Most people would say these guys have it pretty bad, but they love their jobs. Here’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Larry Balz heads to work with a smile, knowing he’ll spend his entire day vacuuming human excrement out of porta-potty holding tanks before scrubbing them down with a hard-bristled brush and hot water.
Sal Mazza wakes up content with the fact that he’ll be cooking materials that have been doused or dripped with human fluids, biohazards, to a steamy and fragrant 260 degrees.
When Larry Azuar is called to a crime scene, his heart always sinks, but he finds solace in the fact that he’s easing people’s suffering; not to mention that the money’s good.
Adriana Anderson smiles as she steps into her supervisor’s office, knowing he can make her laugh before she performs chores as tedious as sweeping casino floors or spending hundred and hundreds of hours dusting and polishing chandeliers.
And P. H. Dold steps into the embalming room a happy man, assured he can make a body look as alive and as natural as possible. He says that “lovin’ feeling” gets him through the day when he has to go on site to retrieve bodies and any of their scattered parts to bring back to his funeral home.
Imagine working in these professions for a month, a year, or the rest of your working life. Think it sounds bad? You may still feel that way after reading this story, but these people love their jobs. Health and safety regulations make most of these jobs better than we perhaps imagine, and good pay or great management makes some of them worth the sacrifice.
After learning that a person can make $5,000 per job cleaning up crime scenes, maybe it doesn’t sound so objectionable. And as long as you maintain a light heart and a sense of humor, even pumping corpses full of formaldehyde and collecting human remains scattered over a mile of train track aren’t as mentally disturbing as a person might think.
Porta-potty cleaner, Larry Balz
Larry Balz pulls up to a construction site in his Sani-Hut company truck. It’s one of the most conspicuous vehicles in town, with a brilliant blue and white frame and a large purple sewage tank. It’s the kind of garish truck 3-year-old boys want to drive. Sani-Hut logos are all over the truck’s surface. Balz’s jacket and navy-blue ball cap are adorned likewise; the cap also features an American flag.
There are two portable bathroom units at the site near Saint Mary’s off Ralston Street. Balz cleans the ground-level porta-potty first. Not much to it. Then a crane lowers another potty from the top of the halfway-finished multi-story structure.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” Balz says with a smile, eyes hidden by dark safety sunglasses. “Oh yeah, this one does require some work.” He starts by picking up wads of toilet paper, then spraying every surface—there appears to be a lot of urine on one of the walls—with a de-greasing solution.
“While that’s all setting up, you get to start the fun stuff,” Balz says with a nasally laugh. He brings out the “stinger,” a hose attached to a vacuum connected to the sewage tank. Then, he hoses down every surface with scalding water and scrubs. Suds run to the ground. Finally, out comes the squeegee and the drying rag and in goes the “foo-foo,” that sickly sweet, anti-stench perfume spray. The entire cleaning process takes an amazing three minutes. Balz sanitizes anywhere from 10 to 60 huts a day.
“If I don’t feel comfortable using it when I walk away, it’s not clean.”
Good management and the fact that it’s a small company with excellent benefits (medical, dental, optical, vacations, commission) make Balz’s job at the Sani-Hut Company the best he’s ever had.
“We have people who come up to us all the time and ask us how we can do this,” Balz says. “When they find out what we make a year, they ask if we’re hiring.” Annual wages are close to $50,000.
It’s worse when Balz has to deal with Sani-Huts that have been tipped over and sitting in the heat for a few days. And, of course, every guy has at least one really nasty story.
“It takes a lot to get anything on you,” Balz says. “As long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve only gotten something on me once. I was servicing an RV sewer system out in Yerington—we do that kind of work, too—and the mechanisms were all telling me that everything was closed off, but it wasn’t.” Balz gestures to show how his entire front was covered in human waste.
As the construction workers hook the potty back up to the crane and it drifts away, Balz says he gets plenty of respect for what he does.
