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					volume 27/                                                                                                  M arch 12, 1998
num ber 10

                                         SAN DIEGO WEEKLY

                                                                                                   PART ONE OF TWO

                                                                                                         or several months last

                                                                                                 F       year, they tore up the

                                                                                                 streets in my neighborhood,

                                                                                                 installing a new sewer. I watched

                                                                                                 this closely, for I had taken—

                                                                                                 have still—a deep interest in

                                                                                                 repairs. Repairs, it seems, had

                                                                                                 taken over my life. Cars, house,

                                                                                                 appliances, personal relations,

                                                                                                 and more. All had been falling

                                                                                                 apart around me, and amidst the

                                                                                                 ruins I had decided that a person's

                                                                                                 attitude toward repairs says a lot

                                                                                                 about his view of life.

                                                                                                    Strictly speaking, the sewer

                                                                                                 job was not at its outset a

                                                                                                 repair—the sewer wasn't yet

Jesse Garcia and coworker compact                           Photography by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.   broken when the work began, not
soil over new sewer lateral
                                                                                                 like the 300 miles of pipe that

                                                                                                 cracked    in   the   Northridge

                                                                                                 earthquake. Not like the Atlanta

Diary of a Sewer Repair                                                                          trunk line that collapsed without

                                                                                                 warning in 1993 after a heavy

                                                                                                 rain, opening a 200-foot-wide,

The Coming to Burlingame of Sewer                                                                50-foot-deep hole that swallowed

                                                                                                 a hotel parking lot and two hotel

and Water Group 78                                                                               employees—immigrants, said the

                                                                                                 newspaper, who had come to

                                                                                                 America “ seeking a better life.”
                                    by Steven L. Shepherd
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                Steven L. Shepherd

All the same, I watched. Confident that      problem nationwide, and the EPA has           water to form sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid
as events unfolded things would break,       recently estimated that fixing the            is highly corrosive and readily attacks
repairs would be needed. Moreover, the       situation will require more than $32          concrete; the result is ever-thinning pipe
whole project was undertaken for the         billion worth of work on the country’s        walls and a steadily increasing chance of
very purpose of avoiding unexpected,         aging sewer pipes. (This on top of            breakage and collapse. Recognizing this,
urgent— and that is to say, expensive—       another $107 billion needed for our           the city began replacing its concrete
repairs in the future.                       treatment plants and other sewage             sewer mains in the 1960s. Only 160
    We in our neighborhood were              infrastructure.)                              miles are left, but even so, a dispro-
granted a glimpse of such a future in            Mightily did they fight, the EPA and      portionate share of the city’s remaining
May of 1990, when a portion of the local     the city. And though ultimately the city      problem with sewage spills occurs in
concrete main collapsed and a milky          pulled an end-around, went to Congress,       these 160 miles. Because of this, part of
white freshet began bubbling from a          and received an waiver from the letter-       the EPA settlement requires San Diego
manhole in the middle of the street. The     of-the-law requirements of the Clean          to replace its remaining concrete pipes
sewage flowed forth, spread over the         Water Act, still the parties spent eight      in the near future, and specifically to
pavement, and disappeared into a nearby      years in court, during which time it was      replace 60 miles over the next four
storm drain— this before the city            decided that while San Diego might not        years.
stenciled its warnings on the curb           need to upgrade its sewage treatment              Of those 60 miles, two are in my
admonishing residents against the            facility in the manner originally request-    neighborhood. Located just to the east of
dumping of pollutants and alerting us all    ed, it did need to do a whole lot of other    Balboa Park and the golf course,
to the existence of dolphins downstream.     things— $1.8 billion worth of other           Burlingame was one of San Diego’s
    Emergency repairs were undertaken,       things.                                       earliest subdivisions. The streets were
and in the months that followed city             In March of 1991, midway through          graded with teams of mules and paved
crews implemented a more permanent           the case, U.S. District Judge Rudi Brew-      originally with decomposed granite; the
fix, replacing six manholes and some         ster fined the city $3 million for its        first house was built in 1912. Today
300 yards of sewer main. I was not           history of sewage spills. Furthermore, he     there are 188 houses, with architectural
directly affected by this— the work took     insisted that San Diego attend to its         styles ranging from Craftsman to Mis-
place a block from my house and mostly       much-neglected sewer pipes. Money was         sion to Nondescript Stucco (e.g., my
out of sight— but still I remember it as     budgeted (part of that $1.8 billion), and     house). The lots are small, the blocks
lasting forever. There were lots of big      there then began a flowering of sewer         compact and irregular. There are palm
shiny trucks, lots of guys spending lots     repair and rep lacem ent projects             trees in the parkways (as there should be
of time standing around, lots of dirt in     throughout the city.                          in San Diego). And I and my neighbors
piles that seemed never to move, and             One such project is Sewer and Water       are sometimes a little snobbish about the
lots of deep holes filled with sewage        Replacement Group Job 78. In addition         pink sidewalks that distinguish our
coursing around the ankles of men            to its 45,000 manholes, San Diego is          neighborhood from those around us.
performing the most god-awful of jobs.       home to 700 miles of sewer trunk lines            Nearly three dozen houses were built
    Memorable though it was for those        (pipes 15 inches in diameter and larger)      in Burlingame the first year. Even so,
of us who lived nearby, the spill that       and 1800 miles of 6- to 14-inch “mains,”      and for reasons unknown, the original
precipitated this effort was by no means     to which in turn are connected the            sewers were only temporary. Not until
unique. In 1988, the federal Environ-        quarter of a million laterals that provide    1924 was a permanent system installed:
mental Protection Agency took the city       sewer service to the city’s homes and         it consisted of 6-inch mains and 4-inch
of San Diego to court over a catalog of      buildings. Since roughly the mid-’60s         laterals; in some cases two houses
sewage-related issues and offenses.          the most commonly used material for the       shared a lateral and in a few places
Foremost among these was a disagree-         city’s sewer pipes has been polyvinyl         mains were run down alleys and between
ment over the level of treatment needed      chloride, or PVC— it’s cheap, somewhat        property lines— consistency then being
by the city’s sewage (with the EPA           flexible, and resistant to corrosion.         less a concern than now. The material
insisting that San Diego— like the rest of   Before that, the pipe of choice was           was concrete pipe in 4-foot lengths. This
the country— had to conform to the           vitrified clay (good stuff, but expensive).   is the stuff that had collapsed in M ay
requirements of the Clean Water Act,         And before that, concrete.                    1990, the stuff city crews bypassed in
and San Diego arguing instead that the           The heyday of concrete sewer pipe in      the ensuing months, and the stuff Sewer
req uirem ents were un n ec e ssarily        San Diego lasted from the 1890s, when         and Water Group Job 78 would replace.
stringent and financially wasteful for a     the city was first sewed, to the late ’30s.       The contract called for the
coastal city with a deep-ocean discharge     The primary virtue of concrete is that it’s   replacement of 11,000 feet of main and
pipe), but the list included as well a       cheap. But its primary disadvantage is a      its associated laterals. Some of the
record of several thousand sewage spills     tendency to fall apart, for which the         specified work extended beyond
over the immediately preceding years.        reason is chemistry: sewer gas contains       Burlingame, and in these areas the water
Bad though this sounds, spills are a         hydrogen sulfide, which reacts with           lines would be replaced as well. Total

                                                          Part One, Page 2
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                Steven L. Shepherd

cost: $2.1 million.                         remains are the twin rows of thick-            house.
                                            trunked date palms that once flanked the          King’s first flood occurred on New
                                            driveway, a ferral stand of eucalyptus,        Year’s Day. He and his wife awoke from
                                            some pepper trees, and seasonal weeds          a night of revelry to find the floors of
                                            and greenery.                                  their house “awash in a brown, runny
                                                There are also several manholes.           substance. It looked almost like mud.” It
                                            Indeed, there have been sewage spills          had rained that night, and “Sometime
                                            here as well, with the sewage rising from      before dawn, the gunk began to splash
                                            the manholes and spilling into the mostly      out of the shower and tub and gurgle
                                            dry streambed, leaving in its wake the         from the toilets. It swept across the
                                            rocks and boulders of the canyon floor         floors, a customized indoor flood that
                                            flecked with bits of paper. And here, at       crested at four inches.”
                                            the confluence of the concrete main               The rains have been biblical. “And
                                            from Burlingame with the rest of the           with each new storm,” says King, “has
                                            city’s collection system, is where they        come another attack from the sewer.”
                                            begin— excavating today with backhoes          His 5-year-old son has become sensiti-
                                            around the manholes.                           zed to toilet sounds, and King himself
                                                Later, the workmen tell me this is         has become chummy with the county
                                            how all sewer work begins: at the              clean-up workers. “Remember,” they tell
January 31, 1997 (Friday):                  deepest point. “You always lay sewer           him, “80 percent of this stuff is just
                                            uphill,” says one. You start, as it were, at   water.”
    Vaguely, we knew it was coming.         the river’s mouth, working your way               He’s on less friendly terms with the
There had been notices in the               always upstream and exploring fully            insurance adjusters, who seem to be of
neighborhood            newsletter,         each tributary as you come to it, until        the opinion that boiling water, bleach,
an no un ce m en ts a t h o m eo w ne rs’   finally you reach the headwaters. Sewer        and a little deodorizer will cure King’s
meetings, and talk among neighbors. But     lines, except in rare instances, are laid      problems. It’s nothing, they seem to
today the first tangible signs arrive:      on a slope and gravity fed, and working        suggest, but a minor inconvenience.
fleets of trucks and a hand-delivered       uphill prevents dirt and construction
flyer on our door. One page is from the     debris from falling inside the open pipe.      February 4 (Tuesday):
construction comp any— the O rtiz               All day I can hear this activity as the        I work out of my home, in an office
Corporation, headquartered out of Chula     drone of equipment wafts from the              in a front room with windows on the
Vista— and the other is from the city       canyon. Elsewhere, a worker walks the          street. I ponder, I doodle, I gaze, I
engineer who will oversee the project.      pavement of Burlingame Drive and               fidget. I write. But always, quiet is an
Ortiz tells us the project is expected to   paints colored squigglies— a blue W in         asset. Quiet helps.
last eight months; the engineer, that       the middle of a two-headed arrow                   And so it is that I have been thinking
“Temporary inconveniences are likely to     indicating a buried water line, a yellow       about earplugs. I have earplugs, foam
occur.”                                     G for gas. Toward the canyon, street           inserts that I use under duress (as when
                                            barricades are placed, and the curbs           escorting my 13-year-old to a concert).
February 3 (Monday):                        farther up are dense with displaced cars.      But I have been thinking that perhaps I’ll
    Our house sits inside a dogleg curve    W here, I wonder, will we park when it’s       soon begin needing them routinely. I
on Maple Street; the view out our           our turn?                                      dislike this idea— needing earplugs in
bedroom window is of the end of                 Perhaps this is one of the “temporary      my own home in my own normally quite
Burlingame Drive, where it butts into       inconveniences” of which the engineer          neighborhood— but this may be what’s
Maple and forms a three-way intersec-       spoke. But I fear worse. It has rained         required if I am to maintain any
tion. From this intersection, Burlingame    heavily in N orthern California this           semblance of productivity in the coming
Drive drops gradually towards a             month, and there have been floods. Last        months.
crossing with San M arcos Street, and       week, newspaper essayist Peter King                Indeed, I have a neighbor who is
from there it dives steeply into Switzer    wrote of the havoc visited upon him at         both a police officer and the owner of a
Canyon. Here the road is little but a       his home in Orinda, east of the Berkeley       fabulously-equipped woodworking shop
maintenance lane to the canyon and is       Hills. The storm drains there (unlike          in his garage. Recently he gave me a
paved only in the most rudimentary          those in San Diego) empty into the             tour of the latter, and among the myriad
sense. Once there was a house in the        sewers and the deluge has at times             tools on the wall I spied a pair of ear
bottom of the canyon at the end of          overwhelmed the system’s capacity. The         protectors— the big bulky kind that look
Burlingame Drive, but years ago the city    result has been spillage at low points in      like ear muffs. They are, he said, the
bought the house and razed it, leaving      the system— points like houses at the          same type he wears at the shooting
the area as open space. All that now        bottom of a hill, points like King’s           range.

                                                         Part One, Page 3
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                              Steven L. Shepherd

    And how well do they work? I asked.      the equipment operators start excavat-       of sewer pipe. But Ortiz is using the
    Well, he said, they’re the same thing    ing. Later they tell me the technical term   video to help it pinpoint the location
used by Navy gun crews. And though he        for this sort of exploration is              under of the junction of each house’s
hadn’t tried it, he supposed that if you     “potholing.”                                 lateral with the main. Data from the
used both ear protectors and earplugs,                                                    recordings will be used to supplement
“It would be good-bye world.”                February 13 (Thursday):                      the pages of maps and plans that govern
    Certainly there’s a touch of the            The backhoes and excavators               every detail of the project and to add to
ridiculous in the image of a man wearing     continue their climb out of the canyon,      the street a new set of squigglies: large
earmuffs and earplugs in his front study.    and as they progress I catch sight of a      white S’s run through with a single-
And it’s unfortunate to have to say          Roto-Rooter van parked next to the           headed arrow and looking almost like
“Good-bye world” in order simply to          manhole at the top of the road— the very     dollar signs.
stay engaged with it. But such have been     manhole toward which the crew is now             The tapes will also be reviewed by
my recent thoughts.                          working. This seems at first an unlikely     Jesse Garcia, Ortiz’s construction
    They have been triggered today by        coincidence, and I think that perhaps        foreman, who tells me later that he
the sounds of jackhammers rising from        something has gone awry. But soon the        watched them on his VCR at home.
the canyon. And though not yet close         van appears at the manhole in front of       There (and perhaps with his feet up and
enough to be annoying, neither are they      my house and soon thereafter at every        while sipping a beer) he was looking at
unaccompanied. Near and far, dump            manhole up and down the street. Its          Burlingame’s innards when his wife
trucks have begun rumbling, racing at        crew, I discover, is videotaping the old     came in unexpectedly and caught him.
times past my window, and elsewhere          sewer lines. Like a doctor scoping a             “W hat,” she screeched, “are you
screeching to a stop with a hiss and         patient’s bowels before surgery, they are    watching?!!”
release of air brakes and the squeal of a    sending a remote-controlled camera
skewered rhinoceros. Adding to the           through the pipes, imaging the sewer.        February 28 (Friday):
chorus are small gasoline motors—                                                             Over the past two weeks the work
pumps, I imagine— and the insistent                                                       has been concentrated on Burlingame
screaming of a concrete saw.                                                              Drive. After the street was surveyed and
    Also new today are detour signs, a                                                    squigglied, the sawman cut pairs of
construction trailer parked at the top of                                                 parallel lines through the pavement,
the canyon, and a blue fiberglass porta-                                                  demarcating first the long trenchline
potty— on wheels.                                                                         down the middle of the road for the new
                                                                                          main and then those for the branching
February 7 (Friday):                                                                      laterals to each house. In his wake, the
     The concrete saw has emerged from                                                    main was excavated, laid, connected
the canyon today and begun working its                                                    temporarily to the old laterals,
way up Burlingame Drive— working its                                                      recovered, and temporarily asphalted
way in the general direction of my                                                        over; it’s a short street, and all this
house. For the first time, then, I spend                                                  digging and filling took but a day.
the day wearing earplugs. They help, but                                                      The crew next worked on the laterals.
I’ve not yet coupled them with external                                                   For each house they excavated the
ear protectors and by no means has it                                                     trench to the property line (just inside
been “Good-bye world”— for the saw is                                                     the sidewalk) and demolished the old
piercing. Moreover, it has competition:                                                   pipe in the process; they laid new pipe,
for the boys at nearby St. Augustine’s                                                    connected the new lateral to the new
are having a party and live punk music                                                    main, and reconnected the house. The
fills the air whenever there is a lapse in                                                trenches were filled and the road
the sawing and the merest threat of          Worker (foreground) “potholing” for sewer    patched with concrete. The street was
silence.                                     lateral                                      done. It all went fast and flawlessly.
     Other firsts today include the                                                           Except that today I learn there is a
appearance of great heaps of gravel and                                                   problem.
asphalt near the construction trailer, and       The video inspection of sewer lines          At the very top of Burlingame Drive,
the sighting of two men up to their necks    is a routine maintenance operation of        across the street and cater-corner from
in a hole on Burlingame Drive. The two       many large wastewater agencies, and the      our bedroom window, a house is
are an advance scouting party and they       city of San Diego has its own video          threatening to fill with sewage. Indeed,
have dug their hole by hand, their           inspection capabilities. It even maintains   the home’s drainage has been growing
purpose being to find a particular pipe      a tape library of its more noteworthy        steadily worse since the new main was
so it’s not accidentally ripped out when     findings— miles of video tape of miles       laid, and today it seems at a threshold.

                                                         Part One, Page 4
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                 Steven L. Shepherd

    “I was afraid to take a shower,” says          Guided by the video data, one of the     marks a professional— that being
a woman who lives in the house. “Afraid       men now breaks open the sidewalk 20           impossible— but the prompt and willing
it would come bubbling up.”                   feet uphill from the false connection. He     redress of honest error.
    W hat “it” was, she didn’t need to        potholes down a few feet, finds the
say. I had imagination enough, but I had      previously ignored old first lateral,                           ***
visions as well of the mess in Peter          disconnects it . . . and jumps out of the
King’s house now recurring virtually          way as the hole fills immediately with        Beyond the discovery that Burlingame
under my nose.                                frothy sewage—part of the accumulation        has odd plumbing, I learn something
    Already my neighbors have hired a         that threatened to come “gurgling out.”       more today. I learn that we have on
private plumber, who sent his snake on             It is at this moment that one of the     Sewer and Water Group 78 an
reconnaissance and found neither tree         home’s occupants chooses to wander out        archeologist and a paleontologist. They
roots nor internal blockage— and              for a look. Clearly, the problem has now      wear hard hats and carry shovels, but it
thereby verified that the source of the       been diagnosed— the woman’s house is          seems their job is mostly to watch. They
trouble was downstream from the house.        still connected to the old sewer, which       watch the excavation and repair of my
And now the problem has been turned           itself has been disconnected farther          neighbors’ misconnected sewer, and
over to Ortiz, whose first step is to         down the road— but it is not yet obvious      when the backhoe moves on, so too do
discover its cause, and to which end a        when it is going to be fixed. The             they. They are looking, they say, for
pair of workmen begin the morning by          homeowner’s nightmare, of course, is          artifacts and fossils, and wherever the
reexcavating the connection between the       the contractor who comes in, takes out a      machines go, they go— by contract and
new sewer and the line from the house.        few walls or a kitchen then disappears.       by law.
    They dig for a while, and when            And thinking that perhaps this is to be           The California Environmental Quali-
finally they expose and uncouple the          her fate— that it might now be days more      ty Act requires that most construction
connection . . . nothing comes out.           before the situation is rectified— and        projects be evaluated during planning to
Nothing drains from the supposedly            noting the exposed sewage and sewer           determine their potential for yielding
backed up and almost overflowing line.        line under the very sidewalk in front of      fossils or buried artifacts (which can
W hich is a puzzle. For it means the new      her house, she observes that, “Now            range from prehistoric arrowheads to old
sewer has been connected to some line         things are getting personal.”                 tin cans). The city keeps extensive maps
other than that from the besieged house,           Certainly, having your bodily            for this purpose, and if a site is thought
and that the house full of sewage has in      discharge— its frequency, timing, and so      to have potential for such a find the
turn been bypassed. And it raises too the     forth— on pub lic d isplay wo uld             permits and contracts will require
question: W here is the true line from the    constitute a unique form of embarras-         professional monitoring and the taking
house?— the hookup to the old sewer?          sment, and one ardently to be avoided.        of appropriate m easures during
    Because our original sewer was laid       But fortunately, my neighbors are not to      construction to document and preserve
more than 70 years ago, it has more than      suffer it. Almost immediately, the white      any important finds.
its share of quirks and oddities. Among       Ortiz van with the concrete saw appears.          People love to badmouth the cost and
these is a paucity of manholes. The           The pavement is cut, and the whole            “redtape” generated by laws of this kind.
sewer main into which my neighbors’           sequence of trenching and laying. By          But the result, says Tom Deméré,
house drains begins at the top of a           nightfall the trench is backfilled and the    Curator of Paleontology at the San
hill— theirs is the first house to empty      scar in the road is covered with              Diego Natural H istory Museum, has
into it. Normally, such a point of origin     temporary asphalt; my neighbors are           been “a tremendous opportunity to col-
would have been punctuated with a             hooked up and their toilets work— again.      lect and protect resources that would
manhole so the line could be accessed              M y neighbor woke this morning           otherwise have been totally destroyed.”
for service. But there was no manhole;        angry and frustrated. Her problem had         The M useum now counts within its
instead, the video camera had shown two       been building for days and she’d had          collection thousands of items gleaned
laterals coming in from the vicinity of       trouble at first getting someone to listen.   from local construction sites, and more
the beleaguered house: one from the           The city first told her she needed a          are added each year.
middle of the frontage and the other          private plumber to then contact the city          Among the more notable of these
from farther down, near the edge of the       to contact Ortiz. But once started, the       finds are the fossilized remains of a 75-
property line. Given the lack of an initial   repair could not have been completed          million-year-old nodosaur excavated in
manhole, Ortiz’s men had assumed that         humanly faster. And as she watches, she       May 1987 from a sewer trench in
the first, uppermost, lateral was for         grows visibly calm. After all, she says,      Carlsbad. Although the armor-plated
service and the second was for waste          she wasn’t angry that a mistake had been      nodosaur (a distant relative of the better-
from the house— and it was to this            made— “This stuff is bound to happen.”        known stegosaur) lived on land, the
second line that the new sewer was            Rather, it was the initial lack of a          Carlsbad specimen is thought to have
connected. But apparently this was a          receptive audience that had driven her to     washed to sea at the time of its death
mistake.                                      frustration. For it is not perfection that    because its remains— now on exhibit in

