Register Monday | October 18 | 2021
Clean Sweep Photograph by Ryan Kohls.

Clean Sweep

When the fun is over and the fans go home, someone has to pick up the trash.

FORTY THOUSAND PEOPLE are packed into the Rogers Centre to watch the Toronto Blue Jays. Right now, the stadium still belongs to the players, the fans and the vast, expensively-produced spectacle of professional sports. But at gate three, a group of about fifty congregates. Some stand alone, or pace and listen to music. Others sit on wooden benches nearby and enjoy a final cigarette. It’s 10:30 pm, and these grim-faced men and women are waiting for work to begin. Standing on the curb as the game wraps up inside, these are the cleaners.

They’ll work until dawn, gathering up some 15,000 pounds of garbage, scrubbing, rinsing, bending and lifting with painstaking thoroughness.

By morning, the stadium will gleam and the cleaners will go home to sleep with the blinds pulled tight against the sun. Now, they try to relax, joking to keep the mood light. “Are you ready for more torture?” one of them asks.

Spread out across 12.7 acres, the Rogers Centre, once known as the SkyDome, is one of Toronto’s most recognizable landmarks. Every year 3.5 million people attend events at the mammoth complex. The big crowds mean big business—baseball’s Blue Jays, whose eighty-one home games provide the stadium’s main attraction, are worth an estimated $568 million. One season produces 1.2 million pounds of garbage. Eventually, someone must clean it up. Enter the cleaners—exhausted, poorly paid and largely anonymous. Without them, the game can’t go on.

ON A GIVEN NIGHT, anywhere from thirty to one hundred cleaners scour the stadium. Most of them work for Hallmark Housekeeping Services, a Toronto-based janitorial agency that holds the cleaning contract at the Rogers Centre. These workers are experienced; Hallmark employees clean after every event. The other cleaners come from Labor Ready, a huge company that supplies temporary blue-collar workers across Canada and the United States. These employees book the Rogers Centre gig on a nightly basis and typically work a shorter shift. Both groups of workers are predominantly immigrants or down on their luck.

In the summer of 2012, I worked as a cleaner, on-and-off, for three months. I participated in roughly twenty-five cleaning shifts as an employee of Labor Ready, joining the agency after struggling to find journalism work in the city.

Most cleaners patrol the stadium with brooms and large transparent garbage bags; a handful of more seasoned employees take leaf blowers. With the motor slung across their backs and a long black nozzle pumping out air, they blow the garbage from two parallel seating sections into one aisle. The blowers weigh about 25 pounds. One worker described it as being like “carrying an obese baby around all night.” 

Once enough garbage reaches the aisle, the sweepers climb to the top of their section and begin to slosh the mess downwards. In time, the pile turns into a cascading waterfall of miscellaneous trash. Beer-soaked hot dogs mix with ketchup-infused popcorn and the ubiquitous shells of sunflower seeds, which are maddeningly hard to persuade off the wet concrete. The mixture leaves behind a slick residue that makes the stairs treacherous. Workers sometimes slip and hurt their backs. Some stadiums have tried to control the garbage, but at baseball stadiums, seeds cannot be so easily dispatched—they’re an iconic part of the game. “Getting rid of [sunflower seeds] would be like getting rid of beer and hot dogs,” says Wayne Sills, the director of facility services at the Rogers Centre.

The last stage of cleaning is accomplished with four thirty-metre yellow hoses, spraying highly pressurized water into the aisles, aimed by workers in rubber boots. The Rogers Centre is one of the few North American sports stadiums to get the pressure-wash treatment—visiting teams have been known to remark on the building’s uncanny cleanliness. 

AROUND 2:30 AM Rosario Coutinho scans the Centre with binoculars. She’ll spot a sweeper slacking off and radio the nighttime supervisor to assess the situation and get things moving. Coutinho then heads to another location where she can remain unseen and watch closely. “I’m the ghost,” she tells me one night.

Coutinho, now fifty-two, serves as the resident manager of the clean-up operation. She pulls her black hair back in a ponytail, wears glasses, a black fleece and black pants, a BlackBerry headset and a crucifix on a chain. Coutinho knows more about the cleaning process than anyone. She’s been at the Rogers Centre for nearly twenty-five years.

