Just another day at the office
CN&R intern tackles some of Chico’s more interesting occupations
My typical day at Chico News & Review consists of drinking coffee, writing articles, taking a coffee break, attending meetings and drinking more coffee. Very strenuous. So last week, when I traded my pink wedges and chunky jewelry for tennis shoes and latex gloves to take on some of Butte County’s quirkiest (and most nauseating) jobs, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Vacuuming poop, urine and whatever else from a portable toilet; stabbing chickens with a hypodermic needle; picking up dead raccoons on the side of the road; and allowing bees to wander around my freckled hands are things I would never imagine myself doing. But I did them. I did all of them and more.
“You ready to go clean some toilets?” asked Eric Peterson, the Ben Toilet Rental guy, his 6-foot-1 frame towering over me.
It was 100 degrees at noon, and I was wearing ugly shoes on the worst assignment of my young writing career. Gee, I would love nothing more than to clean poop out of portable toilets.
“I’m ready!” I said, trying to sound chipper.
“These are yours,” he said as we arrived at the first toilet. I smiled and wondered where the cloth gloves he tossed me had been. I slid my pink-painted fingernails inside the gloves as Peterson walked across the dirt lawn at the two-story Second Avenue home that was under construction.
I jumped down from the red Ford pickup and made my way over to the blue Ben toilet. Great, I thought, now to ruin the 7 for All Mankind jeans and pink Express tank top I was wearing. Neither went (nor will ever go) with poop.
I eagerly leaned over Peterson’s shoulder at the graffiti-riddled door, awaiting the treat hidden inside. He opened the squeaky door, and I leaned in—big mistake. I started gagging.
“The smell is pretty good,” he said with a laugh.
Really, I thought sarcastically. I started dry heaving. Perfect.
“The vacuum sucks everything into the tank,” Peterson explained as he lowered the white poop-crusted hose into the toilet. The 575-gallon tank gets emptied at the end of the day—every day. Peterson works 10 to 12 hours on summer days, and it would be a safe guess that he cleans hundreds of portable toilets each week.
The smell was horrific. I gagged again and buried my nose in the crook of my arm. I swear the contents of the toilet were sweating in the heat. Peterson laughed again.
He cracked open the bottle of chemicals that smelled like blackberry snow cone syrup and poured the liquid into the empty toilet. Then he filled it up with “clean water” from a 175-gallon section of the tank. I’d never want to get into a car accident with this guy.
“I’m never eating a snowcone again,” I said. He laughed some more. His red hat shielded his blue eyes from the sun as he finished the job.
“A toilet shouldn’t take more than four or five minutes to clean.” Peterson said.
The sweet smell of chemicals and the stench of human feces were too much to bear. I was dripping sweat and dry heaving again. There goes my mascara.
Finally Peterson finished the toilet and we were off to the next job: a construction site.
The air was still brown with dirt from the drive when I jumped down from the truck and walked over to the dirty toilets. The wood frame a few feet away looked like a skeleton with a concrete stomach. The only established structures on the premises were a mobile office building and the porta-potties we serviced.
Three men stood in the doorway of the office and drank sodas as they watched us pull out the cleaning equipment. The sun reflected off the dirt onto my bare arms and sweat dripped down my face. Why I even put makeup on that day I’ll never know.
“You get to do this one,” Peterson said with a laugh. He seemed to enjoy my misery.
“I’m ready,” I said, grasping the suction end of the vacuum in one hand, the red release valve in the other and holding my breath. Thinking happy thoughts, I tried to envision anything but poop. Oh, the smell. I leaned over the urine-splattered toilet and sucked up the rest of the “brown water.”
Peterson laughed at my pursed frowning lips as he put away the hose. Next on the lovely agenda: spray the urinal with the pressure washer.
Excited to have pure water even near my dirty, sweaty hands, I turned it on and began to spray down the yellow-stained urinal.
“Wait!” Peterson yelled over the sound of the little Honda engine-powered pressure washer. But it was too late. The oh-so-important lesson I forgot: Close the door while spraying the urinal.