                                                           Part One, Page 5
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                        Steven L. Shepherd

the Museum’s basement— are partially          “I don’t know. They’re supposed to . . .              finished, Kennedy will write a report of
encrusted with fossilized seashells and a     But they didn’t bring me . . .”                       his findings. Kennedy, who hunted
shark’s tooth can be seen embedded in             He doesn’t complete these thoughts,               fossils as a kid in La Mesa, was a curator
its flank. Three-quarters of the animal’s     but they’re not hard to read. In New Age              of invertebrate paleontology at the Los
skeleton plus a substantial portion of its    ideology, crystals are claimed to have                Angeles County Museum of Natural
segmented armor plating were recovered        magical powers and to be the instru-                  History before the Museum went
from the Carlsbad sewer, and the find         ments of good fortune. But instead,                   through a downsizing, and is now an
represents the most complete dinosaur         Breshears was hounded by people                       Adjunct Professor of Geological
skeleton ever discovered in Southern          seeking their source, and most of the                 Sciences at San Diego State. He does a
California. It is doubly rare for being       crystals were stolen from him. Still,                 lot of contract paleontology these days
one of the few nodosaurs found                though, he does have the memory of an                 and has written a fair number of such
anywhere in the world.                        excavation in Oz and a shared bit of                  reports. He is the author, for instance, of
     Mark Breshears is a heavy equipment      what Tom Deméré calls “the excitement                 a report of findings he made during the
operator who mostly drives the big steel-     of discovering what’s under your feet.”               recent replacement of the city’s Sewer
tracked excavators for Ortiz. Sewer and           So far, Sewer and Water Group 78’s                Pump Station Number 5, located just
Water Group 78 is his first job with          paleontologist, George Kennedy, has                   below the Coronado Bay Bridge. The
Ortiz, but he’s been an operator for 15       found neither crystals nor dinosaurs in               report describes the recovery of a rich
years and has worked on jobs all over         Burlingame. He has, however, collected                collection of fossils, primarily mollusks,
the county. He himself has found fossil       what he characterizes as a few predict-               but including as well the ankle bone of
fragments while working, and says, “I’m       able fossils of marine mollusks from the              an extinct species of horse. Samples
always looking. You never know what           early trenching in Switzer Canyon. In                 from the excavations were sent to
you’ll find.”                                 the canyon, says K ennedy, the                        museum curators in New York and
     Because of the great depth of sewer      excavation cut into what is called the                California— Tom Deméré among them.
trenches and the mile upon mile of earth      San Diego Formation, a two- to three-                     The report itself went to the
exposed each year in their digging, Tom       million-year-old sea floor now com-                   appropriate city officials, and eventually
Deméré says they are of particular            posed primarily of sandstone. There,                  a copy reached the desk of Chris Zirkle,
interest for their geologic revelations.      fossils were anticipated. But here on the             in the D evelop men t S erv ices
Certainly Breshears would agree with          mesa the trenching has moved into a                   Department. Zirkle is the city’s keeper
this, for it was while digging a trench in    more recent geologic layer— the million-              of reports filed in accordance with the
Poway some years ago that he came             year-old Lindavista Formation, made up                California Environmental Quality Act,
across one of the most remarkable sights      of intermixed clay, sandstone, and                    and when it is ready he will receive as
of his life. It was late in the day and the   cobbles— and a fossil find is thought                 well a copy of Kennedy’s report for
work was winding down when his                unlikely. Past experience, says Tom                   Sewer and Water Group 78. He will also
bucket broke through a hard spot in the       Deméré, has shown the Lindavista                      receive a similar report from Brian F.
ground and came up filled with what           Formation to be “sparsely fossiliferous,”             Smith and Associates, the job’s
looked like glass.                            although this means paradoxically that                archeological monitor— represented
     “It was crystals,” he says. “Quartz      anything found will be of increased                   today by Todd Baker, holder of a
crystals.”                                    importance by virtue of its very rarity.              master’s degree in anthropology.
     Excitedly, he replaced the soil over         Months from now, when the job is                      Like Kennedy, Baker made a few
the crystals then came back after work to                                                                                   unremarkable
explore on his own. On his hands and                                                                                        find s in the
knees he dug, pulling the crystals from                                                                                     canyon — a few
the earth with a screwdriver; that night                                                                                    bottles and bits of
he took home a truckload of crystals,                                                                                       trash from the
and he did so again for each of the next                                                                                    house that once
six nights.                                                                                                                 sat among the
     W hat he had encountered is                                                                                            palms. Also like
uncertain. Breshears thinks it was a                                                                                        K e n n e d y, h e
geode, but he never found its hollow                                                                                        expects to find
center. Amongst the crystals he also                                                                                        little here on the
found green clay, and he was told that                                                                                      mesa: There is no
meant that if he had dug deep enough he                                                                                     evidence         to
would have found tourmaline, “and then                                                                                      suggest that
gold.”                                                                                                                      Native Americans
     But he found no gold. And as to the      Larry Pierson (left), archeologist, and George Kennedy, paleontologist,       or anyone else
fate of the crystals themselves, he says,     examine a rock specimen                                                       ever lived or died

                                                           Part One, Page 6
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                   Steven L. Shepherd

in Burlingame before its development as      ornamented by a diverse assortment of            combining a bit of protection with a
a part of San Diego. Still, he too watches   belts, pulleys, and mufflers; on the front       touch of flair (this accentuated by the
for the unexpected— for the find that        is an offset Cyclops of a headlight, and         half-covered tatoos on his thick arms). It
makes you catch your breath.                 from the rear—behind the lever- and              takes many passes of the saw because of
    In the meantime, both he and             dial-filled control panel— protrude a pair       the thickness of the road and the
Kennedy make themselves useful by            of handles used by the saw’s operator,           hardness of the concrete under the
helping direct the backhoes (clenched        Joaquin Suarez, to guide and muscle the          overlying asphalt— a stratification
fists for “stop”; winding forefingers for    beast.                                           resulting from a long ago repaving that
“closer”) and by keeping the edge of the         A hardened grime encrusts the                left many houses in the neighborhood
trench clean— they being the only men        machine’s surfaces. This is the result of        with virtually no curb. Joaquin’s first cut
on the job with both graduate degrees        pavement dust wetted by the spray of             is through the top four inches of asphalt.
and shovels.                                 water that drips continually over the            Switching blades, he then makes two

March 1 (Saturday):
    Early this morning a pair of
surveyors appear in the street before our
house. They wield gleaming lensed
scopes mounted on tripods and work
smoothly; soon the length of Maple
Street is marked with dashed parallel
white lines three feet apart. Off one
corner of my house and near an edge of
the intersection where Maple Street
makes its dogleg and is abutted by
Burlingame Drive, the dashes outline an
8-foot square to indicate the location of
a new manhole. Another manhole will
be placed 100 yards to the south, where
Maple forms a Y with Laurel; these are
but two of the more than 50 manholes
that will be dug and built as work is
completed on Sewer and Water Group
78. It takes the surveyors only a few
hours to finish their task and then they     Mark Breshears on a backhoe fitted with sheep’s foot
are off— home, perhaps, or to breakfast.

March 5 (Wednesday):                         spinning blade; the water is provided by         separate three-inch cuts through the
    The sawmen cometh. Since the             a hose that trails the saw and leads to a        concrete— cutting deeper would hasten
beginning of the week, two men from          tank inside the utility van that is the          the blade’s demise.
Ortiz have been slicing through              saw’s mother ship and is equipped with               All day the saw screams, and all day
segments of street near and about my         a rear lift for the purpose of launching         the men attend it. Occasionally, a car
house, following the surveyors’ white        and retrieving its offspring. Together,          passes them by or a tractor laden with
lines, and finally today they are outside    the water and dust form a glistening             pipe and they stand aside.
my window. It is everything I had            slick of reddish-brown muck that
expected— loud, throbbing, incessant.        spreads from the lengthening cut. The                              ***
And more. For it stinks, and black, oily     paste, however, has little chance to dry
fumes spew from the saw’s presence.          before it is sucked away by Joaquin’s            Tonight is the night of the annual
    The saw has a 65-horsepower motor        co-worker, Pedro Silva, who trails a few         Burlingame Homeowners’ Association
and drives an 18-inch diamond tipped         feet behind with a wheeled shop vac and          meeting. Some 75 of us have gathered in
blade that takes from the road a kerf        wand.                                            the home of a neighbor for a yearly ritual
three-sixteenths of an inch wide. Each           Up and down the street they work,            that includes presentations, the election
blade, says its operator, costs $700.        each man wearing the hard hat and                of a board, and the president’s State of
They wear out after only five or six         orange and yellow-stripped safety vest           the Neighborhood address. Also in
blocks and can’t be resharpened. The         that is the uniform of Ortiz’s crew.             attendance is our city council represent-
saw itself is roughly a yard by a yard by    Joaquin also wears foam earplugs and             ative, who, recognizing the subject of
a yard on edge and its sides are             wrap-around sunglasses— the latter               our greatest interest right now, has

                                                         Part One, Page 7
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                      Steven L. Shepherd

brought with her a retinue of city                  has been either to induce the city to       sewer, the other things will not be
employees involved with the sewer                   recognize its responsibility to maintain    fixed—seemingly cannot be fixed.
p roje c t : e n g i n e e r s, o m b u d s men ,   its infrastructure, or to try and band          The reason, of course, is political
managers, etc. Their purpose is to listen,          together such that we might do it           rather than technical. It was the EPA
answer questions, take back queries.                ourselves— taxing the neighborhood and      who compelled the city to fix the sewers,
    Since the first house was built in              using the proceeds to replace the side-     and the EPA has more clout than we. We
Burlingame in 1912, people here have                walks wholesale. Efforts in the first       lacking clout, the city lacks will, and in
been paying taxes and user fees. No                 direction have failed because they have     the absence of will most repairs can be
doubt during all this time these same               been obfuscated and outlived by the city    put off indefinitely. Unless and until
taxpayers, like those everywhere, have              bureaucracy; sidewalks, they say, are the   they fail catastrophically, the streets will
clamored for lower fees and taxes, and              city’s property but the homeowners’         continue to deteriorate, the sidewalks to
no doubt their elected politicians have             responsibility, an Alice-In-Wonderland      crumble.
done their best to oblige. But there is a           contention with as much realism as an
cost to being cheap. And the new sewer              expectation that homeowners keep the        March 7 (Friday):
notwithstanding, it is clear that insuffi-          bulbs changed in city street lights.            It is, perhaps, appropriate that I am in
cient monies have been spent on the                 Efforts in the second direction have        the bathroom this morning when I learn
maintenance of our neighborhood’s in-               failed because we all bring slightly        that today is moving day for the men of
frastructure. The roads are potholed and            different competing interests to our        Sewer and Water Group 78. They have
riven with faults. The curbs are near               recognition of the need for new             finished their work on the streets near
gone, due either to burial or slow                  sidewalks. Neighbors who have paid          the canyon and are preparing for the
disintegration. And our sidewalks are               once to replace their own sidewalks         next stage of the work. They begin early
crumbling.                                          want nothing to do with a duplicative       and while I am still ensconced and
    The sidewalks are of special concern            e ffo rt to benefit the wh o le             reading the paper—they begin, that is,
in Burlingame, for it is they that define           neighborhood; neighbors with ample          while I am unsuspecting. Nor do I have
our neighborhood, both physically and               resources or narrow lots and short          an inkling until the house begins shaking
psychologically. Indeed, there are those            sidewalks are willing to consider shared    and rumbling and a great clanking
who know this as “the neighborhood of               by-the-foot payment options with the        staccato sound arises from outside the
pink sidewalks.” They must have been                city; and those like my next-door           door, as if a jackhammer had been
gorgeous when new: “rose-colored”                   neighbor Albert, who is elderly and lives   unleashed in our kitchen.
rather than pink, and scored in an                  most likely on a fixed income— and              “W hat,” I yell to my wife, “is that?!!”
elaborate pattern of squares and                    whose lot is small but the shape of             The excavator, she says, the steel-
bordering rectangles. But all the same,             Florida, with hundreds of feet of           treaded trackhoe. And when finally I
they were poorly made. The concrete                 frontage— can in their own interest only    emerge to see for myself, I find in the
was thin and weak, and the walkways are             be opposed to any new expense. And so       street two parallel rows of fresh, striated
now buckled and broken. Nowhere are                 we are B alkanized. And being               gouges where the machine has passed
there more than a few intact contiguous             Balkanized, we can never pull together      by.
squares, and in long stretches the walks            and can forever be fended off.                  There follows an endless back and
are little but a mosaic of tiny pieces.                 These issues— streets and side-         forth of backhoes, front-end loaders,
Many sections have become dangerous,                walks— dominate our exchange with the       trucks large and small, and all laden with
and over the years have caused more                 councilwoman. Will the streets be           matériel: pipes, sand, slabs of steel
than a few trips, scrapes and bruises.              repaved when the sewer is finished? And     plating, orange road barriers, and more.
Someday, there will be a serious injury.            what of the curbs? Will the sections of     It being Friday, a trash truck slips
    For as long as I have lived here, and           sidewalk demolished to access the sewer     occasionally into the procession, and in
well before, residents have been making             laterals be replaced in pink or white or    its volume, variety, and intensity I am
efforts to have the problem addressed.              black asphalt? And why can’t the money      put in mind of an armored column
Some have summoned municipal crews                  now being used to patch the streets and     hastening to battle.
for the repair of a particularly hazardous          sidewalks piecemeal be used instead as
fracture or uplift, and been rewarded               part of a larger effort to fix everything   March 12 (Wednesday):
with the application to the rift of a black         properly?                                       From Lindbergh Field, Laurel Street
asphalt Band-Aid. Some have taken it                    The councilwoman acknowledges the       runs to the east for nearly six miles,
upon themselves to fix or replace their             worthiness of all comments. Some            broken all the way into disconnected bits
own section of sidewalk—with varying                questions she answers (“The pink            and pieces by parks, canyons, and
degrees of technical and artistic                   sidewalks,” she says, “will be maintain-    freeways. Most of the way it runs
proficiency. And some have sought to                ed”). Some she deflects or defers. But in   straight, and most of the way it is
organize.                                           the main she makes no promises. The         paralleled a block to the north by Maple
    The purpose of these latter efforts             truth she avoids is that other than the     Street— except in Burlingame, where

                                                                Part One, Page 8
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                    Steven L. Shepherd

both streets twist and turn and where, on       stubbed end of the sewer’s Y. Because         W herever I went, the writing on the road
the block I live on, M aple Street is           sewer is laid uphill and this is the high     would read “ U SA : Ortiz” or “U SA : Pac
revived from an earlier termination by          point, here this branch of the sewer must     Bell” or “U SA : W homever,” and there
branching off from Laurel, the streets in       stop. This is our continental divide and      would be the squigglies— done, I had
their dividing forming a Y. After its           from here the sewage of two next-door         supposed, by U SA on behalf of their
revival, Maple runs briefly to the              neighbors flows in opposite directions;       client, Ortiz or Pacific Bell or W hom-
northeast, makes the dogleg around my           the spot is also the site of a three-way      ever. It was, I thought, an interesting
house, then continues on to the east.           intersection and as such sewage flows         company, and seemingly without
    For the last two days Ortiz’s crew          from here in a third direction as well, all   competition.
has been working eastward on Laurel,            of it draining— like spokes from the hub          But then I learned that U SA is an
laying 8-inch main in a steady approach         of a wheel— outward to the perimeter of       acronym for underground service alert.
to the fork of the Y. This junction will        the neighborhood, there to be collected       A company intent on digging up the
mark the site of a new manhole, and to          in the ever-deepening encircling main         street paints its intentions at the
me it is not yet clear where they will          that eventually makes its way into the        site— “ U SA : Ortiz”— then calls an 800-
next proceed from there: On up Laurel?          canyon.                                       central-clearinghouse number and
Or to M aple— and hence to my house?                At times the route is circuitous, and     registers its plan verbally. Utilities check
The question seems resolved this                indeed from the innermost houses it           the register to find out who’s digging
morning when I and my neighbors rise            approximates a great spiral. But some-        where, then dispatch a squigglie painter
to find the street before us planted with       times it happens that what seems on the       to mark their territory. T he marks are
“No Parking” signs. And it seems                surface simple or haphazard can be            warranted accurate to within three feet,
absolutely confirmed by midmorning,             found both elegant and logical when           and if they are wrong— if the blue W is
when, after having excavated the site for       viewed more deeply.                           farther than three feet from the physical
the manhole, the trenching equipment                                                          water pipe— the company can bill the
begins to lay open Maple Street.                March 13 (Thursday):                          utility for the cost of repairs and
    But just after lunch the digging stops.         I am brushing my teeth this morning       associated expenses— the cost, for in-
Maple, it turns out, is for now only to be      when I hear in my subconscious the            stance, of idling a crew and its
opened only far enough to facilitate a          sound of a metal lid pried loose and cast     equipment for a day.
temporary connection to the old sewer;          aside on the street outside our window,           These expenses can add up quickly.
once accomplished, the budding trench           then the squeaking of a valve rapidly         It costs Ortiz nearly a thousand dollars a
will be temporarily refilled. The actual        turned. I identify this sound consciously     day just to run its excavator and pay its
plan, I learn, is to first complete a short     a moment later when the water in our          operator, not to mention the cost of the
run up Laurel to a dead-end at midblock;        bathroom stops.                               dozen other men and their equipment.
laterals from four houses will be con-              Outside, at the intersection of Laurel    But it isn’t always in a company’s best
nected to this stub, and this and the rest      and Maple, I find the trench that the         interest to seek such compensation.
of the work on Laurel will be finished          sewer crew has just started work on           Some number of mishaps are bound to
before Maple is begun in earnest.               filled with water and a pump furiously        occur, and it can just as easily happen
    Looking at a roadmap, or indeed,            splashing its contents onto the pavement.     (if, for instance, the squigglies get
from walking the streets of Burlingame,         The excavator has snagged a home’s            covered by dirt) that a construction
one might easily conclude that Laurel is        water line and ripped it free from the        company damages a line that is properly
a street more dominant than Maple.              buried main; to quell the ensuing gusher      marked— in which case it can be the
Laurel, after all, transects the                water service has been shut off to the        utility seeking reimbursement.
neighborhood, whereas Maple runs only           entire block— thereby explaining the              M ostly, though, forbearance is a
halfway through. Yet neither roadmap            noise outside our window.                     matter of street savvy. Ortiz’s men
nor casual walk would reveal the most               It is for the purpose of avoiding such    perform some repairs themselves, but
critical of features to sewer layout:           occurrences that each phase of Sewer          most they defer to specialized crews
topography— for sewage flows always             and Water Group 78 has begun with a           from the utilities. Getting a timely
and only downhill. Away from the                burst of squigglie painting. Some of the      response from such crews can be
canyon, Burlingame has in my mind               squigglies are marked by Ortiz’s men          important, and for this reason good
always seemed mostly flat. But now              and some by representatives of the            relations are imperative. It makes sense,
when I look more carefully, I discover          relevant utilities: gas, telephone, or        in other words, to minimize antagonism.
that I live instead in a neighborhood of        water. For the longest time, I was under          Not knowing their backlog or
the most gentle peaks and valleys. The          the impression that the marks were the        schedule, I can’t say if the response is
h ig h e st p o in t— fo o t-h ig h M o u n t   work of a mystery company that                fast or slow, but it’s not until five hours
Burlingame, if you will— lies on Laurel         subcontracted to O rtiz— and to every         later that a crew from the Water
Street near the geographic center of the        other utility and construction company        Department arrives to fix the broken
neighborhood and just beyond the                in town; a company called U SA .              water line, and not until 3 p.m. that

                                                             Part One, Page 9
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                     Steven L. Shepherd

running water is restored. During this      Employees are encouraged to talk with              of shoring in the collapsed trench.
time, Ortiz’s men busy themselves with      their personal physicians about specific               The trenches on Sewer and Water
tasks that don’t involve trenching— such    health worries, and if— in the case of             Group 78 have so far been as deep as
as potholing with a jackhammer outside      h e p atitis— a d o cto r re co m m e nd s         12½ feet, and at all depths the use and
my window. There is no talk of a            immunization, the Department will pay              installation of proper shoring has been a
chargeback.                                 the cost. But routine monitoring and               fundamental safety concern. According
                                            vaccinations are neither offered nor               to Don Gingrich, Ortiz’s second-in-
                 ***                        required. The reason, says Tansey, is              command foreman, soils can be
                                            that sewage is so dilute and diseases like         classified for safety purposes as type A,
In 1990 when the Burlingame sewer           typhoid and cholera so rare, that the risk         B, or C. The least stable is C, the most is
main collapsed and I watched as city        of infection is probably outweighed by             A— “Though some people say you
crews executed their repair, I was struck   the small risks of routine vaccination.            should never classify any soil as
with not only the unsavory but also the     Instead, the main defenses provided                A”— and each type, says Gingrich,
hazardous nature of the job. The men        a g a i n s t in fe c tio u s d is e a s e a r e   “takes a different kind of shoring. Most
were in deep trenches and awash in          appropriate protective clothing and the            treacherous are sandy beach soils, like
sewage. “My God,” I had thought, “they      exhortation to sewer workers that they             those where the man was killed
must have to vaccinate these guys           keep their hands as clean as                       yesterday, and in these soils, says
against every disease known.” I thought     possible— though this is a message that            Gingrich, “we use what are called coffin
of dysentery and typhoid and cholera,       doesn’t take a lot of reinforcement.               boxes. These are solid steel trenches that
and it seemed to me a wonder they           “You learn,” says Larry Pierson, one of            you drop in the ground and slide with
weren’t constantly sick.                    Sew e r a n d Wa te r G ro u p 78 ’s               you as you’re laying pipe. That way
    A few years later I worked for a time   archeological monitors and a man who               you’re protected by steel all the time.
analyzing occupational injuries and         has participated in many a sewer job, “to          We call them coffins, but they save us.”
illnesses among civilians who worked        always wash your hands before you eat,                 There are no coffin boxes in
for the U.S. Navy. M any of these people    and never bite your fingernails.”                  Burlingame, but still our soil has been
worked in places like shipyards and              Less yucky than sewage but more               classified as Type C. In some places it is
aircraft maintenance depots and were        dangerous to workers are the equipment             sandy, in some clayey; in places it is
expo sed to the nastiest of                 they work with and the spaces they work            “d istur b e d ” — m e a n in g p re vio usly
chemicals— solvents with invisible          in. Tansey knows this and so do the men            trenched, and everywhere it is unpredict-
fumes that could rot your liver. These      from Ortiz, virtually all of whom have             able. Accordingly, Ortiz is using a
chemicals and the diseases they caused      stories of being injured or of having seen         shoring system that allows nearly contin-
spooked a lot of people. But by far the     men injured on the job— stories of                 uous support of an open trench if
most hurtful thing to most workers was      exploding fingers crushed by slipped               conditions warrant.
injuries. No matter how unnerving the       wrenches, of men diving into pits full of              Called speed shoring, the basic unit
exotic dangers were, it was the day-in,     sewage to save a co-worker dragged                 consists of stout aluminum twin ribs held
day-out stuff— the fall from a scaffold,    under by an entangling hose (“Just like            apart by paired hydraulic struts. These
the lifting of a too-heavy object— that     in the movies”), and of excavators                 units can be used alone or bolted in pairs
caused the greatest harm. For every one     snagging overhead high-voltage lines               between thick sheets of plywood, in
weird-fume disease there were 13            and of the resulting crackling blue flash          which case the resulting assemblies are
injuries.                                   that engulfed the steel machine and                most often moved and placed using the
    Alden Tansey, who manages               turned the surrounding earth to glass              excavator as a crane— the assembly
employee health and safety activities for   (“The operator, I guess he was okay— he            hoisted aloft by a chain and held steady
San Diego’s Metropolitan Wastewater         was grounded— but he was not right in              by a worker on the ground who guides
Department, is familiar with such           the head afterwards”). These are the true          the shoring into place as the excavator
numbers and their implications. Among       hazards of their job, and Ortiz’s men              lowers it into the trench. There, the
the Department’s 800 employees are          have been reminded of them again by                struts are pressurized with hand pumps
some 200 “collection workers” who           the death yesterday of a construction              and the plywood forced outward against
clean manholes and sewer                    worker in Pacific Beach who was buried             the trench walls; so placed, the units are
pipes— people who work in direct            by the collapse of a trench. Amid the              strong enough for men to climb freely
contact with sewage and often have          pumping of the flood and the myriad                about on. The less stable the soil, the
health concerns related to sewage           other tasks in progress, the death is              closer the shoring. But always the
exposure. Tansey works hard to stay         today a constant subject of conversation           shoring is in constant use, with up to ten
apprised of and to address these            among the Ortiz crew— that and the                 pairs engaged in an ever-revolving cycle
concerns. His office organizes several      reported finding by CalOSHA inspectors             in which the trench’s steady progress is
programs a year to provide collection       who examined the fatal jobsite of 13               punctuated by the removal of the pair to
workers with health information.            safety violations, including an absence            the rear and its smooth rotation to the

