Joaquin Suarez drives front-loader to edge of trench
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March 21,1997(Friday, 7a.m. to 3p.m.) ... and including,

The Tale of the Palm (Act II):

The Fiat is not to be seen when first I peek this morning, it remains in the driveway and the tree unprotected. In contrast, Linda appears in her yard while I am taking out my trash, and I call out a greeting. She responds. but our exchange is tinged with strain, and in truth I am a little fearful of reigniting her wrath.

As the early morning unfolds I remain both curious and apprehensive, not having yet discerned my neighbor’s strategy. Finally, I see Jesse knocking on her porch and the two of them together venturing out to her tree. He appears calm, receptive to what she has to say; she, determined, though absent last night’s fury. She builds her case with a multiplicity of gestures, and several times pushes vigorously on the tree. “It’s loose,” she seems to indicate, “and it wasn’t like that before— I know, because I’m the one that planted it.” He listens and nods, is patient.

Jesse Garcia looks down at Genaro Tapia during Wayne ball and mandrel test

Jesse Garcia looks down at Genaro Tapia during Wayne ball and mandrel test

After a time, and several more pushes on the tree, she goes inside to make a phone call. He takes the opportunity to talk with several of his men, and when she returns, they talk again. Finally, they part. She inside. He to his crew. The exchange has been, if not amicable, respectful.

Later, she shows me a scrape on the side of the tree. A piece of equipment hit it, they decided. Whatever it was, the operator probably didn’t even realize it — probably just barely tapped the tree. Later, someone else may have noticed the disrupted soil and tidied it up. The tree itself, she thinks — after talking with the folks who sold it to her—may have suffered a broken or damaged crown, meaning the plane of connection between trunk and rootball. At three o’clock this afternoon, she says — "The earliest I could get off work” — Jesse will have the tree dug up so they can examine it. If the crown is damaged or the root-ball broken, Ortiz will replace the tree. If not, they’ll replant it. In sand.

Plans change, and the work this morning proves to involve neither the digging of the new manhole nor the installation of our new lateral. Rather, Jesse seems to have decided to address the laterals by starting from the point where last he left off— that is, with houses nearer the Y — and working upstream along the new main. Our house will wait.

An exception to this new plan appears to involve Linda’s house. Due probably to a desire on Jesse’s part to have her sewer located and replaced by the time they meet again this afternoon, a pair of men begin working in front of her house as soon as she leaves for work this morning.

They begin with shovels, potholing a few feet to the side of the aggrieved palm. When the hole is several feet deep and the pipe is still not found, the men switch to a jackhammer, its use accompanied by earth-rattling noise, rising plumes of dust, and white jets of vented air. Soon the hammer is lost from sight inside the deepening hole. But still the sewer remains hidden.

A conference ensues and the men change tactics, painting on the street next to the curb a rectangle encompassing an area of perhaps 2 feet by 6 and stretching in length from the center of the palm to a point just past Linda’s water box. Using the jackhammer they cut around the rectangle and with a backhoe they then attempt to break the pavement into chunks. But the concrete here is harder than the backhoe is strong, and next they summon the hydrohammer, which arrives attended by a Bobcat to help clear the debris.

The job escalates. Dirt and equipment accumulate. The sewer hides. And all this is replicated elsewhere down the street, where other laterals are also in hiding. All for want of some S’s.

Eventually, though, the laterals are found. Linda's turns out to be just beyond her water box, more than six feet from the palm. Once found, there follows the digging up of the old line and the laying of the new, the tying into the new main, and the refilling of the trench — the routine complicated somewhat in Linda’s case by the need to work around her water line and by the necessary removal of the parkway grass between palm and water box.

There is no doubt that the men who remove Linda’s grass (and who know nothing of the fire leveled recently at the gardener who dug up her lawn) fully intend to replace the grass once their work is finished. This they have done in every similar instance so far. But later in the day when it comes time to do so, two things become readily apparent: 1) that this will be a less than straightforward task, and 2) that Linda has already succeeded at least partially in intimidating Ortiz’s crew. For as they begin returning the grass, several pieces are found to be missing — tossed in with the fill dirt over the new lateral. The prospect of facing Linda’s ire over some lost real estate is seemingly more than the men can deal with, and to avoid the problem they soon arrive with several replacement chunks of turf — these cannibalized from less problematic neighbors down the street.

March 21 (Friday, 3 to 5 p.m.)...and consisting entirely of.

The Tale of the Palm (Act 111):

Linda arrives home exactly at three. Jesse is there, along with four workmen who are busying themselves with putting the finishing touches on the patch of asphalt laid temporarily in place of the section of pink sidewalk removed to access her sewer. John is watching from next door. Three bags of sand lie at the base of the palm — these delivered at noon by a man from the Ortiz front office.

When she gets out of her car, Linda examines the missing sidewalk, then the tree. She talks to Jesse. She pushes the tree. She goes inside to make a phone call. The men stand and wait, looking at the tree. It is the first time in two months I have seen any of them idle.

All is now quiet. The street is swept, the equipment put away, the soft asphalt laid, the men ready to go home for the weekend. They begin to fidget, and soon — while Linda is still on the phone — they start digging. (Later, she tells me they were “hacking” at the roots, showing none of the care she’d used in planting the tree.) She reappears and the men stop digging, step back and look at the tree, while Linda again circles, pushes, and repeats that it had been perfectly upright.

“I’m afraid,” she says, “that something was snapped under there.”

Still the men stand. The tree is worth $ 150, and at the standing-around price of five men, I imagine it won’t be long before Ortiz could buy her a new tree and still count himself ahead. Moreover, it is payday and the gathering is growing quickly. Eventually, Jesse and Don walk off and confer, and when they return Jesse hands out pay-checks, apparently along with the instruction to most of the men to go home — although he does tell one to first park a backhoe in front of our house, where already we have a Bobcat and a row of shoring.

Three men with shovels remain as Linda and Jesse resume their negotiations. “If you can get it good and level,...” I hear her say. And soon she steps back and begins motioning with her hands—a little this way, a little that — while the men push and throw shovels of dirt under the tree.

They seem to have come to an agreement. “Where do you want the sand?” asks Jesse. And after she shows them exactly where by the side of the house she wants the bags, the men sweep up while she checks yet once again on the tree’s plumbness. Within minutes, the workers leave and Jesse and Linda talk a final time — he walking to her porch to ask if she’s satisfied.

The Tale of the Palm (Its Conclusion):

“I’m not happy,” Linda tells me later. “But I’m satisfied we’ve reached an agreement that they’ll make good on the tree if it turns out to have been damaged.” Specifically, Jesse will give her a written statement that Ortiz will replace the tree if, within a year of the end of the project, the tree appears not to be doing as well as its partner.

She also says — small nugget of consolation for me — that she no longer believes the men deceitfully dug up her tree at the outset. The excavator, she thinks, was the culprit. The act was not intentional. But lest I misunderstand...

“I’m still not happy about it."

March 24 (Monday, 7:30 to 11:30 a.m.):

The weekend has been blissful, but all starts anew this morning. The street is blocked off, equipment moved into place, steel is hoisted, a jackhammer lets rip, rock harvesters appear, and a neighborly multitude begins pacing the sidewalks, each asking another — again — “Do you know where your sewer is?”

Soon, laterals are being excavated. Down the street, preparations get under way for the arrival of concrete trucks and the pouring of pavement and sidewalk. And at our house, a young laborer appears and begins digging chunks out of my lawn. He works in a long strip next to the sidewalk and over the presumed location of our sewer pipe — the path of which has been guessed at by eyeballing a line from the last visible location of the sewer under our house to the spot in the street where last week the riser was joined to the main. This should give a good idea of where the pipe is, but still it takes half an hour with shovel and pry bar to find it. Lines are then painted to indicate where the street should be sawn, and soon Joaquin comes with the saw. And then... nothing. The rest will wait till tomorrow; a pile of dirt and rocks sits on the sidewalk, and on my lawn are several squares of upturned turf — on which I keep an eye so as to prevent their possible migration.

Instead, the morning’s principal activity is the excavation of the last few feet of trench before the new manhole off the corner of my house and of the space for the manhole itself. The latter represents a sizeable void: 8 feet by 8 feet by 12 feet deep; nearly 30 cubic yards — and Breshears sculpts it perfectly, with straight sides, square corners, and a flat bottom sloped to continue the grade of the pipes that will enter and exit the manhole. The neatness and accuracy of the hole are of more than cosmetic significance, for they have the effect of minimizing the need for additional manual labor and materials. On the main trench, says Breshears, he is expected to come within an inch of grade. If he digs too deeply, money will be wasted on extra gravel; too shallow and the pipe will be inadequately cushioned — and Samir could make the crew redo its work.

It is economics that impels the operators to develop their skills. But still, they are good. In the backhoes they levitate. They crabwalk — using outriggers and boom to move the machines sideways. And they never waste a motion, never lift a bucket higher or extend a boom farther than is necessary. They could probably, said one neighbor to a grandson, “give you a shave.”

