Any given Thursday

May 25, 2006, midnight | By Isaac Arnsdorf | 15 years ago

Twenty-three building services workers versus 378,000 square feet

Building services worker Lyndon Johnson recently had the most disgusting experience of his career. Johnson is no tenderfoot, but nothing could have prepared him for what he faced the morning of April 19. "We had a student do a 'number two' between two vending machines."

Today, April 20, he takes a mop and bucket to the vending machines in the stairwell at the back of the 220s hallway, where a small fecal smudge still stains the floor between the Aquafina and Pepsi machines. Johnson removed the excrement and mopped the area yesterday, but the spot only disappears completely after another mopping today.

Johnson and his 22 coworkers perform the daily task of cleaning and maintaining Blair's 42-acre campus. They are the behind-the-scenes workers that make everything possible, the gears behind the clock face that make everything tick. Still, most Blazers pass through the glass doors each day without thinking twice about who polished them or walk down Blair Boulevard without considering the effort it took to make each tile shine.

The building services operation involves three shifts, the earliest starting at 5:30 a.m. and the latest ending at 11 p.m. Thursday, April 20 was an arbitrarily chosen, typical day in their shadow, but for building services, there's no such thing as an ordinary day on the job.

6:00 a.m.

A few minutes before 6 a.m., Blair seems eerily foreign without its characteristic crowds. The lone sentinel, Marianne Christopher, a Blair building services worker for 19 years, is busily scrubbing Blazer Court. Working out of a supplies closet between the boys' and girls' bathrooms, Christopher diligently sprays and wipes the main office windows, doors, trashcan lids and water fountains.

Photo: Building services worker Marianne Christopher mops in the SAC.

Christopher and three coworkers are the first to arrive at school every morning. They open the doors, unlock all the bathrooms and bring the morning newspapers in to the library.

At 6:20, building services manager Yakubu Agbonselobho appears. He arrived at school a few minutes ago, he explains, but spent some time outside picking up trash. With his towering stature, white Reeboks, faded jeans and red warm-up jacket, he looks as if he's just stepped out of a music video.

He enters his office, immaculately neat save for the heap of paperwork cluttering his desk. Agbonselobho doubles as the building services bureaucrat and field commander, spending about equal time working behind his desk as he does around the building.

Today, like every day, he begins by checking e-mail complaints and work requests from teachers, which he prints, prioritizes and addresses. Largely due to this procedure, teachers have commended the quicker response to their work requests since Agbonselobho started as building services manager on Feb. 7.

But Agbonselobho's printer refuses to cooperate, so he begins to jot down the complaints by hand, mumbling to himself as he writes. He stresses the importance of promptly addressing these requests. "I don't want to let anything slide," he says. "We want to respond quick."

Taking the elevator to the third floor, he interrupts his brisk march down Blair Boulevard only to bend over to pick up a lump of red gum with his bare hand. Arriving at an electrical closet, he picks up a wheeled cart bearing a bucket of paint. "A worker tells me someone wrote all over the [bathroom] wall," he says.

7:17 a.m.

The four stylized letters of the graffiti span several cinderblocks on the wall of the boys' bathroom in the 350s hallway. "We have to repaint almost every day," Agbonselobho says.

Because of persistent vandalism in the bathrooms, doors have been removed or propped open throughout the school, according to Principal Phillip Gainous.

Before painting, Agbonselobho uses a can of graffiti remover on an identical tag in the neighboring stall, spraying all four sides and wincing at the fumes, which smell stronger than spray paint itself. He acknowledges that they are dangerous, but he does not wear a mask. Surveying the white, chalky abrasions left by the remover on the stall surfaces, Agbonselobho realizes he will have to repaint the cinderblock wall, but he doesn't have the correct shade with him.

Agbonselobho heads downstairs to fetch the matching paint. As he enters a supply room near the SAC to find the paint bucket, a small brown mouse scurries down the hallway and escapes under another door. Agbonselobho reappears, bucket in hand, and hurries back upstairs, racing to beat the crowd of students streaming through the SAC doors. "Every day is up and down, up and down," he says as he reenters the elevator. "You lose 10 pounds on the first day."

The warning bell rings: 7:17 a.m.