                                                         Part One, Page 10
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                   Steven L. Shepherd

front.                                         and made of 53 linked plates; from the        To reach this spot, the backhoe nuzzles
                                               tracks’ outside edges the excavator is        up behind the big machine like an
March 19 (Wednesday, 7 to 10 a.m.):            10½ feet wide. The arm (which properly        animal sniffing another’s rear and
    This is it. Today they are beginning       speaking has three parts: boom (upper         extends its bucket under the excavator’s
on Maple Street, in front of our house,        arm), stick (forearm), and bucket) has a      body. Once this last bit of soft covering
outside my window. For the last week           reach of over 33 feet. Later, a dealer        has been removed, the backhoe
they have been working on Laurel. But          tells me the model I ask about weighs 29      encounters the ten-inch-thick paving that
this morning the traffic and commotion         tons. Nor is this a particularly big one.     form the true substance of the street.
bear a new and unmistakable intensity          There are excavators in excess of 90          Elsewhere on Sewer and Water Group
and nearness. I step outside for a look        tons and with reaches of more than 50         78 I have seen the backhoe operators
and almost immediately a passing               feet. The buckets, too, can be enormous;      b r e a k th r o u g h th is m a te r i a l —
equipment operator catches my eye and          the one I measure is six feet from wrist      hyperextending their buckets so the steel
signals me to move our cars, parked as         to claw, but I once saw, on a bigger          teeth pointed down then striking
they always are on the street not 20 feet      project with bigger equipment, an             repeatedly at the layered asphalt and
from our front door.                           operator in the middle of a busy              concrete to cleave free a chunk. But
    My neighbors also scurry to                thoroughfare standing neck-high inside        today a third machine is brought in to
evacuate, and those who don’t find later       his bucket while gazing serenely at the       pulverize the road and render it rubble,
they must negotiate broken pavement,           passing traffic— his true activity            and it takes a position at the head of the
piles of dirt and gravel, and large pieces     betrayed only by a growing puddle on          procession and aft of the backhoe.
of equipment whose drivers seem only           the ground beneath the great steel scoop.          This new beast is a hydrohammer.
temporarily restrained. Across the street,         Not long after the loader parks, the      “W hy it’s called that,” says Don
the word appears not to have reached           excavator clanks into place to begin the      Gingrich, “I’ve got no idea. It’s got
two of my neighbors. John and Rose are         day’s work. Tracks straddling the             nothing to do with water.” Regardless of
from Sicily and they have lived in             trenchline, it takes a position just beyond   its name, it is unquestionably primitive,
Burlingame almost from the time of their       the point where last week’s digging           with an antique, tractor-style motor and
first arrival in this country nearly 40        stopped. Gingerly, the operator, Mark         hood on one end, a seat and controls in
years ago. I cross the street to tell them     Breshears, begins picking with his            the middle, and at the business end a
they may want to move their van, but           bucket at the temporary covering of soft      huge, upright frame like that of a
after a conference they decide they’ll         asphalt and soon he is reopening the          forklift. This frame consists of twin,
leave it in the driveway— they’re not          trench— extending the boom forward            parallel siderails within which rides a
planning to go out. Still we talk, and as      and down, then drawing the bucket back        massive steel weight with a blunt tip.
we do I mention the project’s noise and        toward the body of the machine. As dirt       The weight is attached to and raised by
distraction.                                   is removed and the trench advances, the       a heavy steel cable, and the unending
    Yes, nods Rose, she’s noticed. But         excavator backs up to expose a fresh          sequence of the hammer’s operation
more troublesome is the dust. “The             working area. And so it progresses by         consists of a rev of the engine as the
dust,” she says, “is so bad!”                  moving backward.                              weight is lifted, a slap and rattle of the
    Minutes after I move my cars, a huge           Other machines work similarly, and        cable as tension is released and the
John Deere front-end loader assumes            quickly there forms behind the excavator      weight falls, a crushing thud as the
their parking place, virtually filling the     a procession of like-moving equipment.        weight hits the pavement, and an
field of view out my window with black         Immediately to the rear of the excavator      immediate revving of the motor as a new
tires, plate glass, and heavy-equipment        is a backhoe. Backhoes, which feature a       repetition begins— overlaid on which
yellow. This is an impressive machine,         scoop on front and bucket on back and         cycle is a slower rhythm as the machine
hinged in the middle for tight turns, with     combine in a smaller version the              lurches backward a few inches every two
5-foot diameter tires, a driver’s seat         functions of both loader and excavator,       or three repetitions. This is not a quiet
seven feet off the ground, and a bucket        offer tremendous versatility. Forever are     activity.
capacity of four tons. But the Deere is a      they scurrying about, tails raised like            It takes about half an hour for the
mere product of Lilliput compared to the       scorpions, and they are used for an           hydrohammer to crush a strip of
orange Hitachi excavator. Later, when it       immense variety of tasks, including, at       pavement extending just past my front
parks in front of my house for the night       the moment, helping to remove the             door— a stretch, perhaps, of 60 yards.
and I sit in its cab (and my wife takes my     ribbon of pavement between the sawcuts        Close behind is the backhoe, whose
picture) then crawl all over it with a tape    that define the trenchline— a process         operator scoops the rubble and transfers
measure, taking notes and remembering          called stripping.                             it to an attendant dump truck— raising,
earlier romps over the machinery that              The stripping this morning begins         swinging, and extending the boom in a
carved the streets of my childhood, I          underneath the excavator— literally           seamless motion that lifts the bucket
find that each of its looped steel tracks is   — with the removal of the remaining few       over the sides of the truck by the merest
2½ feet wide, 14 feet from front to back,      feet of temporary asphalt from last week.     of inches and ends in a forward

                                                           Part One, Page 11
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                Steven L. Shepherd

uncurling that drops the load, raises a      Jesse he started in a different line of       They yank the starter cords in unison,
cloud of dust, and leaves the truck          work— got into “underground” almost           e a c h m a n re vv in g his en g in e
rocking with the added weight.               by accident. “Nobody,” he says, “wants        determinedly, and swarm forth. The
    And so the parade that has worked its    to work in sewers.” After high school he      sewer men are fierce competitors, but
way through the neighborhood is now          worked as a pool cleaner, but a few           still the gardeners make themselves
before my house: hydrohammer, back-          years later he found himself unemployed       heard. The edger is the first to finish,
hoe, and excavator. About the proces-        and contemplating an apprenticeship           and as a little freebie he engages in a bit
sion swarms a supporting fleet of            program for electricians. Finishing the       of machete work before preparing to
Bobcats, dump trucks, and more back-         program would have taken two years and        leave.
hoes, and scattered throughout, readying     left him earning $6 a hour, so when he             This style of gardening seems an
shoring and carrying pipe, are the           was offered immediate work for a third        unavoidable consequence of a competi-
footmen— infantry to the mechanized. It      more, he took it. “Bottom line?” he says.     tive, low-price, high-volume business,
seems chaotic, but all is coordinated,       “We do it for the money.”                     and my wife and I have had our own
each task following its predecessor by           Still, he takes an evident pride in his   experiences with the oxymoron of
mere feet and minutes.                       work. He especially enjoys water              “affordable gardeners.” The most recent
    In charge of it all— foreman, general,   projects, and says of his water work,         came a few years ago when we had been
and parade master— is Jesse Garcia.          “I’ve never installed a leak.” As with        driven to despair by a lack of time and a
Thirty-five years old, Jesse started in      employees, the bottom line for                yardful of overly-healthy plants. We
construction 12 years ago after first        contractors is money, and after he’d          hired our own leaflet-distributing
working as a mechanic for a Cadillac         been with Ortiz for three years it was        gardener to trim and haul away an
dealer. He began as a laborer, then          because of money that Gingrich earned         excess of growth from the trees and
learned to operate a backhoe. Eight          a role a year and a half ago as a sort of     shrubs around our house, and this he and
years ago he was hired by Ortiz and          alternate foreman. “My first job they let     a helper did in just a few hours— with
three years later he began running jobs.     me run was supposed to be a 2-month           weed-whackers and chain saws, and
    Jesse is a handsome man— short and       job, and I finished it a week and a half      leaving all our plants one of two uniform
muscular, with a neatly trimmed black        ahead of schedule. So I guess they made       heights: short or tall. Later, the man’s
moustache and dark, intelligent eyes.        some money and figured I could do it.”        limited English left him immune to my
Depending on his audience, he switches           Later in the course of Sewer and          wife’s telephone-delivered diatribe.
effortlessly between English and             Water Group 78, Jesse would be moved               W hen Linda, my neighbor, began
Spanish. But it his bearing that attracts    to a second Ortiz crew working to install     some time ago to speak of hiring a
attention, his bearing that distinguishes    a portion of the $65 million in piping for    gardener, I related to her our exper-
him— for the man exudes competence. If       the new North City Water Reclamation          iences. She listened, but decided
you did not know, and were asked to          Plant, and Don would be put in charge in      nonetheless that her own shortage of
point out from among the many men on         Burlingame. The transition, to all            time left her little practical alternative.
the street the foreman of Sewer and          outward appearances, w ould be                And so she hired Federico— resolving at
Water Group 78, it would be him you          seamless.                                     the same time to insist that he do as she
would choose. He walks purposively,                                                        wanted.
with the stride of one used to making                          ***                              Their first clash came after his first
decisions, and he is almost constantly in                                                  visit. Previously, Linda had shown him
motion, moving from activity to activity,    The Tale of the Palm (Prologue):              around and told him what she wanted:
assessing progress and needs—more                In the midst of all else, there arrives   mow and edge the front lawn, clear and
gravel today, concrete tomorrow— and         this morning the gardener of my               weed the flower beds, trim the Bird of
involving himself in every aspect of the     neighbor directly across the street. The      Paradise, etc., etc. That night she came
job: jumping in a trench and digging         gardener is a determined man, and             home excitedly, expecting to find the
here, grabbing a gas-powered “chop           despite the heaps of earth, blocked           work finished and her yard pristine. But
saw” and preparing a length of pipe          roads, and pulsing machinery, he and his      sh e w a s g r e e ted inste a d w ith
there; sometimes driving a backhoe,          crew pick their way in for their weekly       disappointment: the Bird of Paradise and
som etim es a B obcat; reviewing             rendezvous with the yard opposite my          most of the flower beds were untouched,
blueprints; making phone calls;              front door. For today is gardening day        and in the one bed that had been tended
planning. He, clearly, is the boss. And to   and they will not be dissuaded.               at least part of her landscaping had gone
him the others defer.                            My neighbor’s gardener is a firm          the way of the weeds. I was not surprised
    Lieutenant to Jesse is Don Gingrich.     adherent of the attack school of garden-      by this. Nor was I surprised upon
A long golden ponytail flows from under      ing. The moment he and his men come           learning that she had called the gardener,
his hard hat and his eyes seem always to     to a stop, they leap from their trucks and    made known her displeasure, and
twinkle; forever is he popping sunflower     grab a power tool, commando-style             insisted that he perform as expected.
seeds in his mouth. Don is 29, and like      — mower or blower, hedger or edger.                “Would you like me not to come

                                                         Part One, Page 12
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                  Steven L. Shepherd

back?” asked Federico.                        despite her gardener’s willingness to          found this both irritating and perplexing.
    “No,” Linda had said. “I want you to      make good on his error, Linda was                  “Do you know anything about this?”
come back and do the work we dis-             forced to drop her quest for his rectitude.    she asked me.
cussed.                                       Score one to the gardener.                         “I believe,” I said, “I saw your
    “Oh, we will,” he said. “It’s just that        This episode set the tenor for their      gardener’s truck here and two men who
when there’s a lot to do, we do it a little   subsequent relationship and Linda and          did some quick digging.”
bit at a time.”                               Federico have since had numerous                   “My gardener? But he comes on
    This is not exactly what she had in       repeat encounters— each trying to shape        Wednesday. Today is Thursday.”
mind, but given the price she resigned        the other to his or her habits. The most           “I believe,” I repeated, “I saw your
herself to the necessity of waiting. She      recent occurred just weeks ago and             gardener.”
did, however, insist that Federico            involved not only the gardener but also            “But why would he dig up my lawn?”
replace the plant his men had weeded, to      indirectly the sewer project— and it               “I don’t know,” I said. “I also saw
which he agreed.                              helped set the stage for an even greater       some of the sewer guys digging in the
    But Federico had no idea what the         conflagration in the days to come.             parkways down the street, looking for
plant was— and neither did Linda.                  W hen Linda first moved in, the trees     pipes. But”— repeating myself for the
Plants, like everything else, go in and       within her parkways consisted of a pair        third time— “I believe it was your
out of fashion, and as she started            of stunted King palms that had shown no        gardener.”
trekking from nursery to nursery it soon      signs of growth in the ten years I had             Clearly, she was puzzled by my
began to appear that the plant she sought     been watching them. There are in               observation. But the next morning she
not only dated to the 1920s and the           Burlingame many kinds of palms. But            confirmed what I had seen. “It was the
home’s original owner but had also gone       the official, city-sanctified street tree is   gardener,” she said. “I asked him if he
out of vogue. No one had it or knew           t h e Q u e e n p a l m , A re c a s t r u m   dug up my lawn, and he said `Yes.’
what it was. Not until she described it to    romanzoffianum, with its great, wispy,             “`W hy did you do that?’ I asked him.
an older nurseryman, who led her to an        feather-like fronds, and deciding she          `Because,’ he said, `your sprinkler was
out-of-print text on Hawaiian exotics,        wanted to replace her nonconforming            broken. The man who planted your trees
did she discover the plant’s identity, the    nonperformers, Linda obtained the              must have broken it.’
reason for its fall from favor, and the       necessary permits to take out and replace          “`Federico,’ I said, `I planted those
explanation for a curious incident that       her old trees (which, like sidewalks, are      trees myself. The sprinkler wasn’t
occurred not long after she had moved in      the city’s property but a homeowner’s          broken. I think your crew must have
and before the gardener’s visit.              responsibility). She then found a              broken it when they came to mow the
    “Could you come over,” she had            nonprofit organization that would              lawn. And I want you to come out today
asked me one day, “and see if you smell       provide new trees at a discount and            and put the grass back.’
what I smell?”                                plunked down the requisite $300 for a              “`Do you want me to replace it?’ he
    I went, and noted as she had an           pair of Queens. These were sizable             said.
unpleasant odor that seemed to emanate        plants, a foot in diameter at the base and         “`I don’t care what you do,’ I said.
from a foundation vent near one corner        five or six feet tall before the fronds        But I want you to fix it like it was. And
of her living room. It smelled of dead        began to diverge.                              let’s get one more thing straight. W hen
animals— skunks or opossums, perhaps               On the first of this month, volunteers    you break something, tell me. And then
— but neither of us could locate its          from the tree-planting outfit delivered        we’ll decide together how we’re going to
source. Later, she enticed yet another        the new trees. They and a handful of           fix it. Is that understood?’”
neighbor to go scouting under her house,      neighbors (myself included) helped                 Yes, he said, he understood. But it
and when he too found nothing she then        Linda dig out the old trees, enlarge the       wasn’t long afterwards that Linda
began to contemplate tearing open a wall      holes, work in soil amenders, lay down         decided it was more trouble than it was
to search for entombed rats. But then         a bed of sand, and wrestle in the new          worth to reform Federico as a gardener
came her gardener, and when he came,          occupants. Once in place, Linda put in         and she fired him.
the smell went.                               deep-watering pipes, tamped the soil,
    According to the out-of-print tome,       and dressed her new Queens with a              March 19 (Wednesday, 10 a.m . to 12
the gardener had removed a voodoo lily,       surrounding layer of peat moss. They           noon):
Sauromatum guttatum. Its most prom-           made a fine addition to the street, and I          At 10 a.m. they lay the first length of
inent feature, said the text, was a           enjoyed looking at them from my office         pipe— a 20-foot section of 8-inch main.
purplish phallic-shaped flower that gave      window.                                        Though awkward, the long PVC tube
off a smell like carrion. This explained           It was just days later that she return-   can be carried by one man, who balances
both the odor suffusing Linda’s living        ed from work one evening to find some          it on his shoulder like a giant turquoise
room, and the plant’s disappearance           shards of white plastic sprinkler pipe on      bazooka then threads it into the trench
from the marketplace. W ho would want         her lawn and clumps of uprooted turf in        through the shoring struts to two
one? The plant was irreplaceable, and         the parkway near her new palms. She            companions waiting below. He follows

                                                          Part One, Page 13
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                Steven L. Shepherd

this by tossing down a tub of duck butter     the trench, and— like a baker with a         inches deep, that slips through a shoe on
brand pipe lubricant— a petroleum jelly-      rolling pin— begins vigorously to roll       the backside of the excavator bucket and
like substance “For the assembly of           the device back and forth over the loose     whose business end is covered with a
push-on pipe joints with rubber or            dirt therein. So great is the downward       wedge-shaped “tooth” of tempered steel.
synthetic rubber type gaskets.” In the tub    pressure exerted by the wheel that at        To use the ripper, B reshears curls the
is a heavy rubber glove, and the down-        times all four of the backhoe’s tires are    bucket to expose the tooth, then drags
stream man in the trench proceeds to          lifted off the ground, and later, when she   the tooth along the bottom of the trench
don the glove, grab a great gob of            sees the risen machine, my wife will be      like a plow. Depending on the hardness
lubricant, and slather it on the male end     moved to exclaim, “It’s levitating!” And     of the conglomerate, he may have to do
of the newly introduced length of pipe.       so the trench progresses, a continuity of    this repeatedly before he has loosened
Built into the exposed female end of the      excavation, pipe laying, and refilling.      enough material to fill the bucket.
pipe laid last week is a black, neoprene                                                       The tooth is affixed to the ripper by
O-ring, and this too is heavily lubricated.                     ***                        a cigar-sized metal pin, and it is about
The pieces are aligned and, when all is                                                    the time the sheep’s foot is covering the
ready, the upstream man drives a heavy        The soil of Burlingame, like that atop       first segment of pipe at the other end of
metal stake into the ground across the        most of San Diego’s downtown mesas,          the trench that the pin comes free and
mouth of the new pipe and pushes on it        belongs geologically to the Lindavista       the tooth falls from the ripper. The tooth
to lever the new piece into the old;          Formation. Practically speaking, this is     is quickly recovered, but the where-
properly seated, the male end will slip       a jumble of sediments tossed, turned,        abouts of the pin is a mystery. Several
four inches into the receiving female         and laid down by ancient surf, streams,      workmen and the archeologist begin
sleeve and the neoprene ring will form a      and rivers. As the trench of Sewer and       scouring the bottom of the trench and the
watertight seal.                              Water Group 78 has wound its way             accumulated piles of dirt on the street,
    Less than 20 minutes after the pipe       through the neighborhood, I have often       but after a few minutes it’s apparent that
segment is lowered into the trench, the       been impressed with the diversity of the     the pin is lost and the search is
men begin to cover it. The pipe rests on      deposits. There have been seams of clay,     abandoned. Perhaps one day, tens, or
a bed of gravel— cushion against shift-       red or chocolaty, so rich and pure you       hundreds, or thousands of years from
ing earth— and the burial’s beginning is      could set up a pottery factory; patches of   now, a future colleague of the archeolo-
marked by the dumping of yet more             sandy dirt so blood-red and laden with       gist will find the pin and speculate on its
gravel. The trench here is more than 12       iron that the sight of it took me            origin, possibly then sending it to a
feet deep, and because the operator of        unexpectedly back to the rusted hills and    museum for cataloging and display— an
the Deere can’t see its bottom, he is         roads of Oklahoma, where my father           artifact from the 20th century. A time
aided by hand signals relayed from            grew up and we visited as kids and the       capsule.
inside the trench to the man topside and      ground was strewn with rosestones                In the meantime, though, something
thence to the cab of the front-loader.        — petaled sandstone rocks the size,          must be done. There are no spare pins
    W hen the gravel layer over the pipe      shape, and hue of a florist’s rose; but      onsite and it falls to Jesse to decide what
is a foot thick, the Deere then begins        mostly the excavation has been through       to do— call for a replacement (and wait),
scooping piled dirt from the street and       a more heterogeneous mixture that            use the ripper without its protective
returning it to the trench. In this, the      George Kennedy calls conglomerate:           cover (which would quickly destroy it),
loader is assisted by yet another addition    mixed dirt, clay, and sand laced with        or improvise. W hile Jesse ponders, Bre-
to the train of men and equipment: a          cobbles.                                     shears takes the opportunity to grease
backhoe whose bucket has been replaced            One notable feature of the               the bucket of the idling excavator.
with a device consisting of three             conglomerate is that much of it has          Routine lubrication is a part of every
massive, steel-toothed wheels mounted         begun fusing together, its particles         operator’s job, and several times a day
in parallel. Known properly as a              bound tightly with water-borne natural       Breshears and the other operators can be
compaction wheel, the device is also          cements— among them the minerals that        seen attaching a grease gun to their
called a sheep’s foot, presumably             form scale on a bathroom faucet. So          charges’ nipples and pumping full their
because its fist-sized teeth are oval in      hard is the conglomerate in places that      joints and bearings.
cross-section and have a slightly con-        even for a machine as powerful as the            As Breshears finishes, Jesse appears
cave flat end— a shape supposedly             excavator, it slows the rate of digging.     with a two-foot length of steel
similar to that of a sheep’s hooves. To       Such is the case as the trench begins to     rebar— his decision made. He inserts the
use the sheep’s foot, the backhoe’s           penetrate Maple Street, and where            rebar in one end of the hole through the
operator straddles the end of the trench,     Breshears now says “I have to work for       reunited tooth and ripper and begins
lowers his horizontal stabilizers (the        every bucket.”                               driving it home with a small hand sledge
hydraulic “outriggers” that extend                Working for a bucket mostly means        and full-force, two-handed body swings
outward from the vehicle’s side) and          having to use a ripper. This is a 2-foot     — a street smithy swinging for the
scoop for support, drops the wheel into       long steel shank, 2 inches wide by 4         fences. Over the course of the morning I

                                                          Part One, Page 14
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                Steven L. Shepherd

have been lured by the sewer project          used eventually to pave the streets of       shard and examines it briefly. The rock
from my manuscripts and not-quiet             Boston, having been carried there as         is hard and dense. Stained a dull ocher
office and out into the street, seduced       ballast aboard home-bound Yankee             on the outside, it is on the inside a
into spending the day gazing into the         sailing ships, and that practice             beautiful pale lavender, flecked with tiny
trench and watching the thrum of men          engendered the name by which we know         white, clear, and black crystals. “Rhyo-
and machines. (“It’s a guy thing,” says       the spot today: Ballast Point. Later,        lite,” he says. The rock came from a vol-
my wife—all that power and sweat, the         cobbles became a favorite indigenous         cano. And then he tells me the story of
camaraderie. “You can’t resist it.” But       building material and were widely            the cobbles. Or rather, he outlines it and
it’s a writer thing too; I can stand around   incorporated into local Craftsman-era        then tells me where to go for the details.
and watch— do nothing— and still claim        retaining walls, porches, pillars, founda-       Perhaps few San Diegans have had as
I’m working. Because, W ho knows?             tions, and fireplaces. On Adams Avenue       deep or long-standing a fascination with
maybe someday I’ll write about it.) And       west of Kensington there stands today an     cobbles as Pat Abbott. A colleague of
so complete has been this seduction, so       entire house made of cobbles.                Kennedy’s at San Diego State, Abbott
thoroughly have I been mesmerized, that           More so than in any other place so       has spent a good portion of his
as I watch Jesse swing his hammer it          far in Burlingame, the earth below           professional career piecing together
takes me a moment before I realize that       Maple Street is rich with cobbles, every     clues to answer the question: W here did
I am standing in a direct line with the       scoop of the excavator now yielding          San D iego’s cobbles come from and
rebar he is pounding on and that I should     dozens of football-sized rocks. It is not    how did they get here?
move, lest the rebar become a flying          surprising, therefore, when shortly after        Of particular interest to Abbott are
projectile and I an unhappy pincushion.       the rebar repair a cobble gets stuck be-     the rhyolitic cobbles like the one broken
     W hen the rebar is through the hole,     tween two of the bucket’s front teeth.       by Kennedy. At varying depths, these
Jesse bends its two ends to right angles      Trying to knock it loose, Breshears first    cobbles are spread over a giant triangle
with the hammer. He then calls for a          taps the bucket gently against the pave-     stretching from the western end of
hacksaw, but none is quickly forth-           ment in such a way as to make the            Highway 94 to Rancho Santa Fe to the
coming and he instead leaves a one-foot       wedged cobble the point of contact.          San Vicente Reservoir, north of
tail dangling from one side of the rebar-     W hen that doesn’t work, he then taps the    Lakeside. The shape of this area
now-temporary-pin. The whole repair           cobble against another, larger stone         corresponds to that of an alluvial fan,
takes less than 10 minutes, and the           lying on the pavement so as to further       and in fact it was an ancient river— the
moment it’s done the excavator is back        concentrate the force. But that doesn’t      Ballena— that laid the rocks in this
in action. It’s efficient, but decidedly      work either, and finally George Ken-         triangle. Beginning 57 million years ago,
makeshift, and within 20 minutes the          nedy, who is standing nearby, watching,      the Ballena began carrying silt and
rebar tail has broken off; within an hour     smashes the cobble with a hand sledge.       volcanic rocks from farther inland
the whole assembly comes apart again.         Chips fly, fractures radiate, and out it     during great seasonal floods—tumbling
Eventually, Jesse will have to call for the   falls. The excavator’s teeth are clean.      and rounding the rocks on their way, and
proper part.                                      Geology, like all sciences, depends      at the end of the journey dropping them
                                              on the precise use of language for           at the river’s mouth. It was, says Abbott,
                  ***                         accurate communication. Also like other      a big river, and he likens it to the Rio
                                              sciences, it has partly acquired its         Colorado and similar rivers in today’s
The cobbles, says George Kennedy, are         lexicon by appropriating ordinary words      Argentina that drain the Andes and carry
the defining feature of the conglomerate.     and giving them technical meanings. A        their sediment to the Atlantic. W hen the
No cobbles, no conglomerate. They’re          cobble, then, isn’t just anything you’d      Ballena stopped flowing, some 40
the fruit and nuts in the Jell-O that make    pick up at Ballast Point; rather, it is a    million years ago, the rocks began a
it a salad.                                   rounded fragment of rock between 2.5         career of washing back and forth,
     Cobbles have long fascinated San         and 10 inches in diameter. (A rock of        becoming covered and uncovered and
Diegans. W hen on September 28, 1542,         this sort bigger than 10 inches is a         ever rounder as the ocean level rose and
Juan Cabrillo became the first European       boulder, and, according to Geology           fell and the seashore moved in and out.
to set foot in California, he most likely     Underfoot in Southern California, by             Abbott has traced the origin of the
stepped ashore on a cobble. Cabrillo          Robert Sharp and Allen Glazner, a            rocks to the Late Jurassic Period in
landed on a small bayside Point Loma          version between .17 and 2.5 inches is a      northern Sonora. Using laboratory
spit that was given the Spanish name of       pebble. Rocks themselves are, “Any           methods and the gleanings of many a
La Punta de los Guijarros— literally,         consolidated aggregation of minerals or      field expedition, he has identified an
“The Point of Small Rounded Stones,”          natural glasses.”)                           outcropping of bedrock eight miles west
though in a more eloquent rendering the           A broken cobble, with its flat           of the Mexican town of El Plomo that he
place came for a time to be known as          surfaces and angular edges, is a cobble      says is the remnant of “the mother
“Cobblestone Point.” Tradition has it         no more. But Kennedy, the professional,      mountain.” Rhyolite specimens from
that many of the point’s cobbles were         shows no remorse. Rather, he picks up a      here and the Nelson & Sloan quarry

