I Thought So - A Book of Epigrams

Qanats In America

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Qanats In America (work in progress)
Anything Is Possible (work in progress)
It's A War Out There! (work in progress)
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How To Start A Sleazy Plumbing Company (some hacker must have inserted this!)
Rudeness And Other Business Opportunities (work in progress)
Nobody Loves A Snitch, and Other Human Resources Management Matters (work in progress)
The Residential Theory Of Relativity (work in progress)
Prometheus Drenched (work in progress)
Death Of A Wholesaler
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“It is hard to interest those who have everything in those who have nothing.”
                                                              Helen Keller 

(This is from my work in progress, "Kitchen Sink Confidential")                                                    
 
                                              Qanats In America

I often think of a utility shaft in an old downtown office building. The access was a frightening iron ladder going straight up the wall for eight high-ceilinged stories. Over the years the shaft had been packed with flues, drains, water lines, fire sprinkler pipes, steam lines and electrical conduits. All put there by men who clung to that vertical ladder and somehow managed to handle wrenches and heavy lengths of pipe and to drill anchors into the concrete walls of the shaft. There is heroism in these hidden places. But the history of the people who do the hardest, most unpleasant and dangerous work is seldom written.

Who writes the history of the men who brought water from the mountains to the valleys of countries from China to Libya by digging thousands of wells connected by tunnels? Qanats have been dug for almost five thousand years. Thousand of miles of qanats are still the water sources for farmers from China to Tunisia. As you read this men are crawling though the tunnels cleaning and repairing them. Hundreds of thousands of them have died in these wells and tunnels. Archeologists and hydrologists have written books about the Qanats, but who memorializes the hundred and twenty generations of men who dug and still maintain 3,000 miles of tunnels in China?

A poet might write about, or a photographer photograph, high steel workers because they’re like acrobats in the circus -- this we can understand. But who writes about the sewer man crawling in stinking flowing sewage, twenty feet beneath your comfortable car, dodging rats and spiders, dragging a bucket of mortar to patch a hundred year old brick main? I can tell you that getting covered with other people’s shit is a humbling experience. But that when you’ve experienced it several times you become capable of washing up, enjoying a hearty lunch, and in my case, sitting in the van taking notes.

I like to think of myself as part of a four-thousand year history of manual skills, beginning with the first attempts to bring water to agricultural villages in Mesopotamia, China and elsewhere. Plumbing has often been called the world’s second oldest profession (and it can be even more dangerous and unpleasant than the oldest one).

Few books are written by those who have experienced the pain of trying to pull a long pipe wrench while lying on your back in a crawl space a few inches higher than your stomach, while rough concrete and gravel are digging into your back. Of suppressing the natural claustrophobia of being in such a place and imagining a fire breaking out or an earthquake causing the building to settle on you. Of having to crawl through spider webs where Black Widows are common. Of soldering in a crawl space and having molten solder run down your arm. But spending a few days or weeks working in an eighteen inch high crawl space is nothing compared to digging in an eighteen inch wide tunnel, for your entire working life.

Think of a man lying in a qanat tunnel about the width of your shoulders, chipping away at the hard rock with a crude iron mattock, pushing the chips behind him to be gathered and dragged out in a sack by his son, the sack then hauled up the well by a rope, and the contents added to a growing pile around the well. Imagine this tunnel extending for a mile or two, connected by more wells dug every few hundred feet, through the same rock. Now imagine this unimaginably hard and dangerous work being passed on, father to son, for a hundred generations, in clans and castes of workers who do nothing but this work, the men seldom surviving past middle-age. And that while cell phones and the internet may have reached the village, the work below continues in much the same way as it always has.

We regard it as a scandal that fifty to a hundred Americans die in coal mines every year due to lax enforcement of safety rules. In China the number is closer to 10,000. About one American a week dies in a trench that has not been properly shored. It happened to a young man working a few blocks from my business, and in a trench less than five feet deep. OSHA can impose a huge fine for not shoring a trench, but I can think of countless trenches I have seen, and worked in, that were not shored at all. I have seen hundreds of feet of trenches for a septic system, up to eight to ten feet deep and in loose soil, dug by a contractor who has never shored anything. I recently watched a contractor dig up the city sewer next door to our house, and pull a new house sewer through the old one (an amazing piece of new technology) and the plumber worked in a pit about ten feet deep with no shoring and no objections from the city inspector. The lives of men who work in trenches and tunnels are valued by insurance companies, but the value is not so high that paying out for an occasional death cuts seriously into their profits.

