Caretaker of the streets

01:48, Mar 05 2014
Tina Rankin
Complete focus: Street cleaner Tina Rankin, water blasting footpaths on Maxwell Rd in Blenheim, is used to finding vomit and urine in hidden corners of town.

Reporter Anna Williams meets the woman who does the housework in central Blenheim every morning of the week.....

Tina Rankin hums as she waterblasts stains and the occasional vomit patch from the streets of Blenheim.

She starts cleaning at 4am while the rest of the town sleeps, oblivious to the filth that disappears from the footpaths every morning.

Tina Rankin
No worries: Tina is not afraid of the dark. After all, she is the one holding the waterblaster

Just before 6am on a Monday, she drives through central Blenheim in a white Toyota Hilux, an orange light flashing on the roof as she tows a waterblaster to Scott St.

She is easy to spot in the grey street, a lone figure wearing a bright-orange hi-vis vest, a protective mask on her face as the machine blasts away the stains from the weekend.

By 6.03am, a gentle, misty drizzle starts falling. The street is gradually illuminated with the early morning light. The temperature on the Market St clock reads 11 degrees Celsius.


Tina Rankin
Dedicated: Tina Rankin says she’s always been a bit fussy about cleaning, but she’s learned to prioritise.

After 15 minutes, Tina pulls up her mask, humming softly as she surveys her work, making sure she hasn't missed a patch. Satisfied, she hops back into the Hilux and pulls away.

The 37-year-old has worked as a street cleaner for almost seven months. She left Whangarei and moved to Blenheim with her 8-year-old daughter, Bayleigh, to be closer to her father, Arthur Rankin.

Arthur is also in the business of keeping Blenheim tidy. He has worked for HEB for 17 years, the past two as a rubbish collector.

Tina was a bit nervous when she started, but her dad was there showing her the ropes and keeping an eye on her until she got into her own routine.

She has always been a bit fussy about cleaning and control, but has learnt to prioritise, she says.

"One day it was really windy and the leaves were blowing around, and I rang Dad stressed out, but he told me to just let it go," she says.

"The public don't like leaves in the shop doors, but on windy days it's sometimes impossible."

The cleaning has to be done quite quickly because the waterblasting needs to be finished by 6.30am.

She often comes across pools of urine in the corner of doorways, which trickles down the footpath leaving a scented stain in its wake.

A few business owners complain about puddles in their doorway from the waterblaster, but it can't always be helped because sometimes the urine goes right against the doors, she says.

Tina wasn't always a morning person, but she's discovered she works quite well in the early hours.

She tries to be in bed by 8.30pm every night, which all depends on her daughter, she says.

She works seven days a week.

From Monday to Friday she starts work at 4am and finishes between 1pm and 2.30pm. On Saturday, it's four hours, with an hour on Sunday to check the hotspots for vomit.

There's almost always vomit to clean up after a Saturday night. Most of the time, she finds it in corners or places that offer a bit of privacy. People seem to like vomiting in doorways, she says.

The night before New Year's Eve had been a sleepless one after she found vomit dotted all over town on Christmas Day.

"I thought ‘Oh my god, if this is Christmas? What's New Year's gonna be like'?"

But on New Year's Day, she found only one pile of the stuff.

"You just don't know."

The streets look lovely after rain, she says. But sometimes, even rain can't make her job easier.

About a month ago, someone reported seeing faeces smeared on the wall in an alleyway off Scott St. She hadn't seen it because she had been looking at the ground when she was cleaning and hadn't looked up.

Her boss, HEB Construction Blenheim project manager Tiny van Deventer, says most people don't realise what gets left on the streets.

"People don't see the nasty stuff. They have no idea what Tina really does because they never see it," he says.

"They don't think about the stains on the footpath early in the morning. They don't know people stand in the doorway and vomit every weekend."

If you miss a day, you can tell, he says. The leaves build up and the stains on the footpaths multiply.

"Tina is responsible for the whole of central Blenheim; she strolls through the town and keeps everything tidy," Tiny says.

"Most people think they know what she does, but they don't know about the 4am start. She's not the type of person who'd say ‘Oh, I start at 4am every day'."

Tina has to start early to beat the early morning traffic and the businesses opening around town.

"When I tell people I start at 4am, the first thing people ask is ‘Do you feel safe'. I do. I wouldn't start then if I didn't," she says.

"I get some loosies walking around every now and then, but they never approach me because I'm usually holding a waterblaster," she says with a chuckle.

Tiny says the job needs someone who is very thorough.

"We'll get a bit of flak if the water goes under the doors or against the windows.

"We get a lot of complaints over autumn. It's very busy. The leaves go into the sumps and block it. It doesn't take much, so you've got to keep on top of it."

The early morning start is now one of the things Tina likes most about her job. That, and talking to people around town during the day.

She gets at least six "thank yous" a day - people telling her she's doing a wonderful job, that they appreciate what she does, that sort of thing, she says.

Not having a boss over her shoulder while she works is also a bonus.

But getting to work every day with her dad has been the biggest reward.

"It's brought us a lot closer. He was the reason I came down from Whangarei with my daughter.

"Before, we'd see him in the holidays, if that."

Her dad keeps an eye out for anything she might have missed, and she sometimes gives him a hand with changing the bins..

Arthur pulls up in his truck as Tina finishes the High St car park.

He says people who are looking for work should go into the cleaning industry.

"If you're ever worried about employment, get a job cleaning rubbish or portaloos, because you'll have a job for life," he says.

The Marlborough Express