                                                          Part One, Page 15
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                  Steven L. Shepherd

north of Lakeside match exactly. The         Some months ago a nearby house in               lie motionless— the first time they’ve
mother mountain was one of a string of       Burlingame changed hands. For decades           rested all day. Two of the men find a
ancient volcanos that dotted the             its previous owner had chosen not to live       new place— a grassy patch under some
continent’s edge from Mexico to              in the house, and effectively the house         trees in my front lawn. W hen first we
Canada, and 155 million years ago the        — a Craftsman bungalow— was unoccu-             catch sight of each other they make
volcano erupted, releasing rhyolitic lava    pied. During this time it fell into             quickly to rise— a gesture at once polite,
— probably explosively.                      disrepair, its paint flaking, roof leaking,     deferential, and apprehensive, as if I
    For 75 million years the lava lay on     foundation crumbling, and plaster falling       would think they were taking liberties
the ground and weathered, breaking into      from the lathwork. The home’s problems          — but I wave them down and they too lie
pieces. Then, says Abbott, the land          are such that nothing can be tackled            back then to collect themselves.
around El Plomo began to rise. Then as       directly, for to fix one thing requires first       W hile the men rest, Bruce and Renee
now the western edge of the continent        fixing another, and that another.               continue collecting cobbles. But now
was an area of great geologic activity.           The home’s new owners are brave            they begin loading the rocks into the
This is where two of the earth’s great       (“Though sometimes,” he says, “I won-           front of a backhoe, for Jesse has had the
floating slabs of crust meet and where       der what I’ve got myself into”). They are       machine parked next to a pile of leavings
the North American tectonic plate rides      also energetic and resourceful. And so it       from the excavator and after lunch an
up and over its western neighbor— and        is that as the excavator begins disgorg-        operator will carry the load to their
where the edge of that neighbor is driven    ing its troves of cobbles, Bruce appears        yard— an enormous savings in work for
slowly back into the earth’s interior, its   with a wheelbarrow, followed shortly            my neighbors and for which they are no
substance to melt and perhaps one day        thereafter by his wife, Renee, in the           doubt greatly appreciative.
reemerge as molten lava (precisely as        couple’s old VW van. Together, they
happened on May 18, 1980, when               begin collecting cobbles: the two of            March 19 (Wednesday, 12:30 p.m . to 2
magma from the subducting Juan de            them climbing over the moguls of earth          p.m .):
Fuca plate found a path to the surface       to pick out the rocks they want; they                Exactly at 12:30 the work resumes.
and erupted at Mount St. Helens).            lugging their selections to the wheel-          The machines restart, the noise returns,
Eighty million years ago the angle of        barrow; he wheeling the load to the van;        the men pick up where they left off. The
override between the plates changed and      she driving back to their home; there in        transition is seamless and immediate, but
the edge of the North American plate         the front yard a mound beginning to             soon the inevitable delays and disrup-
rose, the mother mountain and her com-       grow. They will use the stones to build a       tions begin. It isn’t long, for instance,
panions were uplifted, and the Ballena       fireplace. The house has one now, but           before the excavator hits a large cast-
began to flow, carrying sediment from        it’s in such bad shape, says Bruce, that        iron pipe. The pipe’s identity is a
the mountains to the sea. This, notes        “It makes more sense to tear it down and        mystery for it has not been marked with
Abbott, was before the Gulf of Cali-         replace it than to repair it.”                  squigglies, and to further confuse things
fornia had opened and when Southern               They wear only boots, gloves, and          it first gushes liquid then emits a strong
and Baja California were farther south       swim suits as they work, but even so            smell of gas.
— and so the river from Sonora flowed        they are soon bathed in perspiration; it is          A ruptured gas line is not a good
west to the area that eventually became      80 degrees and still the temperature is         thing. Mark Breshears tells of a
San Diego.                                   rising. Nor are they alone in this. In the      photograph he once saw of the remains
    Abbott tells me this story with          excavator, Breshears is sweating visibly;       of a bulldozer that had hit a buried gas
breathless enthusiasm. The earth he          periodically, he wipes his forehead on          main with its rippers. After breaking the
describes is dynamic, with colliding         his sleeve and takes great draughts of          pipe open, the dozer had somehow
masses and shape-shifting terrain; rocks     water from a jug on the floor. The              ignited the pressurized flow and was
have many lives and time is a concept        excavator’s cab is like a hothouse; it has      then caught in the ensuing inferno,
with little relation to a watch or           no air conditioning, is glass-enclosed on       pinned at the mouth of a gargantuan
calendar. Bringing his account to the        three sides, and has a glass-paneled roof       blowtorch. All that remained, says an
present, he tells me the last time the       — this now a standard feature to permit         awed Breshears, was a pile of blackened
cobbles were affected by a change in the     the viewing of overhead power lines.            char. (Nor are sewers devoid of such
ocean level was a million years                                                              risk. In April 1992 a sewer main in
ago— plus or minus a few hundred             March 19 (Wednesday, 12 noon to                 downtown Guadalajara blew up, hurtling
thousand years. This is how long they        12:30 p.m.):                                    trees and cars through the air, blasting
have lain undisturbed in the ground              At noon the street falls silent. Most       chasms 15 feet deep in the road,
before they were dug up this morning by      of the workers gather on the sidewalk           flattening 26 city blocks, and killing
the excavator.                               under a shade tree where they’ve been           over 200 people— the result of gasoline
                                             eating for the last few days; they set          that had leaked from a buried Pemex
                  ***                        down their coolers and water jugs, but          pipeline, infiltrated its way into the
                                             most do nothing at first except to sit or       sewer, volatilized, and ignited. Tijuana

                                                         Part One, Page 16
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                  Steven L. Shepherd

has suffered similar, though less            are simply left in the ground when they        in water systems throughout the country.
dramatic explosions. And there exists at     are retired, and their proliferation greatly   In fact, the only hazard posed by
least a possibility of such an event in      complicates the task of each new               asbestos pipes would be if they were
San Diego, where two years ago slicks        installation.                                  sawn into or hauled out and crumbled,
of aviation fuel were found in sewer             And so it is that shortly after the        thereby releasing breathable dust.
mains not far from the Navy’s Point          excavator hits the abandoned gas main it       Beginning in the 1980s, the city began
Loma fuel depot, and where, just blocks      then hits the water line to a house across     using PVC for its water mains; this is the
from my home, a gasoline line is buried      the street, though fortunately the pipe is     material Sewer and Water Group 78 will
under 28th Street— this just marked with     only kinked and not broken. This line          use later in the job when they install new
its own set of squigglies in preparation     had been properly marked, but the              water lines east of Burlingame.
for some future excavation. “Ten inch        problem was that about a foot before the           In a water system, the connection
high-pressure fuel,” say the marks.)         line the workers had found another water       from main to house is called a service
    No, you don’t want these things to go    line which they took to be the one             line. According to Kidman, the city’s
off. And at the first whiff of gas, Don      referred to by the blue squigglie. After       preferred material for services lines has
Gingrich, who is the first to examine the    finding the first line they weren’t            always been copper. Throughout the city
pipe, calls out loudly to everyone           expecting a second, although it turns out      there are copper service lines connecting
nearby: “No smoking!”                        the second is active and the first             homes and buildings to all three
    Momentarily he is puzzled by the         abandoned.                                     generations of main: cast iron, ACP, and
pipe. W hat is it? Nor does it help when         There is, I have discovered, an entire     plastic. But early on, says Kidman, there
I— watching from above and now acting        abandoned water system under the               were times when copper was scarce and
as kibitzer—mention the nearby gasoline      streets of Burlingame. Moreover, and           expensive and the city chose instead to
line. But soon he has made an                this I absorb only slowly and with a           use lead for its service lines. One such
identification: the pipe is an abandoned     mixture of disbelief and astonishment,         period was the early ’20s.
natural gas line. It contains some           these earlier lines were made of lead.             Along with its sewer, Burlingame’s
residual gas, which explains the smell,      Indeed, I would scarcely have thought it       first permanent water pipes were laid in
and the liquid proves to be water. All       true had I not seen and touched for            1924. They consisted of 4-inch cast-iron
abandoned pipes, says Gingrich,              myself the pipes’ soft whitish metal.          mains with lead service lines. This
eventually leak and fill with ground-        Lead pipes, I had thought, went out with       system served the neighborhood until
water. Despite the pipe’s abandonment,       the Romans. Or at least before the turn        1959, when it was superseded by the
however, he decides to apply a patch,        of the century, by which time the effects      current ACP and copper. For 35 years,
wrapping a rubber sleeve around the          of lead toxicity and chronic exposure          then, the neighborhood’s water was
damaged pipe and holding this in place       were well known: fatigue, irritability,        delivered through lead. It was about this
with a pair of screw-tightened stainless     anemia, brain, kidney, and liver disease,      same time, says Kidman, that the city be-
steel straps— an adaptation of what’s        mental retardation, and, in extreme            gan routinely replacing its lead service
called a Fernco coupling. This is a          cases, death, to all of which children are     lines with copper anytime streets were
decidedly temporary repair, but it’s an      the most vulnerable. It’s bad enough that      opened and pipes exposed. Eventually
expediency that will stop the further        we put this stuff in the paint. But the        most of the lines were replaced in this
flow of water into the trench.               water too? W hen did this start? W hen         manner, and in anticipation of the strict
    Some       months ago National           did it end?                                    limits on lead levels imposed in 1991 by
Geographic ran an article on the                 According to Kurt Kidman, a                the Safe Drinking Water Act, the city in
underground infrastructure of New York       spokesman for the city, San Diego began        1988 performed a survey to find all its
City. Included was an elaborate illustra-    laying water pipes in the 1890s. The first     remaining lead water services. Nine
tion showing the myriad systems that         mains (the big central pipes down the          hundred were located, and by 1992 all
help keep the city alive: subways and        middle of the street) were cast iron. At       had been replaced. Today there are no
lines for power, water, steam, sewer,        least one such pipe from 1890 is still in      municipal lead water pipes in San
telephone, and on and on. It was all very    use downtown under A Street, and               Diego.
complex and impressive, but from             overall there are some 250 miles of cast-          Kidman is upbeat and cheerful as he
watching the progress of Sewer and           iron mains in use throughout the city.         tells me all this. It’s a great success story
Water Group 78 I have come to realize            After World War II, the city began         and no doubt it beats talking about the
that the picture was nowhere near as         switching to water mains made of               city’s other problems with its infra-
complicated as the reality. It ignored       asbestos-reinforced concrete, called           structure. (It will be Kidman, for
what are essentially multiple ghost          ACP. Asbestos doesn’t sound like a             instance, who fields inquiries in the
images for each of the systems shown;        great improvement over lead, but               wake of a front page story that will run
that is, the generation upon generation of   Kidman assures me “It’s safe to drink          in tomorrow’s Union-Tribune. Head-
abandoned gas lines, sewer lines, water      asbestos” (a statement confirmed by            lined “City Water System Crumbling,”
lines, and more. Most of these systems       epidemiologic studies) and that it’s used      the story will detail how years of neglect

                                                         Part One, Page 17
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                   Steven L. Shepherd

have resulted in rusting water towers,        commences. Once the trench is refilled          mother cradling her young.
covered reservoirs on the verge of            and compacted, the backhoes begin a                 Toward the end, Ortiz’s street
collapse, aging pumps and treatment           flurry of gathering and piling excess dirt      sweeper begins working, its brush
plants, and corroded and leaking              for removal. One pairs off with the front-      wheels turning and raising more dust.
pipes— foremost among them those              loader and the two begin working in             Workers, too, begin pushing brooms,
remaining cast-iron mains. So bad has         tandem, the loader with its bigger scoop        and the closing minutes are marked by a
the situation become that the state has       driving into one side of a pile and             growing body of sweepers, as each man
stepped in and imposed a mandated             coming to a stop, while the backhoe             who finishes his earlier work grabs a
schedule of repairs (shades of the EPA)       from the opposite direction plunges             broom. Everyone wants to go home. The
and the total bill to fix things is           head-first toward the loader, scooping a        last tasks are the covering with
estimated at close to a billion dollars.      swath of dirt as it goes then feeding its       temporary asphalt of the dirt-filled strip
“Ah,” he might say, “but haven’t we had       gatherings to the Deere, the machines           down the middle of the street— a
cheap water these many years, and             kissing at the scoops as the load is            backhoe driver packing the mix in place
haven’t we liked that?”) And just so that     transferred. W hen the piles are gone, the      by running his machine rapidly back and
I might better appreciate the magnitude       Deere then hyperextends its bucket              forth over the covered strip— and the
of San Diego’s accomplishment with            downward and begins scraping dirt from          placing of steel plates over the few
respect to its lead pipes, Kidman lets slip   the pavement, its blade pressed so              remaining feet of open trench. Then,
a counterexample. Boston, he says, was        tightly to the road that arcs of smoke and      finally, the road barricades and detour
once plumbed entirely in lead.                dust trail behind as the operator works         signs are removed.
    And indeed, though Boston has also        the vehicle back and forth.
moved to purge itself, the problem there           Swirls of dust fill the air as the Deere   March 19 (Wednesday, 5 p.m .):
is huge and the going slow. The city still    and the other machines work. I can see              Quiet is on the street. The diesel
supplies consumers with such pamphlets        it, feel it, taste it. I wash my hands and      fumes have cleared. The workers have
as “Lead in Drinking Water: Facts             face, drink a glass of water, but still I       gone home, tired and spent. I too am hot
About Your Water System,” the entire          feel cloaked in dust. Inside and out, our       and grimy and in need of a shower. All I
water supply is chemically treated to         porch, windows, furniture are coated,           did was watch, but still I feel as though
reduce the rate at which it leaches lead,     and everywhere is dust. W hat misery, I         I’ve spent the day in the desert.
and more than a quarter of the city’s         think, must have been the Dust Bowl,                Jesse is the last to leave. “See you
homes and buildings are thought to have       when the great windstorms blew and the          tomorrow,” he says. Tomorrow it will
lead water pipes inside their walls. This     air filled with dust and people cleaned         begin again. Tomorrow, when the paper
nearly two thousand years after the           their houses with shovels. My father,           will say the high today at Lindbergh
cream of Roman society— who not only          born in Oklahoma in 1930, was too               Field was 86 degrees and set a record for
enjoyed lead plumbing but also such           young to remember those unholy                  this date— the last day of winter.
luxuries as lead-based cosmetics, lead-       Depression-era storms, when the prairie
sweetened wine, and lead tableware            had been broken and there was drought           March 20 (Thursday, 7:30 a.m . to 12
— began poisoning themselves into             and the red earth dried up and blew all         noon):
extinction.                                   the way to Washington, to Congress. But             The morning is still and quiet, and
                                              in 1955, in the last summer he lived at         the workers arrive slowly. Ten minutes
March 19 (Wednesday, 2 to 5 p.m .):           home, there was a lesser storm, and after       before starting time, Breshears turns on
    At midafternoon the digging stops.        the dust was raised it rained, and what         the excavator and begins warming it up.
They’ve gone as far as they’re going          came down, says my father, was mud.             He and a co-worker greet me in front of
today—not as far as the stripping             Red mud, as if the sky were weeping             my house and briefly we chat. Both are
extended this morning, and not quite to       bloody tears for the damage done to the         smoking. They like Burlingame— “The
the southern end of our property line.        land. So it could be worse. And besides,        people here seem friendly”— and I in
They didn’t reach our house.                  there is nothing to do now but bear it, for     turn tell them of my surprise at
    Kennedy and Baker leave as soon as        tomorrow there will be more.                    discovering the lead piping. The pipes of
the excavating stops, there being no               Equipment is parked or put away for        course are no news to them, and they
further chance today of a scientific find,    the night as it is no longer needed. First      dismiss with a shrug the hazards they
paleontologic or otherwise. Breshears         to be stored is the shoring, six pairs of       once posed. Their health concerns are
moves the excavator temporarily out of        which are plopped in a row in front of          far more immediate— not getting buried
the way and surrounds it with orange          our house. First to be parked is the            or maimed— and after all, says
safety standards. And the remainder of        excavator, which Breshears moves from           Breshears, “Life causes cancer, right?”
the day is spent laying and covering pipe     the middle of the street and parks next to      Then, sheepishly acknowledging his
and then cleaning up.                         the shoring, its tracks touching one end        cigarette, he tells me a joke: “You know
    Already intense, the pace of the work     of the row and its arm and bucket               the major cause of cancer among labora-
becomes even more so as the cleanup           stretched up and over to the other, like a      tory rats is scientists.”

                                                          Part One, Page 18
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                 Steven L. Shepherd

    Breshears’ companion is Greg             he now must fight continually, rising          Rocks and dirt and stuff gets in the
Weber. In contrast to B reshears, who        each day at 4:15 for an hour-and-a-half        hinges, and at the end of the day you’re
rarely strays from the excavator, Weber      of exercise that includes weight-lifting       fighting with them.” So why make a hard
performs an endless variety of tasks.        and an abdominal program. It’s a               job harder?
“We don’t really have job titles here,”      schedule forced on no orthodontist. And             Once the plates are out of the way,
he tells me. “But if you have to call me     despite the effort, says Corio, patting his    the excavator begins digging, a backhoe
something, call me a laborer- pipe-layer-    belly with both hands, “you can’t tell.”       snugs up behind, and yesterday’s parade
operator. I’m not really an operator, but         The work begins this morning with         reassembles. By 8:15 the first section of
we all do a little of everything. If you     the undoing of the last things done last       shoring is in place.
don’t, you don’t stay on the job long.       night. Breshears maneuvers the excava-              As work’s tempo increases,
And besides, the more you do, the more       tor to the front of the trench and begins      neighbors begin emerging among the
you’re worth.”                               lifting away the steel plates that cover       rising piles of dirt. Some come for
    Weber started his working life as a      the opening below. He is aided in this by      cobbles. A neighbor begins hauling
glass contractor. For nine years he had      a laborer who threads a chain through          stones to his front yard one by one;
his own business. And though he doesn’t      holes in the center of each plate and then     B r u c e and R e ne e arr ive w ith
say how he switched to underground, he       around a hook on the back of the               wheelbarrow and van; and a woman
does seem a man who knows himself.           excavator bucket, the chain draped as if       from outside the neighborhood begins
“I’ve got to be outdoors,” he says. “I’ve    over the back of someone’s knuckles.           filling the trunk of a car so new it lacks
got the grades to go to college, but I       Slowly, the bucket lifts and the plates        license plates.
can’t work in an office.”                    rise and Breshears sets them aside; later,          From across the street, Linda steps
    People follow different paths and        they’ll be picked up by the Deere and          out. Her interest, though, is not in rocks;
arrive at different conclusions, and days    stacked out of the way. These are big          rather, she looks for Jesse and repeats to
later when I talk to M ike Corio, he tells   pieces of steel— the biggest is 8 feet by      him a message she has already delivered
me a story that is many things Weber’s       15 feet and over an inch thick; two and a      by phone to the Ortiz front office. The
is not. Corio drives a backhoe and the       half tons—and to see them dangling and         two palm trees in her parkway, she tells
Deere on Sewer and Water G roup 78.          spinning slowly at the end of a chain is       him, are new, planted just weeks ago.
But there’s no doubt he could drive          to know trepidation. As with most              She believes her sewer line may be
almost anything else; he has been an         things, there’s a right and a wrong way        directly underneath one of the trees, and
equipment operator for more than 20          to lift the plates and doing it wrong can      if so, what does he intend to do about it?
years, and unlike Weber, this was his        have serious repercussions; chains can         And in any case, will he please be
first choice of occupations. But it’s a      come loose or get pinched and cut by           careful?
choice he now seems to lament:               bucket blades and the plates can go                 Yes, Jesse assures her, they’ll be
    “I shoulda went to college,” he says.    crashing. Gingrich has seen this happen.       careful. And even if the line runs under
“M y old man, he wanted me to go to          So too perhaps has the author of a red-        the tree, they can trench or tunnel
college— woulda paid my way. He              lettered warning tag I later see affixed to    beneath it. There’ll be no problem.
wanted me to be an orthodontist, or          a thick stack of plates delivered en                (Unlike a modern subdivision, in
something— whatever I wanted. But I          masse:                                         which the utilities are installed before
wanted that paycheck on Friday,                                                             the sidewalks and whose locations are
couldn’t wait. I wanted to hang out, be         WARN IN G : N O T APPRO VED FO R            then stamped in concrete (S for sewer),
one of the guys. I wanted the glory;            OVERHEAD LIFTING . S TAND CLEAR             our pink sidewalks preceded the utilities
being an operator— you know. Now I’m            O F PLATES . D O N O T PU T AN Y PART       and no such markings were used. The
paying the price.”                              O F BO D Y U N D ER O R N EAR PLATES .      path of each home’s sewer from founda-
    Part of that price is job insecurity.                                                   tion to street is therefore a mystery, and
Corio has been with Ortiz less than two      W hile Breshears uncovers the trench,          one recent result of this has been an
months, having come from a firm that         Weber makes ready the shoring,                 intense neighborly interest in the
just went broke. Erratic wages are a         inspecting and cleaning each unit with a       subject— many a sociable conversation
problem too; an operator, says Corio,        brush. As with countless other tasks on        over the last few days beginning with,
can make up to $60,000 a year if he          the job (the mens’ constant sweeping of        “W here’s your sewer line? Do you know
works year-round and receives the union      dirt from the lip of the trench, for           where your sewer is?”)
wages mandated on federally-funded           instance— an activity meant both to keep            Other neighbors, and the group that
jobs— “But you never do.” And there is       the workspace clear and to minimize the        is by far the largest and among whom I
the toll on a person’s body.                 risk of falling debris), the cleaning of the   must include myself, are interested in
    “In this business,” says Corio,          shoring is motivated equally by concerns       nothing but watching— for we have
“you’re either breaking your back or         for safety and efficiency. “At the             discovered that it is a great and shared
you’re sitting. It’s one of the two.”        beginning of the day,” says Weber, “you        pleasure to watch other people work.
Mostly he sits, and the result is a paunch   want them working as good as possible.         There are those who set up chairs on

