The Cleaners

by

10/06/2001

W 145th St & Broadway, New York, NY 10031

Neighborhood: Washington Heights

When I hear about the plane crash in Queens, all I can think is, “I can’t believe no one’s talking about it.” Then, after sunset, I’m thinking, “God, it’s clear out tonight. Look at these stars.” Our season of caring seems to be over.

Later, at 3 a.m., I’m at 145th Street, waiting for the 1/9 train. There’s a guy across the tracks, on the uptown side, forcefully blowing his nose. The station smells like bleach.

As I wait, I start noticing how beautiful the station is. A lot of stops along the 1/9 line are attractive, but none are as elegant as this one. The walls are bright white ceramic tile. An ornate, rust-colored cornice runs along the top of the wall all the way down the platform. Every twenty feet is a large 1-4-5 set in a field of cobalt blue tiles, trimmed in beige with a border of light blue lily bulbs and diamonds. There’s a smaller 1-4-5 every five feet, surrounded by either grey tile or rust-colored marble.

The columns along the platform are made of the same white tile as the walls. They also have that strong 1-4-5, written at eye-level. When I twist my head at a sharp angle, the numbers repeat forever, into the dark tunnel. I wonder if someone designed them with this effect in mind. I run my hand over the rounded cornerstones and look at them closely. Whoever cemented the tiles when they built this station took great care to make sure they were perfectly aligned.

Beyond the columns, I see three transit workers in orange vests near the end of the platform. They are cleaning the station. Two young men watch their larger co-worker wield a long, thin, stiff hose, blasting the white ceramic columns every ten seconds. Then she blasts the walls, hitting those bold numbers with the spray. Then she blasts the soapy water from the floor onto the tracks.

The man across the platform and I watch this matron of the station with quiet awe as she readies the station for the morning commute. Her two helpers move trash bags out of the way.

A fourth worker has begun cleaning the black metal service-entry doors near the turnstiles. He plunges his mop into the bucket of suds and whacks away at the bars. Then he stops and goes to help the others haul trash bags. As he walks by, I say, “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” But the hose is too noisy and he doesn’t hear me.

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