Friday, January 18, 2013 | |

I found a tiny doll head in a toilet once. Someone had tried to flush it down a number of times by stuffing the bowl with toilet paper but the head was too buoyant. I found it bobbing on top of the water, swathed in wet white paper, eyes peering out from under the transparent layers in frozen desperation. I pulled it from the depths and continued cleaning.

Sanitation officers are charged with the task of making public facilities sanitary. As I scrub the blood, shit and cum off the seats, bowls and walls of the local public restrooms, people will often follow me – choosing to use the stall I have just cleaned; they must figure the fresh-smelling bowl will provide a more pleasant experience than the one I’m about to embark on. Oftentimes I want to tell them, ‘If you saw them before, you wouldn’t use them after’, but they wouldn’t listen and they wouldn’t care. Sanitation officers are invisible – invisible in high-vis. 

Being invisible has its perks – I can watch people move around the parks and interact with each other. Last summer I saw a gargantuan father playing soccer with his pintsize son. What pintsize lacked in size he gained in agility, running rings around the muscle-bound ork who guarded the goal. After three unsuccessful attempts to block point-scoring kicks, Dad got desperate. The slide tackle wiped the boy out completely, leaving a tangled mess of wiry limbs on the ground, covered in grass stains and blood. “Get up,” Dad said. “And stop Hollywooding.”

The hot-chip eaters are the best people-watching fodder because they’re so easily classifiable. There’s one I call the impatient beaver – they’ll pick up a chip, blow on it to cool it down, and then move their front teeth like a jackhammer, cooling the chip as it disappears into their gob. There’s the obsessive stacker, who will find three chips of the same length, line them up and eat them in carefully even bites. Then there’s the cold chip magician, who talks and gesticulates with such fervour that no one in their group notices the remaining chips evaporate before their eyes. 

Sanitation officers make a game out of what they find on the grounds of parks and in the restrooms. There are points for dollar value – watches, sunglasses, iPods – and there are points for weirdness. I am well ahead on the weirdness leaderboard thanks to one set of women’s restrooms I look after. An ornamental deer, a basketball with boobs drawn on it, two light-sabres taped together and jammed into a cistern. I find a lot of toys. After finding the doll head, I found a clump of rainbow nylon and plastic – it was slapped against the back of the bowl like it had hit it with much force.

People do see me, but mostly they take one glance and go about their business – their business of running or walking or picnicking on the grass. They may not spend time looking at me, but I spend time looking at them, and I know what happens to their business once they’re done with it. There’s this volleyballer who comes to the park – he has a killer spike on him that’s the envy of all his opponents. This skill doesn’t translate to the bathroom, however – whenever I see his feet wriggling in his fluorescent toe-shoes from under a stall door, I know I’m going to be cleaning something up off the floor. 

As summer draws to a close and the crowds start to wane, my spot on the leaderboard drops. The kids and their toys go back to school, leaving nothing but wet receipts and stray sanitary pads to pick up. Sanitary. Last winter however, the steady stream of toilet-bound items continued throughout the colder months – Barbie shoes, fluff from inside a soft toy, scraps of coloured paper, buttons and coins; all stuffed into the same bowl. I kept all the pieces in a shoe box and hid them in the women’s cleaning cupboard, all the while wondering who was using one of the toilets as a trash can.

By spring, I had upsized the collection to a ten-litre bucket and had almost reconstructed the doll – both arms, both legs and the head were accounted for, as was a lot of the stuffing from inside it. I was lovingly looking after all these pieces – I thought to myself that maybe one day I’d reunite the destructive kid who was trying to flush away their youth with all the trinkets they had so easily discarded. Maybe they’d be happy to see all these memories again; maybe they’d sit and discuss each piece with me. I conjured up many an image of my future with the toy parts, until I found another piece.

At first I didn’t realise what I was looking at, and nearly flushed it on instinct. I thankfully hesitated and looked a little closer. What on first glance appeared to be another unflushed piece of shitty toilet paper was in fact a shit-stained piece of material – I could see a tiny fruit salad embroidered on the front that still held some of its colour. Plucking the material out of the water with two fingers, I squeezed out the remaining water and held it to the light – it was a doll’s dress. I quickly wrang the sopping mess out, gagging as brown water seeped out of it.