                                                         Part One, Page 19
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                 Steven L. Shepherd

their front porch and prepare for a           somesuch— and all the while leaning on       co des and specifications are
lengthy stay, the sewer being vastly          his cane. Nor is Albert the morning’s        followed— that there always be four-
preferable to daytime television. There       only source of worry. For as the face of     tenths of a foot of gravel below the pipe,
are those like the soils engineer (he         the trench is pushed forward, Jesse’s        that the pipe have at least a foot of fall
whose water line was nicked yesterday         crew begins encountering large pockets       for every hundred feet traversed, that the
and who lives across the street from me       of unstable soil—soil with a propensity      ground is properly compacted and the
and two doors down from Linda), who           to cave in with each pass of the             concrete sufficiently strong. It is his job,
make their way to the trench and peer         excavator bucket. Because of the             too, to approve changes. A myriad
intently inside for a few minutes before      resulting uneven trench walls, the paired    details are his province (forever is he
they themselves leave for work. (Like         shoring assemblies are in places proving     checking plans and making notes), and
me, he can at least partly claim a            unsuitable and the men are increasingly      in the end it will be he who attests that
professional interest, and he asks the        having to resort to bare single units        the work has been satisfactory and Ortiz
workers a few questions and makes a           placed ad hoc. This slows things con-        should be paid.
few observations about use of the             siderably, but they will proceed no faster       He wears a blue hard hat. This is
sheep’s foot and soil compaction              than is safe.                                standard city issue. But somehow he
techniques. But mostly, as he and I stand         Still, there are incidents. Around       wears it to special effect, for together the
together and gaze into the depths below,      9:30, a section of wall comes loose and      man and the hat create an air of
I suspect my wife is right: “It’s a guy       a shower of rocks and dirt falls on the      experience and authority, an air of
thing.”) And there are those, like my         lone man in the trench. Immediately, the     politeness mixed with a dash of
neighbor John across the street, and          men topside inquire anxiously about his      detachment, an air of someone who has
Albert next-door, who are retired and         well-being— “Rafael, are you all right?”     seen much— the air one imagines
are likely today to do as they did            — and just as quickly he reassures them.     accrues with time to a blue-helmeted
yesterday, spending the bulk of the day       His hard hat has done its job. The work      U.N. observer stationed in one of the
simply prowling about, eager to see           continues.                                   world’s trouble spots: Bosnia, perhaps,
whatever there is to see.                         Directly in front of our house are       or Rwanda. He is a native of Jordan. For
    Like John, Albert is from Italy.          several areas where the cave-ins are so      the last three and a half years he has
Unlike John, however, Albert speaks           large that the road surface has become       been an engineer with the city of San
virtually no English and more than once       undermined by several feet— the              Diego, and before that, he says, softly
I’ve been invited into his house, shown       concrete and asphalt becoming a ledge        and with a wan smile, elsewhere and
a broken TV or other appliance, and           over empty space. If the pavement here       “for so long.” Elsewhere turns out
been asked to help make phone calls to        later breaks, as it likely will do, there    mostly to have been Kuwait, where he
arrange for repairs. Also unlike John         will be added costs to fill and cover the    worked for Kuwait Oil and from whence
— who spends many an hour gardening           enlarged opening, and to document this       he came in the wake of the Gulf War. “I
in his yard or making repairs to his          eventuality Jesse calls for a camera, with   saw the whole episode,” he says,
house, Albert is growing frail. He is 83      which he spends several minutes taking       including the fires that left the oil fields
and has a varied and growing list of          pictures. With the photographs, Ortiz        aflame and caused him to leave. “They
physical ailments, among which are hip        will argue that the unstable soil and        made,” he says, “for a drastic situation.”
disease and for which he now walks with       cave-ins were unforeseeable, that fixing
a cane. H e’s a kindly and handsome           them exceeds the scope of the contract,      March 20 (Thursday, 12:30 to 5 p.m.):
man, and makes a dapper figure as he          and that the city should therefore bear          Patently, sewers invite scatology.
walks the block with his cane and an          the expense. The city, in contrast, will     W hen I mention the work on our street
English touring cap over his white hair.      argue that Ortiz is an experienced           to someone outside the neighborhood,
But his steps are short and slow, and it is   contractor, that such events are individ-    there follows invariably a string of off-
not hard to imagine Jesse’s unease as         ually unpredictable but their general        color jokes and observations. Nonethe-
Albert begins to pick his way around the      occurrence is not, and that Ortiz should     less, the men of Sewer and Water Group
piles of dirt and to stand unsteadily at      therefore have included a sufficient         78 seem remarkably uninterested in such
the lip of the trench, its bottom 12 feet     margin in its bid to recoup such             commentary, finding it perhaps obvious
down and the precipice inducing even in       costs— if it hasn’t already.                 or simply something of which they’ve
me an unpredictable bit of vertigo now            The person who will decide this          had enough. Not until this morning did I
and then. “If one of you guys falls in,”      issue, and the others like it that occur     hear from any of them a potty remark.
Jesse tells me, “I’ll get in a lot of         almost daily, is Samir Abuqaoud, the             All morning the trench was pushed
trouble.”                                     city’s Resident Engineer. Abuqaoud is        past the front of my house. The new
    It makes Jesse feel no better when I      the city’s enforcer—its eyes, ears, and      sewer is being laid at nearly twice the
tell him that more than once I have seen      onsite repository of expertise. It is his    depth of the old, and one result is that as
Albert walking about on his roof,             job to ensure that the city’s design and     the excavator crosses the paths of the
inspecting a patch of shingles or             contract are adhered to and the proper       existing laterals, the severed ends of

                                                          Part One, Page 20
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                                  Steven L. Shepherd

these pipes are left open midway up the        done properly, it is buried and               The men quit early today, earlier at least
trench wall. Later, they will be con-          forgotten—no one ever says, “Great            than yesterday. By four o’clock, they
nected to the new main via a temporary         sewer job!” Only if there are mistakes or     have gone and quiet is on the street.
riser, and later still the old laterals will   failures will anybody ever again pay          Quiet and dust. Now there is a second
be replaced with new, deeper laterals          attention.                                    layer, on the porch, on the windows, on
that feed directly into the new main. But                                                    the screens, and— only a little less
before all this happens, the old laterals                        ***                         thickly— on everything in the house. It is
are left for a time to empty into thin air.                                                  discouraging to be so awash in grim, but
    It was just after this moment, when        This morning, after spending more time        still there is no point in cleaning it up,
the open end of the pipe from our house        than he cared to watching Albert              for tomorrow there will be more.
lay newly flush with the wall of the           amongst the dirt and machines, Jesse               Of progress, they trenched today
trench, that I wandered by for a look.         asked me if there was anyone in the           almost to the site of the new manhole
Greg Weber was inside the trench; the          neighborhood who could “communicate           that will lie in the crook of the dogleg on
pipe’s orifice was just over his head and      with the old guy?” He noted that Albert       Maple, just off the corner of my house.
he was just beginning to dig out from          can’t move very fast, and he wanted to        In addition to my house, Albert’s was
around it a dimple of earth to provide         warn him to stay away from the edge of        also temporarily connected to the new
clearance for the fittings that would          the trench. “’Cause if my boss comes out      main, and across the street so was
follow. I stood above him and looked           here and sees him, I’ll get in a lot of       Linda’s and that of her downstream
down.                                          trouble.”                                     next-door neighbor. Of plans, Jesse says
    “So that’s it?” I asked. “That’s our           Yes, I said, my neighbor John can         tomorrow they’ll dig the new manhole
sewer pipe?”                                   talk with Albert— they are paesani. And       and start replacing laterals, mine
    “That’s it,” he said, followed by          so it is that shortly after we are hooked     included. There will be more dust.
silence, interrupted only by the sounds        up, John appears in his front yard to              We have no excavator in front of our
of digging.                                    water plants and Jesse walks over to talk     house tonight. But in its place are a half-
    Then, “You’re not going to take a          with him. Later, John related to me their     dozen pairs of shoring, a huge steel
pooh and run out here and chase it, are        conversation:                                 plate, a backhoe, and a Bobcat.
    No, I told him, I wasn’t going to do           Jesse: “I understand you speak a little                     ***
that. Though I suppose it’s happened.          Italian.”
                                                   John: “I think I speak a lot of           The Tale of the Palm (Act I; Eventide):
                   ***                         Italian.”                                         Early this evening, while the silence
                                                   Jesse: “But you understand English?”      is still palpable and before the brilliant
It is just after lunch that Weber makes            John: “I understand a little English”     and fuzzy Hale-Bopp has appeared in
the temporary connection between our                                                         the western sky, I find Linda in the
lateral and the new main. I miss the act            “He said,” John told me, “he ask me      parkway next to one of her new palms.
itself, but its completion is marked by        for a favor. And I don’t blame him. He        The tree is slightly askew.
the heaving out of the trench of               said he was going to have the call the            “They dug up my tree,” she says.
unneeded pieces of pipe and fittings.          police if he couldn’t commu… How you              She is livid. Her face is beyond red.
Peering over the edge, I see that the          say? Communications with him. And he          It is white and her eyes are bulging.
connection consists of a white PVC 8-          didn’t want to do that. But he ’xplain        (Later, my wife tells me, “I’ve seen you
inch to 4-inch Y fit into the new main, a      that if a ’spector came out, he could get     with that same expression.”)
green plastic riser perhaps 5 feet in          a $10,000 fine, himself. So I don’t blame         “They dug up my tree,” she repeats.
length, a bevy of short pipes and              him. I tell him I will help him.”                 “Why would they do that?” I ask.
“elbows” sufficient to negotiate the                And he does. Later, when the men             “They wanted to find my sewer line.
necessary angles, and, at the point of         have left and the street is empty and I am    It runs right under my tree, and they
connection, a rubber sleeve slipped over       sitting alone on my porch, watching,          wanted to find it. They were looking for
the exposed end of our old concrete            John crosses the street— throwing a be-       the sewer and they took out my tree.”
lateral and held in place by stainless         mused glance my way— and approaches               “I am so angry. I talked to Jesse this
steel clamps— a Fernco coupling. We            Albert in his yard. They talk. And on his     morning and I asked him to be careful. I
are hooked up.                                 way back, he gives me a report: Albert        explicitly forbade them to touch my tree,
    There is, though, no celebration.          will keep his distance, honoring the          and they have defied my wishes. I am so
Rather, the men begin covering their           request to assure his safety. But we both     angry.”
work almost immediately. This is the           wonder: how now to repair his pride?              “Are you sure of that?” I ask. “How
nature of what they do: there is no                                                          can you be sure?”
admiring of one’s handiwork, no                                  ***                             “W hat other explanation is there?
opportunity for kudos. If the work is                                                        I’ve already called my gardener”— (he

                                                           Part One, Page 21
San Diego Reader, March 12, 1998                                                                              Steven L. Shepherd

of the last tree incident)— “and it wasn’t   saying there’s no other viable explana-      they’ll make it right. But our words are
him. So who else could it have been?         tion, me saying it’s premature to draw a     to no avail. We have fixed ourselves into
The soil’s been disturbed, the tree’s        conclusion and why not simply talk to        positions.
cock-eyed, and they needed to get in         Jesse in the morning, see what he’s got          She owns a Fiat. It’s old and
here? W ho else could it have been?”         to say. And unavoidably it seems I am        temperamental and rarely runs and Linda
    “Well,” I suggest, “the tree could       drawn into her drama. I like my              has now superseded it with a newer
simply have settled. It makes no sense       neighbor. She comes often to our house       vehicle; accordingly, she parks the Fiat
that they’d dig up your tree.” And I tell    for dinner and helps often to look after     at the end of her driveway in a spot from
her that I was watching everything that      our cat; more important, she is a strong     which it hasn’t moved for months. All
went on out here for virtually the entire    and principled woman and treats others       the same, her last fiery words to me are
day. The only time I was gone was from       as she expects them to treat her. But        a vow to resurrect the dead car: “I’ll
1:30 to 2:30, when I went for a walk.        somehow this evening I have become           park the goddamn Fiat in front of that
    “So that’s when it happened,” she        proxy and apologist for those who have       tree and I won’t let them touch a
says.                                        defied her wishes and tried to cover it      goddamn thing on this street until
    This seems to me a narrow window         up, and I feel helpless to extricate         they’ve taken that tree out by hand and
of time in which to have dug up a tree,      myself.                                      replanted it in sand, just like it was.”
probed for an elusive sewer, and                 She is fuming when last we speak, as         And so we part for the evening— I
replanted the tree. It seems, too, rather    the comet makes itself plain and bright      hoping for a less confrontational
farfetched that Jesse and his men would      over her house, and she tells me I would     resolution in the morning, while
have selected just this bit of time when I   be just as mad if it were my tree and that   pondering too the thought that perhaps
was gone but there were other neighbors      she can’t understand why I can’t see why     my reluctance to see the situation as she
still around to do something so              she’s upset. There are, I counter, an        does is symptomatic of some more
nefarious, and that they would so            infinite number of screw-ups with which      general failure to stand up for myself or
carefully have covered up the deed but       a person could take issue and you simply     to insist on the accountability of
then left a bit of disturbed earth and a     can’t chase them all. Moreover, the          others— a deficiency or sign of weak-
slightly leaning tree as evidence. But she   contractors seem to have shown               ness. And I wait too for the gasping
is insistent.                                themselves conscientious—if they were        sounds of the Fiat underway. The sound
    We go back and forth on this—she         responsible for a problem, I assume          of a call to battle. #

                                                         Part One, Page 22
volume 27/                                                                                                   M arch 19, 1998
num ber 11

                                          SAN DIEGO WEEKLY

Jesse Garcia looks down at Genaro Tapia                    Photography by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.      PART TWO OF TWO
during Wayne ball and mandrel test

                                                                                                M         arch 21 (Friday, 7 a.m.

Diary of a Sewer Repair
                                                                                                to 3 p.m.) . . . and including,

                                                                                                The Tale of the Palm (Act II):

                                                                                                    The Fiat is not to be seen

The Coming to Burlingame of Sewer
                                                                                                w h e n firs t I p ee k th is m o rn -

                                                                                                in g . It rem ain s in th e d r iv e -

and Water Group 78
                                                                                                w a y a n d th e tr e e u n p r o t e ct -

                                                                                                ed. In contrast, Linda ap-

                                                                                                p e a rs in h er yard w h i le I a m

                                                                                                taking out my trash, and I
                                   by Steven L. Shepherd
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                     Steven L. Shepherd

call out a greeting. She responds, but our       new main. Our house will wait.                every similar instance so far. But later in
exchange is tinged with strain, and in                An exception to this new plan            the day when it comes time to do so, two
truth I am a little fearful of reigniting her    appears to involve Linda’s house. Due         things become readily apparent: 1) that
wrath.                                           probably to a desire on Jesse’s part to       this will be a less than straight-forward
    As the early morning unfolds I               have her sewer located and replaced by        task, and 2) that Linda has already
remain both curious and apprehensive,            the time they meet again this afternoon,      succeeded at least partially in intimidat-
not having yet discerned my neighbor’s           a pair of men begin working in front of       ing Ortiz’s crew. For as they begin
strategy. Finally, I see Jesse knocking on       her house as soon as she leaves for work      returning the grass, several pieces are
her porch and the two of them together           this morning.                                 found to be missing— tossed in with the
venturing out to her tree. He appears                 They begin with shovels, potholing a     fill dirt over the new lateral. The
calm, receptive to what she has to say.          few feet to the side of the aggrieved         prospect of facing Linda’s ire over some
She, determined, though absent last              palm. W hen the hole is several feet deep     lost real estate is seemingly more than
night’s fury. She builds her case with a         and the pipe is still not found, the men      the men can deal with, and to avoid the
multiplicity of gestures, and several            switch to a jackhammer, its use               problem they soon arrive with several
times pushes vigorously on the tree. “It’s       accompanied by earth-rattling noise,          replacement chunks of turf— these
loose,” she seems to indicate, “and it           rising plumes of dust, and white jets of      cannibalized from less problematic
wasn’t like that before— I know, because         vented air. Soon the hammer is lost from      neighbors down the street.
I’m the one that planted it.” He listens         sight inside the deepening hole. But still
and nods, is patient.                            the sewer remains hidden.                     March 21 (Friday, 3 to 5 p.m.)
    After a time, and several more                    A conference ensues and the men          . . . consisting entirely of
pushes on the tree, she goes inside to           change tactics, painting on the street        The Tale of the Palm (Act III):
make a phone call. H e takes the oppor-          next to the curb a rectangle encompass-             Linda arrives home exactly at three.
tunity to talk with several of his men,          ing an area of perhaps 2 feet by 6, and       Jesse is there, along with four workmen
and when she returns, they talk again.           stretching in length from the center of       who are busying themselves with putting
Finally, they part. She inside. He to his        the palm to a point just past Linda’s         the finishing touches on the patch of
crew. The exchange has been, if not              water box. Using the jackhammer they          asphalt laid temporarily in place of the
amicable, respectful.                            cut around the rectangle and with a           section of pink sidewalk removed to
    Later, she shows me a scrape mark            backhoe they then attempt to break the        access her sewer. John is watching from
on the side of the tree. A piece of              pavement into chunks. But the concrete        next-door. Three bags of sand lie at the
equipment hit it, they decided. W hatever        here is harder than the backhoe is strong,    base of the palm— these delivered at
it was, the operator probably didn’t even        and next they summon the hydro-               noon by a man from the Ortiz front
realize it— probably just barely tapped          hammer, which arrives attended by a           office.
the tree. Later, someone else may have           Bobcat to help clear the debris.                    W hen she gets out of her car, Linda
noticed the disrupted soil and tidied it              The job escalates. Dirt and equip-       examines the missing sidewalk, then the
up. The tree itself, she thinks — after          ment accumulate. The sewer hides. And         tree. She talks to Jesse. She pushes the
talking with the folks who sold it to            all this is replicated elsewhere down the     tree. She goes inside to make a phone
her— may have suffered a broken or               street, where other laterals are also in      call. The men stand and wait, looking at
damaged crown, meaning the plane of              hiding. All for want of some S’s.             the tree. It is the first time in two months
connection between trunk and rootball.                Eventually, though, the laterals are     I have seen any of them idle.
At three o’clock this afternoon, she says        found. Linda’s turns out to be just                 All is now quiet. The street is swept,
— “The earliest I could get off work”            beyond her water box, more than six feet      the equipment put away, the soft asphalt
— Jesse will have the tree dug up so they        from the palm. Once found, there              laid, and the men ready to go home for
can examine it. If the crown is damaged          follows the digging up of the old line        the weekend. They begin to fidget, and
or the rootball broken, Ortiz will replace       and the laying of the new, the tying into     soon—while Linda is still on the
the tree. If not, they’ll replant it. In sand.   the new main, and the refilling of the        phone— they start digging. (Later, she
                                                 trench— the routine complicated some-         tells me they were “hacking” at the
                    ***                          what in Linda’s case by the need to work      roots, showing none of the care she’d
                                                 around her water line and by the              used in planting the tree.) She reappears
Plans change, and the work this morning          necessary removal of the parkway grass        and the men stop digging, step back and
proves to involve neither the digging of         between palm and water box.                   look at the tree, while Linda again
the new manhole nor the installation of               There is no doubt that the men who       circles, pushes, and repeats that it had
our new lateral. Rather, Jesse seems to          remove Linda’s grass (and who know            been perfectly upright.
have decided to address the laterals by          nothing of the fire leveled recently at the         “I’m afraid,” she says, “that some-
starting from the point where last he left       gardener who dug up her lawn) fully           thing was snapped under there.”
off— that is, with houses nearer the             intend to replace the grass once their              Still the men stand. The tree is worth
Y— and working upstream along the                work is finished. This they have done in      $150, and, at the standing-around price

                                                              Part Two, Page 2
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                     Steven L. Shepherd

of five men, I imagine it won’t be long        place, steel is hoisted, a jackhammer lets      are good. In the backhoes they levitate.
before Ortiz could buy her a new tree          rip, rock harvesters appear, and a              They crabwalk—using outriggers and
and still count himself ahead. Moreover,       neighborly multitude begins pacing the          boom to move the machines sideways.
it is payday and the gathering is growing      sidewalks, asking each other— again—            And they never waste a motion, never
quickly. Eventually, Jesse and Donnie          “Do you know where your sewer is?”              lift a bucket higher or extend a boom
walk off and confer, and when they                 Soon, laterals are being excavated.         farther than is necessary. They could
return Jesse hands out paychecks,              Down the street, preparations get under         probably, said one neighbor to a grand-
apparently along with the instruction to       way for the arrival of concrete trucks          son, “give you a shave.”
most of the men to go home— although           and the pouring of pavement and                      Amazing to watch is their hands. On
he does tell one to first park a backhoe       sidewalk. And at our house, a young             the backhoes are a row of long-stemmed
in front of our house, where already we        laborer appears and begins digging              black-knobbed levers (one each for the
have a Bobcat and a row of shoring.            chunks out of my lawn. He works in a            up and down of boom, stick, sleeve, and
     Three men with shovels remain as          long strip next to the sidewalk and over        bucket; foot pedals control left and
Linda and Jesse resume their negotia-          the presumed location of our sewer              right), and the operators grasp and work
tions. “If you can get it good and             pipe— the path of which as been guessed         all four knobs simultaneously, as if man-
level,… ” I hear her say. And soon she         at by eyeballing a line from the last           ipulating an undulating serpent. In the
steps back and begins motioning with           visible location of the sewer under our         excavator, Breshears controls the digg-
her hands— a little this way, a little that    house to the spot in the street where last      ing with a pair of joysticks that sit just
— while the men push and throw shovels         week the riser was joined to the main.          off each arm rest; all day he guides the
of dirt under the tree.                        This should give a good idea of where           huge machine with the merest twists and
     They seem to have come to an              the pipe is, but still it takes half an hour    flicks of the wrists. “I couldn’t really tell
agreement. “W here do you want the             with shovel and pry bar to find it. Lines       you how it works,” he says. “But when I
sand?” asks Jesse. And after she shows         are then painted to indicate where the          get in it, my hands know what to do.”
them exactly where by the side of the          street should be sawn, and soon Joaquin              True, pragmatics drive these abili-
house she wants the bags, the men sweep        comes with the saw. And then . . .              ties. But the opportunity to transform the
up while she checks yet once again on          nothing. The rest will wait till tomorrow;      mundane is ever present, and so it seems
the tree’s plumbness. Within minutes,          a pile of dirt and rocks sits on the side-      something more that informs a maneuver
the workers leave and Jesse and Linda          walk, and on my lawn are several                I see performed by Breshears weeks
talk a final time— he walking to her           squares of upturned turf— on which I            later. He was parking the excavator for
porch to ask if she’s satisfied.               keep an eye so as to prevent their pos-         the night, alone and on a side street;
                                               sible migration.                                boom and cab were forward as he rumbl-
                   ***                             Instead, the morning’s principal act-       ed toward his destination— a spot paral-
                                               ivity is the excavation of the last few feet    lel to the curb and under a powerline.
The Tale of the Palm (Its Conclusion):         of trench before the new manhole off the        But as he got closer, he began simultane-
    “I’m not happy,” Linda tells me later.     corner of my house and of the space for         ously swiveling the cab to the rear, low-
“But I’m satisfied we’ve reached an            the manhole itself. The latter represents       ering the boom to clear the powerline,
agreement that they’ll make good on the        a sizeable void: 8 feet by 8 feet by 12         and tucking the bucket for its overnight
tree if it turns out to have been              feet deep; nearly 30 cubic yards— and           stay. All was motion. Then, just as the
damaged.” Specifically, Jesse will give        Breshears sculpts it perfectly, with            machine reached its berth, all was com-
her a written statement that Ortiz will        straight sides, square corners, and a flat      plete. Breshears climbed from the cab
replace the tree if, within a year of the      bottom sloped to continue the grade of          and walked away. W hether he’d planned
end of the project, the tree appears not to    the pipes that will enter and exit the          the move or even thought of it con-
be doing as well as its partner.               manhole. The neatness and accuracy of           sciously, I don’t know, but momentarily
    She also says— small nugget of             the hole are of more than cosmetic sig-         he’d given the beast the grace of a
consolation for me— that she no longer         nificance, for they have the effect of          dancer.
believes the men deceitfully dug up her        minimizing the need for additional man-
tree at the outset. The excavator, she         ual labor and materials. On the main            March 24 (Monday, 11:30 a.m . to 4:30
thinks, was the culprit. The act was not       trench, says Breshears, he is expected to       p.m .):
intentional. But lest I misunderstand. . . .   come within an inch of grade. If he digs            As soon as Breshears pulls the exca-
    “I’m still not happy about it.”            too deeply, money will be wasted on             vator out of the way, other men begin
                                               extra gravel; too shallow and the pipe          spreading gravel across the bottom of
M arch 24 (Monday, 7:30 to 11:30               will be inadequately cushioned— and             the hole, and at noon a worker arrives
a.m .):                                        Samir could make the crew redo its              from B&W Precast Construction, Inc.,
     The weekend has been blissful, but        work.                                           out of San Marcos. “Manufacturers &
all starts anew this morning. The street is        It is economics that impel the opera-       Installers of Precast Concrete Man-
blocked off, equipment moved into              tors to develop their skills. But still, they   holes,” says the card of Pat Senteno. A

