One summer story

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My worst summer job? Cleaning university toilets

June 26, 2011 By Peggy Mackenzie


The summer I spend after graduating from university cleaning toilets at McMaster Univesity in Hamilton was  the hardest job I ever had.

The job paid  twice minimum wage and came with a hefty night shift differential of 50 cents an hour which took me to $8.50 per hour. The money was ample to pay for my apartment sublet and provide income for grad school in the fall. However, that was cold comfort during the hot summer.

I had just earned an arts degree from McMaster and  for four long months from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., Sunday night to Friday morning, I clocked in as a cleaning  lady – the only time I have ever punched a clock.

The work was physically hard and icky. Dusting, spraying, vacuuming, mopping, scooping out hair from drains, and scrubbing/unclogging toilets, filled my nights.

I thought I’d get a  killer tan because  I could lounge by the pool at my apartment building during the day. But I never learned the knack of staying awake after I got home and going to sleep in the late afternoon. I just slept all day. I slept through the demolition of all the balconies at my apartment building, referred to as “Cockroach Towers.” The noise bothered the cockroaches, though, since I found one curled up on my pillow.

My first post in the Engineering building seemed cruel since engineers sneer at anyone with an arts degree.  Alone during the long nights, I often wondered why people had such an aversion to flushing toilets or stuffing paper towels into the garbage. Why strew them over the floor? How did the floors get so dirty when traffic was at an absolute minimum in the summer?

Every once in a while, a piercing howl interrupted my thoughts. Another cleaner, Mike, needed to yell sometimes, or so the cleaning ladies told me. I just wished they'd told me before I ran screaming down the hall the first time I heard it.

If my job was hard, the people were not. Even Mike. The full-time staff took me under their  wing and showed me a work ethic my 23-year-old self could only marvel at. When 64-year-old Anna went on vacation and I had to clean her wing, I couldn’t keep up.

They were also generous. Each night, the spring cleaning crew moved room-by-room throughout the building and cleaned from the rafters to the floor. Several weeks into my stint, they reached my area. At break time, a soft cough alerted me that the crew had something to say but didn’t know how. I asked if something was wrong. Nervous twisting of the hands. Ever so gently, they asked if I knew that you had to clean the outside of a toilet bowl as well as the inside. My incredulous look made the whole room erupt in laughter.

No one told the ever-lurking supervisors about my error and when I went to check the bathrooms they sparkled – the crew had done my work for me.

After the summer, I took the money and ran to grad school. It paid for my room and board during the year and reminded me to respect the hard work the cleaners at my new university performed every single night.

Also read: Alison Griffiths’ worst summer job