Wielding a foam paintbrush, Agbonselobho deftly paints over the graffiti, stroke by stroke. The paint appears noticeably lighter than the wall's coat " as if Agbonselobho were only tracing the white graffiti with his jade paint " but it fades to the matching hue as it dries. "If you know you're going to be an artist, there's an art room here," he says cynically. "Not in the bathroom."

The late bell rings: 7:25 a.m. The school day is just beginning for students, but Agbonselobho has already been at school for hours.

It's 7:45 a.m. when Agbonselobho heads back to his office. Shortly after he arrives, a teacher stops in to report an overhead projector screen that has been broken for days. Agbonselobho promises to address the problem; he calls a worker on his radio and instructs him to stop by the teacher's portable classroom. An hour later, it has been fixed.

9:00 a.m.

While Agbonselobho spends third period immersed in paperwork, outside his office the custodial staff is busy as ever. Upstairs, Johnson notices another graffiti tag in the boys' bathroom in the 210s hallway. Tagging used to be worse in the girls' bathrooms, but now the boys' have more graffiti, he says. "But the girls' bathrooms can still be nasty at times," he adds.

Excepting his experience yesterday, Johnson finds that his zone stays reasonably clean. The key to his strategy is building rapport with the students. "You get a pretty cool relationship with the students, and they won't mess it up as bad," he says. "They respect you."

His philosophy in action is evident as he waves and greets nearly every passerby in the halls. "I try to be friends with everyone," he says. "People ask me, 'Why you always smiling?' Because every day ain't guaranteed. I'm blessed to wake up every day and come here and have a job."

As he continues sweeping his zone, Johnson wonders if most students acknowledge building services' efforts. "They look at us like 'Oh, they don't do anything. They just clean the floor.'" he says. "But we are the backbone of the school. Without us there wouldn't be anything."

Johnson mentions one girl who always says, "Hey, Mr. Janitor Man," when she sees him in the halls. "Some people just get the wrong idea," Johnson says. "They look at it like it's a cakewalk, but it's not."

After sweeping all the floors and railings, and even the tops of lockers, Johnson is ready for his favorite part: mopping.

Agbonselobho stresses the importance of students honoring "Caution: Wet Floor" signs for their own safety. "Even we, who are trained to do this job, have incidents happen," he says. A building services worker recently had to be hospitalized for a head injury sustained after slipping on a wet floor. "Anyone can slip on that soda you spill in the hallway and bust their head open," he says grimly. "You have to be careful."

As Johnson works his way down the Boulevard, he encounters media specialist Andrea Lamphier. "You gotta do something about that smell," she says to Johnson, pinching her nose. She is referring to an odor that has persisted for the past hour. Johnson attributes the smell to a used sanitary pad left in the hallway. Although the pad has been removed, the building's poor air circulation allows the smell to linger, he explains.

As the 10:39 bell marks the end of third period, Johnson heads down to the SAC to prepare for the lunch rush. As the workers gather in the SAC, one reports that the very same tag Agbonselobho had painted over this morning has returned to the same spot.

11:35 a.m.

5A lunch is the calm before the storm. All the workers anticipate the mess that awaits them once the students leave, but they can't do much while the masses still crowd the SAC.

Photo: An outdoor trashcan is overstuffed with lunch trays.

The 11:35 bell signals building services' eight-minute rush to prepare the SAC for another lunch period. Hardly any of the 110 tables are free of used tissues, pizza crusts, pretzel crumbs, plastic cutlery, half-eaten fruit and ketchup packets. During the passing period, spilled food gets pulverized by the stampede, leaving crushed Cheetos and chocolate footprints along Blair Boulevard. A student knocks over a trashcan next to Johnson but keeps walking without a second glance.

When 5B lunch ends, building services launches the most intensive part of the day: the post-lunch cleanup.

Many students ate outside today, enjoying the warm, cloudless weather. They have left piles of trash in the courtyard outside the SAC, but some days are much worse than this, says building services worker John Colandreo, who cleans up the courtyard after 5B.

Colandreo, a Blair building services worker for 14 years, uses a rolling trashcan and a long mechanical grabber to begin discarding paper bags, banana peels, aluminum foil and chicken bones littering the ground of the courtyard. "I'm wondering if they do this at home," Colandreo remarks.

