Friday, July 24, 2009

Homeric Fail

The reader should beware, for the following pages, though only poor scratchings by my humble pen fully legal copy of M$ Word, preserve for your eyes a tale of chaos, ineptitude, and disaster fit to try the human spirit beyond bearing, a tail of Fail so dire that it is beyond ΓΌber, beyond legendary, and even surpasses epic. This isotope of Fail manifests so transcendent a degree of chaos that there is only one term for it that conveys idiocy so intense that it should forever be burned into the cultural history of the western world, in the way that the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey have become part of the foundation of modern culture. This is Homeric fail.

For that matter, no, it has nothing to do with the Bush Administration. The names have been changed to protect the guilty, but they know who they are.

Be warned. This was written while under the influence of Neal Stephenson, and I made a deliberate effort to use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.

By way of context, please recall to your minds my recent amusing and easy-to-read discourses on the subject of a certain apartment building in Springfield, and how the removal of a forgotten and unused fuel oil tank from said property caused all manner of problems during the week of July 13.

For those who never heard these stories, or whose memories are less than pachydermal, a brief synopsis:

On June 17, I found an abandoned underground oil tank while doing an inspection at an apartment building in Springfield. We told the property owner (and his banker) that the tank should be removed, since it was installed in 1934. The property owner then contracted with Amalgamated Bashers and Wreckers, a local demolition company, to provide the excavation and trucking crew, and (separately, which is an important thing to remember) the company I work for to oversee the work, do soil testing, etc.

Well, the way it panned out was, Amplified Bingo Winners went ahead and pulled the tank out on Monday the 13th, without telling us, and for that matter without telling the property owner they were going to do it that day. As it turns out, the tank had leaked massively, and the bottom of the tank was riddled with holes like Swiss cheese (Emmentaler, not Gruyere). What followed was a clockwork succession of events- Abject Bullshit Wastrels called the Fire Department, the Fire Department called the Department of Environmental protection, who ordered a cleanup, and who finally called the property owner, who called us.

What followed THAT were some trivial paperwork and some quarrels about scheduling, and whether it’s ok to handle contaminated soil in the rain. This issue produced a rather snippy exchange between myself and Fred from Arrogant Bloated Wretches at 6:35 Tuesday morning. Want the quick answer? It’s not ok, especially when the weather forecasts two inches of rain that day. By 11 AM the radio is broadcasting flooding alerts. We eventually got about three inches of rain.

[N.B. – Fred is a large, generally tube-shaped, pale, and blond supervisor from Associated Bumbling Weenies. His resemblance to a Dutch rendering of the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man carved out of butter is not helped by his propensity to wear yellow polo shirts and pale chinos. Fred is a superb example of grade-A, USDA-inspected and LEED-approved Prick, who probably has a devoted following as a sperm donor among women whose life’s goal is to give breed a prick of their own, and he shall therefore henceforth be known as Fred the Prick.]

I arrived at the site at 7:30 Wednesday morning, ready to begin work. I then sat and waited for thirty-five minutes, because Excavator Guy, who is driving a John Deere POS backhoe from the Assorted Boozy Wastrels garage the one (1) mile from there to the site, gets lost. He manages to get lost, I might add, despite having been the guy who pulled the tank out here two weeks ago.

Once he arrived, and we got the backhoe and truck situated so that we could load the dirt into it, Excavator Guy duly informed me that he hadn’t segregated the contaminated material from the clean material during the tank removal and had shoved it all back into the tank grave. This was a less-than-stellar thing to do because now that it was all mixed together, we had to treat all of it as dirty, and it all had to go into the truck. Incidentally, Excavator Guy is out of his element because he only knows how to run JCB equipment, and the different control arrangement on the humble John Deere (which he regards as a venerable French sommelier might regard Mad Dog 20-20) keeps throwing him off his stride. The only place to put the dump truck is up on the sidewalk, with the front end of the truck sticking ten feet out into the street. That twanging noise you just heard was us breaking the Oops Barrier.

We commenced digging. Rather, Excavator Guy commenced digging, and I attempt to tell him where to dig, advice that he thoughtfully ignores. Pete (my boss) showed up. Things proceeded apace for a good forty minutes.

A kid from across the street, who I dub Spherical Boy for his impressive rotundity, joins our merry crew at this stage. This worthy fellow is so pale, round, intrusive, and disturbing that I could almost get away with referring to him as Rover, as a reference to The Prisoner, but that would be a little too degrading. Spherical Boy is a little slow and is on summer vacation, so when not in school his major pastime seems to be pushing a shopping cart loaded with odds and ends of stuff around the neighborhood looking for something to do, in the process serving as a general Hazard to Vehicular Navigation. Most elementary school aged boys find backhoes and stuff like that unbelievably fascinating (I sure did when I was that age) and we pretty much make Spherical Boy’s day by giving him something new to watch while his dad’s hangover wears off as he sits on the porch across the street and watches his progeny clamber around an excavation site.

