Bread, Roses, and Mop Buckets

My grandma cleaned for artists. I cleaned to support my art.

Bread and Roses (Justice for janitors!)

Grandma sloshed water on the ten floors of the Fine Arts Building as Lake Michigan’s waves lapped up to the seawall a block away. She mopped the creaking wood past the broom closet-sized studios where working artists rented space. She must have heard the brush of oil on canvas, the bows pulled across strings, the toots pushed through wetted reeds, the clack of the alphabet on keys, the air vibrated against vocal chords, the slap of clay churning around wheels, the slide and tap of on-point along the floors — her floors, the ones that she cleaned.

All the artists stood on her floors. From the basement where Studebakers were once built all the way to the top ballroom with a chandelier casting a brilliant glow onto the shine of her floors, floors cleaned with an initial acrid, throat-burning bleach wash, and then given a rejuvenating tinge of lemon scent, which evaporated into the air they all shared. Perhaps she took one moment, when one hint of rhythm wafted up to her, one song, to dance with her mop, imagining her husband twirling her across the floors she had wiped down and rung out and waxed over, while he sat on a stool in an elevator tilting a lever up and down for floors at Marshall Field’s.

I don’t know how often the artists looked outside. The streaks gone from the panes, a residue of vinegar on the glass. A clear view to either side-building, close enough to peer into an adjacent room for inspiration or distraction. The rear windows angled toward the Windy City’s Loop. The Loop like life: work and art and work and art and so on. Or the windows facing Lakeshore Drive and its namesake, a lake so large it seemed like an ocean. It might as well have been the ocean she crossed when she was younger than I am now, married and with a son. After the war that ended her country, she came to the country that my father would claim, the country that is my country, where six hours away I worked during the day and wrote at night. Mopping floors, just like her. But different.

From 8:00 AM until 4:00 PM, I pushed the yellow plastic mop bucket on the slick and cold cement of Ames’ public transit garage. One hand on the wringer and the other hand on the shaft of the stick that plunges into the clear soapy warm water, while the four wheels spun. Stability and warmth drained under my feet. I followed the zig from the east driver’s exit, bypassed the front lanes of buses ready to roll, through the old wash bay with stacks of mildewing seats, and zagged to the west end’s entry line for need-to-repair buses. I wore eye protection, long sleeves, brown jeans, and boots. It was the season I drove buses, but since it was spring break, none of the school routes were running. I found work cleaning buses for the mechanics’ shop.

“Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap),” “Hotel California,” “Surrender,” and other classic rock songs blared from 100.3 The Bus. The tunes echoed off the shop walls as high as a cathedral so the double-lifts could press the buses above the mechanics’ heads. Guitar solos faded in their an outro as I made my way to my gray two-leveled cleaning chart parked beside the next bus in my cleaning queue. The lower shelf was heaped with rags and the upper I lined with canisters of glass cleaner. A broom leaned between the two. A box of gloves wedged in a cut out spot. Spray bottles of disinfectant hung from the handle of the pushcart probably unchanged since Grandma had begun pushing one.

I walked behind the rear of a line of buses instead of threading my way between a parked row because I was terrified of a bus rolling forward in neutral, or worse, accelerating by a phantom driver and smashing my knee, turning it into meat on two slices of molded plastic to make a bumper sandwich. I wasn’t scared of the pain so much as I was scared of an injury taking me off the clock, unable to make money, unable to work.

That week, no one drove those buses pulled from the fleet, since the students were gone. I was encased in quiet throughout my 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM days, except for the occasional hiss spraying in the new wash bay when a lane worker pulled a bus into the garage for a cleaning.

I mopped each bus twice. I lifted the filled bucket up the stairs, careful not to crash the mop handle into the door panels. My triceps stretched as much as turning the wheel through a route, and my biceps bulged bigger than they’d been since I started training and got used to driving. Once on board, I slopped the soapy water onto the floor; ground the mop head into the corners, along the tread, and on the stairs; and then rung out the muck the head soaked up. The sudsy water in the bucket turned a dull, placid black. With a refilled bucket, I mopped the bus again, quickly. The mop swirled on the flat surfaces and slid along the tread. The water wasn’t too dark to dump so I rolled the bucket to the next bus down the line.

When I drove, I had to keep my mind on the road. While cleaning the buses, though, I put my body in auto-pilot and I could think about what I was writing at home. It wasn’t much. I usually came home exhausted and instead of bouncing on my stability ball at my writing desk and typing away on my laptop, I plopped in my rocking chair by my duplex’s south window to read. I felt like a failure: I’d finished graduate school the year before but my thesis wasn’t a book, and instead of teaching I was stuck making ends meet by driving buses.

Sometimes while sitting in the rocker I couldn’t even bring myself to read. Instead I laid the pages face down in my lap and stared at the last rays of the sun sinking below the horizon, telling me I was a half-day away from sitting in a bus again.

In the bus garage, I spotted Nicholas twirling a broom like a samurai-cum-color-guard. He moved along with the music budding into his ears. Doesn’t everyone love to goof off when no one is looking? I considered Nicholas a kid, despite his probably being only a few years younger than me, because Nicholas was still a university student without stubble on his pale face. Nicholas stood tall, his thin frame in dark colors, jeans and a T-shirt. He looked like he dressed to be a server. Maybe he didn’t want to work in a restaurant because of the slammed shifts, he-man multi-tasking, sketchy co-workers, late hours, and later closes. If he’s still there, I want to tell him, There are options. I hope he doesn’t feel trapped as a driver like I did.

Nicholas noticed me staring from the bottom of his bus’ stairs. I rested my hand on the mop bucket I was dropping off for him. He popped his headphones out and tried to act casual, leaning on his broom with the bristles in his face instead of on the floor.

“My triceps are burning,” he said, rubbing his arms down.

“My muffin tops are burning,” I said with a straight face that then cracked.

We shared a laugh. I didn’t say anything about his warrior-dance. I waved and walked off to fill another mop bucket.

Chris Wiewiora earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. After graduating, he worked a variety of odd-jobs including crossing guard, gardener, carpenter’s assistant, bus driver, and dishwasher. His nonfiction has also been published on the Awl, the Good Men Project, the Huffington Post, the Rumpus, and many other magazines beginning with the definite article “the.” Read more at www.chriswiewiora.com


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