“Excuse me,” Madison said, poking her head into the head custodian’s little office in the basement of the high school. The room was right next to the offices of the Bee. Madison had walked by it a thousand times but never interacted with its occupant.
“Hello! What can I do you for?” he replied in a cheerful tone.
“I’m a reporter for the Bee—”
“Yeah, I see you down here all the time,” he interrupted.
“I like it down here,” she said with a kind smile. “I’m working on a story, and I was wondering if you might have a minute to answer some questions?”
“Suppose so,” he said. “What’s the topic?”
“Well it’s about the recycling program,” she said.
“Oh! Don’t get me started about that damn recycling program!” he shouted.
“Well, actually, I’d like to get you started about that damn recycling program,” she said, still smiling. “Can I sit down?”
“Help yourself,” he replied, motioning to the chair. “Do you know how many rooms there are in this school?”
“Um. Well, there are four floors, plus the basement. Maybe fifteen or twenty classrooms on each floor, and then—”
“Eighty-two!” he interrupted.
“Wow. That’s a lot,” Madison said. She pulled her notebook from her bag and jotted down that statistic.
“And do you know how many trash cans that means my crew needs to empty every day?” he asked.
“Eighty-two?” she guessed.
He tapped his nose and pointed at her. “You’re a smart one. So now they put in these recycling bins in every room. And of course, you can’t empty the trash and recycling into the same cart, now can you?”
“No, I suppose not,” she said.
“Right, so my crew either has to take two carts around, or— guess how many carts you can fit in the service elevator,” he interrupted himself this time.
Madison tried not to smile. He was animated and she found it funny. “Two?” she guessed.
“Bzzt,” he crossed his hands to make an X. “Survey says, one cart in the elevator!”
“Oh, well, that’s a problem,” she replied, making another note.
“Yeah, and this old building, it’s not easy to move just one cart around. So that means we now have to make two trips to every one of those eighty-two rooms. Guess how many more guys they gave me for that extra work,” he said.
“Zero! They gave me exactly zero more guys to do twice the work. Can you believe that?” he asked.
“Well that doesn’t seem fair,” she said.
“I talked to the bosses at the local about it,” he said.
Madison looked up from her notebook. “I don’t know what that means.”
“The SEIU. The union. They said we have to try to work it out informally before we can file a grievance. I tried to get ahead of this when they were talking about it last year, and I thought we had an agreement with the superintendent’s office. But then this year, all of a sudden these blue bins show up and we get these new marching orders.”
“Last year? Oh. I saw something in the minutes of the school board meeting from last year. They went into executive session to discuss a labor issue.”
“Ding! Ding!” he said, putting his finger on his nose and pointing at her. “I was there. Me and the union rep explained it to the school board, and the superintendent was there, and it was all cool. Or so I thought.”
“So what now?” she asked.
“We do what we can, and I get that whole grievance process going again. Oh! I didn’t mention the worst part,” he said.
“What’s that?” Madison asked, pen poised over her notebook.
“It’s supposed to just be white paper, right? No cardboard or plastic or anything,” he said.
“Yes, I read that,” she replied.
“Guess who is supposed to make sure that’s followed,” he said, leaning forward.
“Your crew?” she guessed.
“Ding! Ding! My crew. So we’re not just dumping that bin out. We’re looking through it. And I’ll tell you what, it’s not just water bottles and cardboard my guys are finding in there. It’s actual garbage, like an apple core, or a full cup of coffee. One of my guys found a shoe the other day!”
“I’m guessing the shoe wasn’t made of white paper?” she joked.
“Damn right it wasn’t.” He sat back in his chair and laughed. “So you’re writing a story about all this? For the school paper?” he asked.
“I am,” she replied.
“Okay. Well I need to talk to my union rep. I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk to the press about this stuff, even if it is just one of you kids.”
“Oh,” Madison said, somewhat deflated. “How long will that take?” she asked. “Can I stop by tomorrow and figure out whether I can quote you, or maybe we just leave this as an unnamed source.”
He laughed. “If you print this, everyone will know who said it. I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about this for over a year. I’m complaining to anyone who will listen!”
Madison laughed. “Okay, I’ll stop by sometime tomorrow, and we will see what your union guy says.”
“Thanks for stopping by,” he said. “And don’t be a stranger. If there’s one thing I love to do, it’s complain,” he said, then he let out another big belly laugh.