The Life of a Night Janitor in Antarctica


9:30pm. The alarm goes off. I brace myself for the brightness of unfiltered sunlight shining off of endless white as I remove the cardboard shade that covers our window. Light bursts in and fills the room as we hesitantly lower one leg at a time onto the floor, joints creaking all the way.

Two cups of coffee later and I’m at Crary Science and Engineering Center (just ‘Crary’ for short). Liz is wandering around the grey-tiled lab corridors, collecting bins of used paper towels among empty bottles of formaldehyde. I knock on the door to a women’s restroom, first bathroom of the day. *Knock knock knock* “Housing. Hello?”  Even the bathrooms in Antarctica’s most advanced and equipped science facility feel as sterile and controlled as the laboratories. I spray down the lavatory with disinfectant and step out to grab some supplies from the adjacent janitor closet. I pause next to the closet and notice the poster on the wall, a lab report from a recent visiting science team. They had brought with them a neutrino telescope, attached it to a football-field-sized balloon, launched it 100,000 feet above the surface of the planet, and used it to study the age of stars in our galaxy. I catch myself and my mind returns to the more pressing task at hand: the stall on the left needs another roll of toilet paper. As I’m finishing up, the slight ting of bleach hits my nose as my mops glides across the tile. Liz pops her head in the door. “They won’t stop looking at me.” “Who?” I reply. “The poor little fishies!” I walk down with her to the lowest floor in the facility, the aquarium. Tanks of Antarctic sea life confusedly float around their new plastic homes. There are fish with huge heads and tiny bodies, things that look like 5-inch-long semi-translucent grasshoppers, and fist-sized, spindly sea spiders. Accustomed to life in the coldest ocean water on the planet, these strange creatures move at a slow and dreamlike pace.

After a few hours in Crary we head back to building 155 for lunch. 155 is the de facto center of the McMurdo orbit. Almost all of the 1st year contractors on station live there (as Liz and I did our first season). Our morning meetings, as well as our central office, are there. This building also houses the hottest restaurant in town – the galley. At midnight we take half an hour off for lunch, then spend the next four hours cleaning the majority of the building: bathrooms (all 8), floors, laundry, computer kiosk, stairs, entryways, etc. This section of our night is regularly the dullest, as well as the most exciting. Cleaning the same things every night can become monotonous, but this section of our night is usually the time when we encounter some of the more mysterious and confounding things that make the very early hours of the day so ‘charming.’

From 4am until 6 we find ourselves back in Crary. We are required to take a 15-minute break to stretch, which we choose to spend in the library on the top floor of the facility. Along with being one of the only carpeted rooms in the building, the library is also a fun because while you are on the ground stretching out your hammy, you can look to your right and see a handwritten journal depicting the Soviet Trans-Antarctic expeditions of the 1960’s.

At the end of the day, we meander back towards 155 for breakfast, minds numb and bellies empty. The much larger day shift is beginning to hum to life, and things are becoming crowded. It’s now 8am and we’ve escaped the crowds and are heading back to our dorm at the edge of town to enjoy a precious few peaceful morning hours. Finally, exhausted, we replace the cardboard over the window, slip into bed, and prepare for it to start all over again the very next day.

007, home of the janos.

The job.

The effects of a clogged waterless urinal filter. Yes, that is a puddle of pee.

The instruments of our effort.

Amusement after a long day of replacing clogged waterless urinal filters.


My day starts with trash.  I wander around the three floors of Crary (the science building) with a creaky cart, emptying bins with names such as Non-R, Food Waste, Paper Towels.  All our days are filled with paper towels.  There are trash bins everywhere in this building: tucked behind corners in hallways, deep within a laboratory stock room, behind locked office doors.  I trudge around, rickety cart in hand, navigating around explosion proof refrigerators, peeking into trash bins, avoiding the ones labeled “Lab Waste.”  Sometimes as I’m tying “jano handles” onto a trash bag full of Mixed Paper, I notice the bin next to it is full of big brown bottles with an orange skull and crossbones plastered prominently on them.

I make it down to the third floor which is the aquarium.  There’s a low hum of machines that are pumping various chemicals or elements or temperatures into around fifteen tanks.  These tanks are roughly the size of those above-ground pools that seem really cool until you get one.  It’s markedly colder in this big room and I can’t help but get the heebie-jeebies every time I enter.  There are a few sea urchins and a couple other creepy crawlies that love freezing waters but mostly it is fish that inhabit this room.  Fish that I bond with while bagging trash.  How could I not bond with them, as they all swim up to the surface as soon as my shadow grazes the ripples in the water.  They bob up and open their little mouths, their big eyes bulging and smiling.  It’s like they’re all popping their heads out of the water to say, “Hi friend!  Hope you’re having a swell night at work!”  But then on my fourth day, there were only a few left in that tank, none of which came to greet me, and there were scalpels and tweezers on the table next to it.  Something bad had happened to my friends.

The rest of my day is spent cleaning floors and bathrooms.  Janitors tend to pick something out of the daily grind that they like better, and make it their specialty.  Some people are expert vaccuumers, others like getting every last bit of grime off of sinks.  Me?  I like floors.  Part of the allure of floors is all the machinery.  There are powerful whirring buffers, bellowing carpet cleaners, a big wheezing zamboni.  And what’s more satisfying than sweeping and mopping?  In Crary though, one has to be careful.  I usually take the rather daunting task of cleaning the floors in the supply rooms which are full of expensive hazards.  There are numerous aisles chockfull of intricate radio pieces, plastic tubing, and countless glass beakers of every size and shape.  Beakers that are just begging to be bumped by a broom handle.

And finally, our days are marked by the meals, that are markedly better on nights.  There are some excellent cooks on the midrats shift, and since they are cooking for a tiny fraction of station population, they have the time to show off their talents.  The midnight meal, which I can’t decide what to call (it’s at the time of an early lunch, but with dinner type food) has included things like hand cut french fries, shallot and parsley pesto, delicious cuban sandwiches.  And you don’t have to wait a bajillion years in line.  The lack of people is evident elsewhere too – the gyms, the hiking trails, the computer kiosk.  Despite the unexpected nature of this shift change, and the sometimes jarring encounters we have at night, I’m growing to love this weird midrats life.

The sky putting on its exclusive night shift performance

The centrifuge in Crary looks like it could be in an episode of Mad Men.

A midnight treat found in Sani-Waste.

A doodle I drew on Kevin's workpants.

A man in blue dreams of Antarctica.


3 thoughts on “The Life of a Night Janitor in Antarctica

  1. Night shift sounds like fun. Actually, it sounds like winter with sunlight. :)-

    The urinal photo’s pretty cool. Somehow I made it through the entire summer last year without changing a single filter. Not sure how that happened but looking at the photo you posted, I can’t say I’m too disappointed. 😉

  2. What eloquent descriptions of your tasks! You really made your night shifts come alive! I loved hearing about the crazy fish, especially – and the pictures were really powerful, too. The blogs picked me up in the middle of a slightly monotonous work day for me – I’m printing gobs of Fair Trade fliers for our store in time for the Christmas shopping season. Take care, you two! Miss you! Love, Erin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s