Clutching the dress, I ran to the bucket in the cupboard. I laid out the doll parts on the floor and held the material up to them; it was a perfect fit. Suddenly it dawned on me – I had been holding a vigil in a cleaning cupboard for a creep. A creep who didn’t have the common decency to live out their sick toy-eating rituals at home. Eating and shitting out children’s toys – how fucked up can you be. I scooped up the doll parts into the bucket and marched to the trash compactor in utter disgust. As I marched by, the auburn-haired, salad-eating woman from the park bench by the restrooms laid down her fork and swished by me, leaving her half-eaten meal behind. I glanced at the container of beetroot and feta and noticed something blue poking out amongst the chunks – the head of a plastic toy Smurf.

The next morning, as I scrubbed the beetroot-coloured murder scene off the bowl and added the Smurf head to my burgeoning collection, thoughts raced through my head. Should I confront her with the bucket of toys and tell her to fuck off home? Should I leave a note on the door that says “Please do not flush any children’s toys”? Questions filled my head for the remainder of the day. By the evening, I had my script ready and muttered it to myself over and over. I was practicing in the mirror when she walked past and entered her favourite stall; she had tears in her eyes. I walked out and cleaned the men's room instead.

Summer was just around the corner and the parks began to fill up again. The chip-eating brigades returned. The volleyballers and soccer players came back, sluggish and fatter than last summer. I claimed a new spot on the lost and found leaderboard after finding a laptop and a Cartier watch. My auburn-haired friend still came every day to eat her salad on the park bench. Throughout the spring I had grown fond of her – I would watch her from behind recycling bins, noting how she tucked her hair behind her ears slowly and carefully before tucking into her lentil-and-teddy-bear meals. She had a delicate nature when she walked to the restrooms – slow and fragile with a hint of desperate urgency. Each day I would take in a different part of her – the freckles on her arms, the mole on the back of her right knee; her sunburnt shoulders. All the parts of her began to resemble doll parts – each wonderful imperfection a part of one very broken adult doll, held together with the compulsion to consume other toys.

I began to take bigger chances to see her up close – popping up from behind bins, peering around trees and even sitting on the park bench that faced hers, watching her run her fingers through her hair. She never saw me watching her – sanitation officers are invisible. I would follow her into the toilets as she did her daily deed – the sound of her heels tapping along the concrete would send me over the edge. Toy ponies and Kinder Surprise treats were on her menu that spring, each piece carefully collected and displayed on my cleaning cupboard altar.

As summer really took hold, she traipsed in, sunburnt from head to toe, leaving one of the doll’s shoes behind. Then she disappeared. Every day I’d peer around trees or pop up from behind bins to find her – nothing. I would sit in the stall next to hers and wait for the sound of those heels, only to be met with the sounds of children’s feet slapping against the floor. Now I was both invisible and lonely. Each night I lay in bed, unable to sleep from the heat and the stress, picturing her running her spindly fingers through her hair and tucking it behind her ears. I brought my toy collection home and lay it across one side of my bed. I began to sleep better. My bed smelled like her.

The morning after my first night with the collection, I trudged to work, heavy with depression. Knowing I wouldn’t see her, I didn’t even look at her bench all day. I hardly cleaned anything. The boss received two complaints about the shit on the walls of the men’s. I didn’t care, I just sat in the stall next to hers with my head in my hands, wondering if she’d finally seen me and had been scared off coming to the park for good. Just as tears started streaming from my eyes, I heard the clip-clop of her heels enter the restroom. My heart started racing as she closed the door behind her. I peered under the stall to see two perfectly pointed feet sitting on the toilet. She was quicker than normal – in and out in just a couple of minutes. She didn’t flush. As I heard the clip-clop of her feet disappear outside the restroom door, I stumbled out of my stall and straight into hers. There in the bowl was the last I would see of her – the day's deed with a tiny doll shoe poking out of the side. I tugged at my gloves and threw them on the floor, dropping to my knees in front of the bowl. I grabbed at it with both hands and devoured it all.