North Coast Journal

March 1996


Jobs almost no one wants

by Lisa Ladd-Wilson

Ack. I could never do that for a living.

How many times have you said that? Maybe you were watching someone cleaning the elephant's cage at the zoo, wearing rubber boots so high that they made a permanent crease at the armpits. Or maybe you were waiting in line at a White Castle hamburger joint on a Friday night in Chicago, where burgers without cheese went for 19 cents, the eight people in front of you were ordering five each, and the fry cook was going blind from the grease spit on his face.

They couldn't pay me enough is a popular refrain, but so is the corollary: It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.

Did you ever wonder who? More importantly, did you ever wonder why?

Why does a Eureka couple wash other families' dirty diapers for a living? Why would a woman who loves animals stay at a job where she has to decide how many of them will die today? Why did someone choose embalming over teaching and more than a decade later say that, for him, he chose the most rewarding career?

Staff members at the North Coast Journal put together an arbitrary list of jobs they wouldn't want to do, and then set about talking to the people who do them. Not everyone contacted wanted to discuss their jobs, and not everyone who agreed to talk about their work said they loved what they did.

But all these people labor daily at jobs that many of us would refuse to do even once, jobs that might even make us recoil. Maybe -- just maybe -- these people know something we do not.

It's a crappy job. Amy Sawyer admits it from the start. But that's a statement of fact, not feeling.

She and her husband, Jeff, bought Dapper Dan Diaper Service several years ago, and their life has been filled with changes. For a start, they've added another son to the family: Dakota, age 4, has a brother now, Burke, 18 months.

Also, Amy's full-time job at Humboldt State University came to an end. And now Jeff -- a geologist at SHN Consulting in Eureka -- has passed the keys to the Dapper Dan diaper van to his wife, who has become the new kingpin in cotton diapers.

After years of picking up, bagging, unloading and washing poopy diapers, what's Jeff's assessment of the job he's leaving?

"It's really not bad," he said as he demonstrated diaper techniques on the coffee table in the living room of the couple's Eureka house. "You turn your smell off. Plus, you see a lot of pretty colors."

The Sawyers aren't timid when it comes to discussing the nitty-gritty aspects of running a diaper service. They are well-versed on the environmental pros and cons of using cloth diapers vs. disposables; they have chased their preference in diapers across the globe; and they take the incidence of diaper rash among their clients very seriously.

(How do they know? They can identify stains on diapers made by Desotin, a diaper-rash medication.)

The Dapper Dan Diaper Service provides clients (45 currently) with a week's supply of cotton diapers (usually three to six dozen per week) and protective outer pants. Parents deposit dirty diapers in a bag-lined diaper pail. When the bags are full, they are left out on the porch for diaper van pickup, at which time another fresh supply of diapers is dropped off.

The Sawyers wash about 4,000 diapers a week, and they've honed the process to a science.

For instance, they no longer require that moms rinse diapers in the toilet before putting them in the diaper pail.

"We found that rinsing adds stains, makes mold more likely and is stinky," Amy said.

And it's unnecessary, Jeff added, because most of what those in the business call "chunks" fall off without a vigorous swish 'round the bowl, anyway.

Since they go through about 40 pounds of detergent a month, they needed a product that was economical, effective and easy on baby bottoms. Their detergent of choice: SA8 from Amway. (It doesn't hurt that they sell Amway products.)

The Sawyers test the pH of every load they wash, checking the water of the last rinse for soap residue, the major cause of diaper rash. They've found that it's best to use much less soap than recommended, no matter what brand they use.

"We always use half of what (the box) says, and we still need an additional rinse," Jeff said.

The Dapper Dan service offers diapers in four sizes; each is 100 percent cotton and extra heavy-weight. After much research the Sawyers found just the diaper they wanted, sold by the Gerber company. The maker of the diaper has changed several times over the years, and much to the Sawyers' chagrin the diaper has never been made by an American company.

"They used to be made in China," Amy said, but that country's human-rights violations effectively shut the door on babies' butts across the United States. Since then the manufacturer alternately has been in South Africa, Bulgaria and Pakistan.

That's one of the points against using cloth diapers, as far as the Sawyers are concerned: not using an American-made product and possibly using a product made under slave-labor conditions.

Other cons: the electricity and gas used to clean them; chemicals in the detergents; pesticides that may have been used in growing the cotton. But they can counter quickly with a list of environmental woes associated with disposable diapers.

"You can figure more than 20,000 disposable diapers in any diaper career, all going into the landfill," Amy said. "Then add all the packaging for each box."

Plus, any time you have human waste in a mixture, you have the possibility of incubating a live virus, Jeff said.

