General wisdom is that the best strategy is the knock-and-wait. All Dorm Crew employees get a master key while out on the job. Only if there is no response, however, does a worker turn the key. Rachel V. Byrd ’13 is wearing sweatpants and an old T-shirt. Her hair is pulled back and her iPod touch is charged. Sometimes she has a water bottle with her, but today she doesn’t. Byrd, a Dorm Crew captain, is from Brooklyn, via the rural suburbs of upstate New York’s Sullivan County, and says she grew up helping her mom clean around the house. She lives in DeWolfe, and her stage presence permeates her everyday interactions. To pick her out of a crowded Lamont Café, she suggests you look for her dreadlocks.
The first moment of entrance into the room, when Byrd crosses the threshold in her close-toed shoes, is the only time when a student ever enters the room of another student without the latter’s permission, or even knowledge. But entering a room is a necessary step to entering the bathroom, and that is what Dorm Crew workers are there to do. Byrd likes to look around a suite on her way to the bathroom. She doesn’t touch anything, but she does think about what the people in the room are like, what their interests are, who they might be. One room in Claverly had a window seat, draped with chartreuse curtains and a poster of the Eiffel Tower on the well-organized and quite-full closet. The lampstand beside the bed on the left itself resembled the Eiffel.
“I bet they’re dramatic,” Byrd says on her way to the palm-tree-toothbrush-holder adorned sink. Looking above one of the beds: “And they have great scarves.”
Guys’ bathrooms, according to Byrd, tend to be cleaner than those of girls. “In guys’ bathrooms, you don’t find sanitary products which smell taking the garbage out; you don’t find makeup; there’s no hair in the shower and drain and on the walls.,” says Byrd. “Guys’ bathrooms are easy. I can expect a gross toilet. Girls’ bathroom I don’t know what to expect.”
Whether the occupants are in their room or not is a defining part of a bathroom-cleaning experience. If they are, there is the possibility of making friends, or conversation, or possibly just awkwardness. If they aren’t, there is the potential for solitude, reflection, or uninhibited dancing. This room is empty, and with bucket, broom, and Floorpol—Dorm Crew’s term for what is essentially a Swiffer with detachable pads—in tow, she locates, scans, and attacks the bathroom.
There are different approaches to gain the same end, though Dorm Crew does have some stipulations for how a room should be cleaned. First come the specifications about the supplies used. The blue spray, called Butcher’s Look, is for the mirror and fixtures. The Morning Mist spray, yellow rag, and yellow and green sponge are for the toilet, and only the toilet. The G-Force is multi-purpose. With the teal sponge and green rag, Byrd heads for the sink.
“Some Dorm Crew people don’t use gloves for anything, but I use gloves in the toilet—it’s common sense,” Byrd says as she goes for the latex-protected plunge.
Byrd joined Dorm Crew because unlike the other pre-orientation programs she was offered before coming to Harvard, Dorm Crew paid her. The opportunity cost of choosing the outdoor program, the arts program, or the urban program was too high. There are very few University-sponsored elements of campus life that accentuate a student’s financial status. All students have the same all-inclusive meal plan. Almost all students live in on-campus housing, allotted by lottery. Which students dine out, or join an organization with dues, or wear designer clothing, is outside the University’s purview. Students’ financial aid is private. The mere fact of being on financial aid is personal.
But Dorm Crew is an anomaly. Of the employees, 77 percent are on financial aid, and students—including those not in Dorm Crew—know it.
“Dorm Crew, like all other on-campus jobs, highlights the difference in economic means among students,” Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson, pointing out that nearly a quarter of Dorm Crew workers were not on any financial aid, and those who were on aid were not “the neediest” students. Hammonds has become a supporter of the program, though she once took issue with the way it heightened class awareness. In fact, no one suggests today that Dorm Crew be phased out; the program has become entrenched in campus life.
Yet Dorm Crew has managed to be both visible and inconspicuous. One of the first lessons during training is how to leave a bathroom. After the toilet, a worker turns to the floor. Instead of working on it from any angle, she must start in the back of the room and sweep toward the door, erasing her own footsteps as she leaves, “sweeping her way out.” No evidence is left. When the occupants come back to their room, it is as if she was never there.
“BIDDIES” AND BROOMS
Before Dorm Crew, first known as the Porter Program, came maids, known as “biddies,” according to Zachary M. Gingo’s ’98 junior history paper. Once a Dorm Crew captain, Gingo is now director of Facilities Management and Operations on campus.
The term “biddy” carries vastly different connotations today than it did then (Urban Dictionary’s sample sentence for the word: “Is that biddy wearing uggs in the summer?”). Harvard’s biddies simply cleaned the rooms of Harvard’s gentlemen, who were a decidedly priveleged bunch. But in the 1940s and 50s, as Harvard’s administration decided to aim for a more inclusive, merit-based admissions process, they created the Porter Program to bring more student employment opportunities to campus. In the wake of the second World War, the funds were particularly palatable to students whose tuition was covered by the G.I. Bill but had a wife and children at home to house, feed, and clothe.
“Did a student who worked a porter job feel like a servant for wealthier undergraduates?” asked Gingo, a student-worker himself when he wrote that question in his paper. But it was a different time. In an effort to maintain the maid service in place, the then-president of Harvard University Employees Representative Association argued that it wasn’t fitting for males to be doing the domestic, menial labor that befit women. The student government made a case that would be more persuasive to modern ears; as Gingo put it, “Poor students were forced, out of necessity, to become servants of their wealthy classmate.” Today, with a revamped and and unprecedented financial aid program, Harvard’s student body is less stratified. But many students are still drawn to the hourly wage that cleaning bathrooms offers.