                                                            Part Two, Page 3
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                  Steven L. Shepherd

concrete truck appears as well, and at        one against the other and building edges.                        ***
the direction of Senteno, the truck’s dri-    Seamlessly, he blends the sides and
ver begins pouring concrete into the          bottom of the channel so they form a          Five minutes after the pad is finished,
bottom of the hole, piling it atop the        deep U in cross-section, and to the path      Ortiz’s crew begins filling the trench on
gravel in a loose mound, like a dish of       of the whole he gives a gentle curve so       the outlet side. By 3:00 pm, the hole has
soft-frozen ice cream. The concrete, says     the sewage will flow unimpeded.               been covered with steel, and on the
the driver, is mixed at seven sacks of            The concrete is by now sufficiently       street clean-up is beginning. The day is
cement per cubic yard, an unusually high      stiff that all the curves and edges will      winding down.
concentration that will not only give the     hold their place, and once the channel is
finished product exceptional strength but     formed, Senteno lifts out the metal ring      March 25 (Tuesday, 7:30 a.m . to 12
will also cause the mix to “go off fast.”     and hands it up top to a man from Ortiz.      noon):
Meaning it will set quickly.                  He then climbs from the hole, gathers              I use the toilet early this morning,
    W hen the chute is clear and the truck    materials from the back of his truck, and     worried that I might otherwise need to
waved off, Senteno props a ladder inside      mixes a two-gallon bucket of sand,            do so later when our sewer line is
the hole and climbs in. The truck has         water, and cement. He carries the             disconnected and exposed. My wife and
poured 1½ cubic yards of concrete, and        resulting “slurry” back into the hole and     son are on vacation for a few days and I
with a shovel Senteno rapidly begins          with a trowel slathers it thinly atop the     am alone in the house. And so it is that
flattening the pile into a circular pad       surface of pad and channel. The result is     when I am done, I flush a half dozen
some 6 feet in diameter and 1½ feet           a smooth, almost slick finish.                times to ensure the line is clear. This
thick. In the center of the disc he then          Finally, he checks one last time with     seems a peculiar form of social propriety
places a 4-foot diameter metal ring,          the level that the manhole will sit flat on   — making sure the inside of your sewer
which he tamps flat using a pocket-size       the pad and the sewage will have the          is clean— but having made pals with the
spirit level for guidance. This is the only   proper fall as it courses through the         sewer guys over the last few days, I
form he will use in shaping the pad.          channel. All is well and out he climbs,       would be mortified if there were un-
    In the dogleg that Maple Street takes     withdrawing the ladder behind him.            toward contents in the pipe when they
through our neighborhood, the manhole         Tomorrow the manhole will be                  went to break it open— and particularly
Senteno is building sits in the hock of       “stacked”— topped, that is, with the          if I were standing there watching.
the turn. Embedded in one edge of the         precast components whose combined                  At a quarter to eight, two laborers ap-
wet concrete pad is the end of the just-      height will total 10 feet, 7 inches, the      pear before my house and begin remov-
laid main past the front of my house; its     measured height from street level to the      ing the sidewalk over the lateral. The old
mouth now forms the outlet from the           bottom of the new pad. At 1:25, less          concrete is so weak that they succeed in
manhole-in-the-making. Coming in from                                                                                    breaking it out
the upstream, east-running portion of                                                                                    with nothing
Maple will be the inlet pipe— which has                                                                                  more than a
not yet been trenched or laid. Using his                                                                                 m anu a l pr y
shovel, Senteno begins shaping a foot-                                                                                   bar. I’ve seen
wide concrete ledge around the outside                                                                                   this happ en
of the ring; before the ledge is                                                                                         elsewhere in
completed, and at a spot some 120                                                                                        the neighbor-
degrees from the outlet, he scoops from                                                                                  hood, and in-
below the ring enough concrete to ac-                                                                                    deed, it seems
commodate a short length of new sewer                                                                                    the dirt in Bur-
pipe. The male end of this stub is girdled                                                                               lingame—
by a fat rubber O-ring that Senteno sets                                                                                 which often
within the wet concrete and covers to                                                                                    yields only to
form a seal; the female end points                                                                                       a jackhammer
toward the eastward portion of Maple                                                                                     — is tougher
Street. The manhole now has an inlet.         Worker carries 20-foot length of 4-inch PVC                                than its pink
    Having created inlet, outlet, and                                                                                    sidewalks.
perimeter, Senteno next takes up a pair       than 90 minutes after he started, Senteno          Also stronger— and considerably
of hand trowels and begins smoothing          leaves for another job. Generally he          so— is the many-layered road. In a
the flat inside surface of the pad. At the    works with a partner, and they make,          replay of last week’s scenario at Linda’s,
same time, he crafts the channel that will    says the partner, an average of five man-     the backhoe that arrives to begin strip-
connect inlet and outlet across the           hole pads a day—though they’ve done           ping the pavement from between
bottom of the manhole— first scooping         as many as twelve.                            Joaquin’s sawcuts is soon thwarted. As
out a trough, then working the trowels                                                      before, the backhoe’s failure prompts a

                                                           Part Two, Page 4
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                  Steven L. Shepherd

call for the hydrohammer. But now the         — brass devices that screw together after      spacer ring, and a cast-iron manhole lid
old and aging hydrohammer is a few            first slipping over the joining pipe ends      and frame. The truck stops directly
days older still, and after a few revs and    in such a manner that the ends are             abreast of the manhole-to-be, and its
thumps it begins to back up, and . . .        grasped and sealed as the coupling is          driver too begins immediately to work.
goes nowhere. The transmission has            tightened. I’ve never seen such things             The vulnerability of concrete to
failed.                                       and at first am a little dubious as to their   sewer gas is the very reason our old
    Jesse could fiddle with it. He could      durability.                                    sewer main is being replaced: sewage
have someone else fiddle with it. He              “How long will these last?” I ask          creates sewer gas, which contains
could call Ortiz’s mechanic. But mostly       Don.                                           hydrogen sulfide, which reacts with
he wants to get our lateral done, and             “Longer than you will,” he says.           water to form sulfuric acid, which
because it’s only 30 feet from curb to        W hich I guess is long enough.                 attacks and destroys concrete. None of
main, he decides instead to chain the                                                        this chemistry has changed recently, but
hydrohammer to the backhoe and tow it                            ***                         there have been innovations enabling the
backwards every few feet as the road is                                                      continued use of concrete. Each of the
crushed. Then, when the task is done,         At 10:15, while the work on our water          concrete parts just delivered is com-
the backhoe pulls the hydrohammer out         and sewer continues, a truck from B&W          pletely lined on the inside with a thick
of the way and leaves it.                     arrives at the site of the new manhole.        layer of white PVC. Molded every few
    As was also true at Linda’s, our          Senteno is inside, though today’s driver       inches to the backside of the lining are
sewer and water lines appear to be quite      is Robert Lara, his partner. Buckets,          protruding T-shaped ribs that are em-
close —the concrete service box housing       shovels, rolls of white plastic, and           bedded into the concrete and hold the
our water meter, for example, borders         assorted other tools and supplies festoon      liner in place; these ribs give the whole
the section of sidewalk just removed. No      their truck’s overhead racks, while about      protective system its name: T-Lock. And
doubt the lines were laid close to avoid      its flat bed are arrayed steel chests, bags    it is to further enhance the T-Lock’s
the work of digging two trenches, but the     of cement, bins of sand bin, and a             abilities that the men of B&W now de-
practice is now frowned upon for              mixing tub. Immediately, the men set to        vote themselves.
sanitary reasons. It has other disadvan-      work— Senteno mixing mortar while                  W hen Senteno finishes mixing the
tages as well, and one becomes apparent       Lara throws supplies from the truck,           mortar, he climbs into the manhole and
the minute the backhoe begins digging                                                                                 cleans the pad’s
the trench for our lateral.                                                                                           surface with a
    It is 9:00 a.m. and I am right there as                                                                           brush. He then
the backhoe reaches to remove a first                                                                                 pulls off long
scoop of earth from the exposed passage                                                                               pieces of mastic
through our sidewalk, as it curls and re-                                                                             — the wax paper
tracts the bucket— as it yanks out our                                                                                separating with
water line, a great dangling length of -                                                                              the ripping
tubing flopping awkwardly from a tooth                                                                                sound of tape
on the bucket. This to the accompan-                                                                                  stripped from a
iment of a great spray of water and an                                                                                roll—and lays
immediate flood. Normally, the line                                                                                   these just inside
would enter the box from the street, pass                                                                             the pad’s circu-
through the meter, exit out the other end                                                                             lar rim. A buck-
of the box, and continue on in roughly                                                                                et of mortar is
the same direction. So who would have                                                                                 lowered by
expected my water line to instead make        Neighbors watch the work                                                crane, and this
an immediate right turn and cross                                                                                     Senteno pours
directly over the top of the sewer?                                                                                   in a smaller con-
    One of the men shuts off the flow of      including coiled rolls of black mastic, a      centric circle just inside the mastic.
water, leaving me for the moment              tarlike material an inch square in             Above him, the driver of the big flatbed
without water or sewer. And for the next      cross-section and stuck on one side with       duplicates these same preparations on
hour, while the backhoe and laborers          waxed paper.                                   the top edge of one of the big cylinders.
resume their work, Don Gingrich gathers           Within minutes a second B&W                    Meanwhile, Lara begins attaching a
tools and materials and sets about fixing     flatbed arrives, this one larger and           strip of thick white vinyl to the inside of
our water line. He does this using            mounted with a crane. On its back sit          the spacer ring that will sit at the top of
flexible copper tubing (which eliminates      two immense concrete cylinders and a           the concrete stack. He does this with
the need for soldered, jointed turns) and     concrete cone of similar dimensions;           what amounts to a $1,000, industrial-
what he calls compression couplings           also on board are a 5-inch-thick concrete      strength hair dryer, fusing the spacer’s

                                                           Part Two, Page 5
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                Steven L. Shepherd

plastic liner and the vinyl strip while at    and lid— the latter marked in a great        me, Samir, the sidewalk, and my lawn.
the same time positioning the strip so as     circle of letters,                              In minutes, the trench has been filled
to overlap with the piece below when the                                                   and compacted. I can flush. Supposedly,
spacer is set in place. Later, when the             CITY OF SAN DIEGO                      I won’t be similarly discommoded for
manhole has been stacked and the sur-                        SEW ER                        another 60 years.
rounding earth and street restored, Lara
will return and place similar vinyl strips                                                 March 25 (Tuesday, 12:30 to 4:30
                                              and, in smaller letters on the periphery,
over every interior joint; the edges of                                                    p.m .):
                                              the lid’s birthplace:
these wide strips will then be covered                                                         After lunch the laborers who
with thinner strips, so that every joint is                   M E X IC O
                                                                                           yesterday dug up my lawn return to
doubly sealed. Inside, the manhole will                                                    replace it, dropping the squares of turf
gleam hospital white. Later still, when       Cast-iron manhole lids are apparently an     into the approximate places from
the concrete of the pad has fully cured,      international commodity, and elsewhere       whence they came and stomping them
another B&W crew will return to apply         in Burlingame we now have lids from          home with their boots. The squares are
a thick epoxy coating to the bottom of        India and China.                             noticeably uplifted at the edges and
the manhole.                                      At 11:00, the manhole is stacked and     sagging in the middle.
     Aesthetically, Lara dislikes this last   the flatbed leaves. So too in a few min-         Next, the men rake and spread flat
step. The newest designs, he says, call       utes will Senteno and Lara. But first,       the compacted dirt over which my
for precast pads already surfaced with        Senteno takes a long-handled paint roller    sidewalk lay this morning. They stake as
PVC. “It’s a nicer product,” he says, re-     and applies the final touches to the         a form a length of two-by-four across the
ferring to the resulting manhole, “if it’s    coating of waterproof tar on the man-        opening between lawn and sidewalk, and
all T-Lock. It’s more uniform. Looks          hole’s exterior. W hen he finishes, the      a backhoe then dumps in a scoop of soft
nicer.”                                       manhole— black, with pointed nose            asphalt. The black, oily mix sags and
     It also lasts longer. According to       — stands like an ICBM in its silo, reach-    settles as it falls; the men rake and
Samir, Sewer and Water Group 78 has           ing for the heavens and ready for launch.    shovel it smooth. And temporarily our
been designed with a 60-year life span;                                                    sidewalk is whole again. But you can’t
the city’s engineers expect our new                             ***                        walk on it. Not even on the loose, tiny
sewer to be functioning well into the                                                      bits scattered nearby that stick to the
second half of the 21st century. In Lara’s    By the time I wander back to my own          bottoms of your shoes and leave
opinion, however, the prelined bases          lateral, the work there has advanced         numerous and hard-to-clean marks all
—which are more expensive—might last          considerably. The old pipe has been          over your carpet wherever you’ve been;
that long, but a manhole with an epoxy-       excavated and removed, a bed of gravel       marks that multiply as you scrub
covered base, like the one he is now          laid, the new line installed—two 20-foot     feverishly to remove them and that you
building with Senteno, will have to be        lengths of 4-inch turquoise PVC— and         know your wife won’t like when she gets
rehabbed long before then. “But I’m not       the joints duck-buttered, glued, and         home from vacation— marks that you
complaining. It’s job security if I have to   Ferncoed, as appropriate. Now, a             don’t even particularly like yourself. No,
come back in 15 or 20 years and replace       backhoe is dumping in the last scoops of     you can’t even walk on these.
it.”                                          gravel for the topping; only a few feet of       Though of course you do.
     W hen all is ready, the driver of the    exposed lateral remain, above which
flatbed slips a cradle around the first       Samir is standing and watching. He is        March 26 (Wednesday, 7:30 a.m . to 12
section of manhole, hooks cradle to           thoughtful. Almost pensive.                  noon):
crane, and begins to lift—the cradle’s            “You should take a picture,” he says.        Oritz’s main force begins a great
grip tightening as it rises. The crane is     “It only happens once every 60 years.”       wheeling maneuver this morning. It
controlled with a hand-held push-button           I refrain from this (not knowing         begins with a logistic move, as at 7:30
remote, and the operator has the zoned-       where in our photo albums my wife            two men come huffing down the street
in concentration of a Nintendo player as      would have me file it), but I join him in    towing the porta-potty. For the past two
he swings the crane’s load out over the       watching. Soon, there arrives a second       weeks it has resided under an overhang-
hole then lowers it toward the pad,           backhoe fitted with a sheep’s foot. With     ing tree near the Laurel and M aple Street
Senteno providing guidance the last few       the wheel and boom pointed our way,          Y— a shady spot, if not secluded— but
inches as it plops down on mastic and         the operator straddles the deep end of       now they are bringing it toward me,
mortar. Quickly, Senteno flips off the        the trench, lowers his outriggers, and be-   towards my house. Bypassing me on my
cradle, hops inside the ring, and begins      gins compacting the soil, piled in heaps     porch, they come to a stop near the curb
beveling the extruded bead of mortar.         to the side of the trench and now pushed     just around the corner. Another shady
The crane returns for the next section.       back in by the other backhoe, the two        spot, and this one just outside our
And so the manhole is stacked: cylin-         machines working at right angles to each     bedroom window. Under the circum-
ders, cone, spacer, and cast-iron frame       other and progressing steadily towards       stances, I suppose one has to share this

                                                          Part Two, Page 6
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                     Steven L. Shepherd

sort of thing, so there’s no point in com-         after a final walk-through and approval      the east and away from my house. I will
plaining. It’ll be a surprise for my wife          by the Resident Engineer. Because of         watch, and because I have been watch-
and son when they return home tonight.             the relative size of the first payment, a    ing already I will know better then what
    Soon nearly all the equipment is               certain urgency accrues to the test. And     I am seeing.
moving in this same direction: trucks,             although ultimately in this instance the         I will know that the concentration of
backhoes, Bobcat, shoring— the works.              test would be postponed because of           cobbles in the earth below Maple Street
Yesterday, with the replacement of my              Samir’s unavailability for several days,     is lower in its eastward running portion
lateral and Albert’s, the trenches and             by 9:00 the trench is nonetheless            than in the stretch before my house, and
pipe laying for the entire the stretch of          excavated, the shoring set, a ladder         I will wonder if this is due to a change of
Maple in front of my house was                     ready, and Greg Weber readied himself        course in some ancient stream or river.
completed; today they’ll begin on the              ready to climb in, singing as he does,           I will know that the dirt there is
portion of the street running east.                “Oh, it’s time, time, time to go down.”      redder than elsewhere in Burlingame,
    They start at the new manhole.                     With a shovel Weber cleans around        that it has more iron oxide. And knowing
Yesterday, when Senteno and Lara                   the stub of pipe set earlier by Senteno      that will help me better to appreciate
drove away, Jesse had the stack and                and now protruding from the base of the      Mike Corio’s observation that, “You
surrounding space covered with steel,              manhole, and within an hour he and a         guys got some weird dirt here. You go to
and today Breshears begins by removing             coworker have fit a 20-foot length of        a place like Arizona, it’s all brown and
the plates. He then strips enough                  main end-to-end with the stub, male to       hard and rocky, or else it’s all farm dirt.
pavement to allow him to start excavat-            female. Gingrich arrives in the Deere,       But here, it’s weird. I was working on a
ing, while about him gathers the usual             and after first dumping gravel over the      job in Cardiff and they had this dirt like
procession. The immediate object of this           newly fitted pipe he then proceeds to        clay, it was purple and lime green and
                                                                                  cover the     turquoise, all swirled together. It was
                                                                                  rest of the   really beautiful. I took some of it home
                                                                                  area a-       to show my wife.”
                                                                                  round the         I will know that cave-ins are to be
                                                                                  base of the   avoided, but do occur. I will know that
                                                                                  manhole.      squigglies get covered and that gas lines,
                                                                                  T he n he     even active ones, get excavated. (“No
                                                                                  s t a r t s   smoking!” they will yell.) And I will
                                                                                  pushing in    know better how to read the hieroglyphs
                                                                                  dirt, while   of the squigglies, know that when Jesse
                                                                                  Jesse be-     writes on the road with a white Super
                                                                                  gins the      Stripe Traffic Power Paint Cartridge
                                                                                  tion.                      — 3 50 6” A/C W
                                                                                      T h e
                                                                                  stacked       it means “At this point, 3½ feet deep, is
                                                                                  manhole,      buried a 6-inch diameter asbestos and
                                                                                  rising in     concrete water pipe.” And that the addi-
Engineering drawing for Sewer and Water Group 78                                  its earthen   tional implied message is, “Don’t break
                                                                                  vault, is a   or disturb.”
                                                                                  round peg         I will know that it can take a long
activity is to lay a full length of 8-inch         in a square hole. And where the manhole      time with a shovel to pothole for an
pipe east of the manhole. This will allow          comes closest to the walls of the vault      unmarked lateral, but that a full 8-hour
backfilling of the space around the stack,         there is little clearance for the sheep’s    day is nonetheless a very long time, and
which in turn will allow preparations to           foot. In order to reach the accumulating     that the resulting 20-foot ditch across a
proceed for a performance, or “proof,”             soil, therefore, Jesse must use the full     neighbor’s lawn is a very long gash in
test of the just-laid main in front of my          range of operator’s tricks: lifting high     one’s yard. I will know why on a Thurs-
house.                                             the m a chine from the ground,               day Mike Corio pleads “Come on, Fri-
    Like a builder of custom homes,                crabwalking round and round, and             day!” W hat a neighbor means when he
Ortiz’s contract with the city calls for a         corkscrewing the compacted dirt higher       says, “You have to break a few eggs to
staggered schedule of partial payments,            and higher. And so the space is filled.      make an omelet.” And that Mark Bre-
each contingent in a given section of the              So too does Sewer and Water Group        shears—who, with his aviator sunglasses
project upon the satisfactory completion           78 begin its turning. For the next two       and chronic stubble, looks a lot like
of some phase of the work: 90 percent              weeks Jesse’s men will devote them-          Harrison Ford— has in him a touch of
after the proof test, the last 10 percent          selves to pushing the face of the sewer to   the choreographer.