They also estimate the cost of using disposables to be twice as much as cloth, and they wonder about the long-term effects of babies sleeping all night in a diaper that's so efficient it holds the liquid of multiple urinations.

"Our own pee-pee is pretty nasty stuff," Jeff said.

The Sawyers may be knee deep in something the rest of us don't even like to think about, let alone make a living with, but they think it's a pretty sweet deal in many ways.

"It's not that hard of work, really, and you get to see little babies on a regular basis," Jeff said. And Amy's glad she can be with her two sons all day.

Plus, "This business supported a family of four," Jeff said, referring to Dapper Dan's previous owners.

And that's not something to turn up your nose at.

One of the first things you notice when you walk around the dumping shed at City Garbage Co. in Eureka is the surprising lack of stink. It really doesn't smell that bad.

You also notice the gulls. Hundreds and hundreds of gulls, swooping, picking, pooping and squawking, amidst tons of moving machinery. They must get squashed pretty often, right?

"Actually, no. They're very fast," said Dave Conners, one of the company's supervisors.

City Garbage has tried a variety of anti-gull tactics, but nothing seems to work, he said. For instance, the faux owl the firm installed on the roof as a scaregull instead became a convenient perch.

"Rats with wings," Conners said of the gulls. "They eat anything."

Almost all the garbage that ends up in the county landfill on Cummings Road comes through the garbage company's Hawthorne Street facility first, and Mike Holiman is often the first to see it. Holiman is a "load checker," the guy you see looking over the trash as it spills from truck to floor. Garbage may be garbage to you, but to Holiman some garbage is worse than others.

Asbestos, automotive oils, hypodermic needles, weed killer, wood stain -- you don't want that in the landfill because it could contaminate soil and water. Old stoves and water heaters -- ditto, because they take up too much room. But the prohibited item Holiman sees most often is paint; second is pesticides.

Holiman has been one of City Garbage's two full-time load checkers since August, and he says he enjoys his job. So why does he think it would it be a contender for this story?

"Just basically because of what I'm standing in right now," he said as another truck prepared to regurgitate its contents at his feet.

Holiman wears a bright white uniform, neon-colored vest and a white hardhat: When your job puts you behind gigantic trucks rolling in reverse gear all day, it's an excellent idea to stand out like a sore thumb.

He carries a clipboard. And when a hauler pulls under the big metal shelter at City Garbage, Holiman is there to take a look at the trash.

"You know society is wasteful, but you don't know just how wasteful until you get a look at it here," he said over the roar of a bulldozer slamming more junk in a corner. "We see everything."

And that's one of the highlights of the job, Holiman and Conners agreed, the Oh, the Things You Will Find! Dr. Seussian aspect of garbage picking. Color TVs that still work, furniture in good condition, chairs that need just a little repair and even the proverbial kitchen sink. Public salvaging is not permitted, but if an employee spots something worthy, for a few bucks he can take it home.

Conners remembered one man who dropped his wallet (with $800) in his trash. He followed his garbage all the way to the landfill, where he found his wallet, money intact, plus an envelope containing $400.

He also remembered the coroner dropping off a chair in which a shotgun victim had been sitting. It was a mess, Conners said, and no employee stepped forward to take that item home.

"We got rid of it right away," he said.

Dead deer, dead dog, dead skunk, dead hog. We have many names for them, such as road pizza or a squishy, but they're all the same to Dave Crabtree. They're all 10-32s.

"You have to know the code to know what it is," Crabtree said as he sat in the conference room of the Caltrans Eureka Maintenance Station just off Highway 101 between Eureka and Arcata. "A dead animal is a 10-32."

Most people know the California Department of Transportation is responsible for state highway upkeep; they might not know, however, that Caltrans also takes care of state highway drop dead. If you've ever wondered what happened to the obliterated ex-raccoon you saw sprawled, face down, over the center divider like a stunned sky diver, chances are it was retrieved and buried by your local Caltrans maintenance worker.

That's right. Buried.

But it may have taken a few shovel scrapes and pitchfork flings to get it into the ground.

Crabtree, an area superintendent, is retiring after 29 years with Caltrans, and he figured he's removed several hundred carcasses from our state's highways and byways. The largest was an elk; the smallest? Well, as the song goes, you got your dead cat, you got your dead dog. (Caltrans doesn't care much about the dead bullfrog.)

When Crabtree was stationed in the Sacramento Valley, he saw a lot of dead jackrabbits decorating the highway. Up here, though, there's been nary a hare -- at least not compared to the slew of deer, raccoons and skunks Crabtree has peeled off Humboldt's roads.

