Actually, this post has absolutely nothing to do with MJ or his landmark birthday. It just happened to make for a catchy title as of writing this, my 50th, blog post.
This is about a job I once held, one summer in New Orleans.
“Summer in New Orleans”, of course, conjures up the requisite images of sultry heat and oppressive humidity and fetid air.
Well, this job experience gave new meaning to the word fetid.
My title was Sewage Plant Operator I. The “I” meant rookie. It’s not good being a Sewage Plant Operator. It’s far worse being Sewage Plant Operator Rookie. You get dumped on. In this case…quite literally. To me, it boggles the mind that anyone would deign to establish any amount of longevity at such a place as to earn a “II” or “III” after their title. A “career” in this line of work seems unfathomable.
The sewage operation itself was a technological marvel of simplicity. It takes in, through giant pipes, raw sewage. (I hope I don’t have to explain where this raw sewage comes from, do I?) From there, this thick black elixir goes into giant circular basins, where an enormous “arm” slowly circulates in the basin to separate solids (which slowly but surely sink to the bottom thanks to the arm’s motion) from liquids. During this separation process and beyond, the color never changes. Black it is, black it stays. Black as the ace of spades. Black as death. Black black black.
From there, the “cured” solids are extracted and spread out over the ground on fields where it soaks in and eventually serves as an amazing richening agent to the soil. It’s all quite organic, I’m told. Something else happens here as well, which I’ll get to in a minute.
While the solids are doing their magic, the liquids are then treated and become drinking water. Just kidding. Gave you a start, didn’t I?! Perish the thought…and perish the person who would drink such a brew.
I actually don’t remember exactly how the liquids are finally treated. But I do remember, vividly, poignantly, painfully, a specific spot along their travels to their final destination.
That spot is a pump room, about 15 feet by 15 feet, a concrete-walled room in which a 12-inch-diameter pipe enters, travels through a pump apparatus, and then exits to the next stage of the operation. I recall this area was meant to trap anything thicker than liquid, so the works won’t get gummed up.
This room, I found out later, is also called the Rookie Baptism Room.
I was told that the pipes in the Pump Room had a clog, and I had to go in and undo the clog. The boss made it sound simple and perfunctory enough, although I fully expected it to get a little “dirty” in there. That’s why my fellow plant operators showed me how to don full protective gear: rubber pants, rubber jacket, rubber shoe-covers, thick rubber gloves. Well, not exactly “full” — I didn’t have any protective covering over my face and head. This would prove fateful.
So that simple-enough-sounding task was to go into the pump room, take hold of a T valve on the top of the pipe, and then turn the valve so the cover that the T valve holds in place could be removed, at which point I could then extricate the offending material inside.
I never got to the extricating part.
The millisecond the T valve was turned enough to release the pressure inside the pipe, the entire room exploded with shit. Literally. The pressure was such that all that was inside the pipes in that room became one with everything in the room outside the pipes. I was outside the pipes. I became one with the shit.
This is where the lack of headgear became critical.
It’s natural at a moment of great surprise to open one’s mouth. Big mistake. Fortunately, it’s also natural to blink. Big help. At least my eyeballs were not “christened” along with my mouth, face, hair, ears, nose and neck.
As I said, I never got to the actual extrication of the offending material because I was instinctively compelled to vacate the Pump Room in a hurry, nearly tripping over the assembled crew members lurking just outside the door of the pump room, laughing hysterically at me.
The shower lasted a good 20 minutes. I scrubbed til I nearly bled. For hours and maybe days afterward the fetid smell never left my nostrils, either actually, or phantomly.
In that one instant, I passed my rookie test. But I left the employ of the Jefferson Parish Sewage Treatment Facility just three weeks later. That’s because about two weeks later, I had three wisdom teeth taken out. It seemed like a walk in the park compared to the previous sufferings I had endured. I was prescribed pain medication, and it made me so nauseous that I missed a few days of work, and then proved to be semi-worthless even when I was at work. I honestly can’t remember whether I quit before they could fire me, or got fired before I could quit. In any case, that chapter of my life and employment history was over.
A quick postscript: Remember that field I mentioned where the treated sewage solids were spread? During my orientation, a co-worker toured me around the facility, and when we got to the field and I listened to him explain that stage of the plant’s operation, I couldn’t help but note this amazing, perfectly uniform growth of identical-looking small plants covering the entire expansive field.
He explained to me a basic fact of nature: Tomato seeds don’t digest in the human digestive system.
So the seeds had survived the intestines of the contributors and the sewage plant operations on their way to this field of nightmares.
The vision of that field haunts me to this day.