Once a week Salazar offloads the truck's waste at Pump Station No. 1 on Harbor Drive. During the week, he often gets headaches or suffers pain in his shoulders and neck from twisting his head around to back up the pumper truck. In Poway, he has to back up a mile and a half to get to one unit. Sometimes he gets bacterial ailments; he suspects it's the feces' germs. Once his throat and tonsils swelled and he couldn't breathe -- he waited 90 minutes for his HMO doctor, got disgusted and left, then drove to Tijuana, where he bought antibiotics over the counter that fixed it.
On the back of the truck a sign is bolted: Drivers Wanted / Great Benefits / Will Train. (Nothing rivals a back East promo: Scott's Pots: We're Number 1 in Number 2.) At Spanky's, guys come and go; they're fired or on Monday morning they don't show. Maybe it's Salazar's values that keep him showing up. He says, "My conviction is different from the conviction of the world. I have to clean those toilets just like my wife or my daughter was going to use it -- or myself. I can't leave without putting all the chemicals in. I won't be at peace; I'll have to come back and do it the right way.
"I'm content," he says at last. Not just with his job but with his life. It sure beats the cold rooms he's been in, before God gave him wing. "Besides," he chuckles, "somebody's got to do it." An old cliché about dirty work, but Salazar says it with the conviction that he's the somebody.
Except on Ramon Salazar's route, the world of the privy, the world many of our grandparents knew, rarely exists. Instead, we flush it away. If it doesn't stay away, we call the Metropolitan Wastewater Department. Metropolitan is best known for the number of sewage spills -- 365 in 2000 and 63 in 2005. The reason for the decrease is simple: city sewer crews now record the clogs via a computer program; they scour drains that have a larger amount of grease, roots, and sludge more frequently.
Such routine preventive maintenance is the domain of Brian Kirkendall and Henry Rodriguez, both 40. Kirkendall, who is Tony Gwynn-big and sports a rascally laugh, has been cleaning sewer lines for five years, two years longer than Rodriguez, who is less animated but equally involved. One day in June, halfway down Tierrasanta's Escobar Drive, Kirkendall positions the truck above a manhole cover. On the truck's back are several water tanks, 11,000-gallon capacity, and a large tank to vacuum up spills (Rodriguez brags about its power: the vac can lift a 16-pound bowling ball). At the nose of the truck, placed just above the manhole, is a 600-foot hose coiled on a winch. Rodriguez pries off the manhole lid, and the pair gaze in. Only certified personnel, the confined-spaces unit, are allowed down there. The truck's noise obscures the rivulet, 20 feet below, which is flowing vigorously.
Kirkendall begins lowering the sled and its heavy nozzle into the manhole. The sled is a dual-purpose device: its six prongs, shaped like an asterisk, loosen and drag out debris while a nozzle squirts water at very high pressure, 65 gallons per minute. Sewer lines are a gravity-based system through which the constant drainage of toilets, sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines starts the effluent moving. Kirkendall says he cleans "against flow" and pulls back "with flow." Hose-and-nozzle travels up the drain, dislodges debris, and pulls it out.
Kirkendall turns the sled into an eight-inch-diameter lateral line that brings the waste of an eight-unit apartment complex to the main line. Once the nozzle is tucked into the lateral line, Kirkendall cues the winch motor to push the hose up the line's length. He eyes the above-ground distance of the apartments' carport; experience tells him it's about 110 feet. Watching the counter, he sees the hose reach its end at 119. He then activates the nozzle's spray and begins retracting the hose. As it's wound onto the winch, the force of the water pressure cleans the drain.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez has dropped a long steel pole into the manhole; at the end of it is a large scoop (like those in grocery-store nut bins, though this one is perforated). The scoop sits against the main sewer line so as to trap tree roots, sand, rocks, debris, which the crew is freeing up from the lateral line. The scoop collects the debris, which the men lift out of the manhole and later dump at the landfill.
Rodriquez uses a mirror to shine light into the hole. At the first whiff, Kirkendall says, "That's a light smell." He laughs: "I do this every day, so I can tell you what's going on down there." One minute later, the gaseous stench wafts toward us, and it's bad -- battlefield-dead bad. It's bigger in volume and thickness than a vacuum pump humping a Porta Potti. What is that smell? In 2001, five Japanese scientists decided to study "the malodorous substances of human waste." Testing excreta and urine, they found very small amounts of ammonia, other nitrogen compounds, and hydrogen sulfide (the rotten-egg smell). However, 90 percent of the malodorous compounds were fatty acids. When such waste meets air, uncovered or nozzled loose in a sewer drain -- wheeyyyeeewww, it comes to rancid life.
Suddenly a very light fecal mist rises out of the manhole; just as it meets me, I bend back. To no avail. Part of this visible stink, Kirkendall says, is "any kind of grease these people decide to pour down the drain." The hot grease flows from the kitchen drains (San Diego, don't pour grease down the drain) and hardens as it cools. Once the high-pressure spray loosens that rotting grease, agglutinated to the walls of the drain -- "Peee-u," Kirkendall spumes. "You never get used to that." When Kirkendall began sewer maintenance in 2000, he threw up his first three days on the job. Day four he was used to it.