A typical 10-32 call comes in via law enforcement; that's who most people call when an animal becomes a colorful speed bump. The Caltrans dispatcher then puts out the word to the maintenance station, or "yard," responsible for that stretch of highway:

"We have a 10-32 deer at the Fields Landing exit."

Tools of removal include shovels, pitchforks, cranes and "loaders" -- a big bucket attached to some Caltrans vehicles -- and the tool of choice depends upon the size and condition of the deceased fauna. Highway flares also have come in handy for Crabtree, especially on nighttime runs, to ensure that (a) approaching cars don't hit the carcass again and again, and (b) approaching cars don't hit Crabtree even once.

Surprisingly, most roadkills do not go to the tallow works to be made into decorative holiday candles or scented soaps. Most actually are given the same respectful treatment afforded the great composer Mozart and other dead paupers of the 18th century: they are dumped in unmarked graves.

After 29 years in the business, Crabtree can tell a person quite a few things about roadside rigor mortis. He will tell you it is best to stand upwind during cleanup (especially if the defunct is a skunk), and why you ought to get to the scene of a "10-32 bear" as quickly as possible ("If you don't respond quick, it'll be gone by the time you get there. Taken for parts -- claws, teeth, skull ").

He will advise you that the ballpark exhortation of "Get 'em while they're hot!" does not apply to carcass retrieval -- a dead deer baking in the sun for a few days can become as bloated as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, with the threat of explosion even more feared -- and that it is often illegal for a citizen to take roadkill for himself. (Is it in season? Do you have a hunting license? Is it a protected species? "But, officer, it was dead!" won't pay the fine.)

Whether it was mashed, disemboweled, beheaded or smeared, no roadkill has made Dave Crabtree nauseous. "You just have to have a strong stomach," he said. And, yes, he's an animal lover: He and his wife own two horses, two dogs, a goose and six cats.

If the dead animal looks like someone's pet, Crabtree will try to track down the owner. That often puts him in contact with the Humane Society animal shelter, an agency with which Crabtree and his family are more than passingly familiar.

"That's where we go to get our pets," he said. It's good, he said, "to save a dog."

There were seven dogs in seven of the cages outside the animal shelter's gates this Thursday morning. In the eighth and last cage was a mama cat, with three kittens.

"We're full!" was the word coming from the outdoor cages, but that message wasn't greeted with the enthusiasm of, say, a restaurant owner or theater manager. Because "we're full" was the word coming from inside the shelter, as well.

A finite number of cages, an infinite number of unwanted animals. That's the way it is at the animal shelter near King Salmon. Do the math.

Wanda Regan was doing the math as she checked in the new animals that had been left after the shelter closed the prior evening. Between 5:45 p.m. Wednesday and 8 a.m. Thursday, 11 animals were put in the drop-off cages. Just shy of one animal every hour.

Debbie Harwood was doing the math, too, as she checked the mailbox where information sheets about the new arrivals were supposed to be. It's a simple procedure after hours: The Humane Society provides the short Q&A forms, the writing space and the mailbox, all conveniently located at the drop-off cages next to paved parking space under lights. Harwood counted the information sheets left for the eight cages: One, for the cat and kittens.

"We rarely get any information at all," Harwood said, and predicted some of today's dogs would be euthanized in three days. "These people are trying to place their guilt on us, but it's not our fault."

That's the mantra for the Humane Society staff -- It's not our fault. It helps them get through days like today. It helps them get through months like October, when they scrambled to deal with more than 400 cats, more than 300 dogs, most of which had to be euthanized.

"It's a tough job, but there's nothing sad about it at all," insisted Ron Lapham, the director of the Humane Society for more than three years, "and it's tough to hear people say that.

"It's sad, of course, to have to put animals to sleep, but then you consider the options: They could starve to death, they could get run over, they could die of disease."

Shelter workers have been called "animal killers," and they regularly receive threats -- sometimes from angry pet owners, sometimes from people who think the shelter shouldn't euthanize at all.

"We average 260 dogs a month, and less than half of them leave. That means we'd have to build 130 new cages a month just to house them," Lapham said.

It isn't all doom and gloom at the shelter. There are the rewards of matching a lost pet with a grieving owner, or seeing an abandoned dog go off merrily to a new home. And there are the amusing surprises, such as opening the drop-off cages and finding a pig or a goat.

"There even was a transient in there one morning," Harwood said.

But there's no denying that shelter work is tough, and probably not something many people could do. There are tears, there can be a tremendous amount of stress, and each worker learns the truth of what Harwood said on this morning: "You can't take them all home with you" (although nearly everyone tries. Harwood herself has adopted six animals).

