Bab-O, Brooms, and Toilet Bowls
First stop is Thayer Hall basement: Headquarters. Tacked up on the wall behind and above the head of the porter captain with the watchful eyes, there is a sign that reads: THOU SHALT NOT DRAG THE VACUUM CLEANERS. The captain sports an understandable frown considering the hour, "It's only eight o'clock," he says. "I have a nine o'clock class, wanna get it over with," the student porter answers. "You're supposed to work two hours in a row, it's not good to split it up like this." "I know." says the student porter as the captain signs him in. "You're liable to wake someone up, ya know."
The student porter does not respond to this. Instead he heads for the equipment room to pick up the tools of his trade. Two hours anytime between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., five days a week. Ten hours at $3.75 an hour. $37.50 a week. The student porter knows the rules, the facts and figures, well enough. This job is helping to put him through school.
Following the checklist, the student porter gathers the needed implements. Mop bucket, mop. He is well aware of the danger involved in performing his function at this time of day. Playtex gloves. Some people are still sleeping. Sponge. They know him only as an early morning phantom who arrives with clinking pail on tip-toe. Broom. He recalls the morning he knocked, no answer, and entered, to find a couple obviously not expecting him, the girl screamed, the guy gurgled forth obscenities and the student porter dove into friendly porcelain territory locking the door behind him. Squeegee. And then there is the woman proctor who always answers the door half-dressed. Bab-O cleanser. And the people who always offer him a toke on one of their perpetual joints. And the messy sink of the person with the weak stomach. And the people with bad aim. Oh, the walls. Polishing rag. And the mirrors of those who stood too close doing battle with their blemishes. Plastic spray bottle. And those who left town without flushing. Damn them. "Johnny brush" with plastic bristles. That's just about everything. And thus weighted, the student porter climbs out into the sunlight of the Yard.
As always there are some stares. Awkward is the only way to carry all this stuff. Did he sense laughter, derision in the faces of some of those he passed by? He recalled the words of captain Joe Del Ponte '78: "Initially, for me, the job made me more class conscious. Through repeated exposure to all this disdain, I realized just how ridiculous the people doing the disdaining really were." And Del Ponte's further encouragement: "I've always extolled the virtue and the pride to be found in a job well done. At least that's what I tell my crews each year."
Somewhat inspired, the student porter arrives at the scene of his assignment.
Before waking the superintendent, the student porter looks out the window of the House office and sees captain Bonny Landers '77 in the distance. She waves. He remembers how she told him that she was one of the first women ever to clean toilets in the Yard. She did not find her gender to be a disadvantage. Freshman year, she was assigned to Holworthy, an all-male dorm at that time.
"My first day on the job I was supposed to do this guy's bathroom. He looked down at my bucket, looked at me, and closed the door. But they caught on after awhile. It got so they would say 'just a minute,' rush in and get rid of everything I wasn't supposed to see. And sometimes five or six guys would stand around and watch me while I worked."
And now she is a captain. Probably on her way to inspect somewhere.
The student porter does not relish the though of inspection. In fact, he doesn't like to be inspected at all.
A thorough inspection takes into account the floor, the walls, windows and ledges, all horizontal surfaces, mirrors, sinks, showers and bathtubs, toilets and wall urinals. The faults that may be found are water spots, dry caked-on soap and grease build-up evidenced by beading water on the sides of the sink. The severity of an inspection depends on the personality of the inspector. Some are tougher than others.
Each captain fills out a bathroom inspection sheet when he makes his rounds. The top of the sheet reads: "A record of this report is being made part of your personal file in the student porter program office. You are encouraged to perform your duties efficiently, paying particular attention to the deficiencies and recommendations found during this inspection."
The student porter can receive a grade of good, adequate, or poor, and he always does well overall. But he fails the white glove test in the sub-categories, especially where the water runs most often. TOILETS: chrome fixtures--good, top and inside area--adequate, underneath area--poor, area to the rear--poor. SHOWERS AND BATHTUBS: chrome fixtures--good, soap dish--adequate, floor and bottom twelve inches of wall..."What???
