On my first night, I picked up a beer-soaked five-dollar bill and shoved it into my pocket. Some of my co-workers were high; some chugged the remains of half-empty beer cans. Everyone needed something to help endure the mind-numbing task of cleaning the Rogers Centre. Mine was searching for treasure in the trash.
It was hardly my dream job. Two weeks earlier, I had been an intern at the CBC’s Q. I had my own desk, researched and wrote questions for interviewees and even got a picture with Vanilla Ice. I loved it, but it was an unpaid gig and it lasted only six weeks. When it ended, I couldn’t find a paying job in journalism. My bank balance was $300, my rent was due, and I was surviving on a diet of oatmeal and spaghetti.
I’d seen worse times. I was born in Kenya to Christian missionaries and lived in Ethiopia for two years in my teens. I’d been swarmed by beggars and seen abject poverty close-up. Still, I was bitter. I had moved to Toronto to launch my journalism career. I was 26 and ready to write about the world around me, not barely survive it. A friend recommended Labor Ready, a temp agency that specializes in back-breaking, minimum-wage jobs. I applied.
A week later, I arrived at Gate 3 of the Rogers Centre just before a Jays game let out and fell in with my new colleagues: middle-aged men and women who sat on the benches chain-smoking silently. Suddenly, fans in blue flooded out of the doors. For a moment I was lost among them. Then I had a terrifying thought: what if someone recognizes me? Mercifully, no one did. In fact, no one even looked my way. If they had, they’d have seen all six feet and 160 pounds of me, dressed in my grubbiest clothes, trying to fade into the concrete wall.
As a kid, my heart would pound when I’d catch that first glimpse of the field. To me, the SkyDome was one of the most magical places in the world. In the middle of the night, however, it’s entirely different. The field lights are dimmed, and the exhilarating hum of the crowd is replaced by the sounds of leaf blowers and the swooshing of brooms echoing off the walls.
I was assigned to the uppermost section. I started at the top, mid-row, and began to push trash toward the aisles. Once all the rows were cleared, I hiked back up to the top and pushed it all down, step by step, in a vile waterfall of sticky, wet, salty, sugary, alcoholic refuse. The individual items—hot dog ends, crumbled nacho chips, pizza crusts, soda, ketchup, chipotle sauce—are gross enough; mixed together into an unsavoury stew, they’re nearly unbearable. A putrid brown liquid would pool beneath the pile and inevitably cover my boots and occasionally splash up onto my face. I had to swallow hard to repress my gag reflex.
When the stadium is full, roughly 20 tonnes of trash is produced. Over an average season, Jays fans generate enough garbage to fill four Olympic-size pools. Amid the filth, however, lies opportunity. The five bucks I found on the first night was only the beginning. I discovered a week’s worth of subway tokens, a memory stick loaded with Eminem music videos, a pack of 1989 baseball cards and a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt that’s still in my regular rotation. Loose cash is fine to take, since it’s untraceable; wallets are different—I found two, one of which contained $180. It would have tripled my $60 nightly wage, but I couldn’t keep it. I mailed it to its Californian owner, who sent back the cash and added a $20 Starbucks gift card.
Some of my more seasoned co-workers told tales of finding (and keeping) diamond rings, iPhones, cameras and wallets stuffed with thousands of dollars. Those bonuses made the job bearable, especially for employees in it for the long term.
I developed respect for career cleaners. Aaron became my best friend on staff. He was in his mid-40s, had buzzed brown hair and wore a bandage on his nose to hide cancer scars. He was down on his luck and told me he had frequent dreams of finding a purse full of cash. He had ended up there because he couldn’t find full-time construction work.
I gleaned tips from Beth, a pretty, petite 20-year-old who always wore Beats headphones while she swept. She never whined about a job I found demeaning, or the crippling toll it takes on the back. I mimicked the way she moved her broom to dislodge stubborn sunflower seed shells and flick beer cans across an entire row. Like her, I could eventually hear the difference between a beer can tab and a coin. I hated the job, but I became good at it.
I worked at the Rogers Centre for three months until my journalism master’s at Ryerson began. I’m finished now and am again searching for work. It hasn’t gone well. I’ve accepted an internship at the Star newspaper in Kenya. It will be a fascinating experience, and I’m excited to start, but it’s another low-paying position with no benefits or promise of permanent work. Somehow, I know I’ll be fine. I’ve been through worse.
Ryan Kohls is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.
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