In the Tenderloin of San Francisco there is a hundred-year-old residential hotel in which the access to the roof is a vertical ladder that climbs the wall from the top landing of the fire escape below. As you climb this ladder you wonder how securely it is anchored into the loose mortar of the crumbling bricks. You imagine, or try not to imagine, the ladder pivoting you out, in slow motion, to a point eighty feet above the middle of the busy street below. Slowly enough for a cinematic  viewing of your life passing before your eyes.

Up on the roof it is getting windy and begins to rain. You finish the job and throw the tools back in the canvas tote bag and climb up onto the parapet. The ladder begins in a sort of double hoop over the clay tiles that cap the brick wall. And you look down to the street  -- ants are scurrying on the sidewalk and tiny honking cars are maneuvering. The landing on the fire escape, twenty feet below, looks like a postage stamp. You are going to climb down that slippery ladder holding a heavy bag of tools in one hand -- very focused, not looking down, not thinking about vertigo, not thinking about anything, until your foot touches the landing. And if you slip and fall, your history will be two lines in the morning edition of The Chronicle: “Worker falls to death from fire escape. Rush hour traffic on Pine Street delayed for half hour.”

A writer might use a cliché such as “like being punched in the face” as a metaphor for a vivid experience. But the writer who has actually been punched in the face would not use it, because being punched in the face is not like anything. The last time I was punched in the face was by a powerful drill with an extension handle, which I was using, with a large self-feeding drill bit, well up on an extension ladder. The bit caught on a hidden nail and the torque of the drill brought it around and delivered a heavyweight blow to my jaw. I could see it coming, a split-second ahead, but there was nowhere to dodge except into the air fifteen feet above the concrete floor. I was pretty sure that my jaw was broken, but my only thought was, hang on to the ladder!

About 5,000 Americans die each year in industrial accidents. About 1,000 of them are in the construction trades. Call it twenty a week. Think of it as four times a weekday. One every two hours.

One will be buried by the collapse of an unshored trench. Two will fall to their deaths (could have been me) from ladders. One might be electrocuted touching a 200 amp service with a wrench. Another repairing an underwater light in a swimming pool. Someone will be crushed by a bulldozer. Another will get his long hair caught in machinery. One might die from lack of oxygen or toxic fumes in a valve pit.

Somebody might be impaled by falling on rebar. Another killed by someone dropping a tool from high above. A construction elevator comes loose from a building. A tower crane is jacked up a story but not fastened properly.

A ten ton tilt-up slab of concrete falls over and squashes a young Mexican immigrant, father of two. He removed the wrong support. A woman in the office of the construction company cynically comments that the death benefit will leave the widow well-off, by the standards “of those people.”

Two plumbers were in a hole about six feet deep, replacing the valve for a fire hydrant. The valve came loose and the water main instantly filled the hole with swirling water, The force of the water was such that they were unable to climb out and both drowned.

A young man was working on a retaining wall on a steep hill in San Francisco. The earth collapsed and he was buried. Another worker tried to dig him out with the backhoe and cut him in half. It was a tossup as to what he died of.

After almost forty years, I can still conjure up a moment of fear in a hotel light well. I had to repair a pipe on the tenth floor. There was a wide beam crossing the light well and I climbed out of a bathroom window and lowered myself onto it. And my tape measure slipped off my belt and fell to the bottom. I watched it falling for a long time, and then bursting apart into a tangle of exploding spring. The height hadn’t scared me, because I was young and stupid, but the time it took the tape to fall made it real. If I slipped off the beam I would be falling for a long time. A long unpleasant time. Then there would be the exploding at the bottom of the shaft.

Hard work, for most people, has come to mean long hours at a computer, or frying burgers, pricing corporate bonds, driving a bus, sitting in meetings, selling insurance or shoes or cars, eight hours on a headset listening to complaints, decorating fingernails, streaking hair or shrinking heads, teaching first graders, processing payrolls, checking tax returns or stocking shelves in a Walmart. Tiring, boring, but not really hard, and certainly not dangerous or disgusting. And a world apart from eviscerating a pig a minute amid the stench and flashing knives of a freezing Nebraska slaughterhouse.

