For several months last 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 seemed, 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 persons attitude toward repairs says a lot about his view of life.
Strictly speaking, the sewer job was not at its out-set a repair — the sewer wasn’t yet broken when the work began, not like the 300 miles of pipe that cracked in the Northridge earthquake. Not like the Atlanta trunk line that collapsed without warning in 1993 after a heavy rain, opening a 200-foot-wide, 50-foot-deep hole that swallowed a hotel parking lot and two hotel employees — immigrants, said the newspaper, who had come to America “seeking a better life”
All the same, I watched, confident that as events unfolded things would break, repairs would be needed. Moreover, the whole project was undertaken for the very purpose of avoiding unexpected, urgent — and that is to say, expensive — repairs in the future.
We in our neighborhood were granted a glimpse of such a future in May of 1990, when a portion of the local concrete main collapsed and a milky white freshet began bubbling from a manhole in the middle of the street. The sewage flowed forth, spread over the pavement, and disappeared into a nearby storm drain — this before the city stenciled its warnings on the curb admonishing residents against the dumping of pollutants and alerting us all to the existence of dolphins downstream.
Emergency repairs were undertaken, and in the months that followed city crews implemented a more permanent fix, replacing six manholes and some 300 yards of sewer main. I was not directly affected by this — the work took place a block from my house and mostly out of sight — but still I remember it as lasting forever. There were lots of big shiny trucks, lots of guys spending lots of time standing around, lots of dirt in piles that seemed never to move, and lots of deep holes filled with sewage coursing around the ankles of men performing the most god-awful of jobs.
Memorable though it was for those of us who lived nearby, the spill that precipitated this effort was by no means unique. In 1988, the federal Environmental Protection Agency took the city of San Diego to court over a catalog of sewage-related issues and offenses. Foremost among these was a disagreement over the level of treatment needed by the city’s sewage (with the EPA insisting that San Diego — like the rest of the country — had to conform to the requirements of the Clean Water Act, and San Diego arguing instead that the requirements were unnecessarily stringent and financially wasteful for a coastal city with a deep-ocean discharge pipe), but the list included as well a record of several thousand sewage spills over the immediately preceding years. Bad though this sounds, spills are a problem nationwide, and the EPA has recently estimated that fixing the situation will require more than $32 billion worth of work on the country’s aging sewer pipes. (This on top of another $107 billion needed for our treatment plants and other sewage infrastructure.)
Mightily did they fight, the EPA and the city. And though ultimately the city pulled an end-around, went to Congress, and received a waiver from the letter-of-the-law requirements of the Clean Water Act, still the parties spent eight years in court, during which time it was decided that while San Diego might not need to upgrade its sewage treatment facility in the manner originally requested, it did need to do a whole lot of other things — $1.8 billion worth of other things.
In March of 1991, midway through the case, U.S. District Judge Rudi Brewster fined the city $3 million for its history of sewage spills. Furthermore, he insisted that San Diego attend to its much-neglected sewer pipes. Money was budgeted (part of that $ 1.8 billion), and there then began a flowering of sewer repair and replacement projects throughout the city.
One such project is Sewer and Water Replacement Group Job 78. In addition to its 45,000 manholes, San Diego is home to 700 miles of sewer trunk lines (pipes 15 inches in diameter and larger) and 1800 miles of 6- to 14-inch “mains,” to which in turn are connected the quarter of a million laterals that provide sewer service to the city’s homes and buildings. Since roughly the mid-’60s the most commonly used material for the city’s sewer pipes has been polyvinyl chloride, or PVC — it’s' cheap, somewhat flexible, and resistant to corrosion. Before that, the pipe of choice was vitrified clay (good stuff, but expensive). And before that, concrete.
The heyday of concrete sewer pipe in San Diego lasted from the 1890s when the city was first sewed, to the late ’30s. The primary virtue of concrete is that it’s cheap. Its primary disadvantage is a tendency to fall apart, for which the reason is chemistry: sewer gas contains hydrogen sulfide, which reacts with water to form sulfuric acid. Sulfuric acid is highly corrosive and readily attacks concrete; the result is ever-thinning pipe walls and a steadily increasing chance of breakage and collapse. Recognizing this, the city began replacing its concrete sewer mains in the 1960s. Only 160 miles are left, but even so, a disproportionate share of the city’s remaining problem with sewage spills occurs in these 160 miles. Because of this, part of the EPA settlement requires San Diego to replace its remaining concrete pipes in the near future, and specifically to replace 60 miles over the next four years.
Of those 60 miles, two are in my neighborhood. Located just to the east of Balboa Park and the golf course, Burlingame was one of San Diego’s earliest subdivisions. The streets were graded with teams of mules and paved originally with decomposed granite; the first house was built in 1912. Today there are 188 houses, with architectural styles ranging from Craftsman to Mission to Nondescript Stucco (e.g., my house). The lots are small, the blocks compact and irregular. There are palm trees in the parkways (as there should be in San Diego). And I and my neighbors are sometimes a little snobbish about the pink sidewalks that distinguish our neighborhood from those around us.
Nearly three dozen houses were built in Burlingame the first year. Even so, and for reasons unknown, the original sewers were only temporary. Not until 1924 was a permanent system installed: it consisted of 6-inch mains and 4-inch laterals; in some cases two houses shared a lateral and in a few places mains were run down alleys and between property lines — consistency then being less a concern than now. The material was concrete pipe in 4-foot lengths. This is the stuff that collapsed in May 1990, the stuff city crews bypassed in the ensuing months, and the stuff Sewer and Water Group Job 78 would replace.
The contract called for the replacement of 11,000 feet of main and its associated laterals. Some of the specified work extended beyond Burlingame, and in these areas the water lines would be replaced as well. Total cost: $2.1 million.
January 31, 1997 (Friday):
Vaguely, we knew it was coming. There had been notices in the neighborhood newsletter, announcements at homeowners’ meetings, and talk among neighbors. But today the first tangible signs arrive: fleets of trucks and a hand-delivered flyer on our door. One page is from the construction company — the Ortiz Corporation, headquartered out of Chula Vista — and the other is from the city engineer who will oversee the project. Ortiz tells us the project is expected to last eight months; the engineer, that “Temporary inconveniences are likely to occur.”
February 3 (Monday):
Our house sits inside a dogleg curve on Maple Street; the view out our bedroom window is of the end of Burlingame Drive, where it butts into Maple and forms a three-way intersection. From this intersection, Burlingame Drive drops gradually toward a crossing with San Marcos Street, and from there it dives steeply into Switzer Canyon. Here the road is little but a maintenance lane to the canyon and is paved only in the most rudimentary sense. Once there was a house in the bottom of the canyon at the end of Burlingame Drive, but years ago the city bought the house and razed it, leaving the area as open space. All that now remains are the twin rows of thick-trunked date palms that once flanked the driveway, a feral stand of eucalyptus, some peppertrees, and seasonal weeds and greenery.
There are also several manholes. Indeed, there have been sewage spills here as well, with the sewage rising from the manholes and spilling into the mostly dry streambed, leaving in its wake the rocks and boulders of the canyon floor flecked with bits of paper. And here, at the confluence of the concrete main from Burlingame with the rest of the city's collection system, is where they begin — excavating today with backhoes around the manholes.
Later, the workmen tell me this is how all sewer work begins: at the deepest point. “You always lay sewer uphill," says one. You start, as it were, at the river's mouth, working your way always upstream and exploring fully each tributary as you come to it, until finally you reach the headwaters. Sewer lines, except in rare instances, are laid on a slope and gravity fed, and working uphill prevents dirt and construction debris from falling inside the open pipe.
All day I can hear this activity as the drone of equipment wafts from the canyon. Elsewhere, a worker walks the pavement of Burlingame Drive and paints’colored squigglies — a blue W in the middle of a two-headed arrow indicating a buried water line, a yellow G for gas. Toward the canyon, street barricades are placed, and the curbs farther up are dense with displaced cars. Where, I wonder, will we park when it’s our turn?
Perhaps this is one of the “temporary inconveniences” of which the engineer spoke. But I fear worse. It has rained heavily in Northern California this month, and there have been floods. Last week, newspaper essayist Peter King wrote of the havoc visited upon him at his home in Orinda, east of the Berkeley Hills. The storm drains there (unlike those in San Diego) empty into the sewers and the deluge has at times overwhelmed the system’s capacity. The result has been spillage at low points in the system — points like houses at the bottom of a hill, points like King’s house.
King’s first flood occurred on New Year’s Day. He and his wife awoke from a night of revelry to find the floors of their house “awash in a brown, runny substance. It looked almost like mud.” It had rained that night, and “Sometime before dawn, the gunk began to splash out of the shower and tub and gurgle from the toilets. It swept across the floors, a customized indoor flood that crested at four inches.”
The rains have been biblical. “And with each new storm,” says King, “has come another attack from the sewer.” His five-year-old son has become sensitized to toilet sounds, and King himself has become chummy with the county cleanup workers. “Remember,” they tell him, “80 percent of this stuff is just water."
He’s on less friendly terms with the insurance adjusters, who seem to be of the opinion that boiling water, bleach, and a little deodorizer will cure King’s problems. It’s nothing, they seem to suggest, but a minor inconvenience.
February 4 (Tuesday):
I work out of my home, in an office in a front room with windows on the street. I ponder, I doodle, I gaze, I fidget. I write. But always, quiet is an asset. Quiet helps.
And so it is that I have been thinking about earplugs. I have earplugs, foam inserts that I use under duress (as when escorting my 13-year-old to a concert). But I have been thinking that perhaps I’ll soon begin needing them routinely. I dislike this idea — needing earplugs in my own home in my own normally quiet neighborhood — but this may be what’s required if I am to maintain any semblance of productivity in the coming months.
Indeed, I have a neighbor who is both a police officer and the owner of a fabulously equipped woodworking shop in his garage. Recently he gave me a tour of the latter, and among the myriad tools on the wall I spied a pair of ear protectors — the big bulky kind that look like earmuffs. They are, he said, the same type he wears at the shooting range.
And how well do they work? I asked.
Well, he said, they’re the same thing used by Navy gun crews. And though he hadn’t tried it, he supposed that if you used both ear protectors and earplugs, “It would be goodbye world.”
Certainly there’s a touch of the ridiculous in the image of a man wearing earmuffs and earplugs in his front study. And it’s unfortunate to have to say “Good-bye world” in order simply to stay engaged with it. But such have been my recent thoughts.
They have been triggered today by the sounds of jackhammers rising from the canyon. And though they are not yet close enough to be annoying, neither are they unaccompanied. Near and far, dump trucks have begun rumbling, racing at times past my window, and elsewhere screeching to a stop with a hiss and release of air brakes and the squeal of a skewered rhinoceros. Adding to the chorus are small gasoline motors — pumps, I imagine— and the insistent screaming of a concrete saw.
Also new today are detour signs, a construction trailer parked at the top of the canyon, and a blue fiberglass Porta Potti — on wheels.
February 7 (Friday):
The concrete saw has emerged from the canyon today and begun working its way up Burlingame Drive — working its way in the general direction of my house. For the first time, then, I spend the day wearing earplugs. They help, but I’ve not yet coupled them with external ear protectors and by no means has it been "Good-bye world” — for the saw is piercing. Moreover, it has competition: the boys at nearby St. Augustine’s are having a party and live punk music fills the air whenever there is a lapse in the sawing and the merest threat of silence.
Other firsts today include the appearance of great heaps of gravel and asphalt near the construction trailer, and the sighting of two men up to their necks in a hole on Burlingame Drive. The two are an advance scouting party and they have dug their hole by hand, their purpose being to find a particular pipe so it’s not accidentally ripped out when the equipment operators start excavating. Later, they tell me the technical term for this sort of exploration is “potholing.”
February 13 (Thursday):
The backhoes and excavators continue their climb out of the canyon, and as they progress I catch sight of a Roto-Rooter van parked next to the manhole at the top of the road — the very manhole toward which the crew is now working. This seems at first an unlikely coincidence, and I think that perhaps something has gone awry. But soon the van appears at the manhole in front of my house and soon thereafter at every manhole up and down the street. Its crew, I discover, is videotaping the old sewer lines. Like a doctor scoping a patient’s bowels before surgery, they are sending a remote-controlled camera through the pipes, imaging the sewer.