My face got splattered with urine-saturated water.
I wanted to cry. Peterson was hunched over with laughter, his hand resting on his knee. The men on the steps in front of the office building had multiplied. All five were staring at us.
All I could think was that I was covered in one of the sweaty construction workers’ pee and prayed that none got into my mouth. I was ready to be done with this repulsive job and take a shower.
I filled the toilet with the blackberry cocktail, swept the cobwebs and slammed the door shut. Done. I felt so accomplished, and ready to peel my infested clothing off.
Four hours, a soak in the pool and two showers later I was ready to try eating. Salad was all I could stomach.
While chomping on the greens in my parents’ air-conditioned house far, far away from portable toilets and vats of poop, I reflected on the experience.
I always pitied the guys whose job it is to clean porta-potties and wondered how they did it. Now I know. I learned the logistics of the business and walked away with a lesson about the poop cleaners—it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.
Like Peterson said, “There’s no point in being negative about anything.” And he never was. Even when he was gagging, he was back to smiling as soon as the smell passed.Catch that bloody chicken
Like most people, I see chickens as a juicy entrée. Matt Ball sees them as a test subject.
Ball is an entomologist who works for Butte County Mosquito and Vector Control. His job is to test mosquitoes and birds for diseases, and I got to help. Lucky me.
Ball’s Old Navy T-shirt and dusty jeans looked much more comfortable than the sweaty white paper suit and black bird-nabbing gloves I wore.
“Just grab ’em,” he told me.
Easy for him to say, I thought. He was standing outside the wire chicken coop instructing me as I cautiously entered the wire door. The brown hens kicked up dust as they squawked and ran to a corner.
I prefer sautéed chicken, not running chicken.
I snagged a hen and stuffed it into a yellow plastic cage as Ball laughed. These men were always laughing at me.
After I caught enough hens to bleed, Ball and I made our way over to the testing station. The temporary station consisted of a folding chair, a blue ice chest with bright orange biohazard stickers wallpapering the interior, hypodermic needles, rubbing alcohol and cotton balls. Very outdoor-hospital chic. I laughed for a change.
“I like to grab them under the wings,” Ball said as he snatched up a chicken. “They just relax.”
He swung the limp hen back and forth between his knees. “That’ll happen as they relax,” he said. The chicken had pooped on his shoe. Apparently she got a bit too relaxed. One point for the chickens.
I was already over this assignment and I hadn’t even begun to bleed the rotten birds yet.
“You ready to try?” Ball asked. As if I had a choice.
“Sure,” I said. Now all I had to do was pick up a pecking hen so I could stab it until it bled, and then collect the blood.
I closed my eyes and grabbed a chicken out of the plastic cage, hoping maybe I’d be at home in bed when I opened them again. No such luck, but I did manage to nab a chicken.
The hen and I headed over to the testing station and I sat in the “doctor” chair.
My arm shook as I squished the hen’s feathery wings between my arm and leg. I could feel its little bones through my paper jumpsuit, but it didn’t struggle. It swung back and forth like an abandoned swing.
“We send the blood back to the lab to test for West Nile,” Ball said. “The birds tend to get infected before humans.”
My arm kept shaking as I picked up the hypodermic needle. I stabbed the chicken’s comb until blood puddles formed. The comb looked almost plastic. Next I soaked a strip of paper with the blood. The chicken just sat there with its eyes closed. It was strange to see it so relaxed in a predator’s grasp.
The first chicken was easy, and I decided I could do another. This time I grabbed the hen just like Ball said. No problem. Then I sat down.
The second hen was wily and started pecking after she was pinned. I had to show the little brown fowl who was boss. Nasty little chicken.
She pecked as I grabbed her scrawny neck and forced her head against my leg. She finally relaxed, and I was poop-free. One point for me.
I bled the hen and got a sample. Done; I was out of there. I began tearing off the sexy suit and noticed green splatters on the right pant leg. The chicken had marked me after all. Two points for the chicken.