Around 8:40 I made a comment to Pete about how I had had a dream the previous night about how things went badly on this job, and how one of the things that happened in this dream was that the machine hit a water line. Pete laughed. At 8:45, the backhoe ripped up the building’s 1” diameter copper water line with a deep metallic twang that resonated in your teeth, and the ruptured water line started gushing water into the hole.

Welcome to Ohshit Territory.

Work comes to a screeching (or rather, squishing and splashing) halt. Excavator Guy calls Fred the Prick. Excavator Guy tried to crimp the water line shut, without success. The soil is stiff varved clay, pretty dense stuff, so the water fills the hole up like a swimming pool at an alarming rate. Pete takes off to another meeting, laughing in disgust. Fred the Prick shows up, disappears, and reappears, without seeming to do anything productive. I send the Dump Truck Guy off to the soil recycler with the stuff he already has in the truck, because there’s nothing else he can do.

The water line’s splattering destruction has inconvenienced several of the apartment building’s charmingly diverse occupants in their daily routines. They indicate this to myself and the surrounding neighborhood in the traditional manner, viz., loud obscenities and irate questions in at least four languages, two of which are probably Spanish. They also place a series of outraged phone calls to their landlord, who in turn calls Fred the Prick. Fred the Prick doesn’t return the landlord’s phone calls that day. Or the next day.

An hour creeps by, during which the hole continues to fill with water, Excavator Guy berates real estate agents over his cell phone, and I sit in my car talking on my cell phone to my girlfriend, while being billed out at a rate of $50/hr. It is during this time that I notice that Excavator Guy, who is a wiry Aryan poster child with an inability to use nicknames or contractions (so that I am always Thomas and Dump Truck Guy is always Randall), has a White Power tattoo on the inside of his left bicep. He also has a very loud voice and (conspicuously), a colorful vocabulary, and no concept of discretion, in that he is making loud, caustic remarks that segue between prostitutes, welfare mothers and crack babies. Excavator Guy is evidently a Ph. D. in sociology, having graduated summa cum loud from the School of What Some Guy In A Bar Once Said To Me While Watching Fox News.

The neighborhood isn’t all that bad, really (nobody has been killed on this street in at least six months), but it strikes me that I’m standing thirty feet away from a guy who is unconcernedly and loudly using a wide variety of racist epithets in the middle of what we might describe as an “multicultural” neighborhood. Thirty feet suddenly doesn’t seem like enough of a distance, so I go across the road, sit in my Jeep and try to figure out potential future crossfire angles so I can avoid becoming a pile of rapidly cooling meat by a tragic accident.

Fred the Prick and Hardhat Pedro from the Water and Sewer Commission finally show up around 10:00. Pedro proceeds to drill, tap, and bore-brush All Bad Words a shiny new brass asshole over breaking the water line, taking particular care to point out that Arnold Builds Wallabies was legally responsible for calling the Water and Sewer Department to have the services marked out. It takes the relentlessly efficient Hardhat Pedro (who must polish his hardhat, because it is impressively clean and shiny despite being visibly well-worn) all of ten minutes to locate the water service shutoff, which some other appendage of the city government has, for some ineffable reason, paved over.

Say what you will about Springfield (most of it is true), but their engineering departments are excellent record-keepers and it is a matter of minutes for someone like Hardhat Pedro or myself to get his or her hands on a building permit or water service connection sketch from 1902.

By this point I’m a little fed up with things—I have plenty of other stuff to do, I can’t do anything here until Hardhat Pedro gets the water situation sorted out, the Angry Beaver Wenches people have pissed me right off, and I’m hungry, so I give Fred the Prick my card (intentionally WITHOUT my cell phone number on it) and tell him to call my office when the water is off and the hole has been pumped out, and take off around 10:15 AM, having accomplished maybe 40 minutes’ digging so far.

Hello to scenic New Clusterfuck, population: Excavator Guy, Fred the Prick, Hardhat Pedro, and yours truly.

In hindsight, it was probably inauspicious to do this on a Wednesday, given that in Scandinavian mythology Odin, the god after whom Wednesday is named, was the god of traitors, the hanged, really impressive criminals, disasters, and general unpleasantness.

