Christmas down the drain

Not all of us get to spend the holiday at home with family and egg nog

Happy hole-idays: Some city employees will spend their holidays like this. Utility worker Eddie Garcia hands a scrub brush to Paolo Ferro, who unclogs a water main near 41st and J streets.

Happy hole-idays: Some city employees will spend their holidays like this. Utility worker Eddie Garcia hands a scrub brush to Paolo Ferro, who unclogs a water main near 41st and J streets.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Doug Novak says the holidays bring increased amounts of oil and gravy being poured down kitchen sinks, which blocks the city’s wastewater pipes. “It’s like a clogged artery,” Novak said.

It is Christmas morning, and you’re shaking sugar plums out of your head as you stretch and then roll out of bed, alarm-clock-less. Downstairs, you and your family will gather around the pine or fir tree, plucking and unwrapping the presents stowed under it.

Or, maybe you don’t even celebrate the holiday, but you get a lazy day off at home anyway, since your employer officially recognizes the birth of Jesus, or the miracle of flying reindeer, or whatever.

You’re in a bathrobe or pajamas in the kitchen, and, yawning, you fumble for the coffee pot to brew up some joe. You stick the pot under the tap in the sink. And it’s in that moment, as the water begins to flow into the brew pot, that you should devote a second of thought to Jon Conover.

Because in that moment, Conover more than likely will be slogging around one of Sacramento’s residential neighborhoods, digging up a front yard, repairing damaged pipe and making sure potable water makes its way properly to someone else’s faucet. He will not be rolling out of bed late, not be unwrapping presents with the family. That’s because Conover is a lead field worker for Sacramento’s water-distribution system, and he doesn’t get the day off.

So goes the holiday for Conover and for a handful of city utilities workers, police officers, firefighters and hospital employees who have to remain on the clock to keep the city running, even on holidays. Sure, there are businesses—such as some restaurants and movie theaters—that remain open to rake in the holiday dollars. But that is capitalism. This is public service.

“A lot of people don’t think we’re open,” said Bill Roberts, a supervisor who works on the city’s storm-drainage system and who, too, pulled down the Christmas shift this year. If leaves clog a curbside drain, or if a pipeline problem leads to a flooded street intersection, Roberts will have to call on his three-person staff to halt their holiday celebrations and hit the streets. “But we’re open. And if someone calls, we’ll be out there.”

Steve Willey supervises the city’s two water-treatment plants, where water taken from the river is run through a complex process that makes it drinkable. Technicians in each of the plants work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If they didn’t work the holiday, Willey said, there would be no drinking water in the city.

The city water system serves 125,000 residences, about 450,000 people.

“I don’t think people realize, when they flush a toilet, run a faucet, where the water comes from—what it takes to get it there,” Roberts said.

For the Sacramento Police Department, Christmas Day is no different from any other day, said spokeswoman officer Michelle Lazark. The same number of officers patrol the streets. The same number of calls for service come in.

“It’s business as usual. Just another day,” Lazark said.

Of course, the types of calls officers handle differ a bit. There are fewer businesses robbed, but incidents of domestic violence increase as families spend more time together— “just because alcohol’s involved,” Lazark said.

Not all is humbug for Christmas toilers. Often, holiday hours are paid at an overtime rate. And, Lazark said, some police stations will provide a holiday meal to officers and others who have to work. Also, if a family gathering is happening near to where an officer is patrolling, he or she can spend the 40 minutes allotted for a meal break there. However, an ear must always remain trained on the radio.

Many of the city utility workers work on an on-call basis. They may get two, 10 or 20 calls for service. So, they get to celebrate with their families until the pager starts beeping or the cell phone rings.

“You can’t plan anything,” Conover said. “Because you don’t know if you’ll be gone for two hours or eight hours.”

Later on during your Christmas Day, when you flush the toilet or try to rinse some of that turkey gravy down the sink drain, spend a quiet moment of thanks for Doug Novak.

Novak runs a team of wastewater field workers who get called out when there’s a problem with “brown water” (that’s an accurately descriptive but somehow euphemistic term for the feces and dish scum that gets sucked out of your home). His team pulled the holiday-shift short straw this year.

Novak sounds upbeat about his work, despite its less-than-yuletide nature. He seems to take pride in fixing wastewater problems for the city’s customers and remembers one Christmas shift years ago when he was called to a large Christmas gathering. The toilets wouldn’t flush, and sewage was backing up into the home. When he and his crew fixed the problem, the homeowners thanked them.

“They said, ‘You just saved our Christmas,’” Novak remembered.

That’s the good news, say city workers who have worked on Christmas before: People are usually appreciative and sympathetic.

“They’re just happy to have the problem fixed,” Roberts said.

Now, go back to that cup of coffee and enjoy your day off.