Amazing to watch is their hands. On the backhoes are a row of long-stemmed black-knobbed levers (one each for the up and down of boom, stick, sleeve, and bucket; foot pedals for left and right), and the operators grasp and work all four knobs simultaneously, as if manipulating an undulating serpent. In the excavator, Breshears controls the digging with a pair of joysticks that sit just off each armrest; all day he guides the huge machine with the merest of twists and flicks of the wrists. “I couldn’t really tell you how it works,” he says. “But when I get in it, my hands know what to do.”

True, pragmatics drive these abilities. But the opportunity to transform the mundane is ever present, and so it seems something more that informs a maneuver I see performed by Breshears weeks later. He was parking the excavator for the night, alone and on a side street; boom and cab were forward as he rumbled toward his destination —a spot parallel to the curb and under a power line. But as he got closer, he began simultaneously swiveling the cab to the rear, lowering the boom to clear the power line, and tucking the bucket for its overnight stay. All was motion. Then, just as the machine reached its berth, all was complete. Breshears climbed from the cab and walked away. Whether he’d planned the move or even thought of it consciously, I don’t know, but momentarily he’d given the beast the grace of a dancer.

March 24 (Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.):

The moment Breshears pulls the excavator out of the way, other men begin spreading gravel across the bottom of the hole, and at noon a worker arrives from B&W Precast Obstruction, Inc., out of San Marcos. “Manufacturers & Installers of Precast Concrete Manholes,” says the card of Pat Senteno. A concrete truck appears as well, and at the direction of Senteno, the truck’s driver begins pouring concrete into the bottom of the hole, piling it atop the gravel in a loose mound, like a dish of soft-frozen ice cream. The concrete, says the driver, is mixed at seven sacks of cement per cubic yard, an unusually high concentration that will not only give the finished product exceptional strength but will also cause the mix to “go off fast.” Meaning it will set quickly.

When the chute is clear and the truck waved off, Senteno props a ladder inside the hole and climbs in. The truck has poured 1 1/2 cubic yards of concrete, and with a shovel Senteno rapidly begins flattening the pile into a circular pad some 6 feet in diameter and 1 1/2 feet thick. I n the center of the disc he then places a 4-foot diameter metal ring, which he tamps flat using a pocket-size spirit level for guidance. This is the only form he will use in shaping the pad.

In the dogleg that Maple Street takes through our neighborhood, the manhole Senteno is building sits in the hock of the turn. Embedded in one edge of the wet concrete pad is the end of the just-laid main past the front of my house; its mouth now forms the outlet from the manhole-in-the-making. Owning in from the upstream, east running portion of Maple will be the inlet pipe — which has not yet been trenched or laid. Using his shovel, Senteno begins shaping a foot-wide concrete ledge around the outside of the ring; before the ledge is completed, and at a spot some 120 degrees from the outlet, he scoops from below the ring enough concrete to accommodate a short length of new sewer pipe. The male end of this stub is girdled by a fat rubber O-ring that Senteno sets within the wet concrete and covers to form a seal; the female end points toward the eastward portion of Maple Street. The manhole now has an inlet.

Having created inlet, outlet, and perimeter, Senteno next takes up a pair of hand trowels and begins smoothing the flat inside surface of the pad. At the same time, he crafts the channel that will connect inlet and outlet across the bottom of the manhole — first scooping out a trough, then working the trowels one against the other and building edges. Seamlessly, he blends the sides and bottom of the channel so they form a deep U in cross section, and to the path of the whole he gives a gentle curve so the sewage will flow unimpeded.

The concrete is by now sufficiently stiff that all the curves and edges will hold their place, and once the channel is formed, Senteno lifts out the metal ring and hands it up top to a man from Ortiz. He then climbs from the hole, gathers materials from the back of his truck, and mixes a two-gallon bucket of sand, water, and cement. He carries the resulting “slurry” back into the hole and with a trowel slathers it thinly atop the surface of pad and channel. The result is a smooth, almost slick finish.

Finally, he checks one last time with the level that the manhole will sit flat on the pad and the sewage will have the proper fall as it courses through the channel. All is well and out he climbs, withdrawing the ladder behind him. Tomorrow the manhole will be “stacked” — topped, that is, with the precast components whose combined height will total 10 feet, 7 inches, the measured height from street level to the bottom of the new pad. At 1:25, less than 90 minutes after he started, Senteno leaves for another job. Generally he works with a partner, and they make, says the partner, an average of 5 manhole pads a day — though they’ve done as many as 12.

Five minutes after the pad is finished, Ortiz’s crew begins filling the trench on the outlet side. By 3 p.m., the hole has been covered with steel, and on the street cleanup is beginning. The day is winding down.

March 25 (Tuesday, 7:30 a.m. to 12 noon):

I use the toilet early this morning, worried that I might otherwise need to do so later when our sewer line is disconnected and exposed. My wife and son are on vacation for a few days and I am alone in the house. And so it is that when I am done, I flush a half dozen times to ensure the line is clear. This seems a peculiar form of social propriety — making sure the inside of your sewer is clean — but having made pals with the sewer guys over the last few days, I would be mortified if there were untoward contents in the pipe when they went to break it open — and particularly if I were standing there watching.

At a quarter to eight, two laborers appear before my house and begin removing the sidewalk over the lateral. The old concrete is so weak that they succeed in breaking it out with nothing more than a manual pry bar. I’ve seen this happen elsewhere in the neighborhood, and indeed, it seems the dirt in Burlingame—which often yields only to a jackhammer — is tougher than its pink sidewalks.

Also stronger—and considerably so — is the many-layered road. In a replay of last week’s scenario at Linda’s, the backhoe that arrives to begin stripping the pavement from between Joaquin’s sawcuts is soon thwarted. As before, the hackhoe’s failure prompts a call for the hydrohammer. But now the old and aging hydrohammer is a few days older still, and after a few revs and thumps it begins to back up, and...goes nowhere. The transmission has failed.

Jesse could fiddle with it. He could have someone else fiddle with it. He could call Ortiz’s mechanic. But mostly he wants to get our lateral done, and because it’s only 30 feet from curb to main, he decides instead to chain the hydrohammer to the backhoe and tow it backward every few feet as the road is crushed. Then, when the task is done, the backhoe pulls the hydrohammer out of the way and leaves it.

As was also true at Linda’s our sewer and water lines appear to be quite close—the concrete service box housing our water meter, for example, borders the section of sidewalk just removed. No doubt the lines were laid close to avoid the work of digging two trenches, but the practice is now frowned upon for sanitary reasons. It has other disadvantages as well, and one becomes apparent the minute the backhoe begins digging the trench for our lateral.

It is 9 a.m. and I am right there as the backhoe reaches to remove a first scoop of earth from the exposed passage through our sidewalk, as it curls and retracts the bucket — as it yanks out our water line, a great dangling length of copper tubing flopping awkwardly from a tooth on the bucket. This to the accompaniment of a great spray of water and an immediate flood. Normally, the line would enter the box from the street, pass through the meter, exit out the other end of the box, and continue on in roughly the same direction. So who would have expected my water line to instead make an immediate right turn and cross directly over the top of the sewer?

One of the men shuts off the flow of water, leaving me for the moment without water or sewer. And for the next hour, while the backhoe and laborers resume their work, Don Gingrich gathers tools and materials and sets about fixing our water line. He does this using flexible copper tubing (which eliminates the need for soldered, jointed turns) and what he calls compression couplings — brass devices that screw together after first slipping over the joining pipe ends in such a manner that the ends are grasped and sealed as the coupling is tightened. I’ve never seen such things and at first am a little dubious as to their durability.

“How long will these last?” I ask Don.

"Longer than you will,” he says. Which I guess is long enough.

At 10:15, while the work on our water and sewer continues, a truck from B&W arrives at the site of the new manhole. Senteno is inside, though today’s driver is Robert Lara, his partner. Buckets, shovels, rolls of white plastic, and assorted other tools and supplies festoon their truck’s overhead racks, while about its flat bed are arrayed steel chests, bags of cement, bins of sand, and a mixing tub. Immediately, the men set to work — Senteno mixing mortar while Lira throws supplies from the truck, including coiled rolls of black mastic, a tarlike material an inch square in cross section and stuck on one side with waxed paper.

Within minutes a second B&W flatbed arrives, this one larger and mounted with a crane. On its back sit two immense concrete cylinders and a concrete cone of similar dimensions; also on board are a 5-inch-thick concrete spacer ring, and a cast-iron manhole lid and frame. The truck stops directly abreast of the manhole-to-be, and its driver too begins immediately to work.

The vulnerability of concrete to sewer gas is the very reason our old sewer main is being replaced: sewage creates sewer gas, which contains hydrogen sulfide, which reacts with water to form sulfuric acid, which attacks and destroys concrete. None of this chemistry has changed recently, but there have been innovations enabling the continued use of concrete. Each of the concrete parts just delivered is completely lined on the inside with a thick layer of white PVC. Molded every few inches to the backside of the lining are protruding T-shaped ribs that are embedded into the concrete and hold the liner in place; these ribs give the whole protective system its name: T-Lock. And it is to further enhance the T-Lock’s abilities that the men of B&W now devote themselves.

When Senteno finishes mixing the mortar, he climbs into the manhole and cleans the pad’s surface with a brush. He then pulls off long pieces of mastic — the wax paper separating with the ripping sound of tape stripped from a roll—and these he lays just inside the pad’s circular rim. A bucket of mortar is lowered by crane, and this Senteno pours in a smaller concentric circle just inside the mastic. Above him, the driver of the big flatbed duplicates these same preparations on the top edge of one of the big cylinders.