"You heard me," said the captain.
"You gotta be kiddin', that's absurd."
"Maybe so, but it keeps you honest."
"It keeps me busy on stuff that doesn't matter."
"You want to keep your job?"
"All right, then."
Some are tougher than others.
The janitor's eyes are open so the student porter takes the keys off his desk and heads for B-entry.
It is understandable that some captains have foul temperaments (though most are amiable). They are, after all, brunts of criticism, receivers of complaints. Twelve captains overlook the operations of nearly 150 workers in the Student Porter Program. When someone calls in at Headquarters and charges dereliction of duty, the captains are the ones who must swing into action to determine the accuracy of the claim.
On this particular day, the student porter meets dissatisfaction face to face in the person of an irate female physics major, who flags him down with her slide rule halfway up the staircase.
"Where were you last week?"
"Holiday, no classes, no work."
"My bathroom is in shambles."
"I don't use it."
The student porter once heard Carolyn Randall '77 assert: "I think it's ridiculous that people can't clean their own bathrooms." But he also heard Bonny Landers say, "I'm grateful for the job. It's either this or being a barmaid in Boston." The student porter is filled with ambivalence as he is sucked into a confrontation he does not desire, his mop is not even wet yet.
"My drain is clogged with hair."
"Well, you'll have to call B and G about that."
"Don't give me that. You're B and G and you're paid to keep my bathroom running."
"No, ma'am, we're the Student Porter Program and we're paid to keep your bathroom clean. Clean and running are two different things. B and G keeps you running, we keep you clean. You're right to complain, though, you'd better call B and G. We can't be expected to keep you clean if you're not running properly."
Victorious, the student porter proceeds along his duly appointed daily path tempted to do a sloppy job on the cranky lady's facility, sabotage her commode or something. He has used intentional by-pass strategies in the past, forgetting or neglecting critical areas. He has cleaned off glass shelves and not put the articles back in place. He has sprinkled water on toilet seats and rolls of tissue. He has even sunk so low as throwing out the Playboys and Penthouses he found strewn at the base of more than one toilet. In short, he has taken revenge on rudeness by using insidious and evil methods.
Today, however, the student porter does a thoroughly admirable job, completes his assignments and heads back to Headquarters. Back in the basement of Thayer, he is greeted by three smiling captains and Tom Curly '78, captain of the captains, who tells him, "We've decided to promote you. You realize our other areas of responsibility include trashing, mailroom and mounting posters. Most of the posters you see in Emerson and Sever were put there by us."
"Yessir." says the student porter in a thrill of anticipation.
"Well, you're going to be trashing tomorrow."
"That's a promotion?" The porter's heart sinks.
Curly stops smiling, as do two of the captains, as does the third, Dennis Rinehart '77, who says straight-faced:
"Because of the psychological hang-ups about cleaning other people's toilets, any getting away from that is a form of promotion."
The student porter is guilty of being ungrateful. He had hoped for the mail truck job, riding the range with Joe Perlatonda, leaping at high speed from a silver chariot with canvas bags slung over his shoulder, delivering mail all over campus. The romance of speed and the far-flung foreign niches of Harvard fades away and all he sees is a Hefty trash bag.
But as the captains congratulate him with hearty handshakes and returning smiles, the student porter is filled with a feeling of good will. He remembers how he arrived weeks ahead of most of his fellow classmates in the fall of freshman year, how he came to know Harvard with other members of the dorm crew in those first uncertain days, how the camaraderie of their labors had made them all fast friends. He is flooded with nostalgia as he hangs up his "Johnny brush" and rinses out his mop.
The student porter ascends the stairs and steps out into the open air, his arms swinging freely at his sides. He knows he has had the rare opportunity of meeting people in the most intimate of all possible settings.