For the last 17 years, 77-year-old Helga Schmidt has been working as a bathroom attendant at Hafenbar in Berlin's Mitte district. In 2002, she was actually voted bathroom attendant of the year, which she found puzzling. "How do you go about choosing the best bathroom attendant? Did they send someone to pee undercover?" she jokes when I approach her.
It's a Friday night, and I'm here to ask some of the questions that come to mind when we slip past one of her colleagues sheepishly, muttering that we have no change.
VICE: Do you get angry when someone pisses on the seat or leaves shit in the toilet?
Helga Schmidt: If someone pees on the seat, I'll complain under my breath, while cleaning it up as they're still washing their hands. I also do that when other people are occupying the rest of the stalls. I want them to hear it.
But very few people come to shit. When that happens, I spray the air with freshener—and if I'm out of that, I just use deodorant. Then I say to the next person who comes in, "Make sure to hold your breath!" Nobody shits roses—I can't get angry about that.
What have you learned about human digestion through this job?
If they throw up, then I see what they ate. Other than that, as I said, most people can hold in number two, when they are in a bar. I can even hold my pee in. I learned how to do that when I worked as an aid in a kindergarten. We'd go on trips frequently, and I couldn't leave the children alone, so I had to hold it in. In the 17 years I've been working in Hafenbar, I can count the number of times I've peed here on one hand. Even if I just cleaned the seat and I'm alone, I don't do it. I pee at home.
Who is messier when peeing and pooping—women or men?
Definitely women. They just don't seem to care. There's a trash bucket, but they often throw their used tampons on the floor and the same goes for toilet paper. And then they spend ten minutes in front of the mirror fixing their makeup and their hair, but they can't afford to spend a few seconds to clean up after themselves. There are hardly any problems with the boys, and 95 percent of them even wash their hands.
How thoroughly do you really wash the toilets?
I don't clean up after every person. I used to do that when I started working here, but I couldn't keep up. It gets particularly hard after midnight—that's when people start lining up. But I do go back again and again on any given night, with Lysol, a scrub, and lily of the valley air freshener.
Do a lot of people have sex in the stalls?
Nobody does if I can help it. Once, some guy offered me 20 euros to let him take a girl into a stall. I thought, "For 20 euros, you could have rented a room for an hour!" I didn't let them do it. But if I'm smoking or talking to someone, I can't always control what happens. It's happened, and then of course I realized that the stall was occupied for an unusual amount of time. And obviously the two of them had to listen to what I had to say on their way out.
What about drugs?
Obviously, I can't see it if someone takes a pill in there. But I do notice if someone is smoking weed in a stall. But by the time I smell it, the person is usually already done or everyone says, "It wasn't me." What am I supposed to do? But if I do catch someone smoking up, then they're out of the bar faster than they got in.
Do you get angry when people don't tip you?
I don't like it, but that's just my opinion. Regular guests know that I have a flat rate. If you pay one euro the first time you come in, then you can keep coming back all night, go to the bathroom, wash your hands—and I have hand lotion, deodorant, and a sewing kit if you need any of that.
I only said something once when someone didn't want to pay. There was nothing on my plate except for the coins I use to make change, three 50 cent coins. I heard some clatter and said, "Thanks." Then I looked at the plate, and there was only one cent there. A single cent! I whistled to the man to get him to look back. He turned around. I took the cent and said, "You forgot something."—"No that's for you," he said. But I made him take it back. I won't let anyone insult me.
What type of customer tips best?
Age doesn't play a role, but there is a difference between the sexes. Ladies give less than men. Girls don't seem to care about anything—in 17 years, I haven't been able to teach them to.
Do you put coins on the plate on purpose, so that people think they have to give you more money?
I always have three 50 cent coins there, but they're for making change. It's so if I'm not there and someone has a euro, they can leave it and take 50 cents back instead of leaving nothing.
Do bathroom attendants make good money?
No, or at least I don't. I don't get a salary here, I'm my own boss. For me, it's just a little bit extra, on top of my pension. I earn around 100 euros on a good Friday night. Saturdays are not good—the bar is full but with tourists, and they don't have any tipping ethics. I buy cleaning products, hand lotion, deodorant, and other supplies with the money I earn. I don't do this job for the money; I do it to be around young people. People my age tend to only talk about their illnesses. Here, I learned what a fist bump is. I think I will work as a bathroom attendant for another three years, and then retire at 80.