Expect the Unexpected

15 06 2010

As a working journalist, I am often afforded the opportunity to have experiences or encounters I might not, in the course of daily life, otherwise run up against. Indeed, one of the perks of the job (besides the excellent pay) is the chance to investigate interesting issues, met and interview fascinating people, and dive into the day’s news head on.

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The Joys of Rural America

5 01 2010

I’ve been residing now in Bardstown, Kentucky, since the middle of October and I’ve gathered some impressions about my new location. I never imagined myself as the kind of person who could stand to live in sub-20,000 population community and this largely remains true. Yet, Bardstown has a surprising amount of charm despite its diminutive census count.

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The Grass is Always More Blue on the Other Side

8 10 2009

After months of continuous searching, applying and being rejected, I have at last convinced a newspaper that I would make a worthy addition to their staff. Those poor fools at The Kentucky Standard. My stint of table waiting has come to an end (Thank you, sweet Jesus), and now I’m heading down south to Bardstown, Kentucky, to the land of Bourbon and Bibles, in service of democracy, freedom of the press and special sections promoting unbelievable deals by local merchants.

This will not be my first experience working at a community newspaper. Before I hopped a plane to Korea, I had been employed as reporter/editor/fall guy for the prestigious Lake Sun Leader, covering everything local and happenin’ for the Lake of the Ozarks area in central Missouri. As it turned out, there wasn’t really a lot happening, but I covered it any way. Are you a middle-aged cover band playing “Mustang Sally” three times a night for other middle-aged hoosier tourists? Congratulations, front page of the weekend Entertainment section.

I also wrote a video game column which contained slang and terms that vexed my publisher endlessly. He was convinced such language was the result of grammatical error rather than an intimate understanding of the subject matter. In fact, not a single person on the staff played video games or very much understood them or the culture surrounding the hobby. Yet, when I announced my departure from the paper, the first thing everyone said to me was not “Oh, too bad, we will miss you” but rather “So, are you still going to do that video game thing?”, even the moms from the sales department.

The job involved more editing than writing and as such allowed me to be blamed for all the mistakes that my editor did not catch. For some mistakes, however, I can claim sole responsibility. For example, the last of my nightly tasks involved sending the finished PDFs of the newspaper pages to the printer. A simple job that I usually finished with complete success. Yet, through a process still mysterious to me, I once managed to substitute the next day’s paper’s opinion page for the archived version of that page from exactly one year ago. Though this greatly enraged my publisher, I’m convinced most of our readers didn’t even realize the switch.

My new gig will involve considerably more writing though not really anymore prestige. My concern will cover two primary beats, Education and “Cops n’ Courts.” Though the latter may sound like a poorly conceived reality TV show, it’s basically means reporting on any sort of serious crimes, trials or accidents that occur. So, if you live in Bardstown and manage to drunkenly knock over the giant fiberglass rooster at the gas station on Rt. 245 before plowing headlong into the Baptist church’s Halloween display (splattering pumpkin guts everywhere) only to emerge nude from your vehicle and protest your innocence when the cops arrive, I’m probably going to put your name in the paper.

Hopefully, events equally adventurous and hilarious will occur during my tenure at The Kentucky Standard, which I will chronicle here. Though I do not own any guns, have never voted for a Republican and can read above a 5th grade level, I’m sure I’ll have no problem fitting into rural Kentucky life.

Author’s Note: The above remarks are only meant in jest and in no way do I mean to offend or insult the fine people of Kentucky. Both my parents were born and raised in Lexington. I have visited the state many times and have always enjoyed myself, and I am looking forward to taking up residence there.





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.





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?





The Hazards of My Profession

20 08 2009

The job of table waiting brings with it certain inherent dangers. Glasses wobble precariously on uplifted trays, plates of food stray dangerously close to a table’s precipice, floors are slick from various liquids and the scene is imbued with a general frenetic chaos during peak hours.

Such physical perils I expect and do my best to avoid or mitigate the damage should an error occur. Yet, the successful earning of a large tip presents more varied challenges and I cannot anticipate all eventualities, as was the case last night.

At one table, I faced two unique threats, whose uncharted waters I found myself unprepared to navigate. In addition to the treacherous new seas, my vessel for plying such waves was full of holes created by absent-minded nature. Equipped with little knowledge of how to operate my rickety craft and surrounded by unfamiliar water, I plunged onward nonetheless in search of a calmer clime and 20 percent tip.

The table in question contained five persons, a couple in their late 30s and their brood of two kids and one infant. Husband and wife had an aura of physical vigor if not necessarily attractiveness and engaged me in seemingly innocuous small talk. Within this conversation I encountered the first of my unforeseen difficulties.