The video inspection of sewer lines is a routine maintenance operation of many large wastewater agencies, and the city of San Diego has its own video inspection capabilities. It even maintains a tape library of its more noteworthy findings — miles of videotape of miles of sewer pipe. But Ortiz is using the video to help it pinpoint the location under the street of the junction of each house’s lateral with the main. Data from the recordings will be used to supplement the pages of maps and plans that govern every detail of the project and to add to the street a new set of squigglies: large white S’s run through with a singleheaded arrow and looking almost like dollar signs.
The tapes will also be reviewed by Jesse Garcia, Ortiz’s construction foreman, who tells me later that he watched them on his VCR at home. Ibere (and perhaps with his feet up and while sipping a beer) he was looking at Burlingame’s innards when his wife came in unexpectedly and caught him.
“What,” she screeched, “are you watching?!!”
February 28 (Friday):
Over the past two weeks the work has been concentrated on Burlingame Drive. After the street was surveyed and squigglied, the sawman cut pairs of parallel lines through the pavement, demarcating first the long trench line down the middle of the road for the new main and then those for the branching laterals to each house. In his wake, the main was excavated, laid, connected temporarily to the old laterals, recovered, and temporarily asphalted over; it’s a short street, and all this digging and filling took but a day.
The crew next worked on the laterals. For each house they excavated the trench to the property line (just inside the sidewalk) and demolished the old pipe in the process; they laid new pipe, connected the new lateral to the new main, and reconnected the house. The trenches were filled and the road patched with concrete. The street was done. It all went fast and flawlessly.
Except that today I learn there is a problem.
At the very top of Burlingame Drive, across the street and cater-corner from our bedroom window, a house is threatening to fill with sewage. Indeed, the home’s drainage has been growing steadily worse since the new main was laid, and today it seems at a threshold.
“I was afraid to take a shower,” says a woman who lives in the house. “Afraid it would come bubbling up.”
What “it” was, she didn’t need to say. I had imagination enough, but I had visions too of the mess in Peter King’s house now recurring virtually under my nose.
Already my neighbors had hired a private plumber, who sent his snake on reconnaissance and found neither tree roots nor internal blockage — and thereby verified that the source of the trouble was down-stream from the house. And now the problem has been turned over to Ortiz, whose first step is to discover its cause, and to which end a pair of workmen begin the morning by reexcavating the connection between the new sewer and the line from the house.
They dig for a while, and when finally they expose and uncouple the connection.. .nothing comes out. Nothing drains from the supposedly backed up and almost overflowing line. Which is a puzzle. For it means the new sewer has been connected to some line other than that from the besieged house, and that the house full of sewage has in turn been bypassed. And it raises too the question: Where is the true line from the hoase?—the hookup to the old sewer main?
Because our original sewer was laid more than 70 years ago, it has more than its share of quirks and oddities, and among these is a paucity of manholes. The sewer main into which my neighbors’ house drains begins at the top of a hill — theirs is the first house to empty into it. Normally, such a point of origin would have been punctuated with a manhole so the line could be accessed for service. But there was no manhole; instead, the video camera had shown two laterals coming in from the vicinity of the beleaguered house: one from the middle of the frontage and the other from farther down, near the edge of the property line. Given the lack of an initial manhole, Ortiz’s men had assumed that the first, uppermost, lateral was for service and the second was for waste from the house —and it was to this second line that the new sewer was connected. But apparently this was a mistake.
Guided by the video data, one of the men now breaks open the sidewalk 20 feet uphill from the false connection. He potholes down a few feet, finds the previously ignored old first lateral, disconnects it...and jumps out of the way as the hole fills immediately with frothy sewage — part of the accumulation that threatened to come “gurgling out.”
It is at this moment that one of the home’s occupants chooses to wander out for a look. Clearly, the problem has now been diagnosed — the woman’s house is still connected to the old sewer, which itself has been disconnected farther down the road — but it is not yet obvious when it is going to be fixed. The homeowner’s nightmare, of course, is the contractor who comes in, takes out a few walls or a kitchen, then disappears. And thinking that perhaps this is to be her fate — that it might now be days more before the situation is rectified — and noting the exposed sewage and sewer line under the very sidewalk in front of her house, she observes that, “Now things are getting personal.”
Certainly, having your bodily discharge — its frequency, timing, and so forth — on public display would constitute a unique form of embarrassment, and one ardently to be avoided. But fortunately, my neighbors are not to suffer it. Almost immediately, the white Ortiz van with the concrete saw appears. The pavement is cut, and the whole sequence of trenching and laying begins. By nightfall the trench is backfilled and the scar in the road is covered with temporary asphalt; my neighbors are hooked up and their toilets work — again.
My neighbor awoke this morning angry and frustrated. Her problem had been building for days and she’d had trouble at first getting someone to listen. The city first told her she needed a private plumber to then contact the city to contact Ortiz. But once started, the repair could not have been completed humanly faster. And as she watches, she grows visibly calm. After all, she says, she wasn’t angry that a mistake had been made — “This stuff is bound to happen.” Rather, it was the initial lack of a receptive audience that had driven her to frustration. For it is not perfection that marks a professional — that being impossible — hut the prompt and willing redress of honest error.
Beyond the discovery that Burlingame has odd plumbing, I learn something more today. I learn that we have on Sewer and Water Group 78 an archeologist and a paleontologist. They wear hard hats and carry shovels, but it seems their job is mostly to watch. They watch the excavation and repair of my neighbors' misconnected sewer, and when the backhoe moves on, so too do they. They are looking, they say, for artifacts and fossils, and wherever the machines go, they go — by contract and by law.
The California Environmental Quality Act requires that most construction projects be evaluated during planning to determine their potential for yielding fossils or buried artifacts (which can range from prehistoric arrowheads to old tin cans). The city keeps extensive maps for this purpose, and if a site is thought to have potential for such a find the permits and contracts will require professional monitoring and the taking of appropriate measures during construction to document and preserve any important finds.
People love to badmouth the cost and “red tape” generated by laws of this kind. But the result, says Tom Deméré, Curator of Paleontology at the San Diego Natural History Museum, has been “a tremendous opportunity to collect and protect resources that would otherwise have been totally destroyed.” The museum now counts within its collection thousands of items gleaned from local construction sites, and more are added each year.
Among the more notable of these finds are the fossilized remains of a 75-million-year-old nodosaur excavated in May 1987 from a sewer trench in Carlsbad. Although the armor-plated nodosaur (a distant relative of the better-known stegosaur) lived on land, the Carlsbad specimen is thought to have washed to sea at the time of its death because its remains— now on exhibit in the museum's basement — are partially encrusted with fossilized seashells and a shark’s tooth can be seen embedded in its flank. Three-quarters of the animal’s skeleton plus a substantial portion of its segmented armor plating were recovered from the Carlsbad sewer, and the find represents the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever discovered in Southern California. It is doubly rare for being one of the few nodosaurs found anywhere in the world.
Mark Breshears is a heavy-equipment operator who mostly drives the big steel-tracked excavators for Ortiz. Sewer and Water Group 78 is his first job with Ortiz, but he’s been an operator for 15 years and has worked on jobs all over the county. He himself has found fossil fragments while working, and he says, “I’m always looking. You never know what you’ll find.”
Because of the great depth of sewer trenches and the mile upon mile of earth exposed each year in their digging, Tom Deméré says they are of particular interest for their geologic revelations. Certainly Breshears would agree with this, for it was while digging a trench in Poway some years ago that he came across one of the most remarkable sights of his life. It was late in the day and the work was winding down when his bucket broke through a hard spot in the ground and came up filled with what looked like glass.
“It was crystals,” he says. “Quartz crystals.”
Excitedly, he replaced the soil over the crystals, then came back after work to explore on his own. On his hands and knees he dug, pulling the crystals from the earth with a screwdriver, that night he took home a truckload of crystals, and he did so again for each of the next six nights.
What he had encountered is uncertain. Breshears thinks it was a geode, but he never found its hollow center. Amongst the crystals he also found green clay, and he was told that meant that if he had dug deep enough he would have found tourmaline, “and then gold.”
But he found no gold. And as to the fate of the crystals themselves, he says, "I don’t know. They’re supposed to... But they didn’t bring me...”
He doesn’t complete these thoughts, but they’re not hard to read. In New Age ideology, crystals are claimed to have magical powers and to be the instruments of good fortune. But instead, Breshears was hounded by people seeking their source, and most of the crystals were stolen from him. Still, though, he does have the memory of an excavation in Oz and a shared bit of what Tom Deméré calls “the excitement of discovering what’s under your feet.”
So far, Sewer and Water Group 78’s paleontologist, George Kennedy, has found neither crystals nor dinosaurs in Burlingame. He has, however, collected what he characterizes as a few' predictable fossils of marine mollusks from the early trenching in Switzer Canyon. In the canyon, says . Kennedy, the excavation cut into what is called the San Diego Formation, a two- to three-million-year-old seafloor now composed primarily of sandstone. There, fossils were anticipated. But here on the mesa the trenching has moved into a more recent geologic layer — the million-year-old Lindavista Formation, made up of intermixed clay, sandstone, and cobbles — and a fossil find is thought unlikely. Past experience, says Tom Deméré, has shown the Lindavista Formation to be “sparsely fossilifer-ous,” although this means paradoxically that anything found will be of increased importance by virtue of its very rarity.
Months from now, when the job is finished, Kennedy will write a report of his findings. Kennedy, who hunted fossils as a kid in La Mesa, was a curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History before the museum went through a downsizing, and is now an adjunct professor of geological sciences at San Diego State. He does a lot of contract paleontology these days and has written a fair number of such reports. He is the author, for instance, of a report of findings he made during the recent replacement of the city’s Sewer Pump Station Number 5, located just below the Coronado Bay Bridge. The report describes the recovery of a rich collection of fossils, primarily mollusks, but including as well the anklebone of an extinct species of horse. Samples from the excavations were sent to museum curators in New York and California —Tom Deméré among them.
The report itself went to the appropriate city officials, and eventually a copy reached the desk of Chris Zirkle, in the Development Services Department. Zirkle is the city’s keeper of reports filed in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act, and when it is ready he will receive as well a copy of Kennedy’s report for Sewer and Water Group 78. He will also receive a similar report from Brian F. Smith and Associates, the job’s archeological monitor — represented today by Todd Baker, holder of a master's degree in anthropology.
Like Kennedy, Baker made a few unremarkable finds in the canyon — a few bottles and bits of trash from the house that once sat among the palms. Also like Kennedy, he expects to find little here on the mesa: There is no evidence to suggest that Native Americans or anyone else ever lived or died in Burlingame before its development as a part of San Diego. Still, he too watches for the unexpected — for the find that makes you catch your breath.
In the meantime, both he and Kennedy make themselves useful by helping direct the backhoes (clenched fists for “stop”; winding forefingers for “closer”) and by keeping the edge of the trench clean — they being the only men on the job with both graduate degrees and shovels.
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 are off— home, perhaps, or to breakfast.
March 5 (Wednesday):
The sawmen cometh. Since the beginning of the week, two men from Ortiz have been slicing through segments of street near and about my house, following the surveyors’ white lines, and finally today they are outside my window. It is everything I had expected — loud, throbbing, incessant. And more. For it stinks, and black, oily fumes spew from the saw’s presence.
The saw has a 65 horsepower motor and drives an 18-inch diamond-tipped blade that takes from the road a kerf three-sixteenths of an inch wide. Each blade, says its operator, costs $700. They wear out after only five or six blocks and can’t be resharpened. The saw itself is as big as a washing machine and its sides are ornamented with a diverse assortment of belts, pulleys, and mufflers; on the front is an offset Cyclops of a headlight, and from the rear — behind the lever- and dial-filled control panel — protrude a pair of handles used by the saw’s operator, Joaquin Suarez, to guide and muscle the beast.
A hardened grime encrusts the machine’s surfaces. T his is the result of pavement dust wetted by the spray of water that drips continually over the spinning blade; the water is provided by a hose that trails the saw and leads to a tank inside the utility van that is the saw’s mother ship and is equipped with a rear lift for the purpose of launching and retrieving its offspring. Together, the water and dust form a glistening slick of reddish-brown muck that spreads from the lengthening cut. The paste, however, has little chance to dry before it is sucked away by Joaquin’s co-worker, Pedro Silva, who trails a few feet behind with a wheeled shop vac and wand.