Meanwhile, Lara begins attaching a strip of thick white vinyl to the inside of the spacer ring that will sit at the top of the concrete stack. He does this with what amounts to a $ 1,000, industrial-strength hairdryer, fusing the spacer’s plastic liner and the vinyl strip while at the same time positioning the strip so as to overlap with the piece below when the spacer is set in place. Later, when the manhole has been stacked and the surrounding earth and street restored, Lara will return and place similar vinyl strips over every interior joint; the edges of these wide strips will then be covered with thinner strips, so that every joint is doubly seated. Inside, the manhole will gleam hospital white. Later still, when the concrete of the pad has frilly cured, another B&W crew will return to apply a thick epoxy coating to the bottom of the manhole.

Aesthetically, Lara dislikes this last step. The newest designs, he says, call for precast pads already surfaced with PVC “It’s a nicer product,” he says, referring to the resulting manhole, “if it’s all T-Lock. It’s more uniform. Looks nicer.”

It also lasts longer. According to Samir, Sewer and Water Group 78 has been designed with a 60-year life span; the city’s engineers expect our new sewer to be functioning well into the second half of the 21st century. In Lara’s opinion, however, the prelined bases — which are more expensive — might last that long, but a manhole with an epoxy-covered base, like the one he is now building with Senteno, will have to be rehabbed long before then. “But I’m not complaining. It’s job security if I have to come back in 15 or 20 years and replace it.”

When all is ready, the driver of the flatbed slips a cradle around the first section of manhole, hooks cradle to crane, and begins to lift — the cradle’s grip tightening as it rises. The crane is controlled with a handheld pushbutton remote, and the operator has the zoned-in concentration of a Nintendo player as he swings the crane’s load out over the hole, then lowers it toward the pad, Senteno providing guidance the last few inches as it plops down on mastic and mortar. Quickly, Senteno flips off the cradle, hops inside the ring, and begins beveling the extruded bead of mortar. The crane returns for the next section. And so the manhole is stacked: cylinders, cone, spacer, and cast-iron frame and lid — the latter marked in a great circle of letters, CITY OF SAN DIEGO SEWER and, in smaller letters on the periphery, the lid’s birthplace: MEXICO. Cast-iron manhole lids are apparently an international commodity, and elsewhere in Burlingame we now have lids from India and China.

At 11:00, the manhole is stacked and the flatbed leaves. So too in a few minutes will Senteno and Lara. But first, Senteno takes a long-handled paint roller and applies the final touches to the coating of waterproof tar on the manhole’s exterior. When he finishes, the manhole—Hack, with pointed nose — stands like an ICBM in its silo, reaching for the heavens and ready for launch.

By the time I wander back to my own lateral, the work there has advanced considerably. The old pipe has been excavated and removed, a bed of gravel laid, the new line installed — two 20-foot lengths of 4-inch turquoise — and the joints duck-buttered, glued, and Ferncoed, as appropriate. Now, a backhoe is dumping the last scoops of gravel for the topping; only a few feet of exposed lateral remain, above which Samir is standing and watching. He is thoughtful. Almost pensive.

“You should take a picture,” he says. “It only happens once every 60 years.”

I refrain from this (not knowing where in our photo albums my wife would have me file it), but I join him in watching. Soon, there arrives a second backhoe fitted with a sheep’s foot. With the wheel and boom pointed our way, the operator straddles the deep end of the trench, lowers his outriggers, and begins compacting the soil, piled in heaps to the side of the trench and now pushed back in by the other backhoe, the two machines working at right angles to each other and progressing steadily toward me, Samir, the sidewalk, and my lawn.

In minutes, the trench has been filled and compacted. I can flush. Supposedly, I won’t be similarly discommoded for another 60 years.

March 25 (Tuesday, 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.):

After lunch the laborers who yesterday dug up my lawn return to replace it, dropping the squares of turf into the approximate places from whence they came and stomping them home with their boots. Noticeably, the squares are uplifted at the edges and sagging in the middle.

Next, the men rake and spread flat the compacted dirt over which my sidewalk lay this morning. They stake as a form a length of two-by-four across the opening between lawn and sidewalk, and a backhoe then dumps in a scoop of soft asphalt. The black, oily mix sags and settles as it falls. The men rake and shovel it smoothly, and temporarily our sidewalk is whole again. But you can’t walk on it. Not even on the loose, tiny bits scattered nearby that stick to the bottoms of your shoes and leave numerous and hard-to-clean marks all over your carpet wherever you’ve been; marks that multiply as you scrub feverishly to remove them and that you know your wife won’t like when she gets home from vacation — marks that you don’t even particularly like yourself. No, you can’t even walk on these.

Though of course you do.

March26(Wednesday, 7:30a.m. to 12 noon):

Ortiz’s main force begins a great wheeling maneuver this morning. It begins with a logistic move, as at 7:30 two men come huffing down the street towing the Porta Potti. For the past two weeks it has resided under an overhanging tree near the Laurel and Maple Street Y — a shady spot, if not secluded — but now they are bringing it toward me, toward my house. Bypassing me on my porch, they come to a stop near the curb just around the comer. Another shady spot, and this one just outside our bedroom window. Under the circumstances, I suppose one has to share this sort of thing, so there’s no point in complaining. It’ll be a surprise for my wife and son when they return home tonight.

Soon nearly all the equipment is moving in this same direction: trucks, backhoes, Bobcat, shoring — the works. Yesterday, with the replacement of my lateral and Albert’s, the trenches and pipe laying for the entire stretch of Maple in front of my house was completed; today they’ll begin on the portion of the street running east.

Mark Breshears (in front-end loader) lifts metal plates from new manhole; Genaro Tapia (in hole) sets speed-shoring; above hole, Joaquin Suarez (left), Don Gingrich (right)

Mark Breshears (in front-end loader) lifts metal plates from new manhole; Genaro Tapia (in hole) sets speed-shoring; above hole, Joaquin Suarez (left), Don Gingrich (right)

They start at the new manhole. Yesterday, when Senteno and Lara drove away, Jesse had the stack and surrounding space covered with steel, and today Breshears begins by removing the plates. He then strips enough pavement to allow him to start excavating, while about him gathers the usual procession. The immediate object of this activity is to lay a full length of 8-inch pipe east of the manhole. This will allow backfilling of the space around the stack, which in turn will allow preparations to proceed for a performance, or “proof,” test of the just-laid main in front of my house.

Like a builder of custom homes, Ortiz’s contract with the city calls for a staggered schedule of partial payments, each contingent in a given section of the project upon the satisfactory completion of some phase of the work: 90 percent after the proof test, the last 10 percent after a final walk-through and approval by the Resident Engineer. Because of the relative size of the first payment, a certain urgency accrues to the test. And although ultimately in this instance the test would be postponed because of Samir’s unavailability for several days, by 9:00 the trench is nonetheless excavated, the shoring set, a ladder ready, and Greg Weber prepares himself to climb in, singing as he does, “Oh, it’s time, time, time to go down.”

With a shovel Weber cleans around the stub of pipe set earlier by Senteno and now protruding from the base of the manhole, and within an hour he and a co-worker have fit a 20-foot length of main end-to-end with the stub, male to female. Gingrich arrives in the Deere, and after first dumping gravel over the newly fitted pipe he then proceeds to cover the rest of the area around the base of the manhole. Then he starts pushing in dirt, while Jesse begins the compaction.

The stacked manhole, rising in its earthen vault, is a round peg in a square hole. And where the manhole comes closest to the walls of the vault there is little clearance for the sheep’s foot. In order to reach the accumulating soil, therefore, Jesse must use the full range of operator’s tricks: lifting high the machine from the ground, crabwalking round and round, and corkscrewing the compacted dirt higher and higher. And so the space is filled.

So too does Sewer and Water Group 78 begin its turning. For the next two weeks Jesse’s men will devote themselves to pushing the face of the sewer to the east and away from my house. I will watch, and because I have been watching already I will know better then what I am seeing.

I will know that the con-centration of cobbles in the earth below Maple Street is lower in its eastward running portion than in the stretch before my house, and I will wonder if this is due to a change of course in some ancient stream or river.

I will know that the dirt there is redder than elsewhere in Burlingame, that it has more iron oxide. And knowing that will help me better to appreciate Mike Corio’s observation that, “You guys got some weird dirt here. You go to a place like Arizona, it’s all brown and hard and rocky, or else it’s all farm dirt. But here, it’s weird. I was working on a job in Cardiff and they had this dirt like clay, it was purple and lime green and turquoise, all swirled together. It was really beautiful. I took some of it home to show my wife.”

I will know that cave-insare to be avoided, but do occur. I will know that squigglies get covered and that gas lines, even active ones, get excavated. (“No smoking!” they will yell.) And I will know better how to read the hieroglyphs of the squigglies, know that when Jesse writes on the road with a white Super Stripe Traffic Power Paint Cartridge —350 6” A/C W it means “At this point, 3 1/2 feet deep, is buried a 6-inch-diameter asbestos-and-concrete water pipe.” And that the additional implied message is, “Don’t break or disturb.”