“My girlfriend thinks it’s a pretty good job.”
Even his girlfriend’s children are impressed. When they drive around town together, they’ll ask him, “Do you do that one? How about that one?”
Medical waste biohazard cooker, Sal Mazza
First thing in the morning, Sal Mazza sends the trucks out, sometimes taking one himself, and picks up red biohazard bags and sharps (needle) containers from all over Reno, Sparks and Carson City. All the medical and dental waste that is brought back to Waste Management goes into a sofa-sized metal cart, which is wheeled into the autoclave—a huge green metal canister that Mazza, who’s not a large man, could almost walk into without having to duck. The autoclave steams the material to 260 degrees for 30 minutes.
“People who think it’s bad, they don’t know how it is,” Mazza says. “It’s all regulated. People think there are body parts, but by law we can’t take that.” Just urine, semen, teeth, blood. No guts.
“Sometimes the smell is very bad. It depends on what’s in it,” Mazza says, although he never stares too hard into the cart, even when it smells especially rank. “But you get kind of used to the smell after a couple years of working here.”
After the autoclave signals that a batch of waste is done, Mazza vents off the aromatic steam for 10 minutes. Then he winds the door open. He’ll run eight to 10 loads a day, depending on how much waste comes in.
“The biohazard is all totally contained. I’m never grossed out. It’s not a bad job to have. I love it. It’s laidback. Nice boss. … I get $16.28 an hour. The drivers get $15.53.
“On the dock there,” Mazza points to men across the way working at the dump site, “sweeping in the dust all day—that was worse than this. I did that for less than a year. Over here is way better. I do everything: paperwork, go out, cook.”
As Mazza withdraws the carts, hands protected with florescent orange gloves and eyes by clear safety goggles, he gets a face full of acrid steam. The smell is something between stinky feet, sweet and sweaty armpits and burning rubber. The sight is almost worse: It was a gruesome end for the plastic bags having melted and stretched and sizzled away to reveal latex gloves, gauze, vials, plastic caps.
“It stinks in here worse than normal,” says a gentleman who peeks in the room.
Mazza, who’s been with the company for three years, smiles and says, “Yeah, hopefully I’ll stay here a while.”
Mortician, funeral home director, P.H. Dold
P. H. Dold unzips a burgundy body bad. The man inside is a 52-year-old Latino. Because death at 52 isn’t considered natural, an autopsy was done before the body came to Dold & Sons funeral home. Dold’s sons are only 6 and 8, but they spend a good deal of time at their dad’s office, since pop often works 20 hours a day.
The mortician wears a blue smock that fastens in the back and a backwards baseball cap. He heaves and pulls the plastic-wrapped body from the gurney to the embalming table. Removing the plastic, he reveals a healthy-looking (relatively speaking) gentleman with an enormous Y cut into his chest. Dold snips the string—it looks like the fat brown stitching on a baseball glove—that holds the chest together. He pulls back the flesh, lifts up the chest plate and withdraws the plastic bag full of organs that were removed during autopsy. This is the least demanding part of Dold’s job.
Dold wanted to be a mortician at age 8. It’s difficult to say his job seems that awful. It’s what he attended school for. It earns a person a pretty decent living. It’s where Dold’s heart is. He does, however, deal with some heavy situations that could be called both physically disgusting and mentally disturbing.
“There was a really bad car accident not too long ago, and the news says, ‘Oh, we have counseling for the police officers, the fire department and Remsa. They’re all having a tough time this evening,'” Dold says. “Well, what do you think about me? I’m the guy who goes and picks the brain up that has been smeared and smashed over 12 feet of pavement.”
One of Dold’s worst cases was when he had to recover the thousands of pieces of a girl in Fernley who killed herself by stepping in front of a train and whose body was spread over a mile of track.