Up and down the street they work, each man wearing the hard hat and orange and yellow-striped safety vest that is the uniform of Ortiz’s crew. Joaquin also wears foam earplugs and wraparound sunglasses — the latter combining a bit of protection with a touch of flair (this accentuated by the half-covered tattoos on his thick arms). It takes many passes of the saw because of the thickness of the road and the hardness of the concrete under the over-lying asphalt — a stratification resulting from a long-ago repaving that left many houses in the neighborhood with virtually no curb. Joaquin’s first cut is through the top four inches of asphalt. Switching blades, he then makes two separate three-inch cuts through the concrete — cutting deeper would hasten the blade’s demise.
All day the saw screams, and all day the men attend it. Occasionally, a car passes them by, or a tractor laden with pipe, and they stand aside.
Tonight is the night of the annual Burlingame Home-owners’ Association meeting. Some 75 of us have gathered in the home of a neighbor for a yearly ritual that includes presentations, the election of a board, and the president’s State of the Neighborhood address. Also in attendance is our city council representative, who, recognizing the subject of our greatest interest right now, has brought with her a retinue of city employees involved with the sewer project: engineers, ombudsmen, managers, etc. Their purpose is to listen, answer questions, take back queries.
Since the first house was built in Burlingame in 1912, people here have been paying taxes and user fees. No doubt during all this time these same taxpayers, like those everywhere, have clamored for lower fees and taxes, and no doubt their elected politicians have done their best to oblige. But there is a cost to being cheap. And the new sewer notwithstanding, it is clear that insufficient monies have been spent on the maintenance of our neighborhood’s infrastructure. The roads are potholed and riven with faults. The curbs are near gone, due either to burial or slow disintegration. And our sidewalks are crumbling.
The sidewalks are of special concern in Burlingame, for it is they that define our neighborhood, both physically and psychologically. Indeed, there are those who know this as “the neighborhood of pink sidewalks.” They must have been gorgeous when new; “rose-colored” rather than pink, and scored in an elaborate pattern of squares and bordering rectangles. But all the same, they were poorly made. The concrete was thin and weak, and the walkways are now buckled and broken. Nowhere are there more than a few intact contiguous squares, and in long stretches the walks are little but a mosaic of tiny pieces. Many sections have become dangerous, and over the years have caused more than a few trips, scrapes, and bruises. Someday, there will be a serious injury.
For as long as I have lived here, and well before, residents have been making efforts to have the problem addressed. Some have summoned municipal crews for the repair of a particularly hazardous fracture or uplift, and been rewarded with the application to the rift of a black asphalt Band-Aid. Some have taken it upon themselves to fix or replace their own section of sidewalk — with varying degrees of technical and artistic proficiency. And some have sought to organize.
The purpose of these latter efforts has been either to induce the city to recognize its responsibility to maintain its infrastructure, or to try and band together such that we might do it ourselves — taxing the neighborhood and using the proceeds to replace the sidewalks wholesale. Efforts in the first direction have failed because they have been obfuscated and outlived by the city bureaucracy, sidewalks, they say, are the city’s property but the home owners’ responsibility, an Alice-In-Wonderland contention with as much realism as an expectation that homeowners keep the bulbs changed in city streetlights. Efforts in the second direction have failed because we all bring slightly different competing interests to our recognition of the need for new sidewalks. Neighbors who have paid once to replace their own sidewalks want nothing to do with a duplicative effort to benefit the whole neighborhood; neighbors with ample resources or narrow lots and short sidewalks are willing to consider shared by-the-foot payment options with the city, and those like my next-door neighbor Albert, who is elderly and lives most likely on a fixed income — and whose lot is small but the shape of Florida, with hundreds of feet of frontage — can in their own interest only be opposed to any new expense. And so we are Balkanized. And being Balkanized, we can never pull together and can forever be fended off.
These issues — streets and sidewalks — dominate our exchange with the council-woman. Will the streets be repaved when the sewer is finished? And what of the curbs? Will the sections of sidewalk demolished to access the sewer laterals be replaced in pink or white or black asphalt? And why can’t the money now being used to patch the streets and sidewalks piecemeal be used instead as part of a larger effort to fix everything properly?
The councilwoman acknowledges the worthiness of all comments. Some questions she answers (“The pink sidewalks,” she says, “will be maintained”). Some she deflects or defers. But in the main she makes no promises. The truth she avoids is that other than the sewer, the other things will not be fixed — seemingly cannot be fixed.
The reason, of course, is political rather than technical. It was the EPA that compelled the city to fix the sewers, and the EPA has more clout than we. We lacking clout, the city lacks will, and in the absence of will most repairs can be put off indefinitely. Unless and until they fail catastrophically, the streets will continue to deteriorate, the sidewalks to crumble.
March 7 (Friday):
It is, perhaps, appropriate that I am in the bathroom this morning when I learn that today is moving day for the men of Sewer and Water Group 78. They have finished the streets near the canyon and are preparing now for the next stage of the work. They begin early and while I am still ensconced and reading the paper — they begin, that is, while I am unsuspecting. Nor do I have an inkling until the house begins shaking and rumbling and a great clanking staccato sound arises from outside the door, as if a jackhammer had been unleashed in our kitchen.
“What,” I yell to my wife, “is that?!!”
The excavator, she says, the steel-treaded trackhoe. And when finally I emerge to see for myself, I find in the street two parallel rows of fresh, striated gouges where the machine has passed by.
There follows an endless back and forth of backhoes, front-end loaders, trucks large and small, and all laden with materiel: pipes, sand, slabs of steel plating, orange road barriers, and more. It being Friday, a trash truck slips occasionally into the procession, and in its volume, variety, and intensity I am put in mind of an armored column hastening to battle.
March 12 (Wednesday):
From Lindbergh Field, Laurel Street runs to the east for nearly six miles, broken all the way into disconnected bits and pieces by parks, canyons, and freeways. Most of the way it runs straight, and most of the way it is paralleled a block to the north by Maple Street — except in Burlingame, where both streets twist and turn and where, on the block I live on. Maple Street is revived from an earlier termination by branching off from laurel, the streets in their dividing forming a Y. After its revival, Maple runs briefly to the northeast, makes the dogleg around my house, then continues on to the east.
For the last two days Ortiz’s crew has been working eastward on Laurel, laying 8-inch main in a steady approach to the fork of the Y. This junction will mark the site of a new manhole, and to me it is not yet clear where they will next proceed from there: On up Laurel? Or to Maple — and hence to my house? The question seems resolved this morning when I and my neighbors rise to find the street before us planted with “No Parking” signs. And it seems absolutely confirmed by midmorning, when, after having excavated the site for the manhole, the trenching equipment begins to lay open Maple Street.
But just after lunch the digging stops. Maple, it turns out, is for now only to be opened far enough to facilitate a temporary connection to the old sewer; once that is accomplished, the budding trench will be temporarily refilled. The actual plan, I learn, is to first complete a short run up Laurel to a dead end at midblock; laterals from four houses will be connected to this stub, and this and the rest of the work on laurel will be finished before Maple is begun in earnest.
Looking at a road map, or indeed, from walking the streets of Burlingame, one might
easily conclude that Laurel is a street more dominant than Maple, laurel, after all, transects the neighborhood, whereas Maple runs only halfway through. Yet neither road map nor casual walk would reveal that most critical of features to sewer layout: topography — for sewage flows always and only downhill. Away from the canyon, Burlingame has in my mind always seemed mostly flat. But now when I look more carefully, I discover that I live instead in a neighborhood of the most gentle peaks and valleys. The highest point — foot-high Mount Burlingame, if you will — lies on Laurel Street near the geographic center of the neighborhood and just beyond the stubbed end of the sewer’s Y. Because sewer is laid uphill and this is the high point, here this branch of the sewer must stop. This is our continental divide and from here the sewage of two next-door neighbors flows in opposite directions; the spot is also the site of a three-way intersection and as such sewage flows from here in a third direction as well, all of it draining — like spokes from the hub of a wheel — outward to the perimeter of the neighborhood, there to be collected in the ever-deepening encircling main that eventually makes its way into the canyon.
At times the route is circuitous, and indeed from the innermost houses it approximates a great spiral. But sometimes it happens that what seems on the surface simple or haphazard can be found both elegant and logical when viewed more deeply.
March 13 (Thursday):
I am brushing my teeth this morning when I hear in my subconscious the sound of a metal lid pried loose and cast aside on the street outside our window, then the squeaking of a valve rapidly turned. I identify this sound consciously a moment later when the water in our bathroom stops.
Outside, at the intersection of laurel and Maple, I find the trench that the sewer crew has just started work on filled with water and a pump furiously splashing its contents onto the pavement. The excavator has snagged a home’s water line and ripped it free from the buried main; to quell the ensuing gusher, water service has been shut off to the entire block — thereby explaining the noise outside our window.
It is for the purpose of avoiding such occurrences that each phase of Sewer and Water Group 78 has begun with a burst of squigglie painting Some of the squigglies are marked by Ortiz’s men and some by representatives of the relevant utilities: gas, telephone, or water. For the longest time, I was under the impression that these latter marks were the work of a mystery company that subcontracted to Ortiz — and to every other utility and construction company in town; a company called USA. Wherever I went, the writing on the road would read “USA: Ortiz” or “USA: Pac Bell” or “USA: Whomever," and there would be the squigglies — done, I had supposed, by USA on behalf of their client, Ortiz or Pacific Bell or Whomever. It was, I thought, an interesting company, and seemingly without competition.
But then I learned that USA is an acronym for underground service alert. A company intent on digging up the street paints its intentions at the site — “USA: Ortiz” — then calls an 800-central-clearinghouse number and registers its plan verbally. Utilities check the register to find out who’s digging where, then dispatch a squigglie painter to mark their territory. The marks are warranted accurate to within three feet, and if they are wrong — if the blue W is farther than three feet from the physical water pipe — the company can bill the utility for the cost of repairs and related expenses — the cost, for instance, of idling a crew and its equipment for a day.
These expenses can add up quickly. It costs Ortiz nearly a thousand dollars a day just to run its excavator and pay its operator, not to mention the cost of the dozen other men and their equipment. But it isn’t always in a company's best interest to seek such compensation. Some number of mishaps are bound to occur, and it can just as easily happen (if, for instance, the squigglies get covered by dirt) that a construction company damages a line that is properly marked — in which case it can be the utility seeking reimbursement.
Mostly, though, forbearance is a matter of street savvy. Ortiz’s men perform some repairs themselves, but most they defer to specialized crews from the utilities, Getting a timely response from such crews can be important, and for this reason good relations are imperative. It makes sense, in other words, to minimize antagonism.
Not knowing their backlog or schedule, I can’t say if the response is fast or slow, but it’s not until five hours later that a crew from the water department arrives to fix the broken water line, and not until 3 p.m. that running water is restored. During this time, Ortiz’s men busy themselves with tasks that don’t involve trenching — such as potholing with a jackhammer outside my window. There is no talk of a chargeback.
In 1990 when the Burlingame sewer main collapsed and I watched as city crews executed their repair, I was struck with not only the unsavory but also the hazardous nature of the job. The men were in deep trenches and awash in sewage. “My God,” I had thought, “they must have to vaccinate these guys against every disease known.” I thought of dysentery and typhoid and cholera, and it seemed to me a wonder they weren’t constantly sick.
A few years later I worked for a time analyzing occupational injuries and illnesses among civilians who worked for the U.S. Navy. Many of these people worked in places like shipyards and aircraft maintenance depots and were exposed to the nastiest of chemicals — solvents with invisible fumes that could rot your liver. These chemicals and the diseases they caused spooked a lot of people. But by far the most hurt fill thing to most workers was injuries. No matter how unnerving the exotic dangers were, it was the day-in, day-out stuff— the fall from a scaffold, the lifting of a too-heavy object — that caused the greatest harm. For every 1 weird-fume disease there were 13 injuries.