I will know that it can take a long time with a shrivel to pothole for an unmarked lateral, but that a full eight-hour day is nonetheless a very long time, and that the resulting 20-foot ditch across a neighbor’s lawn is a very long gash in one’s yard. I will know why on a Thursday Mike Corio pleads “Come on, Friday!” What a neighbor means when he says, “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.” And that Mark Breshcars — who, with his aviator sunglasses and chronic stubble, looks a lot like Harrison Ford — has in him a touch of the choreographer.

I will know the wonder my wife feels when she finally comes home and sees Jesse in his back-hoe suspended on scoop and boom in midair and says, “He’s levitating!” And I will know, or I will learn, that though Sewer and Water Group 78 has turned the corner, they have merely moved a bit down the road. For still I will hear them. The hydrohammer, the excavator, the horns, the saws, the diesels that idle; still I will hear them all. For weeks I will hear them all.

Not everyone, though, swings in the great rotation. There is much yet to do on the street before me, and left this morning to continue the work is a backhoe and operator, a dump truck and driver, two men with shovels, and a man on the Vibra-Plate. The latter is a 1000-pound machine of roughly the same dimensions as the concrete saw and consisting primarily of an engine atop a thick steel plate some 2 by 2 Vi feet in size. The engine vibrates the plate, which in turn smooths and compacts the ground below.

These men have been given the task of preparing the street for the new concrete that will suture the road after its disemboweling. This process and the actual pouring of the concrete over the compacted trench is called “capping,” and it begins with the stripping and removal of the temporary asphalt and all excess fill dirt from the area within the trench cap. This is the backhoe’s purview, and after the backhoe come the shovel men, who scrape clean the surrounding pavement and the vertical sawn edges where weeks ago Joaquin made his sawcuts. They are followed by the Vibra-Plate, which in turn is followed by the shovel men again, now converted to brooms.

The plan today is to begin where last the capping left off— just upstream from the Y — and to pour over the main to a convenient stopping point downstream from the manhole-in progress off the corner of my house. They’ll also cap over five laterals, including mine. The combined linear footage of the planned pour equals some 330 feet; the distance between Joaquin's sawcuts — the width of the trench covering — is 3 feet, meaning the total area to be covered is close to 1000 square feet. By specification, the trench cap will be seven inches thick. (Samir will check this in several places this morning with a flick of his tape measure.) And all told, the pour will require approximately 22 cubic yards of concrete. Because concrete is delivered in trucks with a capacity just shy of 10 yards, Jesse will order three trucks — the first two full, the third with an amount he'll call in later.

The uncertainty regarding the last truck stems from the area in the street between my house and Linda’s, where the soil was unstable and the trench walls collapsed during last week’s excavation. The cave-ins undermined the pavement and as the work progressed much of that pavement crumbled or broke loose, and to these areas the men this morning apply a jackhammer, debriding until they are sure both the ground below and the road around is sound. When they are finished, what should look like a straight, clean-cut channel through the pavement looks instead like the ragged and meandering path of an icebreaker through a flow. How much concrete this will take is merely a guess.

Just before lunch, all is ready. The dirt floor of the cap is smooth and tightly packed. The edges are free of debris. The bordering road surface is immaculate. And laid in the channels is the green and silver Mylar strip that endlessly advises future inquisitors: CAUTION BURIED SEWER LINE BELOW

March 26 (Wednesday, 12:20 to 4:30 p.m.):

After high school I worked for a time in construction. I had a friend whose father was a contractor and built new homes. We had another friend who worked with us, and together the three of us formed the laboring, gofer nucleus of the company’s small work force. We did a little of everything: framing, painting, ditch-digging, fetching, and hauling. We also poured concrete. Lots of concrete — slabs, patios, sidewalks, and driveways.

The days we poured were filled with buzz and anticipation. First was the scurry to get ready, then the frenzy of the arriving trucks, they arriving steadily and nonstop, like transports landing troops for an operation. The only lull in the activity was the interval between last preparation and first arrival.

We were young then, and fancied ourselves adventurers in life’s unfolding saga. And so it was that we invented games and dramas to enliven these periods of waiting. Of the trucks owned by the company that supplied us with concrete all but one were orange, and all were huge. It was easy then, while we waited, waited and watched for the first glimpse between houses of the first lumbering leviathan wending its way in through the burb, to imagine ourselves men of New Bedford— whalers, with our eyes on the seas looking for spouts.

The one truck not orange was white, and to this we attached a name. Moby Truck, we called it, and if by chance it should be the first vehicle of the day, its sighting would infuse with a special vigor the heralding cry that went up....

“What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?” “Sing out for him!”... “Good!” cried Ahab.... “And what do ye next, men?” “Lower away, and after him!” “And what tune is it ye pull to, men?” “A dead whale or a stove boat!” ... Ahab, now half-revolving in his pivot-hole, with one hand reaching high up a shroud, and tightly,...addressed them thus: — “All ye mast-headers have before now heard me give orders about a white whale. Look ye! d'ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?... It is a sixteen dollar piece, men, — a doubloon. D'ye see it?...
“ Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look yey whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!... “It's a white whale, I say. A white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.”

...and “Mud!” would sing he who spied the first truck.

“Mud!” would he bellow.

“Mud!”

And so were we summoned to the pour. Enjoined, like peasants to the harvest, to make ready our implements — rakes and trowels, shovels and gloves.

‘Twas glorious then! Glorious to be young

Whether the men of Ortiz have conjured for themselves a Moby Truck I do not know. All the trucks that bring them concrete are white and therefore indistinct. But even so, their lunch is cut short by the arrival of the first behemoth. Its driver finds a staging area and begins assembling his chute, and while he does so Jesse and five other men rise from the grass of my lawn and collect their tools.

When all are ready, Jesse dons his gloves and begins backing the truck into position, he walking behind the truck, steadying the chute with one hand, and keeping eye contact with the driver in the side mirror. He backs the truck along one side of the street and over steel-plated laterals, and when he reaches his starting point he raises a clenched fist, signalling the driver to stop. Glancing in the mirror to verify that he still has eye contact, he twirls his forefinger. The driver reverses the direction of the trucks slowly spinning drum; its internal spiral fins begin catching mixed concrete and pushing it uphill; concrete begins to fall out the back; the funnel catches it; the chute carries it, sliding like a mass of gray porridge — this proceeded by the tumbling of a few loose pebbles — and in moments the mud spills to the ground. The pour has begun.

Pouring concrete is an act of teamwork. Team leader is the man on the chute, pacing both the work and the truck, and so, smoothly, Jesse begins arcing his chute back and forth over the area to be filled. Occasionally, he pushes a handful of concrete down the chute where a little extra is needed. And when he’s poured enough, he tips his finger and motions the driver to move forward a few feet.

Behind Jesse on either side of the trench are two men with shovels. Their job is to push, pull, and coax the concrete into place, filling in pockets, eliminating air bubbles, and roughly rendering the surface flat. They are busy, but no more so than necessary. This is the sign of a good chuteman — that your laborers aren’t working frantically — and like all else I’ve seen him do, Jesse is good at this. He keeps the flow steady and judges well how much he’s poured and how much is required. But then, you get good at this fast, for a chuteman who creates unnecessary work is informed quickly of the fact and encouraged strongly by his laborers to seek another career.

Following the shovellers are two men on a screed — a length of two-by-four they saw back and forth across the pavement surface to level the wet concrete. And behind them walks a man with a tamper: a horizontal rectangular frame with upright handles and fitted at the bottom with steel mesh. The tamper is used in a patty-cake fashion to press down rocks from the concrete’s surface and to raise in their place a workable paste. The concrete sucks at the mesh on the uplift, and the repeated up, down, and sideways is both exhausting and hell on your back.

Forward they move. The men know their jobs and when and where they will next be needed, and they work as if in a ballet, the blocking and orchestration seamless. “They are,” says John, “so comfortable.” And there is to their work a rhythm. And a song. For there rises an aural soup whose elements I suddenly remember well, and at the remembering of which I am surprised. Ever present are the hum and rumble of the diesel and the whine of the turning drum, concrete sloshing in steel. Periodically, the air brakes release and the truck lurches forward: shhh-kraBRONnnng, they go. Shhh-kraBRONnnng. The shovellers scrape, chop, and jostle, their blades slicing in and out of the wet mixture. The tamper tamps. And at 12:40 comes an echoing rattle of loose rocks; the engine races, the drum spins fast, and the truck is purged; the beast is empty and the driver pulls away to hose off his chute.

With the truck’s departure, so too do the men begin peeling away, hieing themselves to other jobs in the waiting. One hops on a backhoe. One gathers a hose and nozzle and begins wetting the next section to be capped. Two grab hand floats and begin smoothing the tamped concrete, leaving in their wake a flowing swirl of rough whorls and half-moons; they make no effort to remove these patterns, for this is a road and possibly to be repaved when all is done.

Twenty minutes later the second truck arrives and the men reconvene. They work steadily toward my house, interrupted only briefly by a train of children on bicycles racing pell-mell toward a wet square of concrete on the sidewalk and Jesse’s need emphatically to yell, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa!” At 1:20 the Bobcat pushes aside the steel plate covering my lateral. At 1:24 a laborer sprinkles the lateral’s dirt surface. At 1:25 Jesse twirls his finger. And at 1:27 the last of the mix spills from the truck and wet concrete covers my lateral.

