“It is hard to interest those who have everything in those who have nothing.”
(This is from my work in progress, "Kitchen
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.