Alden Tansey, who manages employee health and safety activities for San Diego’s Metropolitan Wastewater Department, is familiar with such numbers and their implications. Among the department’s 800 employees are some 200 “collection workers’’ who clean manholes and sewer pipes — people who work in direct contact with sewage and often have health concerns related to sewage exposure. Tansey works hard to stay apprised of and to address these concerns. His office organizes several programs a year to provide collection workers with health information. Employees are encouraged to talk with their personal physicians about specific health worries, and if— in the case of hepatitis—a doctor recommends immunization, the department will pay the cost. But routine monitoring and vaccinations are neither offered nor required. The reason, says Tansey, is that sewage is so dilute and diseases like typhoid and cholera so rare, that the risk of infection is probably outweighed by the small risks of routine vaccination. Instead, the main defenses provided against infectious disease are appropriate protective clothing and the exhortation to sewer workers that they keep their hands as clean as possible — though this is a message that doesn’t take a lot of reinforcement. “You learn,” says Larry Pierson, one of Sewer and Water Group 78’s archeological monitors and a man who has participated in many a sewer job, “to always wash your hands before you eat, and never bite your fingernails.”
Less yucky than sewage but more dangerous to workers are the equipment they work with and the spaces they work in Tansey knows this and so do the men from Ortiz, virtually all of whom have stories of being injured or of having seen men injured on the job — stories of exploding fingers, crushed by slipped wrenches; of men diving into pits lull of sewage to save a co-worker dragged under by an entangling hose (“just like in the movies”); and of excavators snagging overhead high-voltage lines and of the resulting cracking blue flash that engulfed the steel machine and turned the surrounding earth to glass (“The operator, I guess he was okay — he was grounded — but he was not right in the head afterwards"). These are the true hazards of their job, and Ortiz’s men have been reminded of them again by the death yesterday of a construction worker in Pacific Beach who was buried by the collapse of a trench. Amid the pumping of the flood and the myriad other tasks in progress, the death is today a constant subject of conversation among the Ortiz crew — that and the reported finding by CalOSHA inspectors who examined the fatal job site of 13 safety violations, including an absence of shoring in the collapsed trench.
The trenches on Sewer and Water Group 78 have so far been as deep as 12 1/2 feet, and at all depths the use and installation of proper shoring has been a fundamental safety concern. According to Don Gingrich, Ortiz’s second-in-command foreman, soils can be classified for safety purposes as Type A, B, or C. The least stable is C, the most is A — “ Though some people say you should never classify any soil as A” — and each type, says Gingrich, takes a different kind of shoring. Most treacherous are sandy beach soils, like those where the man was killed yesterday, and in these soils, says Gingrich, “we use what are called coffin boxes. 'These are solid steel trenches that you drop in the ground and slide with you as you’re laying pipe.
That way you’re protected by steel all the time. We call them coffins, but they save us.” There are no coffin boxes in Burlingame, but still our soil has been classified as Type C. In some places it is sandy, in some clayey, in places it is “disturbed” — meaning previously trenched — and everywhere it is unpredictable. Accordingly, Ortiz is using a shoring system that allows nearly continuous support of an open trench if conditions warrant.
Called speed shoring, the basic unit consists of stout aluminum twin ribs held apart by paired hydraulic struts. These units can be used alone or bolted in pairs between thick sheets of plywood, in which case the resulting assemblies are most often moved and placed using the excavator as a crane — the assembly hoisted aloft by a chain and held steady by a worker on the ground who guides the shoring into place as the excavator lowers it into the trench. There, the struts are pressurized with hand pumps and the plywood forced outward against the trench walls; so placed, the units are strong enough for men to climb freely about on. The less stable the soil, the closer the shoring. But always the shoring is in constant use, with up to ten pairs engaged in an ever-revolving cycle in which the trench’s steady progress is punctuated by the removal of the pair to the rear and its smooth rotation to the front.
March 19 (Wednesday, 7 to 10 a.m.):
This is it. Today they are beginning on Maple Street, in front of our house, outside my window. Tor the last week they have been working on laurel. But this morning the traffic and commotion bear a new and unmistakable intensity and nearness. I step outside for a look and almost immediately a passing equipment operator catches my eye and signals me to move our cars, parked as they always are on the street not 20 feet from our front door.
My neighbors also scurry to evacuate, and those who don’t find later they must negotiate broken pavement, piles of dirt and gravel, and large pieces of equipment whose drivers seem only temporarily restrained. Across the street, the word appears not to have reached two of my neighbors, John and Rose are from Sicily and they have lived in Burlingame almost from the time of their first arrival in this country nearly 40 years ago. I cross the street to tell them they may want to move their van, but after a conference they decide they’ll leave it in the driveway—they’re not planning to go out today. Still we talk, and as we do I mention the project’s noise and distraction.
Yes, nods Rose, she’s noticed. But more troublesome is the dust. “The dust,” she says, “is so bad!”
Minutes after I move my cars, a huge John Deere front-end loader assumes their parking place, virtually filling the field of view out my window with black tires, plate glass, and heavy-equipment yellow. This is an impressive machine, hinged in the middle for tight turns, with 5-foot diameter tires, a driver’s seat seven feet off the ground, and a bucket capacity of four tons. But the Deere is a mere product of Lilliput compared to the orange Hitachi excavator. Later, when it parks in front of my house for the night and I sit in its cab (and my wife takes my picture), then crawl all over it with a tape measure, taking notes and remembering earlier romps over the machinery that carved the streets of my childhood, I find that each of its looped steel tracks is 2 1/2 feet wide, 14 feet from front to back, and made of 53 linked plates; from the tracks’ outside edges the excavator is 10 1/2 feet wide. The arm (which properly speaking has three parts: boom (upper arm), stick (forearm), and bucket) has a reach of over 33 feet. Later, a dealer tells me the model I ask about weighs 29 tons. Nor is this a particularly big one. There are excavators in excess of 90 tons and with reaches of more than 50 feet. The buckets, too, can be enormous; the one I measure is six feet from wrist to claw, but I
once saw, on a bigger project with bigger equipment, an operator in the middle of a busy thoroughfare standing neck-high inside his bucket while gazing serenely at the passing traffic — his true activity betrayed only by a growing puddle on the ground beneath the great steel scoop.
Not long after the loader parks, the excavator clanks into place to begin the day’s work. Tracks straddling the trenchline, it takes a position just beyond the point where last week’s digging stopped. Gingerly, the operator, Mark Breshears, begins picking with his bucket at the temporary covering of soft asphalt and soon he is reopening the trench — extending the boom forward and down, then drawing the bucket back toward the body of the machine. As dirt is removed and the trench advances, the excavator backs up to expose a fresh working area. And so it progresses by moving backward.
Other machines work similarly, and quickly there forms behind the excavator a procession of like- moving equipment. Immediately to the rear of the excavator is a backhoe. Backhoes, which feature a scoop on front and bucket on back and combine in a smaller version the functions of both loader and excavator, offer tremendous versatility. Forever are they scurrying about, tails raised like scorpions, and they are used for an immense variety of tasks, including, at the moment, helping to remove the ribbon of pavement between the sawcuts that define the trenchline —a process called stripping.
The stripping this morning begins underneath the excavator — literally — with the removal of the remaining few feet of temporary asphalt from last week. To reach this spot, the backhoe nuzzles up behind the big machine like an animal sniffing another’s rear and extends its bucket under the excavator’s body. Once this last bit of soft covering has been removed, the backhoe encounters the ten-inch thick paving that forms the true substance of the street. Elsewhere on Sewer and Water Group 781 have seen the backhoe operators break through this material — hyperextending their buckets so the steel teeth pointed down, then striking repeatedly at the layered asphalt and concrete to cleave free a chunk. But today a third machine is brought in to pulverize the road and render it rubble, and it takes a position at the head of the procession and aft of the backhoe.
This new beast is a hydro-hammer. “Why it’s called that,” says Don Gingrich, “I’ve got no idea. It’s got nothing to do with water.” But regardless of its name, it is unquestionably primitive, with an antique, tractor-style motor and hood on one end, a seat and controls in the middle, and at the business end a huge, upright frame like that of a forklift. This frame consists of twin, parallel siderails within which rides a massive steel weight with a blunt tip. The weight is attached to and raised by a heavy steel cable, and the unending sequence of the hammer’s operation consists of a rev of the engine as the weight is lifted, a slap and rattle of the cable as tension is released and the weight falls, a crushing thud as the weight hits the pavement, and an immediate revving of the motor as a new repetition begins — overlaid on which cycle is a slower rhythm as the machine lurches backward a few inches every two or three repetitions. This is not a quiet activity.
It takes about half an hour for the hydrohammer to crush a strip of pavement extending just past my front door — a stretch, perhaps, of 60 yards. Close behind is the backhoe, whose operator scoops the rubble and transfers it to an attendant dump truck — raising, swinging, and extending the boom in a seamless motion that lifts the bucket over the sides of the truck by the merest of inches and ends in a forward uncurling that drops the load, raises a cloud of dust, and leaves the truck rocking with the added weight.
And so the parade that has worked its way through the neighborhood is now before my house: hydrohammer, backhoe, and excavator. About the procession swarms a supporting fleet of Bobcats, dump trucks, and more backhoes, and scattered throughout, readying shoring and carrying pipe, are the footmen — infantry to the mechanized. It seems chaotic, but all is coordinated, each task following its predecessor by mere feet and minutes.
In charge of it all — foreman, general, and parade master — is Jesse Garcia. Thirty-five years old, Jesse started in construction 12 years ago after first working as a mechanic for a local Cadillac dealer. He began as a laborer, then learned to operate a backhoe. Fight years ago he was hired by Ortiz and three years later he began running jobs.
Jesse is a handsome man — short and muscular, with a neatly trimmed black mustache and dark, intelligent eyes. Depending on his audience, he switches effortlessly between English and Spanish. But it is his bearing that attracts attention, his bearing that distinguishes him — for the man exudes competence. If you did not know, and were asked to point out from among the many men on the street the foreman of Sewer and Water Group 78, it would be him you would choose. He walks purposively, with the stride of one used to making decisions, and he is almost constantly in motion, moving from activity to activity, assessing progress and needs — more gravel today, concrete tomorrow — and involving himself in every aspect of the job: jumping in a trench and digging here, grabbing a gas-powered “chop saw” and preparing a length of pipe there; sometimes driving a backhoe, sometimes a Bobcat; reviewing blueprints; making phone calls; planning. He, clearly, is the boss. And to him the others defer.
His lieutenant is Don Gingrich. A long golden ponytail flows from under Gingrich’s hard hat and his eyes seem always to twinkle; forever is he popping sunflower seeds in his mouth. Don is 29, and like Jesse he started in a different line of work—got into "underground'’ almost by accident. “Nobody,” he says, "wants to work in sewers.” After high school he worked as a pool cleaner, but a few years later he found himself unemployed and contemplating an apprenticeship program for electricians. Finishing the program would have taken two years and left him earning $6 an hour, so when he was offered immediate work for a third more, he took it. “Bottom line?” he says. “We do it for the money.”
Still, he takes an evident pride in his work. He especially enjoys water projects, and says of his water work, “I’ve never installed a leak.” As with employees, the bottom line for contractors is money, and after he’d been with Ortiz for three years it was because of money that Gingrich earned a role a year and a half ago as a sort of alternate foreman. “My first job they let me run was supposed to be a two-month job, and I finished it a week and a half ahead of schedule. So I guess they made some money and figured I could do it.”
Later in the course of Sewer and Water Group 78, Jesse would be moved to a second Ortiz crew working to install a portion of the $65 million in piping for the new North City Water Reclamation Plant, and Don would be put in charge in Burlingame. The transition, to all outward appearances, would be seamless.
The Tale of the Palm (Prologue):
In the midst of all else, there arrives this morning the gardener of my neighbor directly across the street. The gardener is a determined man, and despite the heaps of earth, blocked roads, and pulsing machinery, he and his crew pick their way in for their weekly rendezvous with the yard opposite my front door. For today is gardening day and they will not be dissuaded.
My neighbor’s gardener is a firm adherent of the attack school of gardening. The moment he and his men come to a stop, they leap from their trucks and grab a power tool, commando-style — mower or blower, hedger or edger. They yank the starter cords in unison, each man revving his engine determinedly, and swarm forth. The sewer men are fierce competitors, but still the gardeners make themselves heard. The edger is the first to finish, and as a freebie he engages in a bit of machete work before preparing to leave.
