When You Sweep the Streets, You Become the Garbage
How a summer sweeping the streets of Niagara Falls taught me to hate my fellow man.
The first job I ever had was picking up trash by the side of the road in Niagara Falls Ontario. My official title was street sweeper and for nine hours at a time I would walk up and down Clifton Hill—Niagara's Street of fun by the Falls!—cleaning up after hordes of tourists and their sweaty bairn. As a street sweeper I made $6.85 an hour. At the time I thought I was being underpaid for my work, but in retrospect that's not a bad wage for picking up garbage by the side of the road. The average wage for picking up garbage by the side of the road is nothing. Because the only other people who pick up garbage by the side of the road are volunteers or convicts.
Starting the job I earnestly thought a summer spent in Niagara's tourist district would be a fun and easy way to make some cash. While the mandatory white khaki uniform of the street sweepers clashed with my freshly dyed swoop bangs and brooding demeanor, at that point in my life I actually enjoyed Clifton Hill. Clifton Hill was like the Vegas Strip if the Vegas Stip was made exclusively for pre-teens. It had this over the top magical quality made up of neon lights, dinosaur themed putt-putt, and corn-sugar confections. I envisioned my days casually hanging out in the campy area alongside people from all corners of the world in a kind of funny non-job job. I would charm everyone with my droll observations and acute knowledge of fantasy literature. During my training shift I quickly realized how naive I was.
"Your job is to make sure the streets are fucking spotless," explained Randy. Randy was a spray tanned thirty-something with rage issues. He was my direct supervisor. "You clean everything from the Fun House to the giant Frankenstein on top of the Burger King. I don't want to see one goddamn wrapper anywhere."
"It's Frankenstein's Monster, actually."
"On top of the Burger King. It's not actually Frankenstein. Frankenstein was just the creator. The guy with the bolts in his neck eating the burger is Frankenstein's Monster."
"Shut the fuck up," said Randy. And with that I was left to it.
Did you know that if you walk the streets with a broom and dustpan strangers will throw trash at you? That day people threw half a hamburger, a third of an ice cream sandwich, and a can of Pringles. Did you know that at the bottom of public trash cans a mixture of old soda, condiments, and syrup collect in a thick saccharine swamp water? In the mid-summer heat the swamp water comes to a boil and it smells like fear. Did you know that if at fifteen years old you dye your hair with Manic Panic, that hair dye will sweat out after three hours in the midday sun? The hair dye ruined my white khakis. By the end of my shift I was exhausted, covered in garbage juice, and deeply questioning my life choices. It was 1:45 in the morning. Randy came by to tell me that on his last walk by he saw at least three wrappers left over. He screamed and said if I wanted to make it at this job then I needed commitment and I better have another pair of fucking pants for tomorrow.
When my Dad picked me up in our mini-van he did a double take while looking at my ruined uniform. I explained how bad my first day had gone and told him that I didn't think I was cut out for this line of work. I said maybe I'd have better luck at Tim Hortons or washing dishes. Dad paused for a second as he started up the car. Then he said the only reason I had gotten the job in the first place was because a friend of his was the owner of the Fun House. If I quit it would reflect poorly on our family. I let that sink in for a second. I needed nepotism to get a minimum wage job where people literally threw litter at me. It was humbling.
I worked as a street sweeper for two years. During that time I saw the worst of humanity pop out it's ugly head. There were the twenty somethings caught having an afternoon threesome in the Fun House ballpit. There were the handsy tourists who tried to cop a feel in the dark of the Haunted Houses. There were hordes of spoiled children, high on lines of sugar pixie dust, screaming for stuffed animals. Men who changed lyrics of pop songs at the Beer Garden Karaoke to sing about their balls. Dozens of people making the hilarious missed a spot joke whenever I passed with my broom and dustpan. These things in and of themselves were bad enough, but the actions were compounded by the fact that three hundred yards away was one the world's greatest natural wonders. The visitors would spend fifteen minutes look at the Falls themselves then hours at Clifton Hill blowing their money on fast food and twenty dollar wax museums with half melted statues of Baby Spice. I worked in a place that is specifically designed for people to visit, not to stay in, and I was stuck there with only my thoughts and the garbage. It changed something in me.
Even before the job I had already developed a casual distrust of other people, but street sweeping converted passive nihilism into full blown misanthropy. I viewed every tourist as a trash making machine. It got to the point where watching them enjoy their vacation made me physically shake. When I would try and express these feelings to other people they fell on deaf ears. They said I needed to lighten up. Towards the end of my second summer I honestly tried to take their advice and change my attitude. The morning I ventured to Clifton Hill with my new outlook was the same day Randy called me about the shit in the maze.
The Mystery Maze was one of the many attractions I was in charge of sweeping in front of. It was a former parking lot made into the maze with green and purple pieces of plywood. It cost $10.99 and if you completed the maze in under five minutes you won an additional ticket to the Mystery Maze. Randy informed me that that day someone used the bathroom before escaping the maze. It was my job to find the accident and sweep it up with my broom and dustpan. He had also gotten me a bucket of water in case it was necessary. Randy suggested that I find the shit was quick as possible, because there were still tourists inside the attraction.
I was being paid $6.85 an hour to look for a shit in a maze. Quitting would bring shame on my family. Immediately entering the maze I was hit with a god awful smell of poop. I looked around every twist and turn carefully perusing the concrete for the turd. I finally came across the thing beside the Mystery Maze's south turret. I had assumed what I was looking for was a child shit. But what I found was a full sized adult log and an accompanying puddle of mess. Plugging my nose I broomed the turd into the dustpan and poured the water onto the ground. As the poop water trickled under the plywood paneling I heard someone let out a disgusted yelp and I smiled. Surely this wasn't the waterfall they had been looking forward to, but it was the goddamn waterfall they were going to get.
As I exited the maze, Randy was waiting for me with a huge smile on my face. He thanked me for my work and said that with the type of commitment I had shown one day I could be a supervisor just like him. I looked at Randy and I looked at the poop in my dustpan. Not for the first time and not for the last time I thought that I needed to get the fuck out of Niagara Falls.
Graham Isador recognizes that a lot of people have had worse jobs. Follow him on Twitter