I spend the next couple of hours schlepping errands across the river in Lower Numbnuts, including an argument with Deputy Chief Lameass from the town’s Fire Prevention Bureau. I rewarded myself with French toast at Rein’s Deli, food being my preferable distraction and anodyne. Inevitably, just as I was about to chow down on some immense slabs of fried challah, the cell phone rang. Fred the Prick had called Pete the Boss and proclaimed that all was solved, and Asinine Booger Whippers would be ready for digging in fifteen minutes.

When I get back to the site at the appointed hour (1:00 high, an hour which has never been as hallowed in western movies as it should have been), the water has indeed been shut off and a temporary water supply rigged from a neighboring house, but the hole is still a swimming pool. Fortunately, Fred the Prick surrendered to the inevitable evisceration of his budget and called in an environmental services contractor to bring a Vactor unit out to the site to pump the water out of the hole. This device squats curbside like the Ark of the Covenant’s rusty bastard cousin, billed out at such a stinging hourly rate that you can practically see it absorbing money out of the air the way desert plants absorb water, and attended by a brace of doting crewmen. Spherical Boy is so amazed that he is temporarily silent. Christmas is going to have a hard time competing with The Day They Dug A Hole Across The Street. Unfortunately, at this point, Mister Pump Trailer is sucking up money much faster than it is sucking up water. My wallet puckers tighter out of sympathy.

Ten minutes later, and after a set of rituals so complex that they make a pre-Vatican II high mass look like a campfire cookout by comparison, the Watery Mess Evacuators crew has managed to propitiate Mister Pump Trailer to the extent that this device deigns to start. One of the steel demigod’s acolytes reverently lowers a fat black hose into the pit while his cohort piously does something delicate and technical involving pulling a lever the size of a man’s arm. With a disturbingly gastric-sounding slurping noise of a magnitude that hasn’t echoed through the ear canals of mortal man since the Great Jehovah contracted with Mister Pump Trailer to remove the waters of Heaven from the Earth at the conclusion of the Deluge, Mister Pump Trailer does what it is in Mister Pump Trailer’s Aristotelian nature to do. He moves a large amount of unsuspecting water very, very quickly.

After a positively epic and very loud ten seconds, the hole is bone-dry and some hundreds of gallons of water, oil, cigarette butts, and miscellaneous crap are now safely ensconced in the steel belly of the mickle Mister Pump Trailer.

Anthony From Long Island, one of the Wastefully Managed Enterprises guys, tells me that he “needs somewhere to put this thing [the pump trailer], ‘cuz it’s gotta stay here till Monday, we got a permit issue.”

Let me interpret what “permit issue” means in this context. Three months ago, the Mass DEP dragged the company into court for transporting hazardous waste for a year and a half without a waste transporter permit, the result of which was that Weird Muddy Elbows settled for paying a $225,000 settlement and agreed to get a permit. What we have here, then, is an environmental services company that can’t legally provide the most basic of services, which is transporting the stuff from one place to another. Since the stuff now gurgling in Mister Pump Trailer’s bowels is now officially hazardous waste, someone else has to come decant Mr. Pump Trailer into another vessel and truck the water away, but he can’t do it until Monday, so Mr. Pump Trailer isn’t going anywhere.

For those of you watching at home, we just hit the on-ramp to the Turbo Dumbass Superhighway and dropped a lead brick on the accelerator.

Mr. Pump Trailer can’t stay in the road, though—he’s too big. There’s nothing for it. We look around carefully, examine the terrain, conduct and intelligence-gathering foray, and then we pounce on a vulnerable target. Three of the tenants’ precious parking spaces, which they normally defend with the kind of foaming monomaniacal frenzy that Gollum showed when mugging Frodo for the One Ring, are suddenly full of Mister Pump Trailer. He’ll be there all weekend, if you want to stop by and visit. Bring some incense to burn, rub his mighty diesel engine with ghee, and anoint his noble trailer hitch with the finest aromatic nard and myrrh.

The next question is—where has Dump Truck Guy got to? He exited stage right of our little melodrama some four hours earlier for parts unknown, and we haven’t seen or heard from him since. I ask Excavator Guy, who calls Fred the Prick, who says he sent Dump Truck Guy to go haul material at another job while we were waiting for the water to be shut off and the hole pumped out. Since the other job is only three blocks away, he should be with us soon.

Fifteen minutes later, Fred the Prick calls Excavator Guy and says that Dump Truck Guy’s eponymous vehicle sank into some soft ground at the other site, and is now thoroughly stuck, and could Excavator Guy go use an excavator at the other job site to unstick him.