This style of gardening seems an unavoidable consequence of a competitive, low-price, high-volume business, and my wife and I have had our own experiences with the oxymoron of “affordable gardeners.” The most recent came a few years ago when we had been driven to despair by a lack of time and a yardful of overly healthy plants. We hired our own leaflet-distributing gardener to trim and haul away an excess of growth from the trees and shrubs around our house, and this he and a helper did in just a few hours — with weed whackers and chain saws, and leaving all our plants one of two uniform heights: short or tall. Later, the man’s limited English left him immune to my wife’s telephone-delivered diatribe.
When Linda, my neighbor, began some time ago to speak of hiring a gardener, I related to her our experiences. She listened, but decided nonetheless that her own shortage of time left her little practical alternative. And so she hired Federico — resolving at the same time to insist that he do as she wanted.
Their first clash came after his first visit. Previously, Linda had shown him around and told him what she wanted: mow and edge the front lawn, clear and weed the flower beds, trim the bird of paradise, etc., etc. That night she came home excitedly, expecting to find the work finished and her yard pristine. But she was greeted instead with disappointment: the bird of paradise and most of the flower beds were untouched, and in the one bed that had been tended at least part of her landscaping had gone the way of the weeds. I was not surprised by this. Nor was I surprised upon learning that she had called the gardener, made known her displeasure, and insisted that he perform as expected.
“Would you like me not to come back?” asked Federico.
“No,” Linda had said. “I want you to come back and do the work we discussed."
“Oh, we will,” he said. “It’s just that when there’s a lot to do, we do it a little bit at a time.”
This is not exactly what she had in mind, but given the price she resigned herself to the necessity of waiting. She did, however, insist that Federico replace the plant his men had weeded, to which he agreed.
But Federico had no idea what the plant was — and neither did Linda. Plants, like everything else, go in and out of fashion, and as she started trekking from nursery to nursery it soon began to appear that the plant she sought not only dated to the 1920s and the home’s original owner but had also gone out of vogue. No one had it or knew what it was. Not until she described it to an older nurseryman, who led her to an out-of-print text on Hawaiian exotics, did she discover the plant’s identity, the reason for its fall from favor, and the explanation for a curious incident that occurred not long after she had moved in and before the gardener’s visit.
“Could you come over,” she had asked me one day, “and see if you smell what I smell?”
I went, and noted as she had an unpleasant odor that seemed to emanate from a foundation vent near one corner of her living room. It smelled of dead animals — skunks or opossums, perhaps — but neither of us could locate its source. Later, she enticed yet another neighbor to go scouting under her house, and when he too found nothing she then began to contemplate tearing open a wall to search for entombed rats. But then came her gardener, and when he came, the smell went.
According to the out-of-print tome, the gardener had removed a voodoo lily, Sauromatum guttatum. Its most prominent feature, said the text, was a purplish phallic-shaped flower that gave off a smell like carrion. This explained both the odor suffusing Linda's living room and the plant’s disappearance from the marketplace. Who would want one? The plant was irreplaceable, and despite her gardener’s willingness to make good on his error, Linda was forced to drop her quest for his rectitude. Score one to the gardener.
This episode set the tenor for their subsequent relationship and Linda and Federico have since had numerous repeat encounters — each trying to shape the other to his or her habits. The most recent occurred just weeks ago and involved not only the gardener but also indirectly the sewer project — and it helped set the stage for an even greater conflagration in the days to come.
When Linda first moved in, the trees within her parkways consisted of a pair of stunted king palms that had shown no signs of growth in the ten years I had been watching them. There are in Burlingame many kinds of palms. But the official, city-sanctified street tree is the queen palm, Arecastrum romanzoffianum, with its great, wispy, featherlike fronds, and deciding she wanted to replace her nonconforming nonperformers, Linda obtained the necessary permits to take out and replace her old trees (which, like sidewalks, are the city’s property but a homeowner’s responsibility). She then found a nonprofit organization that would provide new trees at a discount and plunked down the requisite $300 for a pair of queens. These were sizable plants, a foot in diameter at the base and five or six feet tall before the fronds began to diverge.
On the first of this month, volunteers from the tree-planting outfit delivered the new trees. They and a handful of neighbors (myself included) helped Linda dig out the old trees, enlarge the holes, work in soil amenders, lay down a bed of sand, and wrestle in the new occupants. Once in place, Linda put in deep-watering pipes, tamped the soil, and dressed her new queens with a surrounding layer of peat moss. They made a fine addition to the street, and I enjoyed looking at them from my office window.
It was just days later that she returned from work one evening to find some shards of white plastic sprinkler pipe on her lawn and clumps of uprooted turf in the parkway near her new palms. She found this both irritating and perplexing.
“Do you know anything about this?” she asked me.
“I believe,” I said, “I saw your gardener’s truck here and two men who did some quick digging.”
“My gardener? But he comes on Wednesday. Today is Thursday.”
“I believe,” I repeated, “I saw your gardener.”
“But why would he dig up my lawn?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I also saw some of the sewer guys digging in the parkways down the street, looking for pipes. But” — repeating myself for the third time — “I believe it was your gardener."
Clearly, she was puzzled. But the next morning she confirmed what I had seen. “It was the gardener,” she said. “I asked him if he dug up my lawn, and he said ‘Yes.’
“ ‘Why did you do that?’ I asked him. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘your sprinkler was broken. The man who planted your trees must have broken it.’
“ ‘Federico,’ I said, ‘I planted those trees myself. The sprinkler wasn’t broken. I think your crew must have broken it when they came to mow the lawn. And I want you to come out today and put the grass back.’
“ ‘Do you want me to replace it?’ he said.
“ ‘I don’t care what you do,’ I said. But I want you to fix it like it was. And let’s get one more thing straight. When you break something, tell me. And then we’ll decide together how we’re going to fix it. Is that understood?’"
Yes, he said, he understood. But it wasn’t long afterward that Linda decided it was more trouble than it was worth to re-form Federico as a gardener and she fired him.
March 19 (Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 12 noon):
At 10 a.m. they lay the first length of pipe — a 20-foot section of 8-inch main. Though awkward, the long PVC tube can be carried by one man, who balances it on his shoulder like a giant turquoise bazooka, then threads it into the trench through the shoring struts to two companions waiting below. He follows this by tossing down a tub of duck butter brand pipe lubricant — a petroleum jellylike substance “For the assembly of push-on pipe joints with rubber or synthetic rubber type gaskets.” In the tub is a heavy rubber glove, and the downstream man in the trench proceeds to don the glove, grab a great gob of lubricant, and slather it on the male end of the newly introduced length of pipe. Built into the exposed female end of the pipe laid last week is a black, neoprene O-ring, and this too is heavily lubricated. The pieces are aligned and, when all is ready, the upstream man drives a heavy metal stake into the ground across the mouth of the new pipe and pushes on it to lever the new piece into the old; properly seated, the male end will slip four inches into the receiving female sleeve and the neoprene ring will form a watertight seal.
Less than 20 minutes after the pipe segment is lowered into the trench, the men begin to cover it. The pipe rests on a bed of gravel — cushion against shifting earth—and the burial’s beginning is marked by the dumping of yet more gravel. The trench here is more than 12 feet deep, and because the operator of the Deere can’t see its bottom, he is aided by hand signals relayed from inside the trench to the man topside and thence to the cab of the front-loader.
When the gravel layer over the pipe is a foot thick, the Deere then begins scooping piled dirt from the street and returning it to the trench. In this, the loader is assisted by yet another addition to the train of men and equipment: a backhoe whose bucket has been replaced with a device consisting of three massive, steel-toothed wheels mounted in parallel. Known properly as a compaction wheel, the device is also called a sheep’s foot, presumably because its fist-sized teeth are oval in cross section and have a slightly concave flat end — a shape supposedly similar to that of a sheep’s hoof. To use the sheep’s foot, the backhoe’s operator straddles the end of the trench, lowers for support his scoop and horizontal stabilizers (the hydraulic “outriggers” that extend outward from the vehicle’s side), drops the wheel into the trench, and — like a baker with a rolling pin — begins vigorously to roll the device back and forth over the loose dirt therein. So great is the downward pressure exerted by the wheel that at times all four of the backhoe’s tires are lifted off the ground, and later, when she sees the risen machine, my wife will be moved to exclaim, “It’s levitating!” And so the trench progresses, a continuity of excavation, pipe laving, and refilling.
The soil of Burlingame, like that atop most of San Diego‘s downtown mesas, belongs geologically to the Lindavista Formation. Practically speaking, this is a jumble of sediments tossed, turned, and laid down by ancient surf, streams, and rivers. As the trench of Sewer and Water Group 78 has wound its way through the neighborhood, I have often been impressed with the diversity of the deposits. There have been seams of clay, red or chocolaty, so rich and pure you could set up a pottery factory; patches of sandy dirt so blood-red and laden with iron that the sight of it took me unexpectedly back to the rusted hills and roads of Oklahoma, where my father grew up and we visited as kids and the ground was strewn with rosestones — petaled sandstone rocks the size, shape, and hue of a florist’s rose; but mostly the excavation has been through a more heterogeneous mixture that George Kennedy calls conglomerate: mixed dirt, clay, and sand laced with cobbles.
One notable feature of the conglomerate is that much of it has begun fusing together, its particles bound tightly with waterborne natural cements—among them the minerals that form scale on a bathroom faucet. So hard is the conglomerate in places that even for a machine as powerful as the excavator, it slows the rate of digging. Such is the case as the trench begins to penetrate Maple Street, and where Breshears now says, “I have to work for every bucket."
Working for a bucket mostly means having to use a ripper. This is a 2-foot-long steel shank, 2 inches wide by 4 inches deep, that slips through a shoe on the backside of the excavator bucket and whose business end is covered with a wedge-shaped "tooth” of tempered steel. To use the ripper, Breshears curls the bucket to expose the tooth, then drags the tooth along the bottom of the trench like a plow. Depending on the hardness of the conglomerate, he may have to do this repeatedly before he has loosened enough material to fill the bucket.
The tooth is affixed to the ripper by a cigar-sized metal pin, and it is about the time the sheep’s foot is covering the first segment of pipe at the other end of the trench that the pin comes free and the tooth falls from the ripper. The tooth is quickly recovered, but the whereabouts of the pin is a mystery. Several workmen and the archeologist begin scouring the bottom of the trench and the accumulated piles of dirt on the street, but after a few minutes it’s apparent that the pin is lost and the search is abandoned. Perhaps one day, tens, or hundreds, or thousands of years from now, a future colleague of the archeologist will find the pin and speculate on its origin, possibly then sending it to a museum for cataloging and display — an artifact from the 20th century. A time capsule.
In the meantime, though, something must be done. There are no spare pins onsite and it falls to Jesse to decide what to do — call for a replacement (and wait), use the ripper without its protective cover (which would quickly destroy it), or improvise. While Jesse ponders, Breshears takes the opportunity to grease the bucket of the idling excavator. Routine lubrication is a part of every operator's job, and several times a day Breshears and the other operators can be seen attaching a grease gun to their charges' nipples and pumping full their joints and bearings.
As Breshears finishes, Jesse appears with a two-foot length of steel rebar — his decision made. He inserts the rebar in one end of the hole through the reunited tooth and ripper and begins driving it home with a small hand sledge. He uses lull-force, two-handed body swings — a street smithy swinging for the fences. Over the course of the morning I have been lured by the sewer project from my manuscripts and not-quiet office and out into the street, seduced into spending the day gazing into the trench and watching the thrum of men and machines. (“It’s a guy thing,” says my wife — all that power and sweat, the camaraderie. “You can’t resist it.” But it’s a writer thing too; I can stand around and watch — do nothing — and still claim I’m working. Because, Who knows? maybe someday I’ll write about it.) And so complete has been this seduction, so thoroughly have I been mesmerized, that as I watch Jesse swing his hammer it takes me a moment before I realize that I am standing in a direct line with the rebar he is pounding on and that I should move, lest the rebar become a flying projectile and I an unhappy pincushion.
