John Ford | Staff Writer
Is there hilarity in housekeeping?
Can bathroom sinks and fun appear in the same sentence?
In Chautauqua, it appears the answer can sometimes be yes.
A key reason for that yes is Cindy Williams, who has supervised the Institution’s housekeeping staff for 14 years after a similar period at Westfield Memorial Hospital. In her office just outside the Main Gate Welcome Center, Williams is a picture of calm as she copes with the crisis of the moment, dispatches staff members and tries to anticipate tomorrow’s emergency.
In the midst of a recent early-morning activity, Williams paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Housekeeping is what it is,” she said. “The work involved in cleaning the Institution’s buildings is important, but it is also repetitive. We survive on routine and organization, but I think we prosper by having fun.”
On a recent pre-season morning, Williams sends out a veteran day shift team of Janet Jackson and Jackie Draggett on one of six different routes. Jackson is one of four year-round employees on the 17-member housekeeping team. A resident of Cherry Creek, N.Y., she is the assistant supervisor and has worked for the Institution for almost 20 years. Draggett, at the Institution for 15 years, is from nearby Stockton.
Like their colleagues on other routes, Jackson and Draggett head out at 6:30 a.m. in their golf cart. Their itinerary this day includes Bellinger and Norton halls, the Pier Building, Smith Wilkes Hall, the Hall of Philosophy and the sewer plant. Each presents its own peculiarities and challenges.
“The Pier Building bathrooms get it from all sides,” Jackson said. “There was a wedding reception under a tent yesterday, plus kids and their parents are starting to use the Children’s Beach. Once the season gets going, you add to the events and beach traffic of the College Club activities, and you can get some serious trashing.”
Draggett said the facilities do get a lot of wear and tear.
“We have found items from beer bottles to coffeepots to a scooter in here in the morning,” Draggett said.
It’s a much different environment for Draggett, whose previous job was as a quality control assistant for Welch’s Grape Juice when the company still maintained a major presence in Westfield.
“They had over 100 employees then,” she said. “Now there are only about 30 left.”
The other stops are fairly routine. There is little residue from the recently concluded Writers’ Festival at Bellinger Hall. Norton Hall is deserted except for a construction crew finishing off-season touches. The public restrooms at Smith Wilkes Hall and the Hall of Philosophy are quiet now, though Jackson said “they will be very popular in the season because there are few close-by alternatives.”
The facilities at the sewer plant at the south end of the grounds elicit a strong comment from Draggett.
“We get in and out of there quick,” she said.
A route that can take most of a normal workday during the season consumed less than three hours during this pre-season day.
Basically, Housekeeping looks after all Institution facilities except the Athenaeum Hotel during the season. A back-of-the-envelope survey recently estimated there are some 1,500 bathroom fixtures to be cleaned daily, including roughly 600 toilets. There is office cleanup.
The work is, as Williams said, what it is. Why do so many housekeepers stick with it?
“We had roughly normal turnover this year, though some new arrivals had worked here previously,” Williams said. “There is a strong inherent sense of teamwork and helping out each other.“
Her office frequently rocks with laughter.
“We do have fun,” she said.
Perhaps the most fun is had on Halloween, the occasion for a lot of high-spirited fun by the year-round Chautauqua staff.
Myra Peterson, marketing office administrative assistant and a keen assessor of offices’ Halloween hijinks, judged that Housekeeping and the Program Office are usually among the best and funniest participants.
“They’re well-organized and imaginative,” she said.
Williams pulls out a well-used folder crammed with pictures of housekeeping Halloweens past.
“We were elves, jailbirds, teams of frogs. Remember the Budweiser frogs?” Williams said with a laugh. “They croaked out, ‘Bud, Weis, Er?’ Well, one year, we went as teams croaking out, ‘Chau, Tau, Qua.’ Another time, we were monkeys, with the masks blindfolded, with earphones, gagged. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil…”
Housekeeping’s night shift is, well, the night shift. A raucous camaraderie prevails under the experienced leadership of 20-year veteran John Pierce, a Westfield resident who does not permit the loss of part of his leg to a childhood illness to inhibit his style.
A born wisecracker who gets a lot of good-natured ribbing in return, Pierce and his group focus on offices and other facilities such as the Turner Community Center, which are busy during the day and quiet in the evening.
They have stories, like the time someone put a discarded Children’s School dummy in a Colonnade stall with the legs dangling down and the door locked.
“The cleaners kept asking, ‘Are you done yet?’” Pierce chuckled.
His wife and colleague Cindy Pierce of Westfield recalled that Jewett House served long ago as a morgue. Today, the building serves as a residential dorm.
Pierce said housekeepers sometimes played pranks on friends who visited the house during the off-season.
“Sometimes we’d put someone on an old autopsy exam table under a sheet, then when the victim entered, the ‘ghost’ would rise up,” she said. “It worked every time.”
The night shift begins around 3:30 p.m. On a recent rainy afternoon, 20-year-old Mike Ball of Falconer went out to the Chautauqua Golf Club. Several hardy foursomes braved the elements, but the course was quiet overall on the last day before Season.
The route was uneventful except for the damage done in one on-course bathroom by a raccoon. Ball, when not working in his second year as a housekeeper at the Institution, is the frontman for Red Light Departure, a “heavy metal-type band (with) guitar, bass, drums.”
“I sing, too,” he added.
After a gig in Jamestown next month, Red Light Departure will depart for a tour through Kentucky and Tennessee.
So far, Ball has written 26 songs the group has recorded on a series of CDs. The group’s relationship with a Massachusetts management and booking company is strictly over the Internet.
Ball, a Jamestown Community College graduate who is headed next for SUNY Fredonia, also serves as a concert organizer and booking agent for other groups locally. Much of that is done via Facebook and email.
Reflecting on her troops and their job, Williams paused.
“We do have fun here,” she said, “and Chautauqua is a good place to work.”
Then she had to leave. It was Friday, and, like every Friday, she was on her way to fetch lunchtime submarine sandwiches for everyone.