Or holding up a ninety pound jackhammer that is trying to bury itself in the concrete. The hard part of working a jackhammer is having to lift to keep it from getting stuck in what you are demolishing. If you let the point sink into the concrete or asphalt or rock it can be very hard to pull the tool back out. And it will exhaust you if it happens more than occasionally. People who work with these machines develop very strong shoulders -- but they also have bones in their hands that look like they’ve been chewed on by dogs.

We barely notice the crew of Spanish-speaking roofers tearing off a roof next door or the men with jackhammers who cause annoying narrowed lanes on our way to work. As we creep past them we might wonder for a moment what it would be like to hold a ninety pound jackhammer (like being shaken by God).  We’ve never met a logger or a fisherman or a slaughterer or a miner. We’ve probably never even met a farmer (except the ones who sell garden vegetables at the farmer’s market) -- farmers are only one percent of the population and they live in places we never go to.

Qanats in America? Are there still people doing unimaginably hard and dangerous work here? I recently read of the sorrow of a California rancher whose worker died in a twenty-foot deep valve pit. The man climbed down to operate a valve and passed out because there wasn’t enough oxygen at the bottom of the shaft to maintain consciousness. Others had to be restrained from trying to help him because many would-be rescuers have died under similar circumstances. The rancher himself had gone down into these pits himself many times.

But what is an accident? There are an average of 100 deaths a year in the U.S. from asphyxiation in confined spaces. Two a week. Are there national safety laws? There are laws regarding testing the air for toxic gasses and sufficient oxygen, supplying fresh air, a safety harness and a means of hoisting someone out who has lost consciousness. If you are an employee of a large utility company in a major city you are likely well-trained and equipped for entering confined spaces. If you are an agricultural worker, you have probably never even heard of these laws.

How many spaces are there in which a worker can be asphyxiated? They are almost countless. Valve pits wherever there is irrigation or many kinds of deeply buried pipes. Underground electrical vaults that are common in cities. Tens of thousands of large boilers that must be entered through small openings. Just the thought of it gives me claustrophobia. Millions of residential septic tanks. Manure pits on farms. Silos. Grease traps. Oil separators. Brick sewers. Industrial tanks holding every imaginable fluid or chemical.

Tanks, pipes, old sewers, pits, valves, separators, boilers, all must be cleaned and unjammed and repaired. Someone has to go inside them, not wearing their best clothes, and repair the broken tube, loosen the corn cob logjam, go into the sewage digester with an air house to break up the grease dam, replace the missing bricks, open or close or fix the valve in the pit.

Finally, a memory of scaling. Not the kind of scaling that describes a computer program that could run on anything from a laptop to a main frame. This kind of scaling involves twenty guys climbing slippery ladders forty feet down to the bottom of an oil tanker. Everyone has a hooked iron bar. You beat on the walls and the maze of pipes and girders which you are clambering about on. Rust fills the air and falls to the slimy oil and water residue at the bottom of the hull. Bales of rags are lowered down for us to soak up the oil and rust. The noise is deafening. The nice thing about scaling is that you were allowed to work sixteen straight hours. The second eight being overtime. The nasty thing about it was that a sleepy scaler might die from slipping off an oily pipe or girder or ladder. And you were covered in rust and oil. And you were deafened. And you were surrounded by exhausted and irritable men swinging iron bars. This was considered very desirable work during my San Francisco youth because it paid well.

I think of America as containing many nations of experience, and among these nations are two that are at polar opposites: those who do physically exhausting, dirty, dangerous or unhealthy work, and there are still millions of them. And those who have never done work like this, and can barely conceive of such lives. With very few exceptions, people who write books belong to the second camp. Although I went on to an easier life, I still have the body and mind of a man who has learned a trade, worked at heights and in depths, dug ditches, held up a jackhammer, and gotten close to comfortable spending weeks running pipes in a crawl space. So I feel licensed to write about these matters in a modest attempt to convey something of such a life, in the context of hundreds of generations of such lives.