“That one was really miserable,” Dold says, shaking his head of shoulder-length wavy gray hair and the beard to match. “Just one bad one like that will ruin your whole year. I’d yell, ‘Hey I think I found a finger,’ and one of the other guys would say, ‘How do you know it’s a finger?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, it looks like it’s got a nail attached to it.'”
When the details of his stories turn ghastly, Dold’s voice becomes lighter as he strains to find humor as well as truth. He says he’s been stuck on truth all his life.
“The truth is death. There ain’t no faking it. That is it,” Dold says.
With the body open, Dold starts mixing the formaldehyde solution. He will hit an artery in the right leg first and work his way to the left leg, the left arm, then the head, so he can see how the fluid is reacting with the limbs before anything drastic happens to the face. Meanwhile, he will inject the organs with formaldehyde, then coat them in a formaldehyde-based sawdust.
“It’s like you’re coating chicken,” he says with a laugh. “It’s shake and bake, and I helped.”
Dold & Sons takes care of all aspects of a death, from preparing the body and arranging the funeral to making tribute videos. He does a lot of charity work, as well as restorative and detail work that the other homes in town, most of them owned by the same company, don’t do. For example, dying the roots of a woman’s hair.
“If the actual body looks its very best, there’s nothing that can go wrong. If there’s one thing wrong with it, everything’s wrong with it, so I’ve always focused on the body.”
The worst part of Dold’s job, he says, is the non-stop aspect. He could be finishing a 20-hour shift, but when a new family walks in his door, he has to give them his all.
“The best part of my job is when the family says, ‘You have made this so easy for us.’ It was something they thought they couldn’t even talk about, and now they’re saying it’s easy. That’s awesome.”
Casino porter, Adriana Anderson
There is no question that Adriana Anderson works harder than the majority of the population and gets paid less, although that may be an observation she has never made. She’s a public area utility porter at the Reno Hilton, a job nobody with the option to decline it typically wants, but that somebody has got to do.
Juarez, almost 68, has been a porter at the Hilton for 23 years, and before that that she toiled in the casino cafeteria for three years. She began working at the MGM, the original incarnation of the Reno Hilton building, a week after it opened. For a quarter of a century’s worth of work, she makes only $10 an hour. Although, that’s more than a 100 percent increase from 1978 when she was making $4.25.
“I come to work to do whatever my boss tells me to do: sweeping, helping in the restaurants, whatever,” Anderson says. “Every day, I am assigned an area, and that’s where I stay.”
Anderson moved to the United States from Panama after marrying an American when she was 22. She was a stay-at-home mom until she became bored enough that she decided to get a job outside the home. She worked for five years as a change person at Harrah’s, a position she said was handy in learning how to deal with irate customers.
Anderson has stayed with the casino for so long because she loves getting to chat with people from all over the world, and she has a boss she esteems.
“I enjoy working here because my boss jokes with me all the time,” she says. “He makes me laugh. He makes me happy. Even when my day is hard, he makes sure I am never upset.”
The most irksome part of Anderson’s job is cleaning the chandeliers, which number in the hundreds at the Reno Hilton.
“More than anything, your eyes get tired,” Anderson says. “You take off all the little glass pieces one by one, clean them, then put them back on a little hook. Putting them back is the hardest part. It’s really hard to see. They have to be perfect. One small chandelier takes maybe five hours.”
Anderson’s day-to-day tasks are random. She sometimes helps with baking, deep cleaning the restaurants, shampooing carpets, sweeping, cleaning ash trays, etc. Gloves prevent any cleaning situation from feeling too dirty. The worst part is the lack of employees, which translates to things growing dirtier than they should; Anderson often has to work doubly hard when the grunge builds up.
“I can retire any day,” Anderson says, “but I don’t want to sit at home all day. Sometimes, I visit sick people on my days off, but if you sit at home doing nothing, you get depressed.”