                                                               Part Two, Page 7
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                   Steven L. Shepherd

    I will know the wonder my wife feels       between Joaquin’s sawcuts— the width          ways.
when she finally comes home and sees           of the trench covering— is three feet,            The days we poured were filled with
Jesse in his backhoe suspended on scoop        meaning the total area to be covered is       buzz and anticipation. First was the
and boom in midair and says, “He’s             close to a 1000 square feet. By specifi-      scurry to get ready, then the frenzy of
levitating!” And I will know, or I will        cation, the trench cap will be seven          the arriving trucks, they arriving steadily
learn, that though Sewer and Water             inches thick. (Samir will check this in       and nonstop, like transports landing
Group 78 has turned the corner, they           several places this morning with a flick      troops for an operation. The only lull in
have merely moved a bit down the road.         of his tape measure.) All told, the pour      the activity was the interval between last
For still I will hear them. The hydro-         will require approximately 22 cubic           preparation and first arrival.
hammer, the excavator, the horns, the          yards of concrete. Because concrete is            We were young then, and fancied
saws, the diesels that idle; still I will      delivered in trucks with a capacity just      ourselves adventurers in life’s unfolding
hear them all. For they are a rolling tem-     shy of 10 yards, Jesse will order three       saga. And so it was that we invented
pest, and for weeks I will hear them all.      trucks— the first two full, the third with    games and dramas to enliven these
                                               an amount he’ll call in later.                periods of waiting. Of the trucks owned
                   ***                             The uncertainty regarding the last        by the company that supplied us with
                                               truck stems from the area in the street       concrete all but one were orange, and all
But not everyone swings in the great           between my house and Linda’s, where           were huge. It was easy then, while we
rotation. There is much yet to do on the       the soil was unstable and the trench          waited, waited and watched for the first
street before me, and left this morning to     walls collapsed during last week’s            glimpse between houses of the first
continue the work is a backhoe and op-         excavation. The cave-ins undermined           lumbering leviathan wending its way in
erator, a dump truck and driver, two men       the pavement and as the work progress-        through the burb, to imagine ourselves
with shovels, and a man on the Vibra-          ed much of that pavement crumbled or          men of New Bedford— whalers, with our
Plate. The latter is a 1000-pound ma-          broke loose, and to these areas the men       eyes on the seas looking for spouts.
chine of roughly the same dimensions as        this morning apply a jackhammer,                  The one truck not orange was white,
the concrete saw and consisting primari-       debriding until they are sure both the        and to this we attached a name. Moby
ly of an engine atop a thick steel plate       ground below and the road around is           Truck, we called it, and if by chance it
some 2 by 2½ feet in size. The engine          sound. W hen they are finished, what          should be the first vehicle of the day, it’s
vibrates the plate, which in turn smooths      should look like a straight, clean-cut        sighting would infuse with a special
and compacts the ground below.                 channel through the pavement looks            vigor the heralding cry that went up. . . .
    These men have been given the task         instead like the ragged and meandering
of preparing the street for the new            path of an icebreaker through a flow.             (“What do ye do when ye see a
concrete that will suture the road after its   How much concrete this will take is           whale, men?”
disemboweling. This process and actual         merely a guess.                                   “Sing out for him!” . . .
pouring of the concrete over the                   Just before lunch, all is ready. The          “Good!” cried Ahab. . . . “And what
compacted trench is called “capping,”          dirt floor of the cap is smooth and tightly   do ye next, men?”
and it begins with the stripping and           packed. The edges are free of debris.             “Lower away, and after him!”
removal of the temporary asphalt and all       T he b o rd ering ro ad surface is                “And what tune is it ye pull to,
excess fill dirt from the area within the      immaculate. And lain in the channels is       men?”
trench cap. This is the backhoe’s pur-         the green and silver mylar strip that             “A dead whale or a stove boat!”
view, and after the backhoe come the           endlessly advises future inquisitors:             . . . Ahab, now half-revolving in his
shovel men, who scrape clean the sur-                                                        pivot-hole, with one hand reaching high
rounding pavement and the vertical sawn                   CAUTION                            up a shroud, and tightly, . . . addressed
edges where weeks ago Joaquin made                BURIED SEWER LINE BELOW                    them thus:—
his saw cuts. They are followed by the                                                           “All ye mast-headers have before
Vibra-Plate, which in turn is followed by      March 26 (Wednesday, 12:20 to 4:30            now heard me give orders about a white
the shovel men again, now converted to         p.m .):                                       whale. Look ye! d’ye see this Spanish
brooms.                                            After high school I worked for a time     ounce of gold? . . . It is a sixteen dollar
    The plan today is to begin where last      in construction. I had a friend whose         piece, men,—a doubloon. D’ye see
the capping left off— just upstream from       father was a contractor and built new         it? . . .
the Y— and to pour over the main to a          homes. We had another friend who                  “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-
convenient stopping point downstream           worked with us, and together the three of     headed whale with a wrinkled brow and
from the manhole-in-progress off the           us formed the laboring, gofer nucleus of      a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises
corner of my house. They’ll also cap           the company’s small work force. We did        me that white-headed whale, with three
over five laterals, including mine. The        a little of everything: framing, painting,    holes punctured in his starboard
combined linear footage of the planned         ditch-digging, fetching, and hauling. We      fluke—look ye, whosoever of ye raises
pour equals some 330 feet; the distance        also poured concrete. Lots of concrete        me that same white whale, he shall have
                                               — slabs, patios, sidewalks, and drive-

                                                            Part Two, Page 8
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                 Steven L. Shepherd

this gold ounce, my boys! . . .               arcing his chute back and forth over the     The tamper tamps. And at 12:40 comes
    “It’s a white whale, I say. A white       area to be filled. Occasionally, he pushes   an echoing rattle of loose rocks; the en-
whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look      a handful of concrete down the chute         gine races, the drum spins fast, and the
sharp for white water; if ye see but a        where a little extra is needed. And when     truck is purged; the beast is empty and
bubble, sing out.”                            he’s poured enough, he tips his finger       the driver pulls away to hose off his
                                              and the driver moves a few feet forward.     chute.
    . . . “Mud!”                                  Behind Jesse on either side of the           With the truck’s departure, so too do
    “Mud!” would he sing who spied the        trench are two men with shovels. Their       the men begin peeling away, hieing
first truck.                                  job is to push, pull, and coax the           themselves to other jobs in the waiting.
    “M ud!”                                   concrete into place, filling in pockets,     One hops on a backhoe. One gathers a
    And so were we summoned to the            eliminating air bubbles, and roughly         hose and nozzle and begins wetting the
pour. Summoned and enjoined, like             rendering the surface flat. They are busy,   next section to be capped. Two grab
peasants to the harvest, to make ready        but no more so than necessary. This is       hand floats and begin smoothing the
our implements— rakes and trowels,            the sign of a good chuteman — that your      tamped concrete, leaving in their wake a
shovels and gloves.                           laborers aren’t working frantically— and     flowing swirl of rough whorls and half-
    Ah, ’twas glorious then! Glorious to      like all else I’ve seen him do, Jesse is     moons; they make no effort to remove
be young.                                     good at this. He keeps the flow steady       these patterns, for this is a road and
                                              and judges well how much he’s poured         possibly to be repaved when all is done.
                  ***                         and how much is required. But then, you          Twenty minutes later the second
                                              get good at this fast, for a chuteman who    truck arrives and the men reconvene.
W hether the men of Ortiz have conjured       creates unnecessary work is informed         They work steadily towards my house,
for themselves a Moby Truck I do not          quickly of the fact and usually encour-      interrupted only briefly by a train of
know. All the trucks that bring them          aged strongly by his laborers to seek        children on bicycles racing pell-mell
concrete are white and therefore              another career.                              towards a wet square of concrete on the
indistinct. But even so, their lunch is cut       Following the shovellers are two men     sidewalk and Jesse’s need emphatically
short by the arrival of the first behemoth.   on a screed— a length of two-by-four         to yell, “W hoa, W hoa, W hoa!” At 1:20
Its driver finds a staging area and begins    they saw back and forth across the           the Bobcat pushes aside the steel plate
assembling his chute, and while he does       pavement surface to level the wet            covering my lateral. At 1:24 a laborer
so Jesse and five other men rise from the     concrete. And behind them walks a man        sprinkles the lateral’s dirt surface. At
grass of my lawn and collect their tools.     with a tamper: a rectangular frame with      1:25 Jesse twirls his finger. At 1:27 the
    W hen all are ready, Jesse dons his       upright handles and fitted at the bottom     last of the mix spills from the truck and
gloves and begins backing the truck into      with steel mesh. The tamper is used in a     wet concrete covers my lateral.
position, he walking behind the truck,        patty-cake fashion to press down rocks           A third truck soon arrives, and by
steadying the chute with one hand, and        from the concrete’s surface and to raise     2:20 it too is emptied. The afternoon’s
keeping eye contact with the driver in        in their place a workable paste. The         pour has totaled 26½ yards. It ends at a
the side mirror. He backs the truck along     concrete sucks at the mesh on the uplift,    point in the street just past Linda’s
one side of the street and over steel-        and the repeated up, down, and sideways      driveway and with the covering of all the
plated laterals, and when he reaches his      is both exhausting and hell on your back.    areas prepared this morning, including
starting point he raises a clenched fist,         Forward they move. The men know          four sections of pink sidewalk on the
signalling the driver to stop. Glancing in    their jobs and when and where they will      streetside opposite me. Still patched
the mirror to verify that he still has eye    next be needed, and they work as if in a     with black asphalt are the squares of
contact, he twirls his forefinger. The        ballet, the blocking and orchestration       sidewalk over my and Albert’s laterals;
driver reverses the direction of the          seamless. “They are,” says John, “so         these will wail till tomorrow.
truck’s slowly spinning drum; its intern-     comfortable.” There is to their work a
al spiral fins begin catching mixed           rhythm. And a song. For there rises an                          ***
concrete and pushing it uphill; concrete      aural soup whose elements I suddenly
begins to fall out the back; the funnel       remember well, and at the remembering        This afternoon’s cleanup includes the
catches it; the chute carries it, sliding     of which I am surprised. Ever present        washing of Laurel. Days ago, and once
like a mass of gray porridge—this pro-        are the hum and rumble of the diesel and     that street’s main and laterals had been
ceeded by the tumbling of a few loose         the whine of the turning drum, concrete      capped, Jesse had had Laurel scoured
pebbles— and in moments the mud spills        sloshing in steel. Periodically, the air-    with a fire hose. This had turned the dust
to the ground. The pour has begun.            brakes release and the truck lurches         to mud, which flowed in torrents toward
    Pouring concrete is an act of team-       forward: shhh-kraBRONnnng, they go.          the storm drain (there mostly to be
work. Team leader is the man on the           Shhh-kraBRONnnng. The shovellers             caught behind a dam of sandbags and
chute, pacing both the work and the           scrape, chop, and jostle, their blades       hauled away), and this had seemed the
truck, and so, smoothly, Jesse begins         slicing in and out of the wet mixture.       last critical step in restoring the street to

                                                          Part Two, Page 9
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                      Steven L. Shepherd

habitability. We on Maple watched and              Albert’s lot when they are approached         Giacoma and Albert. No, I tell them,
were envious.                                      by Albert and his wife, Giacoma. This is      they can’t help you. They can’t fix your
    Still, though, the dust has raged. It          unusual, for Albert and Giacoma are           sidewalks. I shake my head and explain
rises and swirls behind every passing              reticent about contact with such persons      as best I can: It’s complicated.
truck and backhoe. The excavator sends             as city officials. Moreover, Giacoma’s            The men from the city walk on, and
it aloft in great clouds, from whence it           English is as nonexistent as Albert’s, and    later I see Giacoma holding the same
falls on the whole neighborhood. And so            their conversations with non-Italian          conversation with three laborers from
today Jesse has the Ortiz water truck              speakers generally devolve quickly to a       Ortiz— hoping perhaps that her Italian
rinse Laurel Street yet again. The water           flurry of gestures and mutual efforts to      will fare better on Spanish than on
truck, working in swaths from the center           make volume and repetition do the work        English.
of the street toward the edges, is less            of shared language. Because I myself
effective than the fire hose, but still and        have been party to many such conversa-                          ***
again we on M aple are envious. For they           tions, and have in this case a fair idea of
are cleaned while we are dirty and                 the likely subject, I join them.              The concrete for my new bit of sidewalk
becoming dirtier still. And when it will               As the conference begins, we are          arrives just after noon, the truck having
end we know not yet.                               standing midway between a small crater        just come from Albert’s and the three
                                                   that has begun growing at the sidewalk’s      laterals preceding. All afternoon the men
March 27 (Thursday):                               peninsular apex and a stretch of crumbl-      doing the pouring and finishing will
    The city’s contract with Ortiz calls           ed curb whose pieces recently fell loose      rotate among these five patches of
for items removed or destroyed during              and had lain for months in the gutter         concrete, performing first a task at the
the sewer work to be restored in a                 until thrown away in an Ortiz cleanup.        first square around the block, then
fashion that will “match existing.”                    Look, says Giacoma in Italian and         repeating the same task at each
Because black asphalt does not match               pointing with both hands outstretched,        successive square until finally ending at
pink concrete, today my sidewalk is to             supplicating, it is falling apart.            my house, from whence they will return
be restored to its former condition.                   Yes, say the men from the city, we        to start a new task— the concrete grow-
    It’s an interesting phrase, “match             can see that.                                 ing harder all the while.
existing,” because the city itself does no             Can you fix it? asks Giacoma. And             Among the three men on the pour,
such thing. On those rare occasions                she gestures to the nearby sections of        one is Joaquin, who earlier made the
when it deigns to fix a broken sidewalk,           sidewalk that lie open and waiting for        sawcuts that freed the old sections of
the city throws on its own permanent as-           concrete. The men are here, I imagine         sidewalk. On the chute is Miguel Pilar,
phalt or else pours standard-issue white           she says, and the trucks are coming. It       who has worked six years for Ortiz as
concrete with none of the elegant scor-            would be easy. It would be obvious.           both truck driver and laborer. And third
ing of 1912. It holds, in other words, its         Can’t you fix it?                             is Pedro Silva. Pedro has been finishing
contractors to a higher standard than                  The men from the city are sincere.        concrete for many years, though this is
itself.                                            They have the faces of cherubs. They          his first job with Ortiz. He is lean and
    All the same, amidst the ruins of my           turn to me and I repeat what I imagine        muscled, with a moustache going gray;
neighborhood’s sidewalks, we are now               my neighbor has said. Their sidewalks         he is from M exico and speaks little
to have patches of new. Five such                  are falling apart, I say, and she wants to    English. Spanish is the language of
patches are to be installed today, and             know if you can’t do something about it.      today’s pour.
consist of the toppings over laterals for          Her husband, I add,— there with his               The concrete Miguel empties into my
a line of neighbors snaking from my                cane— is handicapped. Shouldn’t there         sidewalk is standard gray; were it left
house around the block and back to                 be a handicapped ramp here?                   alone it would dry as white. It takes just
L a u r e l S tr e e t . T h e m o r n i n g ’ s       Yes, say the men, they can see that       minutes to pour the half yard of wet mix,
preparatory work follows the usual                 Albert is handicapped. And yes, they can      and by 1:00 the void in my sidewalk has
sequence, and as usual the activities are          see the sidewalk is in need of repair. But    been filled, screeded, tamped, floated,
scrutinized by a representative of the             no, just because it needs it and the men      and rough troweled, the latter by
city. Samir, however, is gone today, and           and materials are here doesn’t mean it        Joaquin. Fifteen minutes later, Pedro
in his stead are a pair of young                   can be fixed; first the sidewalk must be      comes by with an edger— a small metal
engineers, these also in orange safety             surveyed and certified, written up and        trowel with a down-turned lip on one
vests and blue hard hats.                          placed in queue. Papers must be filed.        side. Working on hands and knees, he
    The two men split their wanderings             And— the clincher— this work is being         guides the trowel around the perimeter
between the trenching and pipe-laying              paid for with sewer and water money;          of the square, giving to its edges a
around the corner of my house and the              the sidewalks belong to the street            smooth, pleasing bevel.
sidewalk preparations out front, and late          division. It’s a problem, they say. But           The issue of what is the standard
in the morning they are taking a turn a-           not ours.                                     color of Burlingame’s sidewalks has
round the Floridian tip of my neighbor                 Yes, I say, I know. And I turn to         long been debated in my neighborhood

                                                               Part Two, Page 10
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                   Steven L. Shepherd

— and never resolved. The original            trowel from side to side. He repeats this      fine-grained surface that matches beauti-
developer left no formula and we now          procedure with other lines and marks,          fully the existing sidewalk— the contract
have as many shades of pink (or “rose”)       and when he has finished Miguel has re-        here is fulfilled.
as there have been repairs over the           established the pattern first set in our           Finally, he sweeps clean the sur-
years. How then to “match existing”?          concrete more than three generations           rounding sidewalk. Around his work he
    Early in the course of Sewer and          ago and we have in our sidewalk nine           places a quartet of orange safety stan-
Water Group 78, Jesse and his men ex-         fresh squares.                                 dards, then hoists bucket in hand, props
perimented to see what available color-           After Miguel comes Pedro, who              broom on shoulder, and walks away. It is
ing agent would most closely reproduce        brings with him a bucketful of trowels         4:00.
our original sidewalks, and at 2:30           and extracts from it first his edger. With
Miguel arrives at my house bearing a          it he works around each of the nine new        March 28 (Friday):
large and heavy-looking paper bag on          squares. The muscles on his forearms               With the pouring of yesterday’s
whose label is printed the results of this    bulge as he rocks and presses the edger        patches of sidewalk, and with the
inquiry:                                      front to back, applying all the force he       exception of capping the last few feet to
                                              can against the ever hardening surface.        the new manhole, the physical restora-
            A-26 Brick Red                    W hen each square has been circum-             tion of this portion of Maple Street is
          Lithochrome Color                   scribed he switches to a rectangular           now complete. And so it is time to clean.
               Hardener                       finish trowel and shifts his attention to          For this, Joaquin, Miguel, and Pedro
                                              the squares’ insides, pressing on the          are joined this morning by another
Inside is a fine, reddish-brown powder        trowel’s front edge with two fingers and       longtime Ortiz employee, Paul Angui-
— brick red, actually. Given our neigh-       expressing from the surface a bead of          ano. Yesterday, Anguiano made a brave
borhood’s years of competing pinks, it        reddish cream he works intently into           attempt to begin the cleaning alone. His
would seem a considerable feat to have        every imperfection. He concentrates as if      specialty is the street sweeper — a retired
now determined a standard. But the            polishing a lens, and he leaves each           municipal vehicle bought at auction; old
accomplishment is put in some perspect-       square smooth and shiny.                       and temperamental, painted a fading
ive by the observation of a neighbor              Finishing, Pedro puts his trowels in       chartreuse and besplotched with rust.
made after watching the coloring of his       his bucket and heads back to the front of      Because initially he couldn’t get the
own sidewalk: the final outcome, he           the line to begin a new round. As he           sweeper to start, he at first took to the
noted, depended on whether from the           does so, he passes the tip of Albert’s         street with a broom; then, after enough
powder in his bag Miguel “sprinkles on        peninsular lot. Here he puts down his          time had passed to permit a comparison
a big handful or a little handful.”           bucket, withdraws a trowel, and applies        of the length of the street with the pace
     I wait, then, in suspense as M iguel     a few strokes to a small patch of              of his progress, he retried the sweeper
makes ready his magic. The concrete by        concrete he and his companions have            and finally got it going.
now has become fairly hard, and before        shovelled in my neighbors’ cratered                Anguiano cuts a dashing figure. He
he begins Miguel first sprinkles on a         sidewalk. The spot is small, but the three     has a great, bushy pirate’s moustache,
little water. This he works into a paste      men are tinting and finishing it with the      and long locks of graying black hair he
with a hand float, and when the entire        same care shown the larger patches over        ties in a ponytail. The sweeper has two
surface is roughened and receptive, he        the laterals; later in the job they will fix   steering wheels and when cleaning to the
dips into his bag, draws out a handful,       Albert and Giacoma’s curb as well. They        right Anguiano uses the right-hand
and begins dusting the wet concrete with      will do what the city would not—though         wheel; this he holds with his left hand
powder. W hether these handfuls are           neither was it their problem.                  while he stands halfway in and halfway
large or small I do not know, but he uses         At 3:45 Pedro returns to put the last      out the right-hand door, head outside
several.                                      touches on my sidewalk. With a pointed         and held high, left foot inside on the gas,
     After another sprinkling of water, he    trowel and whisk broom he cleans the           right foot outside on the running board,
sets to work with his hand float. His         smears and leavings from the edges of          right hand gripping the forward door
object is to incorporate the wetted           the old sidewalk where now they border         pillar for support. All is reversed when
powder into the underlying paste, and         the new. N ext, he dips a soft, long-          he cleans to the left. Right or left, his
toward this end he bears down heavily         handled broom in a bucket of water.            ponytail whiffles behind as he makes his
on the float, rocking and rolling his wrist   From the bucket he flings a few                forward runs at high speed, brushes
as he sweeps his arm round and round in       sprinkles of water, and he then                down and turning. In reverse, he drives
tight, looping circles. W hen the surface     commences gently to pull the broom             just as fast, but with the brushes raised
is an even, rusty red, he places a two-by-    across the concrete, drawing in the            and stopped.
four across the wet square of concrete,       handle with a steady hand-over-hand.               All this is picturesque. It is entertain-
aligns its ends with two corresponding        The direction of the broom’s travel            ing. I could watch it for hours. But the
line segments in the bordering sections       across the sidewalk is from lawn to            sweeper is as ineffectual as it is old, and
of old sidewalk, and uses the board as a      street, and it leaves behind a textured,       behind it rise billowing contrails of dust.
guide while he runs a metal scoring

                                                          Part Two, Page 11
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                   Steven L. Shepherd

Despite its driver’s élan, the machine          then the job has moved on and we are         pipe from manhole to manhole it means
accomplishes nothing but a massive re-          forgotten. Never are we washed.              the intervening section of pipe is free of
distribution of dirt, much of which adds            Rain, of course, would have washed       deformations. “It’s a simple test,” says
itself to the deepening layers inside our       the streets and carried its load to the      Samir. “If the mandrel gets through, the
house.                                          storm drain whether the city or my           pipe passes.”
     Perhaps the sweeper is broken and          vigilant neighbor liked it or not. But           The Wayne ball presents its own
this accounts for its poor performance.         when Sewer and Water G roup 78 came          mystery. “It was named after its
Perhaps Paul and Jesse have finally             to Burlingame, San Diego had just            inventor,” says the supply company re-
acknowledged the obvious. Or perhaps            begun the longest dry spell in its record-   presentative. “It was invented by a guy
this morning it simply won’t start. But         ed history. Not for seven months would       named Wayne.” But there’s a tone in his
whatever the reason, the cleanup detail         it rain.                                     voice that inspires less than complete
starts without it. They begin by going up                                                    confidence, and an ensuing series of
and down the street attending to odds           April 1 (Tuesday):                           phone calls leads me higher and higher
and ends—removing, for instance, the                Samir has been gone for several days     up the supply chain until I finally find
casually replaced squares of my lawn,           now. He is due back today, however,          myself on the phone with an executive of
spreading a layer of fill dirt, and refitting   and in honor of his return Jesse has a       the Sidu Company, in Los Alamitos,
the pieces like tiles in a mosaic. For this     crew begin preparing for the test that       California. Sidu is the maker and seller
I thank Pedro.                                  will demonstrate the integrity of their      of Wayne balls; the company’s name,
     Next, they spread themselves in a          pipe— and after which Ortiz can send the     says the executive, is an amalgam of the
phalanx across the width of the street,         city a bill.                                 words Sidney and Duke.
beginning at the Y and working my way.              The test has been a subject of much          Sidney Preen, says my informant,
They work with brooms and shovels,              recent conversation among the men and        was the inventor of the Wayne ball,
scraping loose mud that has stuck to the        several are eager for me to see it.          which is a brand name for what is
pavement, sweeping the dirt into piles,         Variously, they have called it the Wayne     generically called a cleaning ball. Preen
and transferring these to the Bobcat.           ball test, the mandrel test, and the         worked for the Long B each sanitation
They work hard and they work well. But          Wayne ball and mandrel test. No one          department in the 1940s and he invented
still there is dust, and fervently do I hope    knows exactly how to spell mandrel or        the cleaning ball out of necessity: Long
they will bring out the fire hose this          where the Wayne ball got its name.           Beach was so flat, and its sewer system
afternoon and scour the road. Blast it              Mandrel, I am assured by Allen           had so little fall, that sediment would ac-
clean and thoroughly.                           Thomas, Executive Director of the            cumulate in the lines and the pipes
     But they don’t. Nor do they ever.          National Association of Sewer Service        would periodically become blocked.
     The reason, I later learn from Jesse,      Companies (NASSCO), is not spelled           Preen sought to address the problem by
is a call from a misguided neighbor.            like the homophonically named blue-          developing a routine way of cleaning the
Someone in the neighborhood— some-              faced primate. Nor is there a double l on    sewer pipes. For this, he invented the
one undoubtedly whose street has                the end as I am told by a sales represent-   cleaning ball, which can be pushed or
already been cleaned— has seen the              ative for a local pipe supply company.       pulled through a sewer pipe and carries
stenciled signs on the storm drains             (The dictionary is not much help in the      before it any and all accumulated debris.
noting there are dolphins downstream.           matter, for I can find none that describe        Like mandrels, Wayne balls are
They have seen that there are flows of          a device like that to be put to use in our   matched to pipe size. The balls (which
mud when the streets are washed and             sewer.) The objects about which I am         are more ellipsoid than spherical) are
that the mud flows to the storm drains.         asking, says Thomas, are properly called     made of heavy black rubber and inflate
They have seen that not all the mud is          test mandrels and are commonly used in       to size; O rtiz’s will fit a pipe 6 to 10
trapped by the sandbag dams. They have          the drilling of water and oil wells to       inches in diameter. Metal D-rings are
seen the telephone number on the storm          ensure the straightness of long lengths of   fitted to either end of the ball, and raised
drain signs. And they have called. Called       pipe and for which purpose they are          spiral ribs cause it to spin when
the city— the same city that let the            available in a variety of sizes.             propelled. M ost Wayne balls, says the
contract for Sewer and Water Group 78,              Ortiz’s mandrel is about a foot and a    man from Sidu, are between 4 and 12
hired Ortiz, and stipulated in its contract     half long; it looks like a heavy-duty        inches in diameter, making Ortiz’s a
that the contractor keep the streets clean;     cylindrical steel cage, with a spindle       midrange model. The company does
and from this branch of the city has            through the center and cone-shaped ends      make and stock balls up to 30 inches in
come an edict. Its form is a nasty letter       fitted with rings to which a rope can be     diameter, but beyond that there’s not
to Jesse that says he must cease and            tied. The mandrel’s critical dimension,      much call for the product because big
desist all street washing. That or prepare      however, is its diameter: a fraction under   pipes tend to be self-cleaning. There are
himself for court.                              eight inches. The internal diameter of       exceptions, however, and the biggest
     Eventually, the city relents and again     the new sewer main is eight inches and if    Wayne ball ever made was a custom job
allows Jesse to wash the streets. But by        the mandrel can be passed through the        seven feet in diameter.