Agbonselobho echoes his sentiment. "When students aren't being cooperative, that's the worst thing ever," he says. "This is high school, not elementary school or middle school. We believe that people know a little better."

1:02 p.m.

Colandreo begins to empty the trashcans and replace the trash bags, but at 1:02 p.m., Agbonselobho interrupts him. He says there's been an emergency, and Colandreo has to report to a private staff meeting immediately.

Building services, security and Education Facilities Officer Ralph Penn have gathered behind closed doors in the conference room behind the SAC.

Photo: Building services worker John Colandreo picks up trash in the courtyard after lunch.

As they assemble, a radio barks, "We're in the process of sweeping."

At 12:04 p.m., an unidentified male called the county's emergency communication center issuing a bomb threat targeting Blair. An arbitrarily chosen Thursday in April turned out to be the seventh anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings, Adolf Hitler's 117th birthday and the day of a bomb threat at Blair. Responding to bomb threats is not part of building services' usual routine, but today it happened to be in their line of duty.

The building services workers emerge from the conference and return to their sections, checking for anything suspicious, looking in trashcans and behind doors. Colandreo returns outside to circle the campus.

At 1:12 p.m., a radio announces that the second floor is clear. By 1:25, the workers have returned to the SAC to resume their normal operations.

As 2:00 nears, the building services workers have restored order to the SAC, mopping, straightening chairs and wiping tables.

With the 2:10 bell, the hallways flood with students, and those building services workers like Christopher and Colandreo, who have been at Blair since 5:30 a.m., prepare to leave. Others on the 2:30 p.m.-to-11 p.m. shift are beginning to arrive.
Johnson and the others on the 8 a.m.-to-4:30 p.m. shift return to their sections to clean the bathrooms and hallways. Upstairs, Johnson straps his vacuum cleaner to his back, which he jokes resembles a jet pack. As he begins vacuuming the main stairs, a girl passes and exclaims, "Hey, Mr. Janitor Man!"

2:10 p.m.

After he finishes vacuuming the stairs, Johnson begins working on the bathrooms. "People always say the bathrooms aren't clean," he says. "They do get clean."

He begins with the staff bathroom. He unlocks the door and opens it to wet toilet paper and paper towels on the floor. "And this is the adult bathroom," he remarks.

As Johnson prepares a bucket of water and cleaning solution, he greets almost everyone who passes and gives a quarter to a girl who asks for one.

In the girls' bathroom in the 210s hallway, Johnson flushes all the toilets and sweeps up sanitary pad wrappers. "If you're not used to seeing that kind of stuff, it can be nasty," he says.

But Johnson doesn't mind. In his own home, he gets down on his hands and knees with a toothbrush to scrub his bathroom clean. He treats Blair's bathrooms with the same care.

As Johnson bends over to scrub every toilet, sink and wall, he mentions a lower back injury that he suffered while he worked in an elementary school. He was unable to work for six months, but he never filed for compensation. "I knew I got hurt on the job. I could have gotten big money," he says, "but I just wanted it to heal."

4:00 p.m.

Today, as on most days now, Agbonselobho prepares to leave around 4 p.m. "When I first started, I would be here 5 [a.m.] to 7 [p.m.]," he says. "As soon as I got home, I sat down for a little rest, and before you know it, it's 3 a.m."

Johnson finishes the boys' bathroom at 4 p.m. and heads to Agbonselobho's office to sign out, still stopping on the way to pick up papers, wrappers and bottles on the floor.

At 4:30 p.m., the activity buses depart. More than two hours since the end of seventh period, only athletics and other after-school activities continue in the building. But night school will start soon, and the building's daily use is far from over. Building services workers on the late shift still have six-and-a-half hours remaining. As they toil behind the scenes, their wheeled trashcans and mop buckets stand solitary in empty hallways.

Isaac Arnsdorf. <span style='display: none;'>Isaac Arnsdorf is a perfectionistic grammar nerd with no sense of humor. According to co-editor Allie O'Hora, "he enjoys listening to rhythmless, atonal 'music' and reading the encyclopedia." He sleeps with the Manifesto under his pillow.</span> More »

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