Safe at home, I bit into my chicken sandwich. I was thrilled to be able to eat the little buggers without having to worry about being pecked or pooped on. What a good predator. Two points for me.Busy as a bee
The bees were all around me, their tiny stingers crawling on my exposed hands. The buzzing sounded like an overactive generator. The air was moving. Dashes of yellow and black zoomed past the veil covering my face.
This was either a bride’s worst nightmare or a day in the life of a beekeeper. Well, there’s no ring on any of my fingers, so it must have been a day of bees. How nice.
I got to help make queen bees for little old men to buy and watch. Apparently cable doesn’t cut it—for some people queen-bee watching is much more exciting.
“Guys just like to sit and watch ’em. They’re busy little, you know, bees,” said Klarene Olivarez, the bee master’s wife.
Little do the old men know, it’s quite the feat to become a queen bee. Not only do the larvae have to be properly inserted into plastic vials and fed royal jelly, they also have to survive the worker bees. If their queen isn’t deemed royalty, she is devoured. Cannibalistic brutes.
“The bees are actually a little bit mellow right now. I don’t think you need coveralls,” said Ray Olivarez Sr., the bee master, as we walked into a trailer. My heartbeat quickened.
There were literally thousands of bees buzzing around outside the tiny workroom. I was not about to risk having a stinger in my speckled skin. I wanted a suit.
Two women sat on spinning office chairs sorting bee larvae to create queen bees. The only buzzing inside the office was the air conditioner, but the women both wore paper suits. I was not leaving the office without a paper suit.
“I think I at least need something to cover my bare arms,” I said.
Olivarez searched the 32-foot wooden trailer for a veil. He handed me a white zip-up jacket with a black mesh face covering. Relief, even if it didn’t match my outfit.
I suited up and we headed for the bees. Rows of white wooden boxes stood at waist level. Bees buzzed around us. A bead of sweat rolled down my back. I wanted to retreat to my car.
“OK, what do you want me to do?” I asked Olivarez.
He pulled the lid off the box marked “6/23.” The bees formed a solid buzzing mass. Supposedly there was a wooden insert buried beneath the stinging insects.
“I’ll smoke ’em a bit then you pull out the one right there,” Olivarez said, pointing to one of the bee racks.
My bare hands were supposed to reach into the bee box, sweep the bees off the rack and then I would walk away. Like stealing candy from a baby with a loaded gun—or in this case, a loaded stinger.
I smiled, swallowed and reached in.
“Be careful not to squish ’em. That’s when I get stung, when I forget to look at where I put my hand.” Olivarez said.
I felt the tears building. I breathed in slowly and moved cautiously toward the box. My hands shook as I reached for the frame.
“Go slow and you’ll be fine,” he instructed.
No problem. I would have spent all day moving that one frame if he’d wanted me to. I was not about to piss off the insect that could pierce my skin, injecting poison into my flesh.
I had to remind myself to breathe.
“That was great,” Olivarez said. His hands were tan and his fingers were thick. He wore a bandana under his straw hat. When he smiled he looked like a jolly Santa Claus. His being calm helped me relax.
“Now sweep them off,” he said. Expletives were flying through my head on repeat. All I had to do was sweep them back into their box and walk away from the mist of bees that was going to try and follow me. Uh-huh. No problem.
I began dragging the coarse bristles over the bees. Most fell into the box but others retaliated. Bees polluted the air all around me. I slowly walked out of the mist of bees. I’d done it. The nightmare was over.
I passed the bee-free frame through the trailer window and lifted my veil. I was officially done being a bee bride.
“You must not be very nervous,” Olivarez said. “The bees didn’t swarm around you.” He told me that bees sense fear and tend to act on that. In spite of the sweaty back and shaking hands, I actually enjoyed playing with the bees—even when the drone, the male bee that doesn’t have a stinger, was crawling around on my fingers. His thick legs stuck to my pores like Velcro and he was much larger than the worker bees, but when he was wandering around my giant hand I couldn’t get over how cool he looked.
