Boomerang Days: The Clean-up Crew

A Longhorn does college all over again

I am not a tidy person. There are aromas in my bathroom that would put a burning cheese shop to shame. The family of opossums squatting in a laundry pile in a corner of my bedroom recently moved out, citing hazardous living conditions.

In contrast, the UT campus is always pristine. Though tens of thousands of students race through these halls daily, somehow the campus maintains its shine. What happens to the slew of coffee cups, mud tracks, discarded papers, pencil stubs, candy bar wrappers, paper clips, and other detritus of college life?

As an undergrad 20 years ago, I took it for granted that outside of my dorm room—which resembled a 400-square-foot overused petri dish—the campus was always beautiful. It’s like the Forty Acres is coated in Teflon.

The truth is, campus is kept spotless by the tireless attention of some 200 people working nightly from 5:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. While students study, drink, sleep, or socialize, the UT Custodial Services Crew is hard at work making magic. Building Services Supervisor Richard Lister was kind enough to let me tag along one night to learn the methods of keeping such a vast space clean, and perhaps get a chance to use one of those cool backpack vacuums.

Lister, a warm, friendly man with a clear inner discipline, leads his team with a smile and a dedication to a job that “exceeds customers’ expectations.” He begins the evening with “Fit Start.” Team members gather for stretching and some motivation. It’s an unexpected but brilliant way of pumping up for the job.

On any one night, there are 24 crews working across the campus. I’m joining the crew cleaning the Law School and the surrounding buildings. There’s a certain thrill moving with Lister through back doors and hidden hallways in parts of campus I’d never seen. It’s like removing the fur from a Tickle Me Elmo to find out what makes it tick.

He helps me into a Ghostbusters-style proton-pack vacuum backpack and gives me a lesson. He rips up a few pieces of paper and I get to work, imagining I’m sucking up that one economics final from 1994.

Lister introduces me to Building Attendant Leader Emmanuel Nshimirimana, who leads us to the Law School custodial equipment room. This room is amazing: intricate whirling gear, charged up and ready; vats of brightly colored viscous liquid; and a line of those awesome backpack vacuums. It’s like a scene from a sci-fi movie where the space marines stock up on futuristic weapons to defeat an incoming alien horde.

A new employee with custodial services usually goes through a week of “boot camp” to learn the ins and outs of the cleaning strategy used at the university. I’m simply given a brief overview and a reminder not to touch the chemicals. Nshimirimana helps me into a Ghostbusters-style proton-pack vacuum backpack and gives me a lesson. He rips up a few pieces of paper and I get to work, imagining I’m sucking up that one economics final from 1994. It’s outrageously satisfying, but I think Lister and Nshimirimana are a little disturbed by my high-pitched giggle.

Teamwork is a huge part of the crew’s success. The team makes its way through the building each with his or her own focus, but also double checking the work of other team members. By having each other’s backs, nothing falls through the cracks.

It’s the same system throughout campus, though different buildings hold different challenges. The Law School has more shredded documents and the College of Fine Arts has more creative bathroom graffiti. The eclectic buildings are some of the most challenging. The Robert Lee Moore building has lounges, auditorium classrooms, labs, a rooftop observatory, and a basement with all kinds of nutty stuff. It’s unclear whether they’re splitting atoms or improving the taste of fat-free yogurt, but something is going on down there.

It’s eerily quiet moving through a UT building in the middle of the night. Occasionally a crewmember stumbles upon a student snoring over some half-complete project, but for the most part the rooms are empty … and a little creepy.

“You hear things,” one crew member tells me, her eyes narrowing. I’m a little spooked as I move through the echoing halls of the Law School. I might meet a ghoul, or scarier yet, a lawyer.

Nshimirimana explains to me that the students (even the law students) are key to keeping the campus clean. When students find a clean classroom or bathroom, they feel more inclined to keep it clean. It’s a cycle of respect. The work done by the custodial crew inspires a respect for the space and for the people who live and work in it.

“It’s a clean syndrome,” Nshimirimana explains.

I describe how my house often looks like a tiny earthquake has devastated a cat-ridden thrift store. Nshimirimana hums his understanding, then smiles. “You do not have this clean syndrome.”

Not yet, Nshimirimana. But I’ve learned a lot and I’m taking home some wisdom. And possibly a backpack vacuum.

Illustration by Mario Zucca




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