I now realize that, after an hour’s drive down the Turbo Dumbass Superhighway, we have crested the hills of East Clusterfuck, and I can see the crystalline, Olympian peaks of Three Stooges Land gleaming above me, the wind carrying faint taunting echoes of ‘nyuk nyuk nyuk’ across the distance ……

I give Excavator Guy a lift the three blocks from one place to the other place, during which he repeatedly compliments the mechanical soundness of my Jeep, and mentions that his father had owned the same model but had sold it before he was sent to prison last year. The other job site turns out to be the Longhill Garden Apartments, a five-building postwar subsidized-housing complex that was built on an old landfill, and that was a wretched hive of scum and villainy until the city condemned the place two years ago. The new property owner, who bought the place at auction, is wisely demolishing the three buildings that were about to fall down anyways.

By 2:00 PM we have rescued Dump Truck Guy and his chariot, and are finally back to digging. Excavator Guy works at an erratic but frenzied pace for half an hour, thrashing around with his machine while simultaneously smoking, talking to a realtor on his cell phone, and repeatedly calling me a pain in his ass. Great wet lumpy turds of oily clay fly off of his swinging bucket and splatter across the sidewalk, the lawn, and the side of the building. To his credit, at least half of it gets into the truck. Spherical Boy is well into the spirit of things, complete with yelling “oh no!” at the appropriate times.

By 2:30, we have the truck as full as we can get it and a police car has made three (3) very slow passes by the site and officially took notice of the dump truck we have sticking out into the increasingly busy road. We send Dump Truck Guy off to the recycler with another load before the cop slaps him with a ticket for obstructing a public way.

Two things have become clear to me by this point. I admit that I’m not used to working with demolition guys—I usually do this sort of thing with construction guys. The difference in world-outlook between the two professions should be pretty obvious—one takes vacant land and creates a finished product (buildings for people to use), while the other takes the same finished product, destroys it, and makes vacant land. Let’s sum it up by just saying that wreckers smash stuff for a living, and generally do not understand the concept of ‘neatness’ because neatness is as antithetical to their way of life as drunken Las Vegas orgies are to the Dalai Lama.

The other insight is much less philosophical, but much more empirical; I just formed the opinion that you pretty much have to be severely brain-damaged to work for Agglomerated Bovine Wholesalers. Excavator Guy has, for example, set up his backhoe so that one of the outriggers that take the machine’s weight when he’s digging is planted on the ground right over the building’s natural gas line, and he only moves it after I’ve asked, suggested, insisted, and begged that he please move to somewhere he is less likely to blow us all up.

By now we’re definitely in a bind, though. It’s 2:30, we’re nowhere near done, and Dump Truck Guy won’t be back for a half hour. The soil recycler place closes at 4. During this lull, Excavator Guy indulges in his usual hobbies of chain smoking, cell phone calls to realtors, and casual public racism and vituperation. I ate an orange, walked across Fort Unpleasant Avenue to buy some Gatorade at the local commercial mecca, not failing to note the numerous rat-traps strategically placed around the floors and atop the coolers, read a few pages of a book, and generally tried to convince myself that I was somewhere else and having fun.

Dump Truck Guy triumphantly returned at ten past three, having battled his way across highways and byways against the riptides of afternoon traffic.

We shuffle equipment around to reach a different area of stinky dirt, and excavator guy starts molesting the hole again, scraping dirt off the sidewalls and loading it into the truck. In the process, he shatters an old clay tile drainpipe along the house’s footing. More water pours out of the drainpipe into the hole. Lake Runamok lives again. All hail Lake Runamok. Excavator Guy calls Fred the Prick.

By this point, your humble scribe is sitting on the building’s steps with his head in his hands, laughing madly but quietly and trying to remember all this stuff because it will make a story of a hell. No, I don’t mean a hell of a story. Spherical Boy is now standing on the sidewalk and, with much yelling and waving of arms, trying to direct Excavator Guy. As with all instructions, Excavator Guy studiously ignores him. Spherical Boy has also somehow acquired a post-hole digger, which now juts from his shopping cart like the ram of a Roman war galley.

Fred the Prick and two other Army of Bilious Wankers employees named Mental Bucket and Gitterdun (because that’s all he seems to know how to say) show up with portable chain-link fencing to secure the hole, which a) is the law and b) is, notwithstanding a) still a very good idea considering that there are children and drunkards around, and I would not want to find a wino doing the backstroke in the hole the next morning. I wanted a trench plate (a massive piece of iron about an inch thick and a few yards square) to cover the hole rather than a fence, but Fred the Prick brought a fence… so if it rains, the hole will get water in it, but actually by this point that’s moot since….oh my gosh…. The hole has water in it already.

