Mark Hemingway, muckraker.
May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
Any journalist who has ever said anything worth saying—or in my case, more than a few things they regret—is all too familiar with hate mail.
Years ago, someone hurled a rather bizarre insult into my inbox: “Why I bet you’ve never had calluses on your hands in your life!” I’m happy to report my hands are blissfully callus-free at the moment. Believe me, I’ve had much more unpleasant jobs.
One summer in college I worked at a port-a-potty place. I took the job because I was told I would not be dealing with the, uh, business end of portable toilets. The job was assembling new (read: unused) port-a-potties.
I took large pieces of flat-packed, injection-molded plastic and pieced them together with an air compressor and a rivet gun. (It was vaguely like assembling Ikea furniture.) When each toilet was complete, I would attach a vinyl sign advertising the company’s phone number and slogan: “We’re #1 and #2!”
Toward the end of the summer, there was a sudden crescendo of demand for the mobile waste management business. A county fair, the big annual rodeo one town over, and the music festival downtown all coincided—and then the mountains started billowing smoke. The county I’m from in Oregon is bigger than Delaware, and it’s mostly National Forest. Depending on the weather, it can take weeks to put out a forest fire. Firefighters streamed in from all corners of the state.
I did my cushy job and marveled that everyone around me was working 70-hour weeks. I felt especially bad for the poor guys who drove the trucks with the suction hoses that cleaned the waste out of the toilets. Those guys were as filthy as they were exhausted at the end of the day.
The company was taking new toilets out into the field as fast as I could build them. Curiously, the owner of the business had also invested in some brand new products. I assembled giant handicapped-accessible toilets. I also made about 10 portable toilets that had sinks built in—you pumped the water with a foot pedal.
I wasn’t done assembling the toilets with sinks when the owner asked if he could put them to use. The wastebaskets I was supposed to rivet into the sides hadn’t arrived yet, but that hardly seemed essential. So I said sure, go ahead and take them.
It was my last day on the job, when the owner came to talk to me. I was only working half the day. My friends and I were scheduled to hop into an old Volvo station wagon that afternoon and drive from Oregon to Mexico and back—but that’s another story.
The owner asked if I’d noticed the flatbed trailer filled with toilets in the lot out back. They were impossible to miss. They’d been brought in from the rodeo a few days before and just sat there in the August sun. You could smell them from an impressive distance.
The owner explained to me that these were the toilets with the new sinks. It seems that for the four days they’d been in use, people had been washing their hands in the sinks and drying them off with paper towels from the dispensers I had lovingly installed.
Except without the wastebaskets, people quite naturally thought to throw the paper towels in the bottom of the toilets. But unlike toilet paper, which breaks apart in the water and chemicals in the toilet tank, the paper towels were clogging the suction hoses.
“Those toilets have got to be cleaned out somehow,” the owner said, looking at me unusually intently. “You know how busy we are, and I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t have to. I know it’s your last day, and you can say no.”
I honestly had no idea what he was asking me to do until I realized he was holding a pair of elbow-length rubber gloves and pointing at a box of trash bags.
I thought for a moment about how hard this guy and his entire staff had worked that summer. He’d also paid me $15 an hour for a relatively easy job.
I snatched the gloves out of his hand and never looked back. When I was done I didn’t have time to drive home and shower, but I grabbed a bar of lava soap off the grimy warehouse sink and took about two layers of skin off my upper body.
So, belatedly to answer my angry correspondent, no I don’t have calluses on my hands, but I’m acutely aware that my job could be much worse.
And as it turns out, spending a few hours sifting through piles of human excrement that have been stewing in the summer sun for days is pretty good training for a career in journalism.
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