Crime-scene cleanup, Larry Azuar
Larry Azuar opens the door to a home in a quaint and quiet neighborhood or maybe an apartment in a bad part of town. He looks hygienically dapper in a white disposable safety jumpsuit, a face mask, booties and latex gloves. He crosses the threshold, already privy to basic background information. Could be a suicide or homicide or the natural death of a man who has been decomposing for five weeks, his fragrance permeating everything porous—clothes, walls, carpet, photographs, tiles, guns—in his house.
Azuar undoubtedly has the worst of the so-called undesirable jobs and yet seems the easiest with what he does. He has the soothing voice of a counselor and a sincere and rich laugh, like the purr of a lion or the hearty hum of the engine on the golden-tan and sparkling chrome Harley Davidson motorcycle in his garage. He runs his own business with his girlfriend, Cathy Bradley. It’s called C & L Crime-Scene Cleaners.
Azuar surveys the scene’s landscape. A mangled and incomplete set of pearly whites sometimes smiles down from the ceiling. Sometimes an eyeball stares up from the floor, or an ear lies in wait behind a couch. Azuar works his way in and sprays all possible bodily fluids with a natural disinfectant called Attack; it kills 99.9 percent of blood pathogens.
“You have to have very good eyes,” Azuar says. “I only have a couple people who work for me now and then, and we go back and forth sometimes and say, ‘You missed one.’ Sometimes we make a game out of it, too: ‘Oh, there’s some sushi over here.’ Sushi is brain matter. You don’t say, ‘There’s brain over here’ because there are often people who can hear you.”
About 40 percent of the time, family members are present while Azuar is on the scene, although he highly discourages it. He has to take away everything that has been contaminated by blood. It is too time-consuming, and thus money-consuming, to clean the smaller and often more personal items, such as photographs and trinkets.
“You have to put up somewhat of a barrier in this job,” Azuar says. “You have to go in with the idea that you’re in there to make it look like nothing ever happened. … With just that on your mind, you kind of block out everything else.”
What’s the happy catch? Azuar rubs his fingers together in a money gesture. The price depends on the job. Scenes run a minimum average of $500, although the range can be from $300 to $5,000.
“People say, ‘God, how come you charge us so much?’ Well, number one, I’m not going to get stuck with something when I reach for a cushion in a couch, and there’s a needle with the HIV virus in there, and I start dying from that day.”
It’s not just the risk that bumps the price. When Azuar has to scrape teeth off of an asbestos-containing popcorn ceiling that’s 16 feet above the living room floor—granted, that doesn’t happen every day—the cost can leap through the roof. Dollars, though, aren’t the only motivation.
“You know the pain people are going through, and at least you can make it easier for them. I’ve kind of always cared for people. Even though I’m not the warmest person in the world, I don’t like to see people suffer. Families shouldn’t have to clean up family.”
When it comes to blood and guts, there is little that truly repulses Azuar. The most disgusting and disturbing things are often a person’s living conditions.
“The worst job ever was a teargas situation, which was a four-day job with four people. That was $10,000. It was so miserable even being in the house. At all times, you had to keep one eye completely closed and the other eye three-quarters closed.”
Azuar’s bloody business comes in spurts. Sometimes he gets five calls in a month, and sometimes he goes three months without a call. Fortunately, his full-time job for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District covers expenses when gruesome deaths are scarce.
As with all the worst jobs, humor comes in handy when dealing with subjects and situations that are anything but cheery.
“You have to use humor,” says Azuar. “That’s another reason I close the door when I go into a scene and the family’s there, because we’ll be joking, ‘This dude’s over here, man.’ ‘No, he’s over here.’ ‘Well that guy’s just all over the place.’ I mean, you have to do things like that because if you sit there and think, ‘Wow this is a person, or was a person,’ it would drive you nuts. So you just kind of keep a friendly conversation going. Lighthearted is what you have to be.”
Azuar smiles enticingly, laughs full-heartedly and, sounding almost serious, asks, “Wanna job?”
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