Frank Fleming said he was looking forward to introducing me to his partner. Frank drove a Vactor 2100 Plus, a pumper truck, for Charleston’s Public Works Department.
“I can’t wait for you to meet him,” Frank said, grinning.
I shrugged, followed him to his truck and said I looked forward to meeting him, too.
So far, everyone I’d met while spending some time with Charleston’s Public Works Department had been very friendly, very hospitable. They’d been happy to show me around, let me try my hand at different parts of their jobs and had kept me from doing lasting harm to public property or myself.
A little out of focus
Of course, I was still struggling. The modest, occasional shift in my daily schedule had thrown me off.
Public Works gets to work early. The bulk of the day shift arrives on the lot before 6:30 in the morning, punches in and looks ready to go, while I came dragging in every single time, bleary-eyed and just trying to make it to my next cup of coffee, or my next energy drink.
I opened the door to the truck. A broad-shouldered and broad-faced man with a shaved head stuck out his hand and said, “Hi. I’m Michael Jordan.”
Like the Chicago Bulls basketball great.
At 6:30 in the morning, that got what Frank wanted — a quick double-take.
The Michael Jordan I knew was 6 feet 6 inches tall, African-American and one of those super celebrities who transcended the thing that made him famous.
Jordan hasn’t played basketball in years, but people still buy the tennis shoes with his name and symbol on them. He’s an institution. But back when I was growing up, I remembered him for those epic dunks on the basketball court.
I’ve never been much of a basketball fan, but I remembered that Michael Jordan could almost fly.
The Michael Jordan in the truck did not look like he could fly — though to be fair, we didn’t test that theory.
I took him to be about 5 feet 9 inches tall. He was a meaty, white guy who smiled a lot, joked around a little and was kind.
“How old are you?” I asked.
He said he was in his 40s.
“So, your parents didn’t do that to you on purpose,” I said.
Michael’s face lit up. “No. My dad’s name is Michael Jordan, too.”
Frank and Michael
Frank and Michael had been driving together off and on for about five years. Both had come from much more lucrative industries to work for Charleston’s Public Works.
Frank was a coal miner. I think he said he put in 15 years before he found himself buried after a mine collapse.
“I was covered up,” he said, “but the guy next to me ended up dead.”
After the accident, recovery and rehabilitation was slow. There was a year full of hospital stays and surgeries. Metal plates were put in his back, he said.
When he was finally strong enough to go back in the mines, Frank said, he just didn’t want to do it anymore.
“I put in my two weeks, and that was it,” he said.
Michael worked as a driver in the oil and gas industry, where the hours were long, and the money was outrageous.
“You can make a lot of money,” he said. “But you get used to it, you get used to the lifestyle and the spending. When it’s over, all those high-priced toys you bought end up in the front yard with ‘for sale’ signs on them.”
Working for the city didn’t pay nearly as well, but at least it was mostly stable. Oil and gas jobs, he said, never seem to last as long as promised, and if you wanted to keep working, you had to be willing to pick up and move.
Cleaning up isn’t easy work
Working for the city is safer than either gas wells or coal mines, although Frank said working for the city isn’t without danger. The pumper truck could kill a man.
“The suction alone can tear your limbs off,” he said.
The pumper trucks also spray water for hydro excavation.
Sometimes, when Frank and Michael open a grate, a catch basin will be almost filled with hard-packed dirt and leaves. The vacuum hose of the truck will get a lot of it, but not all of it, and can’t always reach into every nook and cranny.
The water will help dissolve the blockage or push out where the hose can reach it.
“We can max out at around 2,500 [pounds per square inch],” Frank said. “If that hose gets away from you, it’s going to leave a mark.”
A co-worker lost control of a hose, he said. Waving like a flag in the breeze, the brass nozzle on the end of the hose cracked the man on the side of his head, broke his jaw and the bones in his face.
He survived, but he was done with working after that.
What’s down there?
Basically put, the pumper trucks are giant wet-vacs on wheels, designed to clear out catch basins and drain lines, which routinely fill up with everything from dirt, rotting leaves and tree limbs to discarded bottles, cans and bicycles.
“We find a lot of wallets,” Michael said.
“We get called in sometimes by the police department,” Frank said. “The police will be chasing somebody, and they’ll think somebody has tossed a gun down a drain. They’ll have us come out to pick up the evidence.”
Of course, they don’t need police permission to find a gun.
“You’ll find all kinds of things down there,” Michael said. “We get a lot of knives. We got a machete, one time.”
And hypodermic needles. Both men said the truck has routinely vacuumed up a lot of spent hypodermic needles. Although usually that’s downtown or close to the river; they see them less in residential areas.
Outside of the occasional weird find or working with the police, the job can be tedious. The city has a lot of drains and catch basins. There are thousands of miles of drain pipes, most of which are destined to clog at some time or another.
Nature is relentless and people can be careless. Landscapers and construction crews, looking to save a little time or a little money, will sometimes dump scraps into the drains. A few residents cleaning up their flower beds, instead of bagging the dead plants and stray leaves for pickup, will toss them into the drains.
“What’s funny to me is that these are the people who would complain about your truck being out front of their house,” Michael said.
“It would help if people didn’t think of the drains as trash cans,” Frank said.
People can be a problem. They said they see a certain amount of road rage. Drivers get mad if they end up behind them while they’re working a street.
“They’ll fly by and give us the finger,” Frank said.
“Some people just wave,” Michael added.
Sometimes, residents will park their vehicles over grates, which could mean the drains don’t get checked in a particular season or even for a year or more.
That can only come back to haunt the neighborhood, eventually.
Even though it’s all made of metal and encased in concrete, the city’s plumbing is delicate and needs nearly constant looking after.
Frank and Michael, along with the duo on the other pumper truck, go street by street, block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood to clear the lines. Often, they only drive 10 or 20 yards before they have to stop and pull up another steel grate.
A couple-dozen drains around the city are problem drains, which are prone to flooding. These are drains that are either in heavily trafficked areas or they’re located at the bottom of steep hills.
“We call them hot spots,” Frank said. “We have to go check them every time we get a hard rain.”
Throughout my morning with Frank and Michael, I’d hoped to see something weird or exciting. I’d wanted to see a discarded weapon, drug paraphernalia or even something that clearly didn’t belong in the street, something that would make me go, “Now, why is that there?”
I wanted more of a story.
We drove around for most of the morning, opened up drains, looked inside and dropped the long metal tube down into the darkness.
We cleared out everything from mummified squirrels to deflated basketballs. There were soda bottles, beer cans and a million cigarette butts tangled up in lumps of leaves and grass, but I never saw a single needle. I never saw a gun or a knife.
There was just a lot of junk that needed to be picked up by somebody.