                                                            Part Two, Page 12
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                    Steven L. Shepherd

    The Duke in Sidu’s name is none            mud and gravel soon begin accumulating         clearance is tight, the ball shows no
other than The Duke— John Wayne.               in front of the trap. Eventually the           signs of entering the orifice anytime
Preen was Wayne’s stepfather and after         buildup slows, and Genaro descends into        soon, and within a few minutes the men
Preen invented the cleaning ball, Wayne        the manhole and begins shovelling the          revise their plan.
put up the money to get him started in         collected lees into a five-gallon bucket           Retrieving from their truck a small
business. In thanks, Preen named his ball      lowered from above. Live sewage is             plastic bag, they improvise a balloon. To
after him. W hich means John Wayne is          flowing in the manhole as well as water        this they attach a second rope, then drop
most likely the only person ever to have       from the fire hose, and when he is done        the rope-cum-balloon into the torrent of
been honored by the naming after him of        Genaro climbs the ladder and sits for          water and watch as both are swept into
both an airport and a device for cleaning      several minutes on the cast-iron rim of        the pipe and begin floating downstream
sewers.                                        the hole, legs dangling, hands to the side     towards the manhole at the Y— there to
    Many of the guys on Sewer and              and behind for support, and chest draw-        be extracted by Anguiano. Having
Water Group 78 have a hard time believ-        ing great breaths of fresh air.                threaded the pipe, they tie the new rope
ing this story when I tell it to them, but I       W hen he has recovered, Genaro and         to the front of the Wayne ball, which is
swear to them it’s true. As Dave Barry         Rafael make ready the Wayne ball,              now affixed on either end with more
says, I am not making this up.                 placing it inside a short length of pipe       than 300 feet of rope and can be pulled
                                               and pumping it to size. They then tie the      directly through the pipe— or, if need be,
                   ***                         back of the ball to the end of a great         worked back and forth like a shuttle.
                                               spool of nylon rope and carry the                  At 11:30 Samir appears, ready for
The crew Jesse assembles to prepare for        assembly to the upstream manhole. From         the test. Rather than make him wait, or
the test consists of Paul Anguiano,            the street, they reposition the fire hose so   perhaps because he himself wishes to
Rafael Morfin, and Genaro Tapia. Three         it hangs loose in the manhole’s shaft,         wait no longer, Jesse orders a change in
sections of sewer main will be tested:         they restart the water flow, and into the      the rigging of the Wayne ball: he has the
one corresponding to each of the arms          rushing stream Rafael drops the Wayne          men temporarily untie the rear rope then
extending from the Laurel and Maple            ball and rope, paying out the yellow cord      splice in the mandrel behind the ball.
Street Y. Ours will be first, and the men      as if it were a handline with hook and         They will pull both through together.
begin by flushing the pipe.                    bobber. And indeed, he once caught an              At 11:50 Rafael lowers the entrained
    “We’ll flush it out,” says Paul, “and      alligator with this very setup.                Wayne ball and mandrel into the up-
it will be perfect.”                               “I was working the Wayne ball              stream manhole. Downstream at the Y,
    The flushing begins with the setting       alone,” he says. “And there was a lot of       Genaro stands on the street over the
of a trap in the downstream manhole— in        dirt in the line, so I was working it          manhole and begins pulling on his end
this case, the manhole at the Y. The trap      slow.” He was upstream, and the                of the rope. Kneeling beside him, Jesse
consists of an L-shaped piece of pipe          procedure is to let the water push the         and Samir peer into the manhole,
fitted on one end with a rubber collar.        ball a few feet, then pull it back. “Let the   craning their heads inside for a better
The collar is stuffed inside the mouth of      water push, then pull back. Slow, so you       look. The resistance of the ball in the
the manhole’s egress pipe and once plac-       get everything cleaned out.”                   pipe appears considerable and Genaro
ed has the effect of preventing water              There he was, standing on the street,      pulls hard, drawing with both hands and
from leaving the manhole until the water       tugging and letting go— tugging and            bending his back to the work. Coils of
level has risen to the top of the trap. As     letting go— his rope down the sewer,           yellow nylon pile on the road beside
the water rises, rocks and other sediment      when a couple of kids came over to see         him.
washed from inside the upstream pipe           what he was doing.                                 Genaro strains harder and harder,
will settle in the bottom of the manhole,          “’W hat you got?’ they ask me.             until for a moment there is no movement
where they can be removed by hand.                 “’Alligator,’ I says.                      at all— the rope appears snagged. To
This preliminary cleaning, says Jesse,             “’Oh!’ they says. ’Oh!’” And, with         free it, Jesse first tries dropping a ladder
“makes it a lot easier to do the Wayne         his hands held wide, he shows me that          into the manhole, routing the rope over
ball.”                                         their eyes were big as plates.                 the ladder’s bottom rung, then working
    Once the trap is set, the men move             “Next day they see me again and they       the ladder like a giant lever, using the lip
upstream to the manhole near my house.         ask me, ’You catch him?’                       of the manhole as fulcrum.
Genaro climbs inside, and after him the            “’Yeah,’ I says, ’I catch him.’                After a few such maneuvers and
other men drop in a fire hose, which               “’Oh!’ they says. ’Oh!’”                   making little progress, he says, “Maybe
Genaro feeds into the mouth of the pipe            And his eyes twinkle at the memory.        we’re pulling too m any ro cks
leading back to the Y. They turn on the            Today, however, it’s doubtful he’ll        through”—although the thought on
fire hose and water begins blasting            have such luck. Instead, his hope now is       everyone’s mind is that perhaps the
downstream.                                    that the gushing flow of water will carry      mandrel is stuck and there’s a problem
    As they would at the bottom of a           the Wayne ball into the mouth of the           in the pipe. Tension builds.
slow-running pool in a mountain stream,        pipe and thence downstream. But the                Rethinking, Jesse sends Genaro

                                                           Part Two, Page 13
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                      Steven L. Shepherd

down inside the manhole to get a              wards. There, the crew would have to          siderably more confining than the new.
straighter pull. There, Genaro resumes        reopen the trench and dig down to the         But even so, Weber finds room to work
hauling, and now slowly the rope comes.       newly laid sewer, where they would find       and soon reduces the bottom few feet of
    “Close?” asks Samir.                      the pipe compressed and made oblong           walls to a heap of rubble. He climbs out,
    “Yes,” says Jesse. “It should be real     from too much compaction pressure.            and onto the pile Breshears dumps
close.”                                           But today, on the street where I live,    gravel until the space is filled.
    Moments later rocks begin emerging        the pipe has passed the test. The city will       Additional tasks occupy the men,
from the end of the pipe. Genaro shovels      buy it.                                       until finally Breshears trades his
the material into a bucket, which Jesse                                                     backhoe for the Vibra-Plate (looking, as
hauls to the top and dumps on the road,       April 7 (Monday):                             he does so, a little displaced on the
and at 12:07 the front of the Wayne ball          The plan today is to finish the last      ground and out of the cockpit) and to-
appears at the end of the pipe. With a        few pick-up jobs on the stretch of Maple      gether the three men make ready the last
final tug, it and the mandrel come            before my house— the sewer equivalent         of the trench for capping. They smooth
free—like a cork popped from a bottle.        of dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s.    and compact the dirt, clean the sawcut’s
    Behind them comes a great gush of         Foremost among these chores are               edges and environs, and lay flat their
water, and Genaro at the bottom of the        capping the last bit of trench to and         mylar strip:
manhole hops quickly into his bucket as       around the new manhole and deactivat-
refuge from the flood. W hile waiting for     ing the old, brick manhole that once          C AU TIO N . . . C AU TIO N . . . C AU TIO N . . . .
the waters to drain, Jesse hauls the          served in its stead. These are relatively
Wayne ball and mandrel up out of the          small tasks, and Jesse assigns to the job     All soon is ready for concrete. But none
manhole and tosses them unceremon-            a three-man detail consisting of Mark         arrives.
iously on the pavement; Genaro then           Breshears, Greg Weber, and Don Ging-               Down the street, trucks have been
cleans the last of the rocks and debris       rich. Around the corner, another crew is      pouring throughout the morning and
from the manhole, and this too Jesse lifts    similarly occupied on the east-running        early afternoon. But not until midafter-
out in the bucket. At 12:14 Genaro            portion of Maple.                             noon do the men there send a truck our
climbs from the manhole for the last              The purpose of deactivating a             way, and when it comes it is naught but
time. He is greeted at the top by the sight   manhole instead of simply abandoning it       a phantom and a tease. Chute down, the
of a rather considerable pile of dirt,        is to prevent the leaving of an empty         truck backs to the waiting trench and be-
gravel, and large pebbles— the fruit of       space below the road which could              gins turning its drum, but all to emerge
his effort.                                   eventually fill with water and collapse.      is a damp trickle and a muffled clatter.
    “I ought to save this,” says Jesse        It’s also important, says Gingrich, to        The motor races and the drum spins, but
— laughing now— “for when the guys            discourage the potential future use of the    still there is nothing. The truck is empty.
tell me they don’t knock no dirt into the     manholes by anyone else. “You don’t           And it’s too late for another.
laterals. This is what you call construc-     want some company laying cable                     One more day the end will be
tion debris.” Because it is lunchtime,        through the old sewer,” he says. Many of      postponed. Everyone, though, is impa-
several men from elsewhere on the job         the old manholes in Burlingame                tient to finish and move on. And rather
have gathered around the manhole and          occupied positions that were needed for       than undo the day’s work— rather than
among them is Breshears; glancing at          new manholes, and these were therefore        fill the holes they’ve cleaned and readied
the pile of rocks Jesse says to him, “So it   removed completely in the course of           — they decide instead to cover them with
was you who dug these laterals wasn’t         construction. But the angle taken by the      steel. Nor do they even bother to bevel
it?”                                          old sewer around the dogleg in Maple          the plates’ edges with asphalt. And in the
    “You’re not happy with me are you?”       was more obtuse than the new, so the          large, irregular area around the top of
says Breshears, unsure whether he’s           two systems diverged as they made their       the manhole, they simply park two back-
being ribbed or reprimanded.                  turns, leaving the old manhole stranded       hoes— leaving the road safe by virtue of
    “The guys I’m not happy with,” Jesse      in the middle of the street and connected     occupying it.
replies, “aren’t here no more.” And the       to nothing but two short runs of pipe              Tomorrow the trucks will come.
foreman joins the operator for lunch.         going to and coming from nowhere— a           Tomorrow they will finish.
                                              Tinker Toy hub attached to two lone
                  ***                         connecting rods.                              April 8 (Tuesday):
                                                  The decommissioning of the manhole            The men have moved on. They’ve
Later, I ask Samir if he has ever seen a      actually began late last week when the        taken their equipment— most of it— and
test fail. No, he says, never. “Although      pipes in and out were plugged with            begun a new excavation in a new part of
I’ve heard about it.” And later still, in     concrete, and the action resumes this         Burlingame. The remnant of capping left
another part of Burlingame, the test          morning when Weber climbs inside with         from yesterday is but a small job, and
would fail— the mandrel would become          a jackhammer. The fit is tight because        not until late morning do Joaquin, Pedro,
stuck and have to be pulled out back-         the old, chimney-like manholes are con-       and a third man show up to prepare for

                                                          Part Two, Page 14
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                   Steven L. Shepherd

the pour.                                     pavement edge. The string shows that            April 9 (Wednesday):
    With the Bobcat they push aside the       the manhole is about an inch higher than            First thing this morning, two men
steel plates. They tidy the sawn edges of     the road, and in English he tells them          from Sewer and Water Group 78 come
the pavement. They straighten the mylar       harshly, “You’re trying to make it too          to retrieve their blue outhouse. In tow,
strip— time capsule for future excava-        perfect. An extra half inch is nothing.”        they take it a block away to San Marcos
tors. They sprinkle the dirt. They sweep.     There is plenty of road surface around          Street. Later in the day they come for the
They wait. And as they wait, they get         the manhole, he notes, and “In ten feet         steel plates. And with that, all that is
themselves in trouble.                        you can feather that out with asphalt and       vital to the work is gone.
    The principal area to be capped is the    it will make no difference. You’re work-            The washing of which John spoke so
square in the road below which the            ing twice.” And with that he gets in his        hopefully does not happen. Jesse is still
space was dug for the new manhole.            truck and drives away.                          in the clutches of the city’s conflicted
Originally eight feet on a side, the               “He’s a bit touchy,” I say to Joaquin.     bureaucracy, and it is days before he is
square has been nicked and dinged to the           “Yes,” he says. “But you should see        able to send so much as a water truck.
point of irregularity and forms now a         him when he’s in a bad mood.”                   But unlike the fire hose, the truck merely
great, jagged-edged basin. Within this             Perfect, goes the old saying, is the       dampens the dust and does not remove
basin the top of the manhole sits like an     enemy of good enough. My wife might             it. And when the truck leaves and the
island protruding from an ocean of dirt.      even add that perfect is the enemy of           street again dries, the clouds of dust are
This exposed tip consists of three layer-     anything at all, for around our house we        again given new life with every passing
ed elements: the apex of the concrete         have no end of needed repairs that I’ve         vehicle, and in their daily rebirth they
cone perched atop the manhole’s sub-          postponed until the necessary combina-          prolong the cleanup inside our house.
terranean stack, the concrete spacer ring,    tion of time, money, and know-how                   For the dust has taken residence. On
and the cast-iron lid and supporting          permits me to do them “right.” Many of          every surface it falls. On windows, on
frame— the only parts that will               these jobs could no doubt be usefully           screens, and on window ledges; on
ultimately show.                              performed in a less-than-perfect manner,        books, on tables, and on vases; on my
    The purpose of the spacer ring is to      but for me just “making do” won’t do,           computer screen it falls. Falls unend-
raise the manhole cover to the proper         and so I don’t. It’s a problem.                 ingly. And everywhere it leaves a film,
level, which in this case is supposed to           Still, in those for whom it exists, the    and in the film are trails and silhouettes
be half an inch above street level (the       impulse to strive for perfection is hard to     as objects are moved and removed and
half inch meant to allow for the possibil-    resist. And once the man from the front         fingers trace their tracks. In the kitchen
ity of future repaving). The spacer is five   office has gone, Joaquin and the other          and in the garage the grit gives a crunch
inches thick, but as Joaquin and his          two remove the frame and spacer and             and a slide to trips across the floor.
colleagues wait for the concrete truck        make a last adjustment on the fit.                  It takes weeks to rid ourselves of this
they get to looking at the spacer, and             For reasons unknown, the concrete          blight. At times during this period I am
after a while it begins to seem to them       does not arrive until 4:00. For hours the       put in mind of the fate of the mythical
that the spacer is too thick. They push       three men sweep and pace, the work              town of Macondo, whose citizens were
aside the cast-iron cover assembly, lift      having moved away and they having               consumed in a whirlwind of dust at the
one edge of the concrete ring, roll it onto   little else they can do here. It is the first   end of one hundred years of solitude.
the pavement, lay it down, retrieve a         time I have seen any of the men from            Other times, though, I am moved to
hand sledge and chisel, and begin chisel-     Sewer and Water Group 78 killing time.          think of the great circularity of which
ing away at the ring’s underside.             W hen the truck finally does arrives, the       our cleanup becomes a part. For we wipe
    After they have been whittling for a      pour itself takes less than twenty min-         the dust from our house with rags we
while in this fashion, an important           utes. By 5:30 the men have finished             wash in our washing machine. There, the
looking man from the Ortiz front office       tamping, screeding, and rough floating          dust is transferred to the wash water,
happens to drive by. I can tell he’s          the surface and are ready to go home.           which is discharged down the drain and
important because he’s in a new truck         But the concrete is not dry. And because        into the very sewer from whose birthing
and talking on a cell phone. W hen he         it is so late, they simply slide the steel      it rose.
sees what’s happening, he stops the           plates back over their work for protec-             Through the sewer, the dust will
truck and leaps out to inspect. He paces.     tion. These they top with warning stand-        travel under the street before my
He barks; barks in Spanish. He jumps on       ards. And then they leave. It is 6:00.          house—Maple Street— and from there to
a nearby backhoe. He drives to the                 Watching, my neighbor John tells me        Laurel. From Laurel it will go to San
chiseled ring, has the men chain it to the    he has been told that tomorrow they will        Marcos, then to Burlingame Drive, and
backhoe, lifts it back in place, then does    finally wash the street. “Then,” he says,       then down to Switzer Canyon, out of the
the same with the cast-iron frame.            “we will be free again.”                        million-year-old Lindavista Formation
    He then springs from the backhoe                                                          and into the still-older sandstone of the
and instructs the men to run a string                                                         San Diego Formation. In Switzer
across the basin from pavement edge to                                                        Canyon, says Charles Yackly, Deputy

                                                           Part Two, Page 15
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                                Steven L. Shepherd

Director of the city’s Wastewater Col-        The South Interceptor follows a course       tled out. Eighty-five percent will be
lection Division of the Water Utilities       downtown that parallels in reverse the       removed. (This is an important number,
Department, who one day met with me           path much of its contents took on the        85 percent. It’s the percentage of solid
and drew from his shelves book after          way south; at Island Street the Inter-       removal obtained from the more
book of intricately detailed maps show-       ceptor passes directly below the south-      advanced, “secondary” treatment meth-
ing every sewer and manhole in the city,      bound pipe with contributions from           ods specified as necessary by the federal
the 8-inch main from Burlingame joins         Burlingame, the dust from my home            Clean Water Act. At one point San
those from the surrounding neighbor-          having here traveled a great loop.           Diego was only removing 60 percent of
hoods and runs into a 10-inch main that       Through downtown the Interceptor gains       its solids, and its refusal to institute
makes its way through the canyons of          both girth and brawn—accommodated            secondary treatment was a major reason
the golf course at Morley Field.              by a tunnel, it slices through one eight-    the EPA sued in 1988. San Diego argued
    Downstream from the Navy hospital,        block stretch diagonally, and elsewhere      that secondary treatment was unneces-
that 10-inch main joins the 18-inch main      it passes in plain view through the base-    sary for a coastal city with a deep water
from Powerhouse Canyon and the two            ment of one of downtown’s toniest high       discharge, and ultimately it received a
merge into a 24-inch trunk line. That         rises.                                       waiver enabling the avoidance of a
line crosses under Interstate 5 and heads         By the time the South Interceptor        multi-billion dollar facility upgrade.
south, skirting the edge of downtown          reaches Pump Station Number 2, just          Nonetheless, under court pressure the
and growing all the while. By the time it     west of Lindbergh Field, the pipe has        city worked to refine its methods, and in
crosses Market Street the line is 39          grown to nine feet in diameter. At PS2       1996 it achieved an 85 percent removal
inches in diameter; buried beneath Har-       the South Interceptor meets the North        rate using aggressive primary treatment.)
bor Drive, it is four feet when it passes     Interceptor, a similarly large pipe carry-   For now, the solids removed at Point
under the Coronado Bay Bridge, and            ing effluent from the north of the city      Loma are piped to Fiesta Island as
five feet by the time it enters Pump          and communities as far away as Del Mar       “sludge,” which is then dried and
Station Number 1, in the middle of the        and Poway. From Pump Station Number          trucked to a landfill. Soon though, it will
32nd Street Naval Station.                    2 there emerge two 87-inch steel pipes;      be sent to the new Metro Biosolids
    All this way the dust will have           you can see them from Harbor Drive.          Center in Miramar, where it will be
traveled downhill. It goes to the Navy        They’re painted a pale aqua. Together,       further digested, spin-dried, composted,
base because that’s where San Diego’s         says Yackly, they constitute a “two-         and made available for return to M other
first sewage treatment plant was built, in    barrel force main.”                          Earth as a commercial soil amender.
1943. Before then, the city’s sewage              For historical reasons, the pipes from       The 15 percent of my dust that es-
flowed through nearly a score of pipes        PS2 follow different routes to the Point     capes this fate will be piped 4½ miles
directly into the ocean and bay—              Loma treatment plant. One continues          out to sea, at trip that will take it first
untreated. But when the plant was built       overland, buried under streets, rounding     through the city’s original 9-foot
the collection system was consolidated,       the bay then turning south toward La         diameter concrete outfall pipe and then
with the result that all the sewage in the    Playa. The other goes underwater, taking     through the 12-foot diameter extension
city was directed to this one point. It was   the plunge at Spanish Landing, swinging      added in 1993— an extension that made
drawn by gravity and all the fall avail-      around the southern tip of Shelter Island,   San Diego’s the longest such pipe in the
able was used to get it here; practically     then coming ashore under the beach at        world. This is the end of the line; here,
speaking, there is no more downhill           the foot of Kellogg Street. Amidst the       the dust from my home will have
from sea level.                               million-dollar-plus homes of La Playa,       journeyed some 22 miles through ever
    Once you’ve directed a large quantity     the barrels reconverge, head uphill, then    bigger mains, trunks, and interceptors
of sewage to a given low spot it’s pretty     enter a tunnel bored through the spine of    before finally leaving the outfall pipe
much going to keep going there. So            Point Loma— bored, in part, through the      through vents in the big Y diffuser that
when the city’s treatment facilities were     Late Cretaceous shale and yellow sand-       spreads across the floor of the Pacific
moved in 1963 to the far side of Point        stone of the Point Loma Formation, sed-      Ocean at a depth of 320 feet.
Loma (peak elevation 428 feet), the old       imentary rocks laid down about the same          From the diffuser, much of the dust
plant was replaced with PS1— the              time the Natural History M useum’s           will be caught in ocean currents and
engineers gave gravity a boost.               nodosaur was walking early Carlsbad.         diluted— rising in plumes and spread far
    At the Pump Station, sewage that              From the tunnel, the dust from my        and wide. Some of it though will settle
goes in headed south makes a 180-             home will be carried a mile or so south      into the mud, and probably not far away.
degree turn and comes out heading             along the sage-covered and windblown         With time, that mud will be buried by
north, still under Harbor Drive. The pipe     coast of Point Loma to the Wastewater        more mud, and with even more time it
too emerges with a new name. Now it’s         Treatment Plant. Here, along with the        might become rock. It might, in the
a force main— pressurized and christ-         sewage of 1.8 million people—190             language of geologists, lithify. With
ened the South Interceptor, a grand           million gallons a day— it will be            more time still— lots more time— that
sounding name for a pipe six feet across.     screened, digested, flocculated, and set-    rock, riding, as it would be, on the edge

                                                          Part Two, Page 16
San Diego Reader, March 19, 1998                                                                      Steven L. Shepherd

of the Pacific plate, might be driven      time through volcanoes as yet unborn    cycle repeats itself yet once again. By
downward as the earth’s crust slides one   and making new rhyolitic stone, which   which time our new sewer will long be
piece over the other and it might then     might tumble down new rivers making     gone.#
liquefy to form magma— rising with         new cobbles and new dust as the grand

                                                     Part Two, Page 17

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