The life of a res custodian

The Journal spends a day with one of Morris Hall’s cleaning staff

Image by: Justin Tang

Clive Strachan’s equipment closet door has a white board on it with “We love you Clive” and other endearments written in dry-erase marker.

“If you have a good rapport with the students it’s a little better,” the Morris Hall residence custodian said Tuesday during my visit with him.

“It does affect what kind of mess they leave … I would consider them friends, and you don’t want to leave a mess for your friends,” he said.

Graham McDowell, one of the Morris dons, stopped to talk with Strachan while he cleaned the first floor co-ed washroom.

“It’s surprisingly clean,” I said, causing McDowell and Strachan to exchange knowing glances.

“I guess you haven’t been to the men’s washroom then,” the don said, laughing.

Walking into the men’s bathroom, Strachan turned to face me.

“Well, here it is,” he said.

Crusty blue and white streaks line the tiled walls and stall doors. All three toilets were clogged, filled to the brim with putrid waste. A half-submerged ceiling tile floated in one, with “Waddup bitch” written on it. Strachan picked up a bottle of anti-dandruff shampoo.

“This is what’s gotten onto the walls,” he said while surveying the splattered tile. Nimbly kicking up a toilet seat, he sprayed it with disinfectant.

“It might not seem that way, but I think the students like me,” Strachan said. “I try not to take it too personally.”

Strachan has been a custodian at Queen’s for over a decade. He starts his day at 7:30 a.m. by taking out the Morris Hall garbage and recycling.

“Stay in here,” he said when I moved to follow him outside with the bins, “it’s cold out there.”

Before heading to clean the residence floors, Strachan prepares his cart, stopping to chat with a first-year student on her way to class.

“This is the command centre,” Strachan said while filling up colour-coded buckets with cleaning detergent. The command centre is a group of soap dispensers in the custodial closet. Most commonly used to combat bacteria, Strachan said that type 60 disinfectant was brought into residence following the SARS outbreak a few years ago. These specific chemicals are necessary when managing organic waste, he said.

Luckily, I escaped having to deal with any vomit. Strachan said usually he only finds vomit on Mondays.

“You have two choices encountering something like that. You can either clean it up yourself, or call the residence manager to bring in waste disposal personnel,” he said.

The latter option incurs a fine for students on the floor where vomit is found.

“This year I’ve only given in two charges, the rest I clean up myself.” If damages or particularly bad messes occur on a residence floor, custodians have the option to submit a charge for Residence Life to collect. The cost of repair or clean up will be spread evenly among residents if a perpetrator does not step forward.

Strachan said he prefers to clean it up himself because he doesn’t like to submit a charge to students.

“I wear gloves, throw on a mask and goggles. Usually with stuff like that, it’s contained to the toilet,” he said. “If it’s dry, that’s the best way to clean it up. Don’t add water, that reactivates the smell.” Students breaking ceiling-tiles is an issue on most residence floors, he said. Looking down the first-floor Morris hallway, three of 10 tiles were missing entirely.

“It used to be occurring every weekend,” Strachan said.

I asked Strachan if he had ever found used condoms on residence floors.

“Oh yeah,” he replied quickly. “I sweep it right up into the garbage. It’s not the nicest.” When submitting a charge to a residence floor, Strachan notes things like how long it took him to clean, or the severity of damage. He said that charging students isn’t the most effective way to deal with messes.

“Honestly, they don’t really seem to work that much. It has to be really bad for me to put in a charge,” he said.

There is another reason that custodial staff don’t always report incidents in residence, Strachan said.

“I try not to provoke the students, because it might backfire on me,” he said, adding that he has heard of students taking revenge on custodians who reprimand them frequently, but that it isn’t usually an individual issue.

“I’ve never seen a single person have a vendetta against the staff. That sort of thing happens en-masse,” he said.

Floor meetings are a good time to address issues between custodial staff and residents, Strachan said.

“For the last one, I wrote out a little note for the students. I don’t want to be too harsh, but the meetings are a good podium for me to reach out to them,” he said.

A custodian’s relationship with the floor don can have a large impact on the students’ treatment of staff.

“It was two or three years back when Residence Life had custodial staff help in the initial stages of don hiring,” Strachan said. “They asked for volunteer custodians to ask candidates questions based on their own experience.

“I’m not sure what happened to that. I thought it was a good way to get involved.” As conductors of a student’s relationship with their floor custodian, dons are encouraged to attend meet-and-greets with custodial staff. Strachan reflected fondly on the time Jason Laker, former Dean of Student Affairs, took to encourage custodial interaction with students.

“For a while we [custodial staff] were invisible to students. I think there has been a drastic change for the better since then,” he said.

After finishing up three bathrooms on floor one, Strachan cleans up the quiet common room. “Fuck Queen’s” is written in toothpaste on one of the mirrors there.

At 10 a.m., Strachan takes the first of his two 15-minute breaks with Dawn Johnson—who shares the Morris cleaning duties. He will have one half hour of unpaid lunch break at noon, and take his second short time out at 2:30 p.m.

“The Union probably doesn’t want to hear it, but I sometimes work through my lunch break to get things done,” he said.

Sitting in the break room, I ask Strachan and Johnson about unusual things they’ve seen in residence.

“Weird is normal now,” Strachan said, eating an apple, “Nothing really phases us.” Johnson nodded.

“You don’t see anything as special anymore,” she said.

“Oh” Strachan said suddenly, “tell her about the toilet paper tree.”

Johnson laughs, quickly pulling up a picture on her cell phone to show a dozen rolls of toilet paper hanging from a ceiling, a barely visible toilet seat amidst the tangles.

“[Engineering students] took a pair of panties, a toilet seat and some toilet paper to make this,” Johnson said. “It was a toiletry toilet tree, you have to take it in good spirit.” After his break, Strachan left me to clean the basement level of Morris and wash the hallways at least twice more to stay on top of the tracked-in slush and snow. He usually leaves at 3:45 p.m.

“At the end of the day I leave it all behind,” he said, “I don’t want to stand in the way of students having a good time.”

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