Photo by Sam Hodgson
Gum, blackened by feet and weather, stuck everywhere. It was wedged under seats, sat nakedly on the concourse and pocked the sidewalk. Rodney Garcia and 6,000 other Jehovah’s Witnesses would be gum’s undoing Saturday.
On his hands and knees in Qualcomm Stadium’s concourse, Garcia, a 53-year-old with a salt and pepper mustache, went after the gum with vigor. He’s plenty familiar with the stadium. The company he works for recently was subcontracted to do wallpaper work there. He did that job just fine, he said. But scraping gum off concrete is different.
“I would never see myself scraping,” Garcia said. “For the stadium? No. For my God? Absolutely.”
Once a year for nearly three decades, the city of San Diego has put Qualcomm Stadium into thousands of Witnesses’ latex-gloved hands for as thorough a cleansing as it ever receives. The Witnesses turn our playground into their church. The cleaning comes before the Witnesses’ annual convention, a time when tens of thousands come together in prayer, baptism and song.
The Witnesses wipe away the filth amassed after a year of football games and monster truck rallies and replace it with the smell of bleach. They show Qualcomm the care, given its age and rundown state, we never have. They give it the work that the city might not have ever been able to afford, all in exchange for free rent for their big event.
The stream of Witnesses flowing into the stadium last week carried with them mops, buckets, 24-packs of microfiber auto cloths, push brooms, regular brooms, rakes, 409, paper towels, dustpans, rags, SOS pads, dish detergent, vacuum cleaners, Windex, power washers, latex gloves, barbecue-grade spatulas for scraping gum, Hefty garbage bags, leaf blowers and bottled water. The children brought their own mini brooms.
Leon Opolski, a trim 70-year-old Witness with strong blue eyes, helped open the gates to let everyone inside. He’s the one other Witnesses called on Saturday when they needed to unlock Qualcomm’s dozens of gates and doors. The city gave him the keys.
The city trusts Opolski with Qualcomm because he’s helped build part of it. Before San Diego hosted each of its three Super Bowls, Opolski and the Witnesses were there, constructing and renovating stadium offices. When the city needed its party room re-carpeted, they were there again. When the groundskeepers needed a new place to stay, they were there a third time.
“We’ve been here for so many years,” Opolski said. “This is pretty much our house.”
Opolski took a silver cell phone out of his pocket, flipped it open and pulled out its antenna before answering the call.
He listened, nodded and clasped his phone. The Witnesses were a half-hour early for Saturday’s cleaning. They needed Opolski to help open the gates. He left the stadium’s administrative offices. But signs of him remained in the room.
Twenty five years ago, he and other Witnesses custom made the 16-foot table that dominates the conference room. Opolski himself molded a stadium relief on the wall, letting shadows emphasize contours. The Witnesses also built or brought in the offices’ cabinets. Since then, someone else added two small filing cabinets that didn’t match the rest. Looking at them, Opolski said, was like “running your fingernails across glass.”
The first time Opolski and the Witnesses built these offices came in 1985 when the city was scrambling in advance of its initial Super Bowl. The Witnesses began gutting the offices on a Friday afternoon and finished the job by early Monday morning.
When he walked in and saw the Witnesses’ work, the city’s stadium manager remembers joking that he feared a corruption investigation. The offices were too luxurious. Opolski recalled similar reactions.
“They said when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came in and built it, it turned out to be a religious experience,” he said. “One guy came in and said, ‘Holy cow.’ One guy came in and said, ‘God damn.’ And the third guy came in and said, ‘Jesus Christ.’”
Over the years, the Witnesses’ deal with the city hasn’t changed: free stadium rent in exchange for odd construction projects and cleaning. The sweat equity they’d built up over time saved the Witnesses the $35,000 rent this year.
They’ve been working so long that sometimes all that was left is memories. The club-level carpeting the Witnesses installed now is gone. Once the Padres moved out, the infinite sunflower seed shells that used to drive the Witnesses’ crazy went away, too.
At one point a week before the cleaning, Opolski rubbed his finger across a food concession countertop. His finger was covered in grime. It returns every year.
A 44-year-old stadium provides the setting for all sorts of strange and squeamish cleaning stories. Gum, of course. The vomit smell with a source that couldn’t be located. Dead animals.
