We're all grownups here. No one needs to tell you that your higher education is a perk built, like all American industry, on the backs of countless underpaid, undertaught, and underprivileged people. No, we don't mean the 4-year-old Indonesian children who glued your sneakers together. We're talking about the folks who serve your cafeteria food, wipe down your blackboards, and most important of all, disinfect the walls and floors of your dorms and common areas. Friends, it's time to meet the custodial staff.

You see them every day, except that you don't, because to most students they're invisible. Around the time you're preparing to go home and pretend to study, they're getting ready to work eight-hour shifts wiping up your spills. As your mother must have told you by now, it wasn't elves who mopped up the puddle of spodee vomit you left near the trashcan. It was men and women, most of whom make less money per hour than you earn at your crappy internship. They also see the messes you leave behind and have a few things to say about them--and some of them even have pictures. So when you see these invisible workers roaming the halls, treat them with dignity and respect. Remember: They make your life run smoothly by doing work most students and professors alike are either too lazy, too snobbish, or too incompetent to do themselves. Without the custodians, most college campuses would make post-Ivan Florida look like Martha Stewart's backyard.

Hwa Park Seattle University

Hwa Park, or "Park," as he's called around campus, has been tidying up after students at Seattle University since 1981. For the past 18 years, he's headed up the 10-member housekeeping staff as lead custodian. Classroom cleanup is outsourced, but Park and his staff clean up three large residence halls--Campion, Bellarmine, and Xavier--look after SU's Murphy student apartment building, and perform setup and cleanup duties for special events.

"Bellarmine has much of the messes," says Park, a bespectacled 61-year-old who lives in North Seattle. He's has seen his own three children graduate from college (including one from SU), and he's seen hundreds more pass through SU's campus. He used to be anxious about going to work on Monday mornings--big projects awaited him, like cleaning off the roof of a building adjacent to Campion. It would be piled with garbage tossed out of students' windows--everything from cans to chairs.

Years ago, not only would he find garbage on the roof, but he'd arrive on Monday to halls strewn with toilet paper and garbage rooms filled with empty bottles. On the bookshelf in his Campion basement office, Park has a four-inch stack of pictures he's taken of some of the worst messes, each meticulously dated and labeled with the guilty hall and floor. The evidence shows halls strewn with cereal, walls covered with impromptu graffiti murals (painting dorm walls at SU is a big no-no since the three halls have been renovated and coated with beige paint in the past few years), and lots of toilet papering. Some photos note whether the responsible party paid a fine. Park once found a lobby vending machine crammed into a Campion elevator, and wondered how the students managed to move it. And just last year, he investigated a noxious odor in the student newspaper office, just down the hall from his office. After shampooing the carpet, sprinkling deodorizing spray, and checking in the ceiling for the source of the stench, he finally found it. "There was a raw piece of salmon behind the refrigerator," he says, wrinkling his nose. He guesses it was a bizarre prank on the Spectator staff. "I understand," he says with a smile. "They're students."

But overall, he says, students have gotten much neater in the past few years (his photographic evidence trails off in 1998). At the beginning of the year, Park talks to RAs, who in turn talk to students about the virtues of respecting the residence halls. "I ask students for what I am expecting," he says. "Communication is very good. The students do a lot to help us."

Park has plenty of advice to pass on to students--simple things like taking out the trash from your dorm room. "Don't leave garbage in there!" Park says. Listen to your RA when they tell you to empty your fridge over long holidays. And try to vacuum your room at least once over the year. If you spill something on the carpet, let your RA know ASAP so someone can clean it up. That goes double if someone gets sick on the carpet. "Don't leave it there long. Let us know quick!" In fact, if you make any kind of big mess, just let someone know. "You are human, you make mistakes," he says. "And that's what we're here for." AMY JENNIGES

Cleaning Crew Seattle PaciFIc University

The cleaning crew on the second-floor landing of Moyer Hall dorm at Seattle Pacific University, an idyllic grassy little Christian campus nestled into the streets just north of Queen Anne and south of the fading industrial banks of the ship canal, doesn't want SPU students to hear what they've got to say. Or more accurately, the cleaning crew at SPU--a woman with a Caribbean drawl, a sleepy guy washing windows, and a young redheaded hippie woman--doesn't want the SPU administration to hear what they've got to say.

I gather things have been a bit shaky for SPU's cleaning crew lately; there are nervous references to "misunderstandings" and "firings." In fact, after a round of knowing smiles about picking up after parties, the Caribbean woman concludes that telling it like it is might not be such a bright move. She even tries to confiscate my notebook after one of her crew has given me some articulate quotes about SPU students' lack of responsibility--including a story of leaving a watery mess in one of the residency hall kitchens that amounted to a fire hazard.