Worker carries 20-foot length of 4-inch PVC

Worker carries 20-foot length of 4-inch PVC

A third truck soon arrives, and by 2:20 it too is emptied. The afternoon’s pour has totaled 26'/2 yards. It ends at a point in the street just past Linda’s driveway and with the covering of all the areas prepared this morning, including four sections of pink sidewalk on the streetside opposite me. Still patched with black asphalt are the squares of sidewalk over my and Albert’s laterals; these will wait till tomorrow.

This afternoon’s cleanup includes the washing of Laurel. Days ago, and once that street’s main and laterals had been capped, Jesse had had Laurel scoured with a fire hose. This had turned the dust to mud, which flowed in torrents toward the storm drain (there mostly to be caught behind a dam of sandbags and hauled away), and this had seemed the last critical step in restoring the street to habitability. We on Maple watched and were envious.

Still, though, the dust has raged. It rises and swirls behind every passing truck and backhoe. The excavator sends it aloft in great clouds, from whence it falls on the whole neighborhood. And so today Jesse has the Ortiz water truck rinse Laurel Street yet again. The water truck, working in swaths from the center of the street toward the edges, is less effective than the fire hose, but still and again we on Maple are envious. For they are cleaned while we are dirty and becoming dirtier still. And when it will end we know not yet.

March 27 (Thursday):

The city’s contract with Ortiz calls for items removed or destroyed during the sewer work to be restored in a fashion that will “match existing.” Because black asphalt does not match pink concrete, today my sidewalk is to be restored to its former condition.

It’s an interesting phrase, “match existing,” because the city itself does no such thing. On those rare occasions when it deigns to fix a broken sidewalk, the city throws on its own permanent asphalt or else pours standard-issue white concrete with none of the elegant scoring of 1912. It holds, in other words, its contractors to a higher standard than itself.

All the same, amidst the ruins of my neighborhood’s sidewalks, we are now to have patches of new. Five such patches are to be installed today, and consist of the toppings over laterals for a line of neighbors snaking from my house around the block and back to Laurel Street. The morning’s preparatory work follows the usual sequence, and as usual the activities are scrutinized by a representative of the city. Samir, however, is gone today, and in his stead are a pair of young engineers, these also in orange safety vests and blue hard hats.

The two men split their wanderings between the trenching and pipe-laying around the corner of my house and the sidewalk preparations out front, and late in the morning they are taking a turn around the Floridian tip of my neighbor Albert’s lot when they are approached by Albert and his wife, Giacoma. This is unusual, for Albert and Giacoma are reticent about contact with such persons as city officials. Moreover, Giacoma’s English is as nonexistent as Albert’s, and their conversations with non-Italian speakers generally devolve quickly to a flurry of gestures and mutual efforts to make volume and repetition do the work of shared language. Because I myself have been party to many such conversations, and have in this case a fair idea of the likely subject, I join them.

As the conference begins, we are standing midway between a small crater that has begun growing at the sidewalk’s peninsular apex and a stretch of crumbled curb whose pieces recently fell loose and had lain for months in the gutter until thrown away in an Ortiz cleanup.

Look, says Giacoma in Italian and pointing with both hands outstretched, supplicating, it is falling apart.

Yes, say the men from the city, we can see that.

Can you fix it? asks Giacoma. And she gestures to the nearby sections of sidewalk that lie open and waiting for concrete. The men are here, I imagine she says, and the trucks are coming. It would be easy. It would be obvious. Can’t you fix it?

The men from the city are sincere. They have the faces of cherubs. They turn to me and I repeat what I imagine my neighbor has said. Their sidewalks are falling apart, I say, and she wants to know if you can’t do something about it. Her husband, I add, — there with his cane — is handicapped. Shouldn’t there be a handicapped ramp here?

Yes, say the men, they can see that Albert is handicapped. And yes, they can see the sidewalk is in need of repair. But no, just because it needs it and the men and materials are here doesn’t mean it can be fixed; first the sidewalk must be surveyed and certified, written up and placed in queue. Papers must be filed. And — the clincher — this work is being paid for with sewer and water money; the sidewalks belong to the street division. It’s a problem, they say. But not ours.

Yes, I say, I know. And I turn to Giacoma and Albert. No, I tell them, they can’t help you. They can’t fix your sidewalks. I shake my head and explain as best I can: It’s complicated.

The men from the city walk on, and later I see Giacoma holding the same conversation with three laborers from Ortiz — hoping perhaps that her Italian will fare better on Spanish than on English.

The concrete for my new bit of sidewalk arrives just after noon, the truck having just come from Albert’s and the three laterals preceding. All afternoon the men doing the pouring and finishing will rotate among these five patches of concrete, performing first a task at the first square around the block, then repeating the same task at each successive square until finally ending at my house, from whence they will return to start a new task — the concrete growing harder all the while.

Among the three men on the pour, one is Joaquin, who earlier made the sawcuts that freed the old sections of sidewalk. On the chute is Miguel Pilar, who has worked six years for Ortiz as both truck driver and laborer. And third is Pedro Silva. Pedro has been finishing concrete for many years, though this is his first job with Ortiz. He is lean and muscled, with a mustache going gray; he is from Mexico and speaks little English. Spanish is the language of today’s pour.

The concrete Miguel empties into my sidewalk is standard gray; were it left alone it would dry as white. It takes just minutes to pour the half yard of wet mix, and by 1:00 the void in my sidewalk has been filled, screeded, tamped, floated, and rough troweled, the latter by Joaquin. Fifteen minutes later, Pedro comes by with an edger— a small metal trowel with a down-turned lip on one side. Working on hands and knees, he guides the trowel around the perimeter of the square, giving to its edges a smooth, pleasing bevel.

The issue of what is the standard color of Burlingame’s sidewalks has long been debated in my neighborhood — and never resolved. The original developer left no formula and we now have as many shades of pink (or “rose”) as there have been repairs over the years. How then to “match existing”?

Early in the course of Sewer and Water Group 78, Jesse and his men experimented to see what available coloring agent would most closely reproduce our original sidewalks, and at 2:30 Miguel arrives at my house bearing a large and heavy-looking paper bag on whose label is printed the results of this inquiry:A-26 Brick Red Lithochrome Color Hardener.

Inside is a fine, reddish-brown powder — brick red, actually. Given our neighborhood’s years of competing pinks, it would seem a considerable feat to have now determined a standard. But the accomplishment is put in some perspective by the observation of a neighbor made after watching the coloring of his own sidewalk: the final outcome, he noted, depends on whether from the powder in his bag Miguel “sprinkles on a big handful or a little handful.”

I wait, then, in suspense as Miguel makes ready his magic. The concrete by now has become fairly hard, and before he begins Miguel first sprinkles on a little water. This he works into a paste with a hand float, and when the entire surface is roughened and receptive, he dips into his bag, draws out a handful, and begins dusting the wet concrete with powder. Whether these handfuls are large or small I do not know, but he uses several.

After another sprinkling of water, he sets to work with his hand float. His object is to incorporate the wetted powder into the underlying paste, and toward this end he bears down heavily on the float, rocking and rolling his wrist as he sweeps his arm round and round in tight, looping circles. When the surface is an even, rusty red, he places a two-by-four across the wet square of concrete, aligns its ends with two corresponding line segments in the bordering sections of old sidewalk, and uses the board as a guide while he runs a metal scoring trowel from side to side. He repeats this procedure with other lines and marks, and when he has finished Miguel has re-established the pattern first set in our concrete more than three generations ago and we have in our sidewalk nine fresh squares.

After Miguel comes Pedro, who brings with him a bucketful of trowels and extracts from it first his edger. With it he works around each of the nine new squares. The muscles on his forearms bulge as he rocks and presses the edger front to back, applying all the force he can against the ever-hardening surface. When each square has been circumscribed he switches to a rectangular finish trowel and shifts his attention to the squares’ insides, pressing on the trowel’s front edge with two fingers and expressing from the surface a bead of reddish cream he works intently into every imperfection. He concentrates as if polishing a lens, and he leaves each square smooth and shiny.

Finishing, Pedro puts his trowels in his bucket and heads back to the front of the line to begin a new round. As he does so, he passes the tip of Albert’s peninsular lot. Here he puts down his bucket, withdraws a trowel, and applies a few strokes to a small patch of concrete he and his companions have shovelled in my neighbors’ cratered sidewalk. The spot is small, but the three men are tinting and finishing it with the same care shown the larger patches over the laterals; later in the job they will fix Albert and Giacoma’s curb as well. They will do what the city would not — though neither was it their problem.

At 3:45 Pedro returns to put the last touches on my sidewalk. With a pointed trowel and whisk broom he cleans the smears and leavings from the edges of the old sidewalk where now they border the new. Next, he dips a soft, long-handled broom in a bucket of water. From the bucket he flings a few sprinkles of water, and he then commences gently to pull the broom across the concrete, drawing in the handle with a steady hand-over-hand. The direction of the broom’s travel across the sidewalk is from lawn to street, and it leaves behind a textured, finegrained surface that matches beautifully the existing sidewalk — the contract here is fulfilled.