When the rebar is through the hole, Jesse bends its two ends to right angles with the hammer. He then calls for a hacksaw, but none is quickly forthcoming and he instead leaves a one-foot tail dangling from one side of the rebar-now-temporary-pin. I Tie whole repair takes less than 10 minutes, and the moment it’s done the excavator is back in action. It’s efficient, but decidedly makeshift, and within 20 minutes the rebar tail has broken off; within an hour the whole assembly comes apart again. Eventually, Jesse will have to call for the proper part.
The cobbles, says George Kennedy, are the defining feature of the conglomerate. No cobbles, no conglomerate. They’re the fruit and nuts in the Jell-O that make it a salad.
Cobbles have long fascinated San Diegans. When on September 28, 1342, Juan Cabrillo became the first European to set foot in California, he most likely stepped ashore on a cobble. Cabrillo landed on a small bayside Point Loma spit that was given the Spanish name of LaPunta de los Guijarros — literally, “The Point of Small Rounded Stones” — though in a more eloquent rendering the place came for a time to be known as “Cobblestone Point.” Tradition has it that many of the point’s cobbles were used eventually to pave the streets of Boston, having been carried there as ballast aboard home-bound Yankee sailing ships, and that practice engendered the name by which we know the spot today: Ballast Point. Later, cobbles became a favorite indigenous building material and were widely incorporated into local Craftsman-era retaining walls, porches, pillars, foundations, and fireplaces. On Adams Avenue west of Kensington there stands today an entire house made of cobbles.
More so than in any other place so far in Burlingame, the earth below Maple Street is rich with cobbles, every scoop of the excavator now yielding dozens of football-sized rocks. It is not surprising, therefore, when shortly after the rebar repair a cobble gets stuck between two of the bucket’s front teeth. Trying to knock it loose, Breshears first taps the bucket gently against the pavement in such a way as to make the wedged cobble the point of contact. When that doesn’t work, he then taps the cobble against another, larger stone lying on the pavement so as to further concentrate the force. But that doesn’t work either, and finally George Kennedy, who is standing nearby, watching, smashes the cobble with a hand sledge. Chips fly, fractures radiate, and out it falls. The excavator’s teeth are clean.
Geology, like all sciences, depends on the precise use of language for accurate communication. Also like other sciences, it has partly acquired its lexicon by appropriating ordinary words and giving them technical meanings. A cobble, then, isn’t just anything you’d pick up at Ballast Point; rather, it is a rounded fragment of rock between 2.5 and 10 inches in diameter. (A rock of this sort bigger than 10 inches is a boulder, and, according to Geology Underfoot in Southern California, by Robert Sharp and Allen Glazner, a version between .17 and 2.5 inches is a pebble. Rocks themselves are “Any consolidated aggregation of minerals or natural glasses.”)
A broken cobble, with its flat surfaces and angular edges, is a cobble no more. But Kennedy, the professional, shows no remorse. Rather, he picks up a shard and examines it briefly. The rock is hard and dense. Stained a dull ocher on the outside, it is on the inside a beautiful pale lavender, flecked with tiny white, clear, and black crystals. “Rhyolite,” he says. The rock came from a volcano. And then he tells me the story of the cobbles. Or rather, he outlines it and then tells me where to go for the details.
Perhaps few San Diegans have had as deep or long-standing a fascination with cobbles as Pat Abbott. A colleague of Kennedy’s at San Diego State, Abbott has spent a good portion of his professional career piecing together clues to answer the question: Where did San Diego’s cobbles come from and how did they get here?
Of particular interest to Abbott are the rhyolitic cobbles like the one broken by Kennedy. At varying depths, these cobbles are spread over a giant triangle stretching from the western end of Highway 94 to Rancho Santa He to the San Vicente Reservoir, north of Lakeside. The shape of this area corresponds to that of an alluvial fan, and in fact it was an ancient river — the Ballena — that laid the rocks in this triangle. Beginnings? million years ago, the Ballena began carrying silt and volcanic rocks from farther inland during great seasonal floods — tumbling and rounding the rocks on their way, and at the end of the journey dropping them at the river’s mouth. It was, says Abbott, a big river, and he likens it to the Rio Colorado and similar rivers in today’s Argentina that drain the Andes and carry their sediment to the Atlantic. When the Ballena stopped flowing, some 40 million years ago, the rocks began a new career of washing back and forth, becoming covered and uncovered and ever rounder as the ocean level rose and fell and the seashore moved in and out.
Abbott has traced the origin of the rocks to the late Jurassic Period in northern Sonora. Using laboratory methods and the gleanings of many a field expedition, he has identified an outcropping of bedrock eight miles west of the Mexican town of El Plomo that he says is the remnant of “the mother mountain.” Rhyolite specimens from here and the Nelson & Sloan quarry north of lakeside match exactly. The mother mountain was one of a string of ancient volcanoes that dotted the continent’s edge from Mexico to C Canada, and 155 million years ago the volcano erupted, releasing rhyolitic lava — probably explosively.
For 75 million years the lava lay on the ground and weathered, breaking into pieces. Then, says Abbott, the land around EI Plomo began to rise. Then as now the western edge of the continent was an area of great geologic activity. This is where two of the earth’s great floating slabs of crust meet and where the North American tectonic plate rides up and over its western neighbor — where too the edge of that neighbor is driven slowly back into the earth’s interior, its substance to melt and perhaps one day reemerge as molten lava (precisely as happened on May 18, 1980, when magma from the subducting Juan de Fuca plate found a path to the surface and erupted at Mount St. Helens). F.ighty million years ago the angle of override between the plates changed and the edge of the North American plate rose, the mother mountain and her companions were uplifted, and the Ballena began to flow, carrying sediment from the mountains to the sea. This, mites Abbott, was before the Gulf of California had opened and when Southern and Baja California were farther south — and so the river from Sonora flowed west to the area that eventually became San Diego.
Abbott tells me this story with breathless enthusiasm. The earth he describes is dynamic, with colliding masses and shape-shifting terrain; rocks have many lives and time is a concept with little relation to watch or calendar. Bringing his account to the present, he tells me the last time the cobbles were affected by a change in the ocean level was a million years ago — plus or minus a few hundred thousand years. This is how long they have lain undisturbed in the ground before they were dug up this morning by the excavator.
Some months ago a nearby house in Burlingame changed hands. For decades its previous owner had chosen not to live in the house, and effectively the house — a Craftsman bungalow— was unoccupied. During this time it fell into disrepair, its paint flaking, roof leaking, foundation crumbling, and plaster falling from the lathwork. The home’s problems are such that nothing can be tackled directly, for to fix one thing requires first fixing another, and that another.
The home’s new owners are brave (“Though sometimes,” says one, “I wonder what I’ve got myself into”). They are also energetic and resourceful. And so it is that as the excavator begins dis-gorging its troves of cobbles, Bruce appears with a wheel-barrow, followed shortly thereafter by Renee in the couple’s old VW van. Together, they begin collecting cobbles: the two of them climbing over the moguls of earth to pick out the rocks they want; they lugging their selections to the wheelbarrow, he wheeling the load to the van; she driving back to their home; there in the front yard a mound beginning to grow. They will use the stones to build a fireplace. The house has one now, but it’s in such bad shape, says Bruce, that “It makes more sense to tear it down and replace it than to repair it.”
They wear only boots, gloves, and swimsuits as they work, but even so they are soon bathed in perspiration; it is 80 degrees and still the temperature is rising. Nor are they alone in this. In the excavator, Breshears is sweating visibly; periodically, he wipes his forehead on his sleeve and takes great draughts of water from a jug on the floor. The excavators cab is like a hothouse; it has no air conditioning, is glass-enclosed on three sides, and has a glass-paneled roof — this now a standard feature to permit the viewing of overhead power lines.
March 19 (Wednesday, 12 noon to 12:30 p.m.):
At noon the street falls silent. Most of the workers gather on the sidewalk under a shade tree where they’ve been eating for the last few days; they set down their coolers and water jugs, but most do nothing at first except to sit or lie motionless — the first time they’ve rested all day. Two of the men find a new place — a grassy patch under some trees in my front lawn. When first we catch sight of each other they make quickly to rise — a gesture at once polite, deferential, and apprehensive, as if I would think they were taking liberties — but I wave them down and they too lie back then to collect themselves.
While the men rest, Bruce and Renee continue collecting cobbles. But now they begin loading the rocks into the front of a backhoe, for Jesse has had the machine parked next to a pile of leavings from the excavator and after lunch an operator will carry the load to their yard — an enormous savings in work for my neighbors and for which they are no doubt greatly appreciative.
March 19 (Wednesday, 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.):
Exactly at 12:30 the work resumes. The machines restart, the noise returns, the men pick up where they left off. The transition is seamless and immediate, but soon the inevitable delays and disruptions begin. It isn't long, for instance, before the excavator hits a large cast-iron pipe. The pipe’s identity is a mystery for it has not been marked with squigglies, and to further confuse things it first gushes liquid, then emits a strong smell of gas.
A ruptured gas line is not a good thing. Mark Breshears tells of a photograph he once saw of the remains of a bull dozer that had hit a buried gas main with its rippers. After breaking the pipe open, the dozer had somehow ignited the pressurized flow and was then caught in the ensuing inferno, pinned at the mouth of a gargantuan blowtorch. All that remained, says an awed Breshears, was a pile of blackened char. (Nor are sewers devoid of such risk. In April 1992 a sewer main in downtown Guadalajara blew up, hurtling trees and cars through the air, blasting chasms 13 feet deep in the road, flattening 26 city blocks, and killing over 200 people — the result of gasoline that had leaked from a buried Pemex pipeline, infiltrated its way into the sewer, volatilized, and ignited. Tijuana has suffered similar, though less dramatic explosions. And there exists at least a possibility of such an event in San Diego, where two years ago slicks of aviation fuel were found in sewer mains not far from the Navy’s Point Loma fuel depot, and where, just blocks from my home, a gasoline line is buried under 28th Street — this just marked with its own set of squigglies in preparation for some future excavation. “Ten inch high-pressure fuel,” say the marks.)
No, you don’t want these things to go off. And at the first whiff of gas, Don Gingrich, who is the first to examine the pipe, calls out loudly to everyone nearby: “No smoking!”
Momentarily he is puzzled by the pipe. What is it? Nor does it help when I — watching from above and now acting as kibitzer — mention the nearby gasoline line. But soon he has made an identification: the pipe is an abandoned natural gas line. It contains some residual gas, which explains the smell, and the liquid proves to be water. All abandoned pipes, says Gingrich, eventually leak and fill with ground -water. Despite the pipe’s abandonment, however, he decides to apply a patch, wrapping a rubber sleeve around the damaged pipe and holding this in place with a pair of screw-tightened stainless steel straps — an adaptation of what’s called a Fernco coupling. This is a decidedly temporary repair, but it’s an expediency that will stop the further flow of water into the trench.
Some months ago National Geographic ran an article on the underground infrastructure of New York City. Included was an elaborate illustration showing the myriad systems that help keep the city alive: subways and lines for power, water, steam, sewer, telephone, and on and on. It was all very complex and impressive, but from watching the progress of Sewer and Water Group 78 I have come to realize that the picture was nowhere near as complicated as the reality’. It ignored what are essentially multiple ghost images for each of the systems shown; that is, the generation upon generation of abandoned gas lines, sewer lines, water lines, and more. Most of these systems are simply left in the ground when they are retired, and their proliferation greatly complicates the task of each new installation.
And so it is that shortly after the excavator hits the abandoned gas main it then hits the water line to a house across the street, though fortunately the pipe is only kinked and not broken. This line had been properly marked, but the problem was that about a foot before the line the workers had found another water line which they took to be the one referred to by the blue squigglie. After finding the first line they weren’t expecting a second, although it turns out the second is active and the first abandoned.
There is, I have discovered, an entire abandoned water system under the streets of Burlingame. Moreover, and this I absorb only slowly and with a mixture of disbelief and astonishment, these earlier lines were made of lead. Indeed, I would scarcely have thought it true had I not seen and touched for myself the pipes’ soft whitish metal. Lead pipes, I had thought, went out with the Romans. Or at least before the turn of the century, by which time the effects of lead toxicity and chronic exposure were well known: fatigue, irritability, anemia, brain, kidney, and liver disease, mental retardation, and, in extreme cases, death, to all of which children are the most vulnerable. It’s bad enough that we put this stuff in the paint. But the water too?
When did this start? When did it end?