I’ll always be scared of beehives, but now I know to stay calm when I walk by.Cardboard raccoon
I was already nauseated. As Brian Brousseau drove us up the Skyway in his shiny white Ford, all I wanted to do was spew all over the door. I downed a couple Tylenol, praying the tiny white pills could cure nausea. Car sickness? Maybe. I was already sick and I hadn’t even picked up any roadkill yet. All I could do was keep staring at the clock.
1:26 p.m. I kept drinking water. Brousseau kept driving. I tried to distract myself.
“What’s a typical day like for you as a roadkill collector?” I asked.
I looked around the truck. A plastic baggie containing a dead cat sat in the bed of the truck, hand sanitizer was in the cup-holder and a bag of Meaty Bone dog treats was next to my feet.
I was hoping for some conversation to pass the time, but instead he gave quite the concise answer.
“There’s never a typical day,” Brousseau said.
I followed it up with another question.
“What’s the worst part of your job?” I asked.
1:35 p.m. Alcohol wipes were next to the doggie biscuits, a dozen or so blue ballpoint pens rolled around inside a metal clipboard and the radio blasted the latest Shakira song. I was being tortured.
“The worst part of my job is probably coming into situations where there is a welfare situation where not only pets but children are involved. We take care of the animal part of it,” Brousseau said.
1:48 p.m. This was going to be a long day. But at least he explained the dog treats. I was under the impression that Butte County Animal Control only worked with dead animals.
The thought sent bile crawling up my esophagus. I guzzled water. I was sure car sickness was going to be the death of me and Brousseau’s pristine truck.
2 p.m. I felt too sick to ask any more questions. Silence and a mild stench filled the cab of the truck. Maybe that’s what was making me ill. We arrived in Paradise.
“All right, we’re looking for a raccoon,” Brousseau said.
Brousseau pulled the truck off onto the dirt.
“Where’s the raccoon? I didn’t even see it,” I said.
“It’s right in front of the truck. Be careful when you get out,” he replied.
Not only did I have to pick up a sun-dried raccoon, but now I had to make sure I didn’t end up on the side of the road next to the raccoon.
We squatted down next to the sad-looking animal. Its tongue was fat and pushed through its teeth as though it tried to scare the oncoming car that squashed it. Poor stinky critter.
Now to dispose of the carcass.
The blue latex gloves seemed fitting for the tough raccoon. I expected to lift a heavy body into the Hefty garbage bag. I was surprised at how light the raccoon was. It felt like picking up a piece of furry cardboard … covered in maggots.
I turned my head. The nausea was back. The puddle of maggots was about a foot-and-a-half long and 3 inches deep. They squirmed and writhed where intestines should have been. I gagged and put the cardboard raccoon in the plastic bag.
I tore the gloves off and searched my arms for the flesh-eating worms. I couldn’t see anything but I could swear they were crawling all over me.
3:47 p.m. We were on our way to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to empty out the bed of the truck. I planned to bathe myself in alcohol when I was finally released and allowed to go home.
4:08 p.m. We pulled into the back parking lot of the SPCA. Brousseau opened up the back of the truck. I was actually excited to help remove the carcasses, the last emotion I expected to correlate with dead animal bodies. I really wanted to go home.
“Put everything into the freezer over there,” Brousseau said.
“Everything” being the flattened cat, the decapitated dog and the cardboard raccoon.
4:17 p.m. I was almost done. I reached in and grabbed the plastic bag with the raccoon. Its canines stuck out of the open end of the bag. It looked vicious. I dropped it in the garbage can.
Then it was stinky kitty’s turn, and Brousseau helped me with the dog. I was done. The animals were all in the freezer waiting to be taken out to the rendering plant. And I was free.
5:01 p.m. Back in my silver Jetta, air conditioning blasting and the windows wide open, my nausea was completely gone. Maybe it was the smell of rotting flesh that made my stomach churn and bile rise, but I still blame car sickness. Either way I was done with it.
I’d cleaned people’s poop, bled chickens, played with bees and disposed of rotting animal carcasses. In spite of the human waste, potential West Nile Virus and maggots, I never did vomit. I had quite the experience, and I’ll never do any of it again. Ever.