“The thing I do first,” says John Thomas as he pulls a trash bag out of a can and ties it, “is I go around and grab the bags of trash because the seagulls will tear them apart. The trick is to keep the trash in the trash cans.”
Thomas, a maintenance worker for San Diego Park and Recreation, is in charge of the section of Mission Bay Park that extends from the entrance to Fiesta Island about 500 yards north to the South Tecolote Park playground. It’s 6:30 Sunday morning, still dark and cool. Dressed in green pants and a gray-green work shirt over a blue-green T-shirt, John throws the trash bag into the back of his white-and-green Park and Rec pickup and moves to the next trash can. “Sometimes it can get pretty irritating around here. Just the amount of people that come here and the mess they leave. You get frustrated and wonder, what the heck? The homeless people digging for cans, leaving trash behind them, that can be a real drag.”
Parking his truck on the walkway next to the public rest room, Thomas hops out and walks around the bathroom to the play area. He checks chains on swing sets and walks among the jungle gyms, pirate ships, and teeter-totters. “I make sure that all the playground equipment is all safe; I’ve got a blower and I make sure the sand is off the paths and pads out here. I take a look around. I look for caps that are missing,” he taps a white plastic cap, the size of half a golf ball, which covers a bolt head on a wooden fortress. “They are harder than heck to get on but the kids can get them off in a second sometimes.” Thomas, who is 35 and has shoulder-length blond hair and a blond mustache, leans on the pole of a swing set and scans the sand. “Keeping the trash out of the sand is also part of my job,” he says in his resonant voice. “And glass, no glass allowed, not in my park! If you have bottles, they get broken and the kids come here and the first thing they want to do is take their shoes off. So I really have to look out for glass.”
Satisfied with the state of the play equipment and sand, he turns and heads back toward the bathrooms. “Then there are the bathrooms. Oh, boy! Those are the fun part.”
On the west side of the bathroom building, where Thomas parked the truck, is a tool shed, which he opens. Taking a seat on a bucket just inside, he pulls on a pair of black rubber boots and yellow rubber gloves and dons safety glasses, the kind you wear in high school chemistry class. “You always wear your safety equipment,” he explains, “rubber boots, gloves, glasses, because in the bathroom, you don’t want nothing in your eyes, you don’t want nothing on your hands. You might think you can go in there and do it real fast without putting this stuff on, but you could pay for it in the long run if something were to happen to you. You’ve got to wear your stuff.” Safety equipment on, Thomas collects two bottles of liquid cleaner, a Caltrans-type trash grabber, a toilet brush, and a sink swab. Grabbing a coiled garden hose and a large squeegee on a broomstick, he walks around the south side of the building to the women’s bathroom. “Anybody in there?.. .Cleaning.”
No answer. Thomas sets the bucket and squeegee by the door and hooks up the hose to a faucet underneath the two sinks opposite the door. Then he flushes each of the four toilets, plucking any toilet paper from them with the trash grabber. “It’s not too dirty today,” he says. “Sometimes there’s shit on the floor and I’ve seen shit rubbed on the walls.”
Toilets flushed, he sprays down everything — sinks, toilets, walls, and floors — with the hose. The water runs into a gutter behind the toilets and into a drain under the sinks. As he is spraying the place down, a man with the matted beard and sun-baked face of the homeless walks into the bathroom. “Hey, Johnny, I’ve been over to the men’s side and it’s cool. You don’t need to dean it.”
“Okay, Paul,” Thomas says.
For the next five minutes, Paul talks about how he has unclogged toilets with coat hangers and beer bottles. “I dean up after myself because it makes Johnny’s life a little easier,” he says.
After that, he spends another five minutes explaining why the bathroom hut, which is built of solid concrete block, would be the safest place in San Diego should a hurricane strike. Thomas never stops to listen though he does offer an occasional “Is that right?” or “I see.” Working at a furious pace, he scrubs each toilet with the brush, swabs the sinks, rinses everything with the hose again, squeegees the floor, and refills the toilet paper holders all before Paul’s dissertation is over. Gathering up his tools, Thomas gives Paul a smile and a friendly pat on the back, saying, “I’ve got a busy day today. I’ll see you later.”
As Paul rides away on his bike, Thomas says, “The homeless can make you or break you. If you’re rude to them or mean to them, they can screw up those toys, light them on fire, or they just might take the trash and dump it out at night when I’m gone. You’ve got to be kind to them, but you can’t let them slow you down. They can talk to you all day. Paul has been here the year and a half I’ve been here. He can take up your time, but you can’t let him.”
Hauling his things over to the men’s bathroom on the other side of the small building, Thomas, despite Paul’s advice, repeats the cleaning process. But this time, before the final squeegee, he throws the end of the hose through the space between the top of the east wall and the ceiling. On the outside, where the hose ends up, is a drinking fountain, which he sprays, swabs, and rinses. “Every day that I’m here, this fountain will be cleaned. My child drinks out of here. Not only do I have a professional interest in this place, but I have a three-year-old I bring here. So I make sure I keep it safe for him too.” Once bathrooms are clean, Thomas will spend the rest of the day blowing sand and wood chips back under play equipment and off paths, edging and weed whipping, picking up litter, emptying trash bags, and touching up the bathroom until quitting time around 2:00 p.m. “I love the job,” he says. “I love being thanked for doing something or having someone come up and say, ’Gosh, those bathrooms are really clean,’ or, ‘How do you keep your park so nice?’ That’s the best part of the job.”