Neighbors watch the work

Neighbors watch the work

Finally, he sweeps clean the surrounding sidewalk. Around his work he places a quartet of orange safety standards, then hoists bucket in hand, props broom on shoulder, and walks away. It is 4:00.

March 28 (Friday):

With the pouring of yesterday’s patches of sidewalk, and with the exception of capping the last few feet to the new manhole, the physical restoration of this portion of Maple Street is now complete. And so it is time to clean.

For this, Joaquin, Miguel, and Pedro are joined this morning by another longtime Ortiz employee, Paul Anguiano. Yesterday, Anguiano made a brave attempt to begin the cleaning alone. His specialty is the street sweeper — a retired municipal vehicle bought at auction; old and temperamental, painted a fading chartreuse and besplotched with rust. Because initially he couldn’t get the sweeper to start, he at first took to the street with a broom; then, after enough time had passed to permit a comparison of the length of the street with the pace of his progress, he retried the sweeper and finally got it going.

Anguiano cuts a dashing figure. He has a great, bushy pirate’s mustache, and long locks of graying black hair he ties in a ponytail. The sweeper has two steering wheels and when cleaning to the right Anguiano uses the right-hand wheel; this he holds with his left hand while he stands halfway in and halfway out the right-hand door, head outside and held high, left foot inside on the gas, right foot outside on the running board, right hand gripping the forward door pillar for support. All is reversed when he cleans to the left. Right or left, his ponytail whiffles behind as he makes his forward runs at high speed, brushes down and turning. In reverse, he drives just as fast, but with the brushes raised and stopped.

All this is picturesque. It is entertaining. I could watch it for hours. But the sweeper is as ineffectual as it is old, and behind it rise billowing contrails of dust. Despite its driver’s élan, the machine accomplishes nothing but a massive redistribution of dirt, much of which adds itself to the deepening layers inside our house.

Perhaps the sweeper is broken and this accounts for its poor performance. Perhaps Paul and Jesse have finally acknowledged the obvious. Or perhaps this morning it simply won’t start. But whatever the reason, the cleanup detail starts without it. They begin by going up and down the street attending to odds and ends — removing, for instance, the casually replaced squares of my lawn, spreading a layer of fill dirt, and refitting the pieces like tiles in a mosaic. For this I thank Pedro.

Next, they spread themselves in a phalanx across the width of the street, beginning at the Y and working my way. They work with brooms and shovels, scraping loose mud that has stuck to the pavement, sweeping the dirt into piles, and transferring these to the Bobcat. They work hard and they work well. But still there is dust, and fervently do I hope they will bring out the fire hose this afternoon and scour the road. Blast it clean and thoroughly.

But they don’t. Nor do they ever.

The reason, I later learn from Jesse, is a call from a misguided neighbor. Someone in the neighborhood — someone undoubtedly whose street has already been cleaned — has seen the stenciled signs on the storm drains noting there are dolphins downstream. They have seen that there are flows of mud when the streets are washed and that the mud flows to the storm drains. They have seen that not all the mud is trapped by the sandbag dams. They have seen the telephone number on the storm drain signs. And they have called. Called the city — the same city that let the contract for Sewer and Water Group 78, hired Ortiz, and stipulated in its contract that the contractor keep the streets clean; and from the city has now come an edict. Its form is a nasty letter to Jesse that says he must cease and desist all street washing. That or prepare himself for court.

Eventually, the city relents and again allows Jesse to wash the streets. But by then the job has moved on and we are forgotten. Never are we washed.

Rain, of course, would have washed the streets and carried its load to the storm drain whether the city or my vigilant neighbor liked it or not. But when Sewer and Water Group 78 came to Burlingame, San Diego had just begun the longest dry spell in its recorded history. Not for seven months would it rain.

April 1 (Tuesday):

Samir has been gone for several days now. He is due back today, however, and in honor of his return Jesse has a crew begin preparing for the test that will demonstrate the integrity of their pipe — and after which Ortiz can send the city a bill.

The test has been a subject of much recent conversation among the men and several are eager for me to see it. Variously, they have called it the Wayne ball test, the mandrel test, and the Wayne ball and mandrel test. No one knows exactly how to spell “mandrel” or where the Wayne ball got its name.

Mandrel I am assured by Allen Thomas, Executive Director of the National Association of Sewer Service Companies (NASSCO), is not spelled like the homophonically named bluefaced primate. Nor is there a double l on the end as I am told by a sales representative for a local pipe supply company. (The dictionary is not much help in the matter, for I can find none that describe a device like that to be put to use in our sewer.) The objects about which I am asking, says Thomas, are properly called test mandrels and are commonly used in the drilling of water and oil wells to ensure the straightness of long lengths of pipe and for which purpose they are available in a variety of sizes.

Ortiz’s mandrel is about a foot and a half long; it looks like a heavy-duty cylindrical steel cage, with a spindle through the center and cone-shaped ends fitted with rings to which a rope can be tied. The mandrel’s critical dimension, however, is its diameter; a fraction under eight inches. The internal diameter of the new sewer main is eight inches and if the mandrel can be passed through the pipe from manhole to manhole it means the intervening section of pipe is free of deformations. “It’s a simple test,” says Samir. “If the mandrel gets through, the pipe passes.”

The Wayne ball presents its own mystery. “It was named after its inventor,” says the supply company representative. “It was invented by a guy named Wayne.” But there’s a tone in his voice that inspires less than complete confidence, and an ensuing series of phone calls leads me higher and higher up the supply chain until I finally find myself on the phone with an executive of the Sidu Company, in Los Alamitos, California. Sidu is the maker and seller of Wayne balls; the company’s name, says the executive, is an amalgam of the words Sidney and Duke.

Sidney Preen, says my informant, was the inventor of the Wayne ball, which is a brand name for what is generically called a cleaning ball. Preen worked for the Long Beach sanitation department in the 1940s and he invented the cleaning ball out of necessity: Long Beach was so flat, and its sewer system had so little fall, that sediment would accumulate in the lines and the pipes would periodically become blocked. Preen sought to address the problem by developing a routine way of cleaning the sewer pipes. For this, he invented the cleaning ball, which can be pushed or pulled through a sewer pipe and carries before it any and all accumulated debris.

Like mandrels, Wayne balls are matched to pipe size. The balls (which are more ellipsoid than spherical) are made of heavy black rubber and inflate to size; Ortiz’s will fit a pipe 6 to 10 inches in diameter. Metal D-rings are fitted to either end of the ball, and raised spiral ribs cause it to spin when propelled. Most Wayne balls, says the man from Sidu, are between 4 and 12 inches in diameter, making Ortiz’s a midrange model. The company does make and stock balls up to 30 inches in diameter, but beyond that there’s not much call for the product because big pipes tend to be self-cleaning. There are exceptions, however, and the biggest Wayne ball ever made was a custom job seven feet in diameter.

The Duke in Sidu’s name is none other than The Duke — John Wayne. Preen was Wayne’s stepfather and after Preen invented the cleaning ball, Wayne put up the money to get him started in business. In thanks, Preen named his ball after him. Which means John Wayne is most likely the only person ever to have been honored /the naming after him of both an airport and a device for cleaning sewers.

Many of the guys on Sewer and Water Group 78 have a hard time believing this story when I tell it to them, but I swear to them it’s true. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.

The crew Jesse assembles to prepare for the test consists of Paul Anguiano, Rafael Morfin, and Genaro Tapia. Three sections of sewer main will be tested: one corresponding to each of the arms extending from the Laurel and Maple Street Y. Ours will be first, and the men begin by flushing the pipe.

“We’ll flush it out,” says Paul, “and it will be perfect.”

The flushing begins with the setting of a trap in the downstream manhole — in this case, the manhole at the Y. The trap consists of an L-shaped piece of pipe fitted on one end with a rubber collar. The collar is stuffed inside the mouth of the manhole’s egress pipe and once placed has the effect of preventing water from leaving the manhole until the water level has risen to the top of the trap. As the water rises, rocks and other sediment washed from inside the upstream pipe will settle in the bottom of the manhole, where they can be removed by hand. This preliminary cleaning, says Jesse, “makes it a lot easier- to do the Wayne ball.”

Once the trap is set, the men move upstream to the manhole near my house. Genaro climbs inside, and after him the other men drop in a fire hose, which Genaro feeds into the mouth of the pipe leading back to the Y. They turn on the fire hose and water begins blasting downstream.

As they would at the bottom of a slow-running pool in a mountain stream, mud and gravel soon begin accumulating in front of the trap. Eventually the buildup slows, and Genaro descends into the manhole and begins shovelling the collected lees into a five-gallon bucket lowered from above. Live sewage is flowing in the manhole as well as water from the fire hose, and when he is done Genaro climbs the ladder and sits for several minutes on the cast-iron rim of the hole, legs dangling, hands to the side and behind for support, his chest drawing great breaths of fresh air.

When he has recovered, Genaro and Rafael make ready the Wayne ball, placing it inside a short length of pipe and pumping it to size. They then tie the back of the ball to the end of a great spool of nylon rope and carry the assembly to the upstream manhole. From the street, they reposition the fire hose so it hangs loose in the manhole’s shaft, they restart the water flow, and into the rushing stream Rafael drops the Wayne ball and rope, paying out the yellow cord as if it were a handline with hook and bobber. And indeed, he once caught an alligator with this very setup.