According to Kurt Kidman, a spokesman for the city, San Diego began laying water pipes in the 1890s. The first mains (the big central pipes down the middle of the street) were cast iron. At least one such pipe from
1890 is still in use downtown under A Street, and overall there are some 250 miles of cast-iron mains in use throughout the city.
After World War II, the city began switching to water mains made of asbestos-reinforced concrete, called ACP. Asbestos doesn’t sound like a great improvement over lead, but Kidman assures me “It’s safe to drink asbestos” (a statement confirmed by epidemiologic studies) and that it’s used in water systems throughout the country. In fact, the only hazard posed by asbestos pipes would be if they were sawn into or hauled out and crumbled, thereby releasing breathable dust. Beginning in the 1980s, the city began using PVC for its water mains; this is the material Sewer and Water Group 78 will use later in the job when they install new water lines east of Burlingame.
In a water system, the connection from main to house is called a service line. According to Kidman, the city’s preferred material for service lines has
always been copper. Throughout the city there are copper service lines connecting homes and buildings to all three generations of main: cast iron, ACP, and plastic. But early on, says Kidman, there were times when copper was scarce and expensive and the city chose instead to use lead for its service lines. One such period was the early ’20s.
Along with its sewer, Burlingame’s first permanent water pipes were laid in 1924. They consisted of4-inch cast-iron mains with lead service lines. This system served the neigh-borhood until 1959, when it was superseded by the current ACP and copper. For 35 years, then, the neighborhood’s water was delivered through lead. It was about this same time, says Kidman, that the city began routinely replacing its lead service lines with copper anytime streets were opened and pipes exposed. Eventually most of the lines were replaced in this manner, and in anticipation of the strict limits on lead levels imposed in 1991 by the Safe Drinking Water Act, the city in 1988 performed a survey to find all its remaining lead water services. Nine hundred were located, and by 1992 all had been replaced. Today there are no municipal lead water pipes in San Diego.
Kidman is upbeat and cheerful as he tells me all this. It’s a great success story and no doubt it beats talking about the city’s other problems with its infrastructure. (It will be Kidman, for instance, who fields inquiries in the wake of a front page story that will run in tomorrow’s Union- Tribune. Headlined “City Water System Crumbling,” the story will detail how years of neglect have resulted in rusting water towers, covered reservoirs on the verge of collapse, aging pumps and treatment plants, and corroded and leaking pipes — foremost among them those remaining cast-iron mains. So bad has the situation become that the state has stepped in and imposed a mandated schedule of repairs (shades of the EPA) and the total bill to fix things is estimated at close to a billion dollars. “Ah,” he might say, “but haven’t we all had cheap water these many years, and haven’t we liked that?”) And just so that I might better appreciate the magnitude of San Diego’s accomplishment with respect to its lead pipes, Kidman lets slip a counterexample. Boston, he says, was once plumbed entirely in lead.
And indeed, though Boston has also moved to purge itself, the problem there is huge and the going slow. The city still supplies consumers with such pamphlets as “Lead in Drinking Water. Facts About Your Water System,” the entire water supply is chemically treated to reduce the rate at which it leaches lead, and more than a quarter of the city’s homes and buildings are thought to have lead water pipes inside their walls. This nearly 2000 years after the cream of Roman society — who not only enjoyed lead plumbing but also such luxuries as lead-based cosmetics, lead-sweetened wine, and lead tableware — began poisoning themselves into extinction.
March 19 (Wednesday, 2 to 5p.m.):
At midafternoon the digging stops. They’ve gone as far as they’re going today — not as far as the stripping extended this morning, and not quite to the southern end of our property line. They didn’t reach our house.
Kennedy and Baker leave as soon as the excavating stops, there being no further chance today of a scientific find, paleontologic or otherwise. Breshears moves the excavator temporarily out of the way and surrounds it with orange safety standards. And the remainder of the day is spent laying and covering pipe and then cleaning up.
Already intense, the pace of the work becomes even more so as the cleanup commences. Once the trench is refilled and compacted, the backhoes begin a flurry of gathering and piling excess dirt for removal. One pairs off with the front loader and the two begin winking in tandem, the loader with its bigger scoop driving into one side of a pile and coming to a stop, while the backhoe from the opposite direction plunges headfirst toward the loader, scooping a swath of dirt as it goes then feeding its gatherings to the Deere, the machines kissing at the scoops as the load is transferred. When the piles are gone, the Deere then hyper -extends its bucket downward and begins scraping dirt from the pavement, its blade pressed so tightly to the road that arcs of smoke and dust trail behind as the operator works the vehicle back and forth.
Swirls of dust fill the air as the Deere and the other machines work. I can see it, feel it, taste it. I wash my hands and face, drink a glass of water, but still I feel cloaked in dust. Inside and out, our porch, windows, furniture are coated, and everywhere is dust. What misery, I think, must have been the Dust Bowl, when the great windstorms blew and the air filled with dust and people cleaned their houses with shovels. My father, born in Oklahoma in 1930, was too young to remember those unholy Depression-era storms, when the prairie had been broken and there was drought and the red earth dried up and blew all the way to Washington, to Congress. But in 1955, in the last summer he lived at home, there was a lesser storm, and after the dust was raised it rained, and what came down, says my father, was mud. Red mud, as if the sky were weeping bloody tears for the damage done to the land. So it could be worse. And besides, there is nothing to do but bear it, for tomorrow there will be more.
Equipment is parked or put away for the night as it is no longer needed. First to be stored is the shoring, six pairs of which are plopped in a row in front of our house. First to be parked is the excavator, which Breshears moves from the middle of the street and parks next to the shoring, its tracks touching one end of the row and its arm and bucket stretched up and over to the other, like a mother cradling her young.
Toward the end, Ortiz’s street sweeper begins working, its brush wheels turning and raising more dust. Workers, too, begin pushing brooms, and the closing minutes are marked by a growing body of sweepers, as each man who finishes his earlier work grabs a broom. Everyone wants to go home. The last tasks are the covering with temporary asphalt of the dirt-filled strip down the middle of the street — a backhoe driver packing the mix in place by running his machine rapidly back and forth over the covered strip — and the placing of steel plates over the few remaining feet of open trench. Then, finally, the road barricades and detour signs are removed.
March 19 (Wednesday, 5p.m.):
Quiet is on the street. The diesel fumes have cleared. The workers have gone home, tired and spent. I too am hot and grimy and in need of a shower. All I did was watch, but still I feel as though I’ve spent the day in the desert.
Jesse is the last to leave. “See you tomorrow,” he says. Tomorrow it will begin again. Tomorrow, when the paper will say the high today at Lindbergh Field was 86 degrees and set a record for this date — the last day of winter.
March 20 (Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 12 noon):
The morning is still and quiet, and the workers arrive slowly. Ten minutes before starting time, Breshears turns on the excavator and begins warming it up. Fie and a co-worker greet me in front of my house and briefly we chat. Both are smoking. They like Burlingame — “The people here seem friendly” — and I in turn tell them of my surprise at discovering the lead piping. The pipes of course are no news to them, and they dismiss with a shrug the hazards they once posed. Their health concerns are far more immediate — not getting buried or maimed — and after all, says Breshears, “Life causes cancer, right?” Then, sheepishly acknowledging his cigarette, he tells me a joke: “You know the major cause of cancer among laboratory rats is scientists.”
Breshears’ companion is Greg Weber. In contrast to Breshears, who rarely strays from the excavator, Weber performs an endless variety of tasks. “We don’t really have job titles here,” he tells me. “But if you have to call me something, call me a laborer-pipe-layer-operator. I’m not really an operator, but we all do a little of everything. If you don’t, you don’t stay on the job long. And besides, the more you do, the more you’re worth.”
Weber started his working life as a glass contractor. For nine years he had his own business. And though he doesn’t say how he switched to underground, he does seem a man who knows himself. “I’ve got to be outdoors,” he says. “I’ve got the grades to go to college, but I can’t work in an office.”
People follow different paths and arrive at different conclusions, and days later when I talk to Mike Corio, he tells me a story that is many things Weber’s is not. Corio drives a backhoe and the Deere on Sewer and Water Group 78. But there’s no doubt he could drive almost anything else: he has been an equipment operator for more than 20 years, and unlike Weber, this was his first choice of occupations. But it’s a choice he now seems to lament:
“I shoulda went to college,” he says. “My old man, he wanted me to go to college — woulda paid my way. He wanted me to be an orthodontist, or something— whatever I wanted. But I wanted that paycheck on Friday, couldn’t wait. I wanted to hang out, be one of the guys. I wanted the glory, being an operator — you know. Now I’m flaying the price.”
Part of that price is job insecurity. Corio has been with Ortiz less than two months, having come from a firm that just went broke. Erratic wages are a problem too; an operator, says Corio, can make up to $60,000 year if he works year-round and receives the union wages mandated on federally funded jobs — “But you never do.” And there is the toll on a person's body.
“In this business,” says Corio, “you’re cither breaking your back or you’re sitting. It’s one of the two.” Mostly he sits, and the result is a paunch he now must fight continually, rising each day at 4:15 for an hour and a half of exercise that includes weightlifting and an abdominal program. It’s a schedule forced on no orthodontist. And despite the effort, says Corio, patting his belly with both hands, “you can’t tell.”
The work begins this morning with the undoing of the last things done last night. Breshears maneuvers the excavator to the front of the trench and begins lifting away the steel plates that cover the opening below. He is aided in this by a laborer who threads a chain through holes in the center of each plate and then around a hook on the back of the excavator bucket, the chain draped as if over the back of someone’s knuckles. Slowly, the bucket lifts and the plates rise and Breshears sets them aside; later, they’ll be picked up by the Deere and stacked out of the way. These are big pieces of steel — the biggest is 8 feet by 15 feet and over an inch thick; two and a half tons — and to see them dangling and spinning slowly at the end of a chain is to know trepidation. As with most things, there’s a right and a wrong way to lift the plates and doing it wrong can have serious repercussions; chains can come loose or get pinched and cut by bucket blades and the plates can go crashing. Gingrich has seen this happen. So too perhaps has the author of a red-lettered warning tag I later see affixed to a thick stack of plates delivered en masse:
WARNING: NOT APPROVED FOR OVERHEAD LIFTING. STAND CLEAR OF PLATES. IK) NOT PUT ANY PART OF BODY UNDER OR NEAR PLATES.
While Breshears uncovers the trench, Weber makes ready the shoring, inspecting and cleaning each unit with a brush. As with countless other tasks on the job (the men’s constant sweeping of dirt from the lip of the trench, for instance — an activity meant both to keep the workspace clear and to minimize the risk of falling debris), the cleaning of the shoring is motivated equally by concerns for safety and efficiency. “At the beginning of the day,” says Weber, “you want them working as good as possible. Rocks and dirt and stuff gets in the hinges, and at the end of the day you’re fighting with them.” So why make a hard job harder?
Once the plates are out of the way, the excavator begins digging, a backhoe snugs up behind, and yesterday’s parade reassembles. By 8:15 the first section of shoring is in place.
As the work’s tempo increases, neighbors begin emerging among the rising piles of dirt. Some come for cobbles. A neighbor begins hauling stones to his front yard one by one; Bruce and Renee arrive with wheelbarrow and van; and a woman from outside the neighborhood begins filling the trunk of a car so new it lacks license plates.
From across the street, Linda steps out. Her interest, though, is not in rocks; rather, she looks for Jesse and repeats to him a message she has already delivered by phone to the Ortiz front office. The two palm trees in her parkway, she tells him, are new, planted just weeks ago. She believes her sewer line may be directly underneath one of the trees, and if so, what does he intend to do about it? And in any case, will he please be careful?
Yes, Jesse assures her, they’ll be careful. And even if the line runs under the tree, they can trench or tunnel beneath it. There’ll be no problem.
(Unlike a modern subdivision, in which the utilities are installed before the sidewalks and whose locations are then stamped in concrete (S for sewer), our pink sidewalks preceded the utilities and no such markings were used. The path of each home’s sewer from foundation to street is therefore a mystery, and one recent result of this has been an intense neighborly interest in the subject — many a sociable conversation over the last few days beginning with, "Where’s your sewer line? Do you know where your sewer is?”)