Pinned to my chest during all working hours is a name tag so that I every person I meet is automatically an acquaintance of mine whether I wish it or not. The tag also contains a piece of ancillary information, a location representing where you are from or where you were born, which in my case reads “Korea.” Most guests perceive this for the blatant lie that it is with various expressions of disbelief, wherefore I explain my recent experience teaching English in the country.

That situation had played itself out many times, but the man at this table cut short the usual string of questions and instead immediately inquired about the number and condition of Christian churches in Korea. Not an unusual question considering the number of Korean churches in Arlington Heights, I thought, and described the contingent across the Pacific as small but vocal. He then asked me if I still attended church, and I saw my tip flash before my eyes.

I fumbled my response, seeking some sort of religious middle ground and described myself as “all churched out” due to my attendance at Catholic schools and their abundance of Masses. Then, instead of ordering an appetizer or maybe asking about one of our new salads or even just lapsing into silence, he encouraged me to check out his church (surprise, he’s a pastor) so that my heathen soul might be saved. Noting my youth, he emphasized their contemporary worship and Christian “rock music.” I feared he might ask me to follow his church on Twitter.

Still, I accepted his overtures graciously and consider my financial outlook for the table bright. Yet, when I returned bearing beverages I noticed the infant of the party had been moved out of his stroller and into the arms of his mother where (under the cover of a too-small blanket) he was having a drink of his own. Or, I tried not to notice it. However, no matter where I looked, the breast-feeding baby seemed in the corner of my eye.

On my subsequent trips to the table, I kept my vision locked above the neckline of all parties at the booth with great success. As the meal winded down, I begun to relax. The honor and dignity of the minister’s wife would remain intact (and with it my tip), my eye’s not perceiving anything untoward.

I presented the family with a dessert menu and begun explaining the various options contained therein. Then, for one instant the baby pulled away from his mother, the carefully arranged blanket slide down and in-mid spiel I caught an unfortunate glimpse.

The large, round nipple of the minister’s wife filled my vision in a flash. Like the time I hit a deer driving 60 mph late at night, it appeared for a moment in freeze-frame and then vanished.

I saw it. She saw that I saw it. He saw that she saw that I saw it. Their two kids obliviously chewed on their plain cheese pizzas.

All was lost and I felt the water pooling around my legs as my brave ship floundered, rocked by two successive waves. An atheist at worst and an agnostic at best, I had now viewed a sacred sight, something ensconced by God within the bounds of holy matrimony. I had two black marks, enough to surely sink my potential earnings.

When the group finally departed the tip (and, in retrospect, the tit) made a sight I was sorry to perceive.





A Life of Servitude

21 07 2009
An example of a menu item from California Pizza Kitchen.

Even though it is called California Pizza Kitchen, all of the menu items at my work are made in Illinois.

My stint as a waiter has started in earnest at California Pizza Kitchen. I have been cut loose from the training strings and now fake happiness, laughter and general enjoyment to seated patrons on my own terms. My nature has always been prone to indulgences in self-reflection and spontaneous mental vacations, so I wondered, prior to beginning the job, how that would jibe with the responsibilities involved in serving.

In truth, not very well.

Matters become worse earlier this week when a cocktail of drugs prescribed to me for a rapidly escalating case of poison ivy (acquired this weekend via gathering firewood in the dark) plunged me into a mental fog. I moved about the CPK floor, dimly perceiving shapes in the haze and engaging them in conversation as best I could. To describe it in a modern sense, I could feel a significant amount of lag between the time I heard a customer say something and the moment I could bring forth a response.

My brain felt suspended in a thick porridge and incapable of operating with the kind of rhetorical agility usually associated with earning good tips. I’m sorry, group of wise-cracking old ladies, but I cannot issue a rejoinder to counter your overflowing wit. My apologies, mother and young child combo, but today I am not able to cater to your every pressing need, so you will doubtless become fussy and agitated. I humbly regret any errors, business men discussing something in earnest, but you are probably not paying attention anyway.

Oh God, teenagers. Please just go away, you are pretty insufferable and you should know that drinking so many sodas in such a short period of time is like asking for diabetes for Christmas when you are forty.

Serving enjoyment aside, I’ve spent the time since my last update completing some other writing endeavors, which I would kindly ask that you view. If you assess any enjoyment from reading the following, please leave a comment expressing your general satisfaction.

I’ve written a little piece of fiction as a kind of creative writing exercise for a blog I maintain with some friends. I had a lot of fun creating it in hopes that you would have fun reading it.

Also, I’ve done some more work for Matador, a travel Web site that has previously published my stuff. This time around it’s sports-related, a quick guide to becoming a long-distance running all-star.