with his hand, his eyes always on the monitors, eventually returning with a set of keys, proffering them with renewed disinterest, and on the point of dropping them into your palm, suddenly retract them, saying, “Whups, wrong set. You want number 4,” or “Sign the log first, fireball,” or would withdraw them in increments, making you reach further and further in for them, saying, “How’s that? Wrestling’s fake? Huh, fireball? Get you in one of them holds, see how fake it is then.” All the while never looking away from the screens.

By the time Sloper decided that maybe this wasn’t kidding, that maybe he should say something about it, the kid was gone. Security had a terrific turnover. They went through people.

* * * * *

Sloper kept his hard tile mopped, and he was good about glass. He squatted on his haunches in front of the lobby doors, head tilted back, and in this way could see every smudge and handprint. The cleaner was a pale green liquid in a plastic spray bottle that you refilled at the mixing center. Sloper used paper towels only–cloth smeared and left lint. He burned off a case a month. He didn’t think it should be so hard to use the door handle, the panic bar, or the handplate, but he didn’t take it personally that they didn’t. Too, you had to figure how busy they were.

Aside from this commitment to clarity, Sloper left the detailing to the women. The edging, the deep dusting, kicking out. It was understood.

The glass cleaner went into one of numerous pouches on the yellow plastic apron strapped to his cart, along with the other spray bottles and cleaning supplies. If pouches were empty you could use them to hold burgers and sandwiches. If a burger or sandwich no longer had a wrapper you used a paper towel from another pouch on the yellow plastic apron. It was okay if a sandwich or burger was half-eaten. Potato salad from the deli in the lobby came in small plastic tubs that would also fit into the pouches, as would donuts, bagels, cookies, rice cakes, croissants, muffins.

People never finished their potato salad.

In the smallest yellow plastic pouch Sloper kept his only other diversion, a transparent plastic cube containing three silver balls of various diameter, and three loose cups, correspondingly sized. He was usually unable to cup more than two of the balls without dislodging one or both, and it could be difficult to place just one.

The cart the yellow apron was strapped to was a gray Rubbermaid barrel screwed to a round pedestal with five casters, one of which rattled with bad bearings. When you trashed a floor, you dumped all the wastebaskets into the liner in your barrel. When the barrel was full, the Safety Committee asked, did you push it or pull it? It was a surprise visit. They asked Sloper nineteen other questions and then had him demonstrate the proper method of removing a full bag from the cart. Then he signed his name twice. You double-tied the bag and dropped it down a chute in the core of the building, all the way down to a dumpster in the first basement. Throughout the night you could hear the chutes booming distantly, like artillery. Sloper would periodically check the trash room to make sure a dumpster wasn’t overloaded and backed up into a chute, that bags hadn’t landed on the floor and burst. Doing so, he might hear a faint languorous beeping fade in, getting louder as the truck from the waste management company backed up to the garage door.

The trash was picked up every night after midnight. The guy who came in for the dumpsters said, “Howdy” and Sloper said, “Morning.” When he left the guy said, “Have a good one” and Sloper said, “You bet.” In the interval they rarely spoke, unless it was to discuss the possibility of a compactor, of which lately there’d been talk. They didn’t always see each other, and neither called the other by name.

After the trash had been picked up, Sloper swept and mopped the trash room floor. He swept in slow circles, the pile of dirt and debris in the middle of the floor getting smaller and higher, and smaller, higher, as he spiraled in around it. He mopped in figure eights, changing the water once–he never put the dirt back on the floor. At the end of the night he put his vacuum sweeper in the empty Rubbermaid and pushed it into a closet. The sweeper’s bumper was fitted with magnets for picking up loose paper clips, staples, tacks. If you didn’t clear them off now and then, something could work its way under the spindle and jam the belt. The bag was supposed to be emptied every three nights but sometimes Sloper waited weeks. Sometimes his routine was interrupted by his supervisor or another janitor, who called on him to do the heavy lifting or plunge a shitty toilet, because of his apparent strength and because the building had no utility person. Sloper did not receive utility pay but this was how he got out of detailing. It was understood.

The service preferred the janitors call it trash, not garbage, no matter what it smelled like.

Back to Eugene Marten’s Waste.