The workers are on to her tactics. Once, a group of Mexican cleaners developed a system of whistles to alert the others when she was watching. Coutinho translated the calls and changed her moves accordingly.

To become the binocular boss, Coutinho had to start from the bottom. In 1989, just a month after the SkyDome opened, she immigrated to Canada from Portugal. Her husband already lived here and told her about the opening of an amazing new stadium. Coutinho remembers being unimpressed; some stadiums in Europe hold 100,000 people. But the retractable roof that gave the building its name was, she was told, a sight to behold.

Before her arrival, Coutinho was prepared to work hard. “I knew I would be doing jobs that no one else wanted to do,” she recalls. “If I’m cleaning shit, who cares? I’m going to make it smell better.” Two months after landing in Toronto she was cleaning at the SkyDome. Her first assignment was the luxury boxes. One night she found a briefcase containing $10,000 cash. She returned it. The job meant everything and she couldn’t risk losing it.

This atypical attitude caught management’s attention and within a year she was promoted to team leader. “Seventy percent of people in the cleaning business have no pride,” Coutinho says. “Earn what you make, that’s what counts.” By 1995, she was managing the entire operation.

FEW CLEANERS ARE AS SCRUPULOUS as Coutinho. Many hate being there—some show up drunk, others get drunk in the stadium bathrooms on left-behind tallboys from the stands or their own flasks of hard liquor. Still others find their pay-off elsewhere: take Mark Stanton [not his real name]. It’s his third season cleaning at the Rogers Centre and his favourite part of the job is finding money.

After the Jays’ home opener, sporting a leaf blower slung across his back, he guides sunflower shells, empty beer cans and half-eaten hot dogs across an aisle. Out of the corner of his eye he spots a wallet. He flicks off the blower, bends over and plucks it from a pile of trash. He can’t get too excited; he has to act calm: someone could be watching. He hunches over, peers inside and sees the cash. Quickly, with a practiced motion, he slides $30 into his pants. “Sometimes I go to work and I’m flat broke,” says Stanton. “If I find $30, there’s $30 in my pocket until pay day.” He will eventually return the wallet, a little lighter, to security.

Stanton is adept at working the stadium’s unofficial and technically illegal lost-and-found system to his advantage. At last year’s home opener, he scored five wallets with $30 or more and two half-packs of smokes. When he cleaned up after the 100th Grey Cup, he found $150, three Grey Cup souvenir glasses and three t-shirts. After Ultimate Fighting Championship 129, he found a judge’s scorecard and three bloody hand wraps. The excitement creates plenty of opportunities for fans to drop things. After every event, without fail, an array of valuables remains behind. For the workers, this is a perk, a way to make the job feel worthwhile. Some nights pay off huge. At UFC 100, one worker found and kept a wallet with $1,500. That’s a month’s wages. Other cleaners have found diamond rings, iPhones, BlackBerries, digital cameras, transit passes, sunglasses and umbrellas.

The treasure hunt is on everyone’s mind. Having a successful night requires skill and attention. You can’t just sweep or blow the garbage, you have to watch and listen. Over time, workers learn to hear the difference between a sliding beer tab and a coin. One worker uses his haul to pay child support for his three kids. He found $150 once and used it to buy his son a stroller.

WHEN THE CLOCK HITS 3 AM, the stadium falls silent, and the workers break for “lunch.” There’s a cheap hot dog stand on Front Street that’s popular. Most of the cleaners can afford a meal using the spare change they’ve found during their shift.

Only three-quarters of the workers return after the break. Labor Ready workers are generally only used for sweeping and bagging. They’ll get paid for four hours of work. As they disappear into the night, some head to bed, but others walk back to Labor Ready to collect their cheque and secure the next job. The company’s offices at 195 Church Street don’t open until 5:30 am, so many nights they'll wait in Dundas Square. If they time it just right, they’ll score a free breakfast from the Salvation Army truck that passes by Labor Ready every morning.