Adventures in Sanitation, Part Two

18 09 2009

For the most part, I had spent the summer winding around the various pits and pools full of processed human waste, but as August ended I would become more intimately acquainted with these tanks I had been so careful in avoiding.

The opportunity came when my supervisor assigned my crew a new task apart from our usual duties that would dominate my final days there. The “primary digesters” — huge, fully-enclosed, circular concrete tanks — that handle the bulk of the plant’s initial intake were in dire need of draining and cleaning.

A flaw in the design of these sewage-holding bastions meant that they could not be emptied completely without some manual vacuuming effort. The grunts of the sewage maintenance team, we were armed with a corrugated plastic hose (complete with a broken broom shaft duct-taped on as a handle), a rusted metal rake and a three-legged stool then ordered down in to the belly of the beast.

Before we could enter the concrete behemoth, the donning of the proper attire was necessary. A paper cloth cover-all formed our main defense against stray globs of sanitized shit. Oversize boots that fit over our shoes and rubber gloves rounded out the outfit. You tucked the coverall into the boots and gloves and then secured them with copious amounts of duct tapes.

However, even that was not enough. The bottom 75 percent of the tank was sunk into the ground so that the singular entrance to the structure stood 20 or 30 feet from its floor. Thus, per OSHA regulations, navigating the length of ladder down to the bottom required that you be strapped into a climbing harness in case you were idiot enough to fall off.

The important thing to understand about the cylindrical structure is that aside from the tiny entrance hole, which was about as wide as a door and half its height, there were no windows or lights of any kind. Only bare concrete made up the tank, the floor a slight decline toward a drain at the center, just concrete, poo and you.

Once safely on solid ground, the fun began. For eight hours a day for two weeks straight, I sat at the bottom of that tank with a flimsy plastic hose and sucked up a slowly dwindling pool of processed sewage. After the novelty of the initial grossness wore off it become the most monotonous job I’ve ever had. You sat there, the hours stretching on, with nothing but the gentle sucking sound of the hose for company.

Technically, there was always two of us down in the shit tank, but by this point in the summer, stark differences had emerged between my fellow employees and myself. Not being a redneck Central Illinois farmer with an appreciation for NASCAR and chewing tobacco, we quickly ran out of things to talk about.

The rare moments of excitement that did occur were even worse. Floating out there in the vast cesspool crept dark clumped masses composed of parts unknown and referred to as “hair balls.” They would sneak up to the hose’s suction like bog monsters, leap into the pipe, become firmly stuck halfway in, block the suction and cause the entire hose to leap and shudder in a seizure. Taken unawares, the force of this could be enough to knock one off the little stool and snap the crudely duct taped pipe handle in half.

To unclog the hose we had to lift the section near the tank’s opening over heads and slowly walk forward, carrying the clog back down the plastic tube and back out where it came in. This exercise exploited the one weakness in my paper cloth armor and resulted in the occasional drip from the hose’s bottom to land on my head. On days such as that, it seemed there was not enough shampoo in the world to erase the memory of such drips.

I put up with a lot for seven dollars an hour that summer, but not all my memories are entirely bad. Mowing the big open fields for a few hours at a time could be relaxing, almost meditative. The gradually diminish strips of tall grass focused my mind and even gave a pleasant sense of accomplishment.

It was the summer after my freshman year of college and my personal life had become cluttered, disorganized and vexing. Seeing those vast stretches of green, neatly striped with the pressure of tractor tires, offered me a sense of order I lacked elsewhere.

And that’s about the most positive spin I can put on working at a waste processing plant.

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Adventures in Sanitation

3 09 2009

As I toil away in my current employment, carrying pizzas to and fro, I often comfort myself with the thought that it is not the worst job I’ve ever had.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I had a shit job. Literally. My source of revenue for that season came from the Sanitation District of Decatur, who employed me as a lawn mower, grounds keeper and any-other-shit-that-needs-to-done-around-here doer for three long months.