Witnesses have found carcasses of rats after owls had done away with them. Witnesses have cleaned up dead bats and birds that had lost their lives on the stadium’s upper decks.
In mid-afternoon, Jeffrey Fuller, a burly, middle-aged Witness from National City, wiped down a wall in a stadium stairwell.
Fuller pointed up the stairwell past others washing walls and mopping stairs.
“Up there,” Fuller said, “I wiped a big snoogie off the wall.”
Fuller cleared his throat and mimed spitting to define snoogie.
“People don’t care,” he continued, his white rag turning blacker with each swipe across the wall. “They’re just here and they go ahead and snoogie.”
But Fuller didn’t mind. Wiping away snoogies is like an extension of the group’s yearly convention. Convention sites should be clean.
Witnesses believe earth will eventually become paradise for the faithful. A Kingdom of God comes after an Armageddon. Sites for their annual conventions, which the 7.5 million Jehovah’s Witnesses hold all over the world, try to reflect these peaceful conditions.
“There’s not going to be litter in the Kingdom of God,” said David Weddle, a religion professor at Colorado College.
Organizers expect 38,000 Witnesses from San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties to attend this year’s event, which starts Friday.
Still, the housing of a religious convention at a football stadium leads to curious dichotomies. Two years ago, as the Witnesses were wrapping up their services, DirectTV was moving in to shoot a commercial starring rapper LL Cool J.
The Witnesses’ customs come out in small interactions, too.
Fuller, the National City snoogie wiper, had to think twice when asked his age.
“I was born in ’56 so I guess I’m 54,” Fuller said after a pause. “We don’t celebrate birthdays so … “
One of the first times Jim Steeg visited San Diego’s stadium he was told the managers were working out of trailers in the parking lot. At the time, Steeg was in charge of planning Super Bowls for the NFL and was checking on the city’s progress before the 1988 game.
Steeg couldn’t understand how stadium administrators could work out of trailers. He learned the Jehovah’s Witnesses were renovating the conference room.
“It was a little different,” Steeg said. “But this is California and this is San Diego.”
The renovation work, he added, professionalized the stadium and the city in the NFL’s eyes. It didn’t hurt the city’s bids for future Super Bowls, either.
The tension between San Diego wanting to be an NFL town and not wanting to pay to sustain an NFL stadium isn’t new. Maintenance needs always have outstripped cash. The stadium repair backlog totals $80 million.
The Witnesses have filled in some gaps. Page after page of City Council actions over the years praised the Witnesses’ work and the ways they have saved taxpayers money.
“They were just always able to help us,” said Jack McGrory, who oversaw the stadium from 1984 until he retired as city manager 13 years later. “When the contractors couldn’t get something done, we called them and they got things done.”
But in many ways the arrangement between the city and the Witnesses is a relic. The Witnesses, who used to hold massive gatherings in Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium, have moved all their United States conventions indoors except for San Diego’s.
And the original deal between the city and the Witnesses flourished as much because of personalities as dollars. Bill Wilson, the city’s stadium manager from 1984 to 2005, said one of the main reasons he agreed to let the Witnesses work every year was that he trusted Opolski.
“God bless Leon,” Wilson said. “I know he’s a man of his word. If he says they’re going to do it, they do it. It was a handshake with us.”
On Saturday, Opolski dressed in a shirt and tie, but left at home the suit jacket other senior Witnesses were wearing to direct the cleaners. “I break some of the rules,” he said. Though he’s been slowed slightly by a hip that’s now made of stainless steel, Opolski was the first Witness to arrive at the stadium and one of the last to leave.
He grew up in San Diego and remembers sneaking as a child to watch Padres games through the knots in Lane Field’s wooden fence. He became a Jehovah’s Witness when he was young, convinced the religion held the truth. He worked as a photographer and contractor before becoming a lawyer. He’s semi-retired now and remains old school.
Opolski has been married 50 years. Either he or his secretary prints out the important emails he receives.
“I’m a paper guy,” he said.
He’s not sure what will happen to the Witnesses’ arrangement if the Chargers leave town and Qualcomm goes away. Other convention sites in San Diego are too expensive, he said. For now Opolski’s focused on this weekend’s event. It’s open to the public, he emphasized.
How will people know to come?
“Every man, woman and child in San Diego will see that invitation,” Opolski said.
It’s part of their tradition. The Witnesses, Opolski continued, will go door to door to invite people.
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