Other neighbors, and the group that is by far the largest and among whom I must include myself, are interested in nothing but watching — for we have discovered that it is a great and shared pleasure to watch other people work. There are those who set up chairs on their front porches and prepare for a lengthy stay, the sewer being vastly preferable to daytime television. There are those like the soils engineer (he whose water line was nicked yesterday and who lives across the street from me and two doors down from Linda), who make their way to the trench and peer intently inside for a few minutes before they themselves leave for work. (Like me, he can claim at least partly a professional interest, and he asks the workers a few questions and makes a few observations about soil compaction techniques. But mostly, as he and I stand together and gaze into the depths below, I suspect my wife is right: “It’s a guy thing.”) And there are those, like my neighbor John across the street, and Albert next door, who are retired and are likely today to do as they did yesterday, spending the bulk of the day simply prowling about, eager to sec whatever there is to see.
Like John, Albert is from Italy. Unlike John, however, Albert speaks virtually no English and more than once I’ve been invited into his house, shown a broken TV or other appliance, and been asked to help make phone calls to arrange for repairs. Also unlike John — who spends many an hour gardening in his yard or making repairs to his house, Albert is growing frail. He is 83 and has a varied and growing list of physical ailments, among which are hip disease and for which he now walks with a cane. He’s a kindly and handsome man, and makes a dapper figure as he walks the block with his cane and an English touring cap over his white hair. But his steps are short and slow, and it is not hard to imagine Jesse’s uncase as Albert begins to pick his way around the piles of dirt and to stand unsteadily at the lip of the trench, its bottom 12 feet down and the precipice inducing even in me an unpredictable bit of vertigo now and then. “If one of you guys falls in,” Jesse tells me, “I’ll get in a lot of trouble.”
It makes Jesse feel no better when I tell him that more than once I have seen Albert walking about on his roof, inspecting a patch of shingles or somesuch — and all the while leaning on his cane. Nor is Albert the morning’s only source of worry. For as the face of the trench is pushed forward, Jesse’s crew begins encountering large pockets of unstable soil — soil with a propensity to cave in with each pass of the excavator bucket. Because of the resulting uneven trench walls, the paired shoring assemblies are in places proving unsuitable and the men are increasingly having to resort to bare single units placed ad hoc. This slows things considerably, but they will proceed no faster than is safe.
Still, there are incidents, and around 9:30, a section of wall comes loose and a shower of rocks and dirt falls on the lone man in the trench. Immediately, the men topside inquire anxiously about his well - being— “Rafael, are you all right?” — and just as quickly he reassures them. His hard hat has done its job. The work continues.
Directly in front of our house are several areas where the cave-ins are so large that the road surface has become under-mined by several feet — the concrete and asphalt becoming a ledge over empty space. If the pavement here later breaks, as it likely will do, there will be added costs to fill and cover the enlarged opening, and to document this eventuality Jesse calls for a camera, with which he spends several minutes taking pictures. With the photographs, Ortiz will argue that the unstable soil and cave-ins were unforeseeable, that fixing them exceeds the scope of the contract, and that the city should therefore bear the expense. The city, in contrast, will argue that Ortiz is an experienced contractor, that such events are individually unpredictable but their general occurrence is not, and that Ortiz should have included a sufficient margin in its bid to recoup such costs — if it hasn’t already.
The person who will decide this issue, and the others like it that occur almost daily, is Samir Abuqaoud, the city’s Resident Engineer. Abuqaoud is the city’s enforcer — its eyes, ears, and onsite repository of expertise. It is his job to ensure that the city’s design and contract are adhered to and the proper codes and specifications are followed — that there always be four-tenths of a foot of gravel below the pipe, that the pipe have at least a foot of fall for every hundred feet traversed, that the ground is properly compacted and the concrete sufficiently strong. It is his job, too, to approve changes. A myriad details are his province (forever is he checking plans and making notes), and in the end it will be he who attests that the work has been satisfactory and Ortiz should be paid.
He wears a blue hard hat. This is standard city issue, but somehow he wears it to special effect, for together the man and the hat create an air of experience and authority, an air of politeness mixed with a dash of detachment, an air of someone who has seen much — the air one imagines accrues with time to a blue-helmeted U.N. observer stationed in one of the world’s trouble spots: Bosnia, perhaps, or Rwanda. He is a native of Jordan. For the last three and a half years he has been an engineer with the city of San Diego, and before that, he says, softly and with a wan smile, elsewhere and “for so long.” Elsewhere turns out mostly to have been Kuwait, where he worked for Kuwait Oil and from whence he came in the wake of the Gulf War. “I saw the whole episode,” he says, including the fires that left the oil fields aflame and caused him to leave. “They made,” he says, “for a drastic situation.”
March 20 (Thursday, 12:30 to 5 p.m.):
Patently, sewers invite scatology. When I mention the work on our street to someone outside the neighborhood, there follows invariably a string of off-color jokes and observations. Nonetheless, the men of Sewer and Water Group 78 seem remarkably uninterested in such commentary, finding it perhaps obvious or simply something of which they’ve had enough. Not until this morning have I heard from any of them a potty remark.
All morning the trench was pushed past the front of my house. The new sewer is being laid at nearly twice the depth of the old, and one result is that as the excavator crosses the paths of the existing laterals, the severed ends of these pipes are left open midway up the trench wall. Later, they will be connected to the new main via a temporary riser, and later still the old laterals will be replaced with new, deeper laterals that feed directly into the new main. But before all this happens, the old laterals are left for a time to empty into thin air.
It was just after this moment, when the open end of the pipe from our house lay newly flush with the wall of the trench, that I wandered by for a look. Greg Weber was inside the trench; the pipe’s orifice was just over his head and he was just beginning to dig out from around it a dimple of earth to provide clearance for the fittings that would follow. I stood above him and looked down.
“So that’s it?” I asked. “That’s our sewer pipe?”
“That’s it,” he said, followed by silence, interrupted only by the sounds of digging.
Then, “You’re not going to take a pooh and run out here and chase it, are you?”
No, I told him, I wasn’t going to do that. But I expect it’s happened.
It is just after lunch that Weber makes the temporary connection between our lateral and the new main. I miss the act itself, but its completion is marked by the heaving out of the trench of unneeded pieces of pipe and fittings. Peering over the edge, I see that the connection consists of a white PVC 8-inch to 4-inch Y fit into the new main, a green plastic riser perhaps 5 feet in length, a bevy of short pipes and “elbows” sufficient to negotiate the necessary angles, and, at the point of connection, a rubber sleeve slipped over the exposed end of our old concrete lateral and held in place by stainless steel clamps — a Fernco coupling. We are hooked up.
There is, though, no celebration. Rather, the men begin covering their work almost immediately. This is the nature of what they do: there is no admiring of one’s handiwork, no opportunity for kudos. If the work is done properly, it is buried and forgotten — no one ever says, “Great sewer job!" Only if there are mistakes or failures will anybody ever again pay attention.
This morning, after spending more time than he cared to watching Albert amongst the dirt and machines, Jesse asked me if there was anyone in the neighborhood who could “communicate with the old guy?” He noted that Albert can’t move very fast, and he wanted to warn him to stay away from the edge of the trench. “ ’Cause if my boss comes out here and sees him, I’ll get in a lot of trouble.”
Yes, I said, my neighbor John can talk with Albert — they are paesani. And so it is that shortly after we are hooked up, John appears in his front yard to water plants and Jesse walks over to talk with him. Later, John relates to me their conversation:
Jesse: “I understand you speak a little Italian.”
John: “I think I speak a lot of Italian.”
Jesse: “But you understand English?”
John: “I understand a little English.”
“He said,” John told me, “he ask me for a favor. And I don’t blame him. He said he was going to have to call the police if he couldn’t commu... How you say? Communications with him. And he didn’t want to do that. But he explain that if a ’spector came out, he could get a $ 10,000 fine, himself. So I don’t blame him. I tell him I will help him.” And he does. 1-ater, when the men have left and the street is empty and I am sitting alone on my porch, watching, John crosses the street — throwing a bemused glance my way — and he approaches Albert in his yard. They talk. And on his way back, he gives me a report: Albert will keep his distance, honoring the request to assure his safety. But we both then wonder: how now to repair his pride?
The men quit early today, earlier at least than yesterday. By four o’clock, they have gone and quiet is on the street. Quiet and dust. Now there is a second layer, on the porch, on the windows, on the screens, and — only a little less thickly — on everything in the house. It is discouraging to be so awash in grime, but still there is no point in cleaning, for tomorrow there will be more.
Of progress, they trenched today almost to the site of the new manhole that will lie in the crook of the dogleg on Maple, just off the corner of my house. In addition to my house, Albert’s was also temporarily connected to the new main, and across the street so was Linda’s and that of her downstream next-door neighbor. Of plans, Jesse says tomorrow they’ll dig the new manhole and start replacing laterals, mine included. There will be more dust.
We have no excavator in front of our house tonight. But in its place are a half-dozen pairs of shoring, a huge steel plate, a backhoe, and a Bobcat.
The Tale of the Palm (Act I; Eventide):
Early this evening, while the silence is still palpable and before the brilliant and fuzzy Hale-Bopp has appeared in the western sky, I find Linda in the parkway next to one of her new palms. The tree is slightly askew.
“They dug up my tree,” she says.
She is livid. Her face is beyond red. It is white and her eyes are bulging. (Later, my wife tells me, “I’ve seen you with that same expression.”)
“They dug up my tree,” she repeats.
“Why would they do that?” I ask.
“They wanted to find my sewer line. It runs right under my tree, and they wanted to find it. They were looking for the sewer and they took out my tree.
“I am so angry. I talked to Jesse this morning and I asked him to be careful. I explicitly forbade them to touch my tree, and they have defied my wishes. I am so angry.”
“Are you sure of that?” I ask. “How can you be sure?”
“What other explanation is there? I’ve already called my gardener” — (he of the last tree incident) — “and it wasn’t him. So who else could it have been? The soil’s been disturbed, the tree’s cockeyed, and they needed to get in here. Who else could it have been?”
“Well,” I suggest, “the tree could simply have settled. It makes no sense that they’d dig up your tree.” And I tell her that I was watching everything that went on out here for virtually the entire day. The only time I was gone was from 1:30 to 2:30, when I went for a walk.
“So that’s when it happened,” she says.
This seems to me a narrow window of time in which to have dug up a tree, probed for an elusive sewer, and replanted the tree. It seems, too, rather farfetched that Jesse and his men would have selected just this bit of time when I was gone (but there were other neighbors still around) to do something so nefarious, and that they would so carefully have covered up the deed but then left a bit of disturbed earth and a slightly leaning tree as evidence. But she is insistent.
We go back and forth on this — she saying there’s no other viable explanation, me saying it’s premature to draw a conclusion and why not simply talk to Jesse in the morning? see what he’s got to say. And unavoidably I am drawn into her drama.
I like my neighbor. She comes often to our house for dinner and helps often to look after our cat; more important, she is a strong and principled woman and treats others as she expects them to treat her. But somehow this evening I have become proxy and apologist for those who have defied her wishes and tried to cover it up, and I feel helpless to extricate myself.
She is fuming when last we speak, as the comet makes itself plain and bright over her house, and she tells me I would be just as mad if it were my tree and that she can’t understand why I can’t see why she’s upset. There are, I counter, an infinite number of screwups with which a person could take issue and you simply can’t chase them all. Moreover, the contractors seem to have shown themselves conscientious — if they were responsible for a problem, I assume they’ll make it right. But our words are to no avail. We have fixed ourselves into positions.
She owns a Fiat. It’s old and temperamental and rarely runs and Linda has now superseded it with a newer vehicle; accordingly, she parks the Fiat at the end of her driveway in a spot from which it hasn’t moved for months. All the same, her last fiery words to me are a vow to resurrect the dead can “I’ll park the goddamn Fiat in front of that tree and I won’t let them touch a goddamn thing on this street until they’ve taken that tree out by hand and replanted it in sand, just like it was.”
And so we part for the evening — I hoping for a less confrontational resolution in the morning, while pondering too the thought that perhaps my reluctance to see the situation as she does is symptomatic of some more general failure to stand up for myself or to insist on the accountability of others—a deficiency or sign of weakness. And I wait too for the gasping sounds of the Fiat underway. The sound of a call to battle.
Jump to part two