“I was working the Wayne ball alone,” he says. “And there was a lot of dirt in the line, so I was working it slow.” He was upstream, and the procedure is to let the water push the ball a few feet, then pull it back. “Let the water push, then pull back. Slow, so you get everything cleaned out.”

There he was, standing on the street, tugging and letting go — tugging and letting go — his rope down the sewer, when a couple of kids came over to see what he was doing.

“‘What you got?’ they ask me.

“‘Alligator,’ I says.

“ ‘Oh!’ they says. ‘Oh!’ ” And, with his hands held wide, he shows me that their eyes were big as plates.

“Next day they see me again and they ask me, ‘You catch him?’

“‘Yeah,’ I says, ‘I catch him.’

“ ‘Oh!’they says. ‘Oh!’ ”

And his eyes twinkle at the memory.

Today, however, it’s doubtful he’ll have such luck. Instead, his hope now is that the gushing flow of water will carry the Wayne ball into the mouth of the pipe and thence downstream. But the clearance is tight, the ball shows no signs of entering the orifice anytime soon, and within a few minutes the men revise their plan.

Retrieving from their truck a small plastic bag, they improvise a balloon. To this they attach a second rope, then drop the rope-cum-balloon into the torrent of water and watch as both are swept into the pipe and begin floating downstream toward the manhole at the Y — there to be extracted by Anguiano. Having threaded the pipe, they tie the new rope to the front of the Wayne ball, which is now affixed on either end with more than 300 feet of rope and can be pulled directly through the pipe — or, if need be, worked back and forth like a shuttle.

At 11:30 Samir appears, ready for the test. Rather than make him wait, or perhaps because he himself wishes to wait no longer, Jesse orders a change in the rigging of the Wayne ball: he has the men temporarily untie the rear rope, then splice in the mandrel behind the ball. They will pull both through together.

At 11:50 Rafael lowers the entrained Wayne ball and mandrel into the upstream manhole. Downstream at the Y, Genaro stands on the street over the manhole and begins pulling on his end of the rope. Kneeling beside him, Jesse and Samir peer into the manhole, craning their heads inside for a better look. The resistance of the ball in the pipe appears considerable and Genaro pulls hard, drawing with both hands and bending his back to the work. Coils of yellow nylon pile on the road beside him.

Genaro strains harder and harder, until for a moment there is no movement at all—the rope appears snagged. To free it, Jesse first tries dropping a ladder into the manhole, routing the rope over the ladder’s bottom rung, then working the ladder like a giant lever, using the lip of the manhole as fulcrum.

After a few such maneuvers and making little progress, he says, “Maybe we’re pulling too many rocks through” — although the thought on everyone’s mind is that perhaps the mandrel is stuck and there’s a problem in the pipe. Tension builds.

Rethinking, Jesse sends Genaro down inside the manhole to get a straighter pull. There, Genaro resumes hauling, and now slowly the rope comes.

“Close?” asks Samir.

“Yes,” says Jesse. “It should be real close.”

Moments later rocks begin emerging from the end of the pipe. Genaro shovels the material into a bucket, which Jesse hauls to the top and dumps on the road, and at 12:07 the front of the Wayne ball appears at the end of the pipe. With a final tug, it and the mandrel come free — like a cork popped from a bottle.

Behind them comes a great gush of water, and Genaro at the bottom of the manhole hops quickly into his bucket as refuge from the flood. While waiting for the waters to drain, Jesse hauls the Wayne ball and mandrel up out of the manhole and tosses them unceremoniously on the pavement; Genaro then cleans the last of the rocks and debris from the manhole, and this too Jesse lifts out in the bucket. At 12:14 Genaro climbs from the manhole for the last time. He is greeted at the top by the sight of a rather considerable pile of dirt, gravel, and large pebbles — the fruit of his labor.

“I ought to save this,” says Jesse — laughing now — “for when the guys tell me they don’t knock no dirt into the laterals. This is what you call construction debris.” Because it is lunchtime, several men from elsewhere on the job have gathered around the manhole and among them is Breshears; glancing at the pile of rocks Jesse says to him, “So it was you who dug these laterals wasn’t it?”

“You’re not happy with me are you?” says Breshears, unsure whether he’s being ribbed or reprimanded.

“The guys I’m not happy with,” Jesse replies, “aren’t here no more.” And the foreman joins the operator for lunch.

Later, I ask Samir if he has ever seen a test fail. No, he says, never. “Although I’ve heard about it.” And later still, in another part of Burlingame, the test would fail — the mandrel would become stuck and have to be pulled out backward. There, the crew would have to reopen the trench and dig down to the newly laid sewer, where they would find the pipe compressed and made oblong from too much compaction pressure.

But today, on the street where I live, the pipe has passed the test. The city will buy it.

April 7 (Monday):

The plan today is to finish the last few pickup jobs on the stretch of Maple before my house — the sewer equivalent of dotting your is and crossing your f s. Foremost among these chores are capping the last bit of trench to and around the new manhole and deactivating the old, brick manhole that once served in its stead. These are relatively small tasks, and Jesse assigns to the job a three-man detail consisting of Mark Breshears, Greg Weber, and Don Gingrich. Around the corner, another crew is similarly occupied on the east-running portion of Maple.

The purpose of deactivating a manhole instead of simply abandoning it is to prevent the leaving of an empty space below the road which could eventually fill with water and collapse. It’s also important, says Gingrich, to discourage the potential future use of the manholes by anyone else. “You don’t want some company laying cable through the old sewer,” he says. Many of the old manholes in Burlingame occupied positions that were needed for new manholes, and these were therefore removed completely in the course of construction. But the angle taken by the old sewer around the dogleg in Maple was more obtuse than the new, so the two systems diverged as they made their turns, leaving the old manhole stranded in the middle of the street and connected now to nothing but two short runs of pipe going to and coming from nowhere — a Tin-kertoy hub attached to two lone connecting rods.

Engineering drawing for Sewer and Water Group 78

Engineering drawing for Sewer and Water Group 78

The decommissioning of the manhole actually began late last week when the pipes in and out were plugged with concrete, and the action resumes this morning when Weber climbs inside with a jackhammer. The fit is tight because the old, chimney-like manholes are considerably more confining than the new. But even so, Weber finds room to work and soon reduces the bottom few feet of walls to a heap of rubble. He climbs out, and onto the pile Breshears dumps gravel until the space is filled.

Additional tasks occupy the men, until finally Breshears trades his backhoe for the Vibra-Plate (looking, as he does so, a little displaced on the ground and out of the cockpit) and together the three men make ready the last of the trench for capping. They smooth and compact the dirt, clean the sawcut’s edges and environs, and lay flat their Mylar strip: CAUTION. . .CAUTION.. .CAUTION.... All soon is ready for concrete. But none arrives.

Down the street, trucks have been pouring throughout the morning and early afternoon. But not until midafternoon do the men there send a truck our way, and when it comes it is naught but a phantom and a tease. Chute down, the truck backs to the waiting trench and begins turning its drum, but all to emerge is a damp trickle and a muffled clatter. The motor races and the drum spins, but still there is nothing. The truck is empty. And it’s too late for another.

One more day the end will be postponed. Everyone, though, is impatient to finish and move on. And rather than undo the day’s work — rather than fill the holes they’ve cleaned and readied — they decide instead to cover them with steel. Nor do they even bother to bevel the plates’ edges with asphalt. And in the large, irregular area around the top of the manhole, they simply park two backhoes — leaving the road safe by virtue of occupying it.

Tomorrow the trucks will come. Tomorrow they will finish.

April 8 (Tuesday):

The men have moved on. They’ve taken their equipment— most of it — and begun a new excavation in a new part of Burlingame. The remnant of capping left from yesterday is but a small job, and not until late morning do Joaquin, Pedro, and a third man show up to prepare for the pour.

With the Bobcat they push aside the steel plates. They tidy the sawn edges of the pavement. They straighten the Mylar strip — time capsule for future excavators. They sprinkle the dirt. They sweep. They wait. And as they wait, they get themselves in trouble.

The principal area to be capped is the square in the road below which the space was dug for the new manhole. Originally eight feet on a side, the square has been nicked and dinged to the point of irregularity and forms now a great, jagged-edged basin. Within this basin the top of the manhole sits like an island protruding from an ocean of dirt. This exposed tip consists of three layered elements: the apex of the concrete cone perched atop the manhole’s subterranean stack, the concrete spacer ring, and the cast-iron lid and supporting frame—the only parts that will ultimately show.

The purpose of the spacer ring is to raise the manhole cover to the proper level, which in this case is supposed to be half an inch above street level (the half inch meant to allow for the possibility of future repaving). The spacer is five inches thick, but as Joaquin and his colleagues wait for the concrete truck they get to looking at the spacer, and after a while it begins to seem to them that the spacer is too thick. They push aside the cast-iron cover assembly, lift one edge of the concrete ring, roll it onto the pavement, lay it down, retrieve a hand sledge and chisel, and begin chiseling away at the ring’s underside.