I promised not to quote the cleaning crew, but I feel compelled--in this important Stranger primer designed for incoming students about cleaning up after yourselves--to let you know what a contentious lot you and your slovenly kitchens are. In other words, the people who are paid to keep your environment tidy (this particular September morning a crew of about five--armed with a vacuum cleaner, water buckets, spray bottles, huge trash can, and a squeegee--are bringing this dorm up to sparkly standards two weeks before classes begin) are flat out frightened to address you.

Students have to make a choice: (1) You can exploit your upper hand in the materialist dialectic by keeping your foot on the hired help (although be warned--as your Marxist reading assignments will make clear--the dialectic eventually spells trouble for the bourgeoisie). Or (2) you can be a kind, responsible, and sensitive soul and clean up after yourself (all the while failing to truly savor these unique four years--never to come again).

The choice, as your existentialist readings will make clear, is yours. If however, they don't assign Godless Marxism and existentialism at Seattle's Christian university; you'll have to venture off your kept confines to Queen Anne haunts like the Mecca, where the philosophers are surely hovering. It is here that you'll find guidance on these important questions of partying, cleanliness, and labor. JOSH FEIT

Kimberly Norman, Lead Cleaner Cornish College of the Arts

Compared to the nameless, faceless identities of students filling out most state schools, Cornish is a much cozier hive of higher learning. One of only three private, nonprofit performing and visual arts colleges in the U.S., Cornish selectively accepts less than 1,000 students into its various programs and schools them on four campuses (the main campus downtown off Denny Way, a Capitol Hill campus on E. Roy, a performance hall, and a sculpture center). With its intimate student-teacher ratio, it's no surprise that the cleaning staff at Cornish can claim to know the students nearly as well as any administrator or faculty member.

On a recent afternoon, I ran into Kimberly Norman, lead cleaner for Cornish, pushing a large gray mop across the only slightly dusty floor of the main campus' art gallery. Surrounded by walls decorated with student paintings, the affable, curly-haired Norman looked to be only slightly older than college age herself. Sporting black glasses and a warm grin, Norman talked about the school and its students almost like a den mother, as someone who roams the halls enough that many students know her by name and who is obviously in admiration of the work the students around her produce. She transferred to Cornish a year ago from the Paramount, attracted to the "arts environment" at the school.

"I get to hear [the students] audition and sing and dance, and see them paint and sculpt--all of it from the beginnings when it's nothing to when it becomes something," she explains. "I am completely untalented altogether but I appreciate it," she adds bluntly with a smile. "I can't sing at all, but I sing in the halls so I guess [creative expression] is contagious. But I'd never get up on stage, not even for a million dollars. I leave it to those who know how."

In her advice for new students, Norman is nothing but positive, in keeping with what seems to be her general disposition. "If you think you've got it you should go for it," she offers. "And just keep at it. Anything in the arts world can be tough to get into and tough to make a living in, but if you believe in yourself you should go for it, you know, why not? If you can use the creative side of your brain, I think that's great. Just do what you can excel in, you've got nothing but time." JENNIFER MAERZ

Ken Hill Seattle Central Community College

If you were an ordinary snot-nosed college kid, I would spend the next 400 words berating you as an imbecilic pervert who needs to grow the fuck up. Put on some damn clothes, young lady, and put down that copy of Maxim, young man--if the pictures in there don't rot your brain, then the writing certainly will--and no more beer bongs for either of you. Go to class. Get a part-time job. Stop mooching off mom and dad. Et cetera.

However, since I am addressing students of Seattle Central Community College, I can spare myself that exercise in constructive criticism. Students at Seattle Central tend to be a bit older--26 percent of the student body is 35 or older, according to Time Magazine, which picked SCCC as its community college of the year in 2001--and a bit wiser: 80 percent of you already hold either a full- or a part-time job.

And you are, by and large, admirably engaged in learning. I know, because I've sat in on a couple of SCCC classes. I once watched my colleague Charles Mudede, an eccentric intellectual if ever there was one, deliver a lecture to SCCC students that combined, as near as I could determine, a post-structuralist critique of the 1970s television show Good Times with a big-picture Marxist historiographical reading of the implications of September 11. I would hazard a guess that no one in that classroom (myself included, I admit) really knew what the hell Charles was talking about, but every student in the room listened attentively and tried to follow along. That was both admirable and unusual. I know that too, since I've taught my share of snot-nosed brats at Princeton, Georgetown, and the University of Maryland.

