Stay up to Date
Our daily roundup of San Diego’s most important stories (Monday-Friday)
Arthur Fortaliza cleans tables and chairs three mornings a week at Mira Mesa Lanes. The 43-year-old with Down syndrome is a mainstay there.
Tables at bowling alleys are places, like bus stop benches and public water fountains, where you can almost feel the germs crawling into your body.
The sense is not unfounded. Watch a pair of grimy little hands grip a slice of greasy pizza, reach up to a snotty nose for a quick wipe, then smear the ooze all over the edge of the table before dashing back to the bowling lane for an attempt at a strike or a spare, and you’ll see the table in front of you in a different light.
But not all bowling alleys employ Arthur Fortaliza. His thrice-weekly cleaning effort is the kind of painstaking scrub-down you hope happens — but assume doesn’t — when the last patron has gone home from places like this.
One recent weekday morning, Fortaliza barely looks up as I walk up to the table he’s spraying with a bottle of green cleaning solution. He takes one white towel from a stack and folds it, matching corner to corner before mopping up the puddle of cleaner.
Fortaliza is 43 years old and has Down syndrome. He works here three mornings a week, from 9 to 11, before heading out for life-skills training with an aide. He utters a few words of hello to me, answers a couple of questions, but is clearly not in the business of speaking to some reporter when there is work to do. For two hours, he’ll barely acknowledge my presence. His dedication is captivating.
“He doesn’t stop for anything — he just keeps going and going,” says Barbara Raeburn, the manager behind the counter at the bowling alley this morning. “We have to make him stop working.”
The job is tedious, the type someone might take with hopes of leaving for something better in a month or two. As Fortaliza executes it, it means spraying and scrubbing and wiping every inch of the hard surfaces at the end of the lanes: the tabletop, the table legs, the under part of the table, the chair backs, the chair legs, the chair seats, the underneath of the counters, the trash can lid, the plastic holders advertising special events and pizza specials.
Fortaliza has worked here for a decade. He has an employment coach who sits within sight while he works. But paychecks for $8.50 per hour are paid directly to Fortaliza. He’s one of about 400 people in San Diego County placed in jobs like this by a local nonprofit, Employment and Community Options, which got started 25 years ago — before the Americans With Disabilities Act came along to bar employers from discriminating against qualified job applicants with disabilities.
They work in jobs like cleaning tables and refilling condiment containers at restaurants, folding clothes at retailers, doing laundry and housekeeping at hotels. When the ADA passed in 1990, companies that weren’t on board before began to embrace the chance to comply with the law by hiring people through this program, says Bill Lacey, the organization’s Southern California regional director.
Fortaliza’s outfit — gray shorts, red-and-black Nikes, and a T-shirt from his friends at the N.F.L. Alumni Association — enables the gymnastics of his work. He crouches and rolls to scrub invisible dirt and dust, cramming his head into crannies and lying, limbs outstretched, on the carpet to reach that one … last … spot. Then he moves on to the next table, pulling three chairs into a straight line before spraying the green solution.
“We have a cleaning crew that comes in and cleans up the place every night, but really, Arthur does a better job than the cleaning crew does,” Raeburn says.
He’s a mainstay at Mira Mesa Lanes. In the few moments he diverts his gaze from his duties, he shakes his head to joke with co-workers, his eyes sparkling under a flop of gray-and-white hair.
Fortaliza was one of the first people in the program when it started in 1985. He moved to Minnesota for a while with his parents, but they’ve passed away. Now Fortaliza lives with his brother.
He takes the bus alone every morning, stopping first at Winchell’s for coffee. After work, Fortaliza and another co-worker with disabilities will head out with their coach to practice things like crossing the street safely, depositing their checks at the bank and grocery shopping.
The nonprofit gets money from the state’s ever-dwindling budget for supporting people with disabilities. Some similar agencies have had to close their doors. Last year, this organization had to cut $300,000 — about 3 percent of its budget. This year, they’re bracing for another cut — about $50,000. Now it takes a year-round effort to lobby state lawmakers to keep the program running, Lacey says.
At about 10 a.m., an hour into Fortaliza’s shift, a few buses pull up into the parking lot, and dozens of summer camp kids stream through the door. Fortaliza is unfazed. He’s on his fourth table. At one point, all I can see of him is a few fingers, resting on top of a counter while he reaches down to clean the bottom of the other side.
Near the end of Fortaliza’s shift, he’s beginning to show the first slight signs of fatigue. On his seventh and eighth tables, he stops between swipes of the towel to put his hands on his hips and take deep breaths. He exhales upward, blowing the white flop of hair on his forehead into the air.
Finally, Fortaliza’s job coach comes over to him to tell him it’s time to wrap up. He nods, gathers up his towels, takes them to a back room and comes to sit down while he waits for his co-worker.
He fills a small cup of water, plunks his 4-foot-10-inch frame into a chair, swings his legs out in front of him, and yawns. He’ll pick up where he left off in a couple of days.