Big Big House

I forgot I had this darn thing. Anyway, as I am enrolled in English 111 this fall, I find I need to put most of my writing energy into that class. Therefore, as I am sure most of you have already noticed, posts on this blog will be slightly sporadic. However, since one or two of the essays might be of interest to you, I will post them here for you all to see. They’ve already been turned in and graded, so there shouldn’t be any problem. And Mr. Aaron Anderson, if you happen to stumble upon this, fear not: this is my original writing, I did not steal it from anyone.

Cleaning the Big House

Anyone who lives in the vicinity of Ann Arbor, Michigan, knows of the Michigan Wolverines. Everyone has a different experience, from the die-hard fans who used to listen to Bob Ufer and his horn, to those of us who merely struggle through congested traffic on game days. Having never attended a Michigan game myself, one might assume that I would have no special knowledge of the team or the stadium. But if that same person had ever attended a Michigan home game, if they had waited to watch the stands clear, and if they were astute enough to notice the enormous piles of trash left behind, they might wonder what happened to it all. It is in this regard that my experience of U of M football is unique. I was one of the faceless workers whose job it was to clean Michigan Stadium.

Stadium Cleanup began as a fund-raising activity for Fr. Gabriel Richard, the private high school which my older brothers attended. The school offered to do the cleaning for a fee, and then required the students in their athletic program to show up and, literally, do the dirty work. My parents extended the mandatory attendance to include me and my younger siblings. This is how it came to pass that for five years, from when I was nine till I was fourteen, I spent every Sunday morning after each Michigan home game cleaning Michigan stadium. The morning began at seven o’clock with my mother shaking me awake and telling me to pull on my clothes and grab a bowl of cereal. By the time the seven of us (me, my parents, and all four of my brothers) pulled into the parking lot, we were mostly awake. We would shuffle through the black iron gate, and a woman with a clipboard and a graph of the stadium would assign us our section, which could be either inside the stadium, or outside on the grounds.

At that hour of the morning, before many of us had gotten down to work, the stadium was a mess. The grounds were covered in trash and litter, some of it dropped by fans, some of it blown out from the stadium itself. Those on grounds cleanup were left to wander through the grass picking up discarded wrappers and empty plastic cups. Inside the stadium, it was far worse. The rows and aisles were filled with debris as if a hurricane and gone through overnight. Garbage was piled up in some places so deep that we had to walk across the bleachers to get through because the aisles were so full.

We began the job by picking up cleaning equipment from a storeroom hidden under the stands. The collection of tools provided included grass rakes, leaf rakes, brooms and push brooms, garbage bags, wire hoops to keep the garbage bags open, and large metal dustpans. Our task was to get as much of the trash out as possible so that the fire department could come through after us and hose the stadium down. In order to accomplish this, we went down each row with a rake or a broom, and pushed all the garbage onto the stairs. We quickly found that brooms were ineffective. Garbage tended to slip between the bristles, and candy wrappers and similar trash clung to the cement like wet leaves. Rakes worked much better, even though they tended to get caught on the bleachers.

We worked from top to bottom, so that when trash fell through the bleachers it would not fall into rows we had already cleaned. This also meant that as we worked our way further down, the rows of trash grew deeper. As the rows of trash cleared, my mom scooped the trash into the garbage bags. There was so much trash, that she used the dustpans as shovels. The student sections were the worst, because the students often brought bags of marshmallows to the game to throw at each other. The marshmallows, left overnight, would smear across the cement, sticking to trash and clothing alike. Often we would come across large cardboard signs that had been left behind, either discarded or forgotten, often soaked with dew or rain.

From across the other side of the stadium we could see how our fellow workers were progressing. There was a marked difference between those rows which were neat and cleared of waste, and those still full of trash which from that distance looked like white and gray flecks. Sea gulls were everywhere, scavenging for bits of leftover food. Occasionally a plastic bag would get caught by the wind, and would sail high into the stadium and out over the field. I used to stop and notice these things as I collected the recycling with my younger brothers. We had to keep ahead of everyone else to do this, which meant we were always done first. We would amuse ourselves by running up and down the tops of the bleachers, or watching the trucks circling the field below, collecting the filled garbage bags.

As the year progressed and the weather grew colder, several things changed about the nature of our job. For one thing, fall weather meant that it began to rain, or in the worst case scenario, sleet. If this began overnight, then by the next morning the garbage would be soaked through and often half frozen. Getting prepared often meant shoving plastic bags into our shoes to keep our feet dry, or wearing rubber boots with multiple socks. The change in weather was also reflected in the trash the fans left behind. At the beginning of the year, the rows were filled with plastic bottles of water or pop. Not uncommonly, we would come across bottles which were still half full, or not even open. By the end of the year, the beverages had switched to small glass bottles of alcohol which had been smuggled into the stadium underneath bulky winter coats. The alcohol made the job even more unpleasant, because the bottles often broke, scattering shards of sharp glass among the bleachers, and adding alcohol to the mess we had to wade through.

As enormous as the job seemed at the start, we had the entire stadium cleaned after a good two hours or so of work. Afterwards, if the weather was good, we celebrated mass outside in front of the stadium. Otherwise, if it was cold and rainy, we did so inside Crisler Arena. Often times, there were not a lot of seats available, so some of us had to stand or sit after the long, arduous cleaning job. One day, when I was ten or eleven, my little brother Patrick and I gave up our seats to a couple of the older high school students who had been left standing. During the announcements at the end of mass, Fr. Lobert, the chaplain, turned to us and said, “I would just like to thank the two little girls who so generously gave up their seats today.” Unable to let an error stand uncorrected, I waved my arms and pointed to my little brother. “Fr. Lobert,” I piped, “this one’s a boy!”

The best part of the day came after mass, which was always followed by coffee, hot chocolate, and donuts. The donuts came as compensation, the only reward we ever got for our hard labor, at least as far as I was concerned. While my parents socialized, I could eat as many as I wanted. Usually, this was no small number. The last time I had eaten anything was early that morning, so I was hungry. The hot chocolate was also wonderful, particularly after the cold and damp of the stadium. On days that had been especially chilly and wet, when the rain and sleet had long since soaked through my gloves and made them useless, an entire hour of sitting on my hands during mass could not warm them up as well as a steaming styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. After that, my parents packed us all into the car again, and we headed home.

Stadium Cleanup came to an end for me and my family only when my brothers graduated from high school. When it came time for me to make a decision about my own educational path, I will not say that Stadium Cleanup was a major factor, but when my parents decided to home-school me through high school, we were all glad to be spared more cleanup duty. So while many fans of Michigan football revere the stadium as something mythical, almost reverential, I know better. I have been there after the game, on cold, rainy November mornings when the stadium is at its worst. I have swept away the debris and bagged the garbage, and I know the kind of work it takes, and how little thought most people give it. But I have also stood at the top of the stadium on mornings when the sky was blue and clear. I have looked over it after it had been cleaned, when it was empty and bare, when I was the only one left to see it. I may never have been in Michigan Stadium to witness a U of M football game, but I have seen the stadium in a way that most fans haven’t. It’s the “Big House” all right, and I know well just how big it is. I cleaned it.

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