So I didn't need much confirmation that you've got your act together, but I got it anyway from Ken Hill, 53, who has spent seven years on the custodial staff at SCCC. He's a soft-spoken man who used to work at Value Village and sings R&B in his spare time. Two of his brothers work at SCCC as well--one for 17 years, the other for 5. Ken works the night shift and, wonder of wonders, enjoys his job. Why? When I asked him what the students are like, he described you as "friendly and very articulate." He said he was surprised by those qualities in you at first: "A lot of times young people get such a bad rap, but then you meet them and find out they are serious about their education and are very respectful." Oh sure, there are a few bad apples in the lot, but, as Ken said, "You'd find that anywhere." To top it all off, Ken says you're neat (as in clean). He's never had to demean himself cleaning up a really bad mess you've made.

So keep up the good work. "Take it seriously," Ken says, "but at the same time have fun, too."

So good job, for now. But don't think I'm not watching you, you little shits. SANDEEP KAUSHIK

Paul and Hector UW Student Union

"Each generation is basically the same," says Paul, a 53-year-old supervisor of custodial services in the HUB, literal and figurative center of the UW campus, and home to a food court that services tens of thousands of students every living day. "Some people pick up after themselves and some won't. Nothing's new."

I caught up with Paul and his fellow custodian Hector, 39, moments before their evening shift was about to start. We sat in a small first-floor office in the HUB, where the walls are lined with time cards and UW promotional posters. Summer traffic in the HUB is comparatively light, but there's still enough work to keep a staff of several men busy on two eight-hour shifts every day of the week. When school starts in earnest, the hours and the pay stay the same, but the work quintuples. The messes get messier, the floors get muddier, and the damage done to the building itself--graffiti, broken glass, etc. --gets more intentional. Hector, a robust Latin man in a T-shirt and sweats who has been working the night shift at UW for the past eight years, chuckles quietly about it.

"Hey, that's job security for us. There's a reason we're here," he says.

To get here, Hector, who has a wife and two kids, commutes an hour and 20 minutes each way from Enumclaw because "I won't live in city limits. I'm an outdoorsman," he happily proclaims. "I like to wake up and see deer walking across my front yard, not cars zooming across the street." Hector comes on at 4:30 p.m. and works until 1:00 a.m., which allows him to get home between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m.

It's tempting to over-dramatize the situations of people who do this kind of work, but neither Paul nor Hector seem to feel nickel-and-dimed, as it were. Both men seem to enjoy their jobs enough, and Paul, who has been at the UW for 20 years, has no complaints about his interactions with the student body, who seem to "respect the facilities" by and large. "It's a lot worse in high schools," he says. "We don't have a lot of malicious vandalism--breaking stuff to break stuff--but it does happen. People are pretty nice."

Both men agree that the one thing they would say to the students is a basic golden-rule kind of idea: "Take care of your building," Hector offers. "It just makes our job a little easier." SEAN NELSON

Academic Cleaner PaciFIc Lutheran University

A handsome black man in his early 50s enters the conference room. He is wearing a blue uniform and has a body that is in good shape for his age. He sits down across from me, and for a moment I'm reminded of that scene in Blade Runner, where the detective is interviewing workers of Tyrell Corporation to determine if it has been infiltrated by replicants. But this is not a corporation; it is a university in Tacoma. However, the man I'm interviewing does share this with the replicant in the movie: He is a janitor.

"What are your hours?" I ask, looking directly at him. He plainly answers that he works from 5:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. He is a part of the day shift, which is the first shift. The other two shifts are the swing shift (3:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.), and the graveyard shift (9:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.). When asked how long he has been working for the university, he answers, "Ten and a half years. But that has been on and off. I worked for a company downtown for a while and returned to the university two years ago. For a while I was the night lead."

"Where were you born?"

"I was born and raised in Tacoma," he replies with pride. The ink in my pen suddenly runs out, and I have to search my bag for a replacement. The room we are in is very clean.

There are two types of cleaners at PLU. There are those you work in the "academic part" and those who work in the "housekeeping." Those who work in the academic part clean classrooms, offices, and the library. Those who work for housekeeping clean the students' rooms in the dormitories, which on this campus are brick structures that rise no higher than four stories. Many of them have Scandinavian monsters painted on their windows. Above the campus buildings fly the silent black bulks of army carriers from nearby McCord Air Force Base (Globemasters, as they are called).

"Yes, there is a barrier between academic cleaners and housekeepers. We see each other as separate entities. I work for academic and we take those who work for housekeeping as being other people. Someone else. The area they work in is different from the area we work in." When asked about his relationship with (or opinion of) the students, he answers, "We get along with the students. We try to accommodate them as much as they accommodate us.... But all we ask them to do is to pick after themselves. We will take of the rest." CHARLES MUDEDE