The Sanitation District of Decatur can be seen to the left of your computer screen

The Sanitation District of Decatur can be seen to the left of your computer screen

Boredom formed the core experience of the tasks set before me, long monotonous hours astride a tractor or riding lawn mower, ruthlessly cutting down stalk after stalk of sprouting grass. Two experiences stand apart from the rest, one a brief lesson in abject terror that I will detail here and the other I will reserve for a later post.

Well, those two and the time the ex-marine on the crew chased down a rabbit with his mower and then rode around for the rest of the day with its severed head on the metal guard covering the blades. Not really a nice (or even normal) guy, that one.

As I said before, mowing the vast grounds of the sewage treatment plant formed my primary duty. To accomplish this purpose, we often used large tractors with a mower attached in addition to the standard riding mower. Urban dweller that I am, I had never had the opportunity to mount and operate such a steed.

A brief tutorial was given to me on its functions, but my mechanical aptitude has always been pretty low and the early morning hour of the lesson also subtracted from my attention span. My key misunderstanding had to do with the relationship between the brake and the clutch and how to properly make the metal behometh stop.

You see, tractors like that do not have an accelerator as a car does. Instead, there’s just a clutch and a brake and when the you let your foot fully off the clutch, the tractor goes. Its default mode is go, speed is controlled by gear.

Cruising on the pavement toward a patch of grass in need of reduction, my understand of the tractor was thus: If I push on the clutch, the tractor stops. A more proper understanding of the motor’s functions would have gone “If I push on the clutch, the wheels stop moving” or even more exactly “If I push on the clutch, the drive shaft stops turning the wheels but since the motor is engaged there is nothing to stop said wheels being moved by more natural forces like, say, gravity.”

Blissfully ignorant of the near-tragedy I was about to barely avoid, I reached the corner of the compound assigned to me. A tall metal fence perched on a small, steep mound of earth ringed the plant’s perimeter and ensured that at least some of my grass-cutting would incur on an incline. I worried nothing about this, confident I was in the tractor’s mechanics.

I lowered the mowing deck, engaged the blades and began to make the first of many concentric circles. I reached the edge of the compound, ascended the small upward thrust of land and traveled along the top, next to the fence.

Moving carefully along the ridge, I contemplated that soon I would have to maneuver the tractor back down the hill. An easy task, I would simply apply a little pressure to the clutch to slow the vehicles roll downward. The result of this ill-conceived plan is that when I set the tractor on the decline, the motor stopped turning the wheels but the wheels did not stop turning.

In fact, to my great surprise and growing alarm, they begun to turn very quickly.

In a matter of seconds I went from idling along like an old farmer, peaceful and relaxed, to gripping the steering wheel of a roaring metal death machine. The descent become completely uncontrolled, the tractor began to wobble and I began to consider praying for my soul’s eternal salvation.

Fate spared me, however, the ground leveled out and I slowed to a stop. Immediately, my surpervisor and others who had been in the area rushed over to me, obviously to express their concern for my safety and well-being.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

My supervisor immediately asked me this question and I quickly noted a sever shortage of sympathy in his voice. I stumbled through an explanation, muttered about the clutch and the brake and how no one told me that the tractor motor will automatically maintain its speed on a hill. All for naught, the expression on his face and my coworkers was resolute — I had been labeled, for the rest of the summer, an idiot.

My weak and ineffectual explanation for why I had not properly understood how to operate the machine become a kind of standard for the numerous other mistakes to come. For example, the time I incorrectly put together a weed whacker so that upon starting its various pieces burst apart, some of them ending up in a canal carrying sewage water.

The most surprising aspect of this story is that despite the clear evidence of my lack of manual skills and common sense, the very next summer I took another landscaping job with the University of Missouri.

I hope to post part two of my experiences with the Decatur Sanitation District soon. A teaser: A giant puddle of processed feces, urine and other toilet waste is involved. Interested now?