After they have been whittling for a while in this fashion, an important-looking man from the Ortiz front office happens to drive by. I can tell he’s important because he’s in a new truck and talking on a cell phone. When he sees what’s happening, he stops the truck and leaps out to inspect. He paces. He barks; barks in Spanish. He jumps on a nearby backhoe. He drives to the chiseled ring, has the men chain it to the backhoe, lifts it back in place, then he does the same with the cast-iron frame.

He then springs from the backhoe and instructs the men to run a string across the basin from pavement edge to pavement edge. The string shows that the manhole is about an inch higher than the road, and in English he tells them harshly, “You’re trying to make it too perfect. An extra half inch is nothing.” There is plenty of road surface around the manhole, he notes, and “In ten feet you can feather that out with asphalt and it will make no difference. You’re working twice.” And with that he gets in his truck and drives away.

“He’s a bit touchy,” I say to Joaquin.

“Yes,” he says. “But you should see him when he’s in a bad mood.”

Perfect, goes the old saying, Is the enemy of good enough. My wife might even add that perfect is the enemy of anything at all, for around our house we have no end of needed repairs that I’ve postponed until the necessary combination of time, money, and know-how permits me to do them “right.” Many of these jobs could no doubt be usefully performed in a less-than-perfect manner, but for me just “making do” won’t do, and so I don’t. It’s a problem.

Still, in those for whom it exists, the impulse to strive for perfection is hard to resist. And once the man from the front office has gone, Joaquin and the other two remove the frame and spacer and make a last adjustment on the fit.

For reasons unknown, the concrete does not arrive until 4:00. For hours the three men sweep and pace, the work having moved away and they having little else they can do here. It is the first time I have seen any of the men from Sewer and Water Group 78 killing time. When the truck finally does arrive, the pour itself takes less than 20 minutes. By 5:30 the men have finished tamping, screeding, and rough floating the surface and are ready to go home. But the concrete is not dry. And because it is so late, they simply slide the steel plates back over their work for protection. These they top with warning standards And then they leave. It is 6:00.

Watching, my neighbor John tells me he has been told that tomorrow they will finally wash the street. “Then,” he says, “we will be free again.”

April 9 (Wednesday):

First thing this morning, two men from Sewer and Water Group 78 come to retrieve their blue outhouse. In tow, they take it a block away to San Marcos Street. Later in the day they come for the steel plates. .And with that, all that is vital to the work is gone.

The washing of which John spoke so hopefully does not happen. Jesse is still in the clutches of the city’s conflicted bureaucracy, and it is days before he is able to send so much as a water truck. But unlike the fire hose, the truck merely dampens the dust and does not remove it. And when the truck leaves and the street again dries, the clouds of dust are again given new life with every passing vehicle, and in their daily rebirth they prolong the cleanup inside our house.

For the dust has taken residence. On every surface it falls. On windows, on screens, and on window ledges; on books, on tables, and on vases; on my computer screen it falls. Falls unendingly. And everywhere it leaves a film, and in the film are trails and silhouettes as objects are moved and removed and fingers trace their tracks. In the kitchen and in the garage the grit gives a crunch and a slide to trips across the floor.

It takes weeks to rid ourselves of this blight. At times during this period I am put in mind of the fate of the mythical town of Macondo, whose citizens were consumed in a whirlwind of dust at the end of one hundred years of solitude. Other times, though, I am moved to think of the great circularity of which our cleanup becomes a part. For we wipe the dust from our house with rags we wash in our washing machine. There, the dust is transferred to the wash water, which is discharged down the drain and into the very sewer from whose birthing it rose.

Through the sewer, the dust will travel under the street before my house — Maple Street and from there to Laurel. From Laurel it will go to San Marcos, then to Burlingame Drive, and then down to Switzer Canyon, out of the million-year-old Lin da vista Formation and into the still-older sandstone of the San Diego Formation. In Switzer Canyon, says Charles Yackly, deputy director of the Metropolitan Wastewater Department’s Wastewater Collection Division, who one day met with me and drew from his shelves book after book of intricately detailed maps showing every sewer and man hole in the city, the 8-inch main from Burlingame joins those from the surrounding neighborhoods and runs into a 10-inch main that makes its way through the canyons of the golf course at Morley Field.

Downstream from the Navy hospital, that 10-inch main joins the 18-inch main from Powerhouse Canyon and the two merge into a 24-inch trunk line. That line crosses under Interstate 5 and heads south, skirting the edge of downtown and growing all the while. By the time it crosses Market Street the line is 39 inches in diameter, buried beneath Harbor Drive, it is four feet when it passes under the Coronado Bay Bridge, and five feet by the time it enters Pump Station Number 1, in the middle of the 32nd Street Naval Station.

All this way the dust will nave traveled downhill. It goes to the Navy base because that’s where San Diego’s first sewage treatment plant was built, in 1943. Before then, the city’s sewage flowed through nearly a score of pipes directly into the ocean and bay—untreated. But when the plant was built the collection system was consolidated, with the result that all the sewage in the city was directed to this one point. It was drawn by gravity and all the fall available was used to get it here; practically speaking, there is no more downhill from sea level.

Once you’ve directed a large quantity of sewage to a given low spot it’s pretty much going to keep going there. So when the city’s treatment facilities were moved in 1963 to the far side of Point Loma (peak elevation 428 feet), the old plant was replaced with PS1 — the engineers gave gravity a boost.

At the Pump Station, sewage that goes in headed south makes a 180-degree turn and comes out heading north, still under Harbor Drive. The pipe too emerges with a new name. Now it’s a force main — pressurized and christened the South Interceptor, a grand-sounding name for a pipe six feet across. The South Interceptor follows a course down town that parallels in reverse the path much of its contents took on the way south; at Island Street the Interceptor passes directly below the southbound pipe with contributions from Burlingame, the dust from my home having here traveled a great loop. Through downtown the Interceptor gains both girth and brawn —accommodated by a tunnel, it slices through one eight-block stretch diagonally, and elsewhere it passes in plain view through the basement of one of downtown’s toniest high-rises.

By the time the South Interceptor reaches Pump Station Number 2, just west of Lindbergh Field, the pipe has grown to nine feet in diameter. At PS2 the South Interceptor meets the North Interceptor, a similarly large pipe carrying effluent from the north of the city and com munities as far away as Del Mai and Poway From Pump Station Number 2 there emerge two 87-inch steel pipes; you can see them from Harbor Drive. The/re painted a pale aqua. Together says Yackly they constitute a “two-barrel force main.”

For historical reasons, the pipes from PS2 follow different routes to the Point Loma treatment plant. One continues overland, buried under streets, rounding the bay, then turning south toward La Playa. The other goes underwater, taking the plunge at Spanish Landing, swinging around the southern tip of Shelter Island, then coming ashore under the beach at the foot of Kellogg Street. Amidst the mil-lion-dollar-plus homes of La Playa, the barrels reconverge, head uphill, then enter a tunnel bored through the spine of Point Loma — bored, in part, through the Late Cretaceous shale and yellow sandstone of the Point Loma Formation, sedimentary rocks laid down about the same time the Natural History Museum’s nodosaur was walking early Carlsbad.

From the tunnel, the dust from my home will be carried a mile or so south along the sage-covered and windblown coast of Point Loma to the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Here, along with the sewage of 1.8 million people — 190 million gallons a day—it will be screened, digested, flocculated, and settled out. Eighty-five percent will be removed. (This is an important number, 85 percent. It’s the percentage of solid removal obtained from the more advanced, “secondary” treatment methods specified as necessary by the federal Clean Water Act. At one point San Diego was only removing 60 percent of its solids, and its refusal to institute secondary treatment was a major reason the EPA sued in 1988. San Diego argued that secondary treatment was unnecessary for a coastal city with a deep water discharge, and ultimately it received a waiver enabling the avoidance of a multi-billion-dollar facility upgrade. Nonetheless, under court pressure the city worked to refine its methods, and in 19% it achieved an 85 percent removal rate using aggressive primary treatment.) For now, the solids removed at Point Loma are piped to Fiesta Island as “sludge,” which is then dried and trucked to a landfill. Soon though, it will be sent to the new Metro Biosolids Center in Miramar, where it will be further digested, spin-dried, composted, and made available for return to Mother Earth as a commercial soil amender.

The 15 percent of my dust that escapes this fate will be piped 4 l/2 miles out to sea, a trip that will take it first through the city’s original 9-foot-diameter concrete outfall pipe and then through the 12-foot-diameter extension added in 1993 — an extension that made San Diego’s the longest such pipe in the world. This is the end of the line; here, the dust from my home will have journeyed some 22 miles through ever bigger mains, trunks, and interceptors before finally leaving the outfall pipe through vents in the big Y diffuser that spreads across the floor of the Pacific Ocean at a depth of 320 feet.

From the diffuser, much of the dust will be caught in ocean currents and diluted — rising in plumes and spread far and wide. Some of it though will settle into the mud, and probably not far away. With time, that mud will be buried by more mud, and with even more time it might become rock. It might, in the language of geologists, lithify. With more time still — lots more time — that rock, riding, as it would be, on the edge of the Pacific plate, might be driven downward as the earth’s crust slides one piece over the other and it might then liquefy to form magma — rising with time through volcanoes as yet unborn and making new rhyolitic stone, which might tumble down new rivers making new cobbles and new dust as the grand cycle repeats itself yet once again. By which time our new sewer will long be gone.

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