Wanda Regan might have the worst task of all: deciding who makes room for someone else. She also has taken on most of the euthanizing duties.

"I love animals," she said when asked why she is still at this job after five years. "Some time ago I decided it was not my fault, and that some of these animals are better off."

She bent down and cooed to the most frightened of the new arrivals that Thursday morning, a dog cowering in the far corner's darkness. "You know, some of these dogs get the best treatment here that they've ever got their whole lives."

"It is the worst job, maybe. Maybe it is," Harwood said. "But somebody needs to do it, and we're the good ones to be doing it."

"I'm really grateful there are people who can do that," said Ella Silveira when a visitor mentioned workers at the Humane Society animal shelter. "I couldn't."

But there are people who couldn't do Silveira's job, too. In her 17-year career she's been called a lot of things -- vampire, blood sucker -- but her title is phlebotomist. She draws blood at General Hospital.

"It's really hard to know you are hurting people," said Lab Director Peggy Hawkes, who doesn't wield the needle as much as she once did.

"The worst part is drawing babies," Silveira said, and sometimes elderly people. "They don't understand why you're doing it. All they know is that you come in, hurt them, and then leave."

Then there are the occasions when a trauma victim comes into the emergency room and Silveira has to maneuver through the frenzied swarm of doctors, nurses and other technicians also wading through the gore.

"They're usually working around the upper half of the body, so I just immediately take off the shoes, socks and pants to draw blood from somewhere around there," she said.

She has drawn blood from shackled prisoners and from addicts whose arm veins were so withered Silveira had to draw from their toes. She has pricked herself with a needle only twice in 17 years, but has seen the risks of her profession grow from hepatitis to AIDS exposure.

"We didn't wear gloves when I first started doing this," she said.

And even on easy days, days with no sick babies, no ER crisis, the stress level still is fairly high, because mistakes aren't easily forgiven. Silveira can't afford to be "pretty sure" she drew from the right patient, or "fairly certain" she labeled the correct vial.

When Silveira tells people what she does for a living, the reaction often is, "How can you do that?" She doesn't find it tough to answer.

"I really enjoy my job," she said. "You know you're doing good for people, and you can really make someone's day just by being kind."

It's tough for Tom Barry to "make someone's day," since he usually meets people on one of the worst days of their lives.

Barry is a mortician, and there probably isn't another job that can make people recoil as quickly (Barry himself volunteered the word "repulse"). When people ask him in a social situation, "So, what do you do?," nine times out of 10 his reply causes an immediate change of subject: "I'm a mortician." "Have you tried the bean dip?"

"(I think) nobody wants to face death, and in this business we face death just about every day," Barry said, "To many people, we represent death."

Barry was working toward his theology degree in 1980 when a college buddy asked if Barry would work for him over a holiday. Barry knew his friend was in the delivery business; his friend assumed Barry knew what was being delivered. Barry found out what a "night removal person" did -- transporting bodies to the mortician -- only two days before he was scheduled to start the job.

"My initial reaction was, 'It's too late to back out now,'" he said, and true to his word, he took on his friend's job -- temporarily, and then permanently when the friend decided not to return.

So Barry finished up his schooling while working two jobs -- delivering furniture for an upholsterer in the morning and bodies to the funeral home at night. Armed with a theology degree, he moved to Humboldt County to look for work. He came across two jobs: He could teach at a Christian school, or learn the trade of an embalmer and funeral director. For a variety of reasons, he chose the latter.

For a year during his apprenticeship he and his wife lived in a mortuary. During his schooling, he took classes in psychology, chemistry, business law and pathology. He also learned "restorative techniques," which includes everything from makeup to crafting body parts.

"I can make an ear, if something happened to one," Barry said, "but I'm not that good at it."

Barry embalms, he applies makeup, he fixes what needs to be fixed, and he dresses the body for burial. (His recommendation: "If Joe was a jeans guy all his life, then he should be a jeans guy in death. Don't put him in a suit and tie. He won't be Joe.") One of the few jobs he doesn't take on is hair: a professional hairstylist is brought in on request.

The worst part of his job is dealing with a child's death; the best part, he said, is just about everything else.

"For me, personally, the reward of helping people through the most difficult times of their life can't be equaled," Barry said. "One of the reasons I'm here (in this business) rather than in the ministry is that I feel I can do more here."

But what about that one in 10 persons who doesn't change the subject when they learn what Barry does? What is the most common question they ask?

"'Have you ever had one sit up on you?'" he said, and the answer is no. "If they sit up on you, then they're not dead."


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