After 21 years, it feels like Holme

Lane Sainty interviews Holme Building cleaner and institution Antonio Santos.

Like many Sydney University students, my first encounter with Antonio Santos occurred in my fledgling weeks on campus. I was part of the residual crew at a merry society event in the Holme Building that had run overtime, and in a characteristic Antonio/student interaction, he entered, broom and bag in hand, gave us a pointed look, and left. Even through our intoxication, we picked up the social cue, and, somewhat haplessly, began packing up. As we meandered out, grasping backpacks and empty pizza boxes, Antonio returned and started to clean.

Antonio Santos, 67, has been cleaning the Holme Building for 21 years – longer than many of its frequent inhabitants have been alive. A Portugese national, Antonio has previously lived in Mozambique and Brazil. He says he decided to come to Australia after his father, mother and brother emigrated here in 1991 and Antonio visited to find his family “very happy”.

After moving here in 1993, Antonio quickly found a job with ISS cleaning and was stationed to the Holme Building, working the graveyard shift. “Started after midnight, worked until 4 o’clock, after parties, cleaning the floor,” he says. The late shifts continued until 1996, when Antonio was stationed on from midnight to midday.

In 1997, his hours moved to 3pm – 11pm: the shift he has now consistently worked since 1997. “I close the rooms at night after meetings, after parties,” he says. “I finish at 11pm, close the building and go.”

Antonio and I are chatting in the brand new Holme Courtyard, a major refurbishment that replaced the old schoolyard-style wooden tables with an open plan café. I mention he must have witnessed a lot of change over the years, and he enthusiastically agrees, saying there used to be an Italian restaurant in the Holme building called the Casa d’Italia.

 “It’s been maybe three or four years since you started here?” he asks. “Four years, yes!” I say, delighted he has, in some small way, kept track of my awkward waves among the thousands of students.

I ask why he has stayed in this job so long, and he says the conditions are good in the Holme Building and he has no interest in leaving. “I like it here, it is my job.” He smiles and opens his arms into a wide shrug. “If I didn’t like the job, I would go.”

But doesn’t he get irritated at having to kick out students like me who stay past our welcome? Antonio says no, he likes being around students. “They have the parties, okay, no problem,” he says. “Wild parties, wild dinners, maybe people drink more drinks, be very happy, no problem. People respect you, you respect the people.”

“All the students are young people, they are very happy,” he says. “I might be an old man, but my spirit is very young.”