At 6 a.m., Ramon Salazar is readying to leave the vehicle yard of Spanky's Portable Services in Escondido. It's Monday, and Mondays are rough. "Man, I needed an hour more sleep." He yawns. He climbs the two serrated step boards to the cab of his big white pumper truck. He bounces onto the seat, then starts the diesel motor. Rolling a blue kerchief tightly, he bands it carefully around his shaved head and square-knots its ends just under the occipital bone. The snug cinch means business. An ex-gang member and former director of rehab at Victory Outreach ministry ("God found me," he says, "I didn't find God"), Salazar has the bruised look of a man who's bucked too much authority.
Soon, he's merging onto the freeway and wishing he'd got going at 4:30. It's a matter of pride, he says, that he get to the large Reno Construction site on Summers Ridge Road before the hard hats do. He's anxious, knowing it'll take 30 minutes to plow through southbound traffic on the 15. The first of today's 30 stops has 24 units -- solid-construction polyethylene portable toilets, sump and urinal -- to vacuum out and scrub down. Scattered in groups of two or six, they've sat untended since Friday morning. "I keep them real clean," Salazar says. "They're never dirty, they're never stinky." He's 53, and he's been driving one of Spanky's 22 trucks and servicing units for ten months. Real longevity in this business.
People think smelling and vacuuming human waste is the hard part. Not true, Salazar says. It's the back-and-forth driving that accounts for the long -- 8, 10, 12 -- hours. His 140-mile-a-day route is like a marble let loose in a skateboarder's bowl: down to Summers Ridge, down to Convoy, over to Harris Plant, back up to Black Mountain, three miles out to Andasol, two miles back up to Crisscross Lane. Shea Homes, Park and Ride, Valley Crest Commercial Park -- and that's just before lunch, which is nestled in a cooler beside him next to two cold-sweating water bottles. When he sees eight units shouldered together, it's "ice cream and strawberries"; otherwise, it's pull up, get out, clean the unit, move the truck, one here, one there, two here, two there. But still, nothing's worse than freeway on-ramps and back-ups -- it's enough to try his patience, hunch up his shoulders, activate his hustle (fast walking with a bucket), so (maybe) he can get home by three to see his granddaughter.
Salazar tends 77 to 127 units a day. At private homes, rest areas, stadium events, landfills, the San Diego County Fair, nurseries, "anyplace where people work or play outside." The VIP units and the handicapped ones (top-of-the-line potties run $25,000), with sinks and paper towel dispensers, take longer. Each unit, he estimates, takes him four minutes.
Salazar parks the truck's driver's side as close to the units as possible. He button-starts the truck's pump, and the grinding noise, like an airplane propeller, begins. He unfurls the four-inch-diameter corrugated hose, attached to the powerful vac. He pulls open the Potti's spring-hinged door, props it against his backside, and flips up the toilet seat. He plunges the hose onto the pyramidal pile of turds and TP; the pile is like a volcanic isle, rimmed by the Windex blue of a chemical sea. Salazar shakes and repositions the hose; it lurches and leaps like a worm exposed to the sun. The waste is sucked -- the sound alternates from a loaded keeeeeee to an air-moving hiss -- into the truck's 700-gallon tank. Inside the tank, a chemical mix of ferric chloride and sodium hydroxide treats the solids quickly. The sump emptied, Salazar turns the pump off, then fills a bucket with soap and water from the truck's onboard spigot. With a water hose, he squirts the urinal, seat, lid, and floor; with a broad, wood-handled brush, he two-hand scrubs the toilet seat, random stains, wall graffiti (in one, "Mexican power," in another, "lick balls white boy"), and the muddy floor. By now, sweat beads are glistening above his headband. Next, he pours five gallons of water into the crapper, then hoses it all down. He drops in the dye pellet. He puts in new toilet paper and squirts a bottle of fragrance as a finishing touch.
Salazar's uniform is an olive drab shirt and blue drab pants; under his short-sleeved shirt is a long-sleeved quilted undershirt, very worn. "Sometimes," he says, "the hose clogs up and throws stuff back out. It splatters. I don't want it to get on my arms. They gave us long plastic gloves," clearing the elbows, "but they're too hot." Instead, he wears hand-sized rubber gloves. Even still, on his way to the shower at home, he might hear, "Oh, Dad, you smell, you smell."
A hard hat approaches a Porta Potti tentatively. What's he think's inside? Pool of vomit? Trapped rattler? Eau de open grave? Such fears hardly compare to what Salazar's encountered. Miscreants "wad up paper towels with nails and staples and throw it in there. Just to be jerks. I spend an hour unclogging it; I gotta go in there, man. A couple two, three weeks ago, they did that, and the staples got stuck right in the middle of the hose. I had to make a big old wire with a hook and pull it, pull it. I was so mad I felt like calling out at everybody, 'You jerks...' " his voice trailing off. Every so often a unit is tipped over, and it's Salazar's job to set it back up and open the door and curse the brown-black smears on the walls, which are like, well, you can imagine.
When the hose puts the waste in motion -- that's the worst smell: something unholy pierces the air, the crap and the sodium hydroxide vying for dominance. Despite a long hot shower, the smell can linger in the membranes of one's nose and mouth. A regurgitative spasm (the gag reflex) may kick in. "Sometimes, it gets to me," Salazar says. He feigns retching, "Ugg-huk, ugg-huk," then flashes an avuncular smile.