By ten past four, I have taken enough scratch samples to know that the digging is not complete and that we have to continue digging. Excavator guy leaves promptly at 4:00. I stick around to see that the fence is set up, and Dump Truck Guy drives his half-load of contaminated soil back to the Amused Baboon World yard where it will sit overnight. Fred the Prick tells me that I won’t have to work with Excavator Guy tomorrow, because he is scheduled to work on demolishing one of the Longhill Apartment buildings. This seems pretty appropriate, given how good Excavator guy is at destruction.

I go back to the office, drop the samples off, and go home.

It’s the same thing on Thursday morning. In fact, Thursday morning starts out so much like Wednesday morning that for a moment I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I arrive at this most blessed chunk of real estate by 7:30 and find two different guys from Apparently Busy Workers there dismantling the fence. One is named Steve, and I never really did learn what his job was. The other is Motormouth Jim. Dump Truck Guy arrives about ten minutes later.

The hole is, of course, full of water. Steve calls Water Movers Extraordinaire, but as it happens they don’t have anyone available to send out to minister to Mister Pump Trailer. One of Mister Pump Trailer’s acolytes attempts, via cell phone, to talk Steve through the process of ritually arousing the iron demigod from his slumber.

Mr. Pump Trailer awakens with a concussive diesel fart that rattles windows, frightens children, and leaves a smoke-ring the size of a truck tire drifting down the alley between two houses. Steve eagerly lowers the suction hose into the watery depths of the hole, and then does something intimate to Mister Pump Trailer’s control panel, which is a wall of knobs, switches, gauges, valves and levers that rival a pipe organ for complexity.

There is a problem, however. Mister Pump Trailer…… will not pump. There is a great rumbling of engines, a subterranean gurgling, and a very loud whistling hiss, but the water does not move. Mr. Pump Trailer is wide-awake, but is apparently content to sit where he is, disturb the neighborhood, and chew his watery cud from the previous day.

By 8:45, having spent an utterly pointless and wasted hour and a quarter of my life here this morning, I give Steve my card and tell him to call me when the hole has been pumped out. I then go back to the office and attempt to do something productive involving a wastewater permit.

Steve calls me at 11 and says they’re ready to go. With a heavy heart and no great expectations, I drag myself back to the site. The hole is, indeed, devoid of water. We resume digging.

Motormouth Jim is, from the get-go, a much better operator than Excavator Guy. He talks constantly and is still not that great at listening, but he’s obsessed with safety (which is always a plus, since it makes it less likely that I will be killed) and has a much better touch with the backhoe. He also politely exiles Spherical Boy to the sidewalk outside the fence, well out of the way. Such are Motormouth Jim’s mysterious Jedi powers that Spherical Boy, who is a bit of a roller skate, actually remains where he is told to go.

Motormouth Jim’s two favorite topics of discussion are, 1), how essential it is to get the hole filled in before it collapses, and 2) how much of an idiot Excavator Guy is. I agree with him on both counts. An hour of steady, workmanlike digging removes another half-truckload of oily clay from the hole without causing any more calamities. Motormouth Jim gets progressively more anxious about filling in the hole, at one point ordering Dump Truck Guy to “go like a mother” to the recycling plant, empty his load, and bring back some clean stuff to fill part of the hole in with so it won’t collapse. I keep talking him out of it long enough to get the rest of the visibly contaminated soil into the truck, and take my samples. By this point we have enlarged the hole to the workable limits, bounded on the bottom by a water table that I don’t want to touch, the gas line and electric line, and the building’s foundation. The hole is now almost ten feet deep. The building’s lawn area now looks like the surface of the moon, devoid of life. There is nothing more I can do here, but Motormouth Jim seems desperate for conversation (or perhaps just an audience) and he talks my ear off for another half-hour.

I then escape back to the office. Later that afternoon, there is ice cream, and much vacuuming to remove the couple pounds of congealed clay I tracked into the office on my boots.

In summing up the epic nature of this mess, I contend that it equaled the trials of Odysseus. It rivaled the Islander’s imprisonment on Calypso’s island for sheer time-dragging exasperation, the knife’s-edge perils of the passage of Scylla and Charybdis, the outright danger of the battle against Polyphemus the Cyclops, French toast to rival the temptations of the Land of the Lotus Eaters, and a conclusion to rival the ultimate bittersweet reunion of Odysseus with his family, during the course of which he had to slaughter all the guys who were trying to get their mitts on his wife while he was away. There were, however, no Sirens.

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