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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One response

29 09 2009
Yo brudda

haha poop on the head!!

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