Dirty Jobs Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20060427(San Diego Reader April 27, 2006)

At 6 a.m., Ramon Salazar is readying to leave the vehicle yard of Spanky's Portable Services in Escondido. It's Monday, and Mondays are rough. "Man, I needed an hour more sleep." He yawns. He climbs the two serrated step boards to the cab of his big white pumper truck. He bounces onto the seat, then starts the diesel motor. Rolling a blue kerchief tightly, he bands it carefully around his shaved head and square-knots its ends just under the occipital bone. The snug cinch means business. An ex-gang member and former director of rehab at Victory Outreach ministry ("God found me," he says, "I didn't find God"), Salazar has the bruised look of a man who's bucked too much authority.

People think smelling and vacuuming human waste is the hard part. Not true, Salazar says. It's the back-and-forth driving that accounts for the long—8, 10, 12—hours. His 140-mile-a-day route is like a marble let loose in a skateboarder's bowl: down to Summers Ridge, down to Convoy, over to Harris Plant, back up to Black Mountain, three miles out to Andasol, two miles back up to Crisscross Lane. Shea Homes, Park and Ride, Valley Crest Commercial Park—and that's just before lunch, which is nestled in a cooler beside him next to two cold-sweating water bottles. When he sees eight units shouldered together, it's "ice cream and strawberries"; otherwise, it's pull up, get out, clean the unit, move the truck, one here, one there, two here, two there. But still, nothing's worse than freeway on-ramps and back-ups—it's enough to try his patience, hunch up his shoulders, activate his hustle (fast walking with a bucket), so (maybe) he can get home by three to see his granddaughter.

Salazar tends 77 to 127 units a day. At private homes, rest areas, stadium events, landfills, the San Diego County Fair, nurseries, "anyplace where people work or play outside." The VIP units and the handicapped ones (top-of-the-line potties run $25,000), with sinks and paper towel dispensers, take longer. Each unit, he estimates, takes him four minutes.

Salazar parks the truck's driver's side as close to the units as possible. He button-starts the truck's pump, and the grinding noise, like an airplane propeller, begins. He unfurls the four-inch-diameter corrugated hose, attached to the powerful vac. He pulls open the Potti's spring-hinged door, props it against his backside, and flips up the toilet seat. He plunges the hose onto the pyramidal pile of turds and TP; the pile is like a volcanic isle, rimmed by the Windex blue of a chemical sea. Salazar shakes and repositions the hose; it lurches and leaps like a worm exposed to the sun. The waste is sucked—the sound alternates from a loaded keeeeeee to an air-moving hiss—into the truck's 700-gallon tank. Inside the tank, a chemical mix of ferric chloride and sodium hydroxide treats the solids quickly. The sump emptied, Salazar turns the pump off, then fills a bucket with soap and water from the truck's onboard spigot. With a water hose, he squirts the urinal, seat, lid, and floor; with a broad, wood-handled brush, he two-hand scrubs the toilet seat, random stains, wall graffiti (in one, "Mexican power," in another, "lick balls white boy"), and the muddy floor. By now, sweat beads are glistening above his headband. Next, he pours five gallons of water into the crapper, then hoses it all down. He drops in the dye pellet. He puts in new toilet paper and squirts a bottle of fragrance as a finishing touch.

Salazar's uniform is an olive drab shirt and blue drab pants; under his short-sleeved shirt is a long-sleeved quilted undershirt, very worn. "Sometimes," he says, "the hose clogs up and throws stuff back out. It splatters. I don't want it to get on my arms. They gave us long plastic gloves," clearing the elbows, "but they're too hot." Instead, he wears hand-sized rubber gloves. Even still, on his way to the shower at home, he might hear, "Oh, Dad, you smell, you smell."

A hard hat approaches a Porta Potti tentatively. What's he think's inside? Pool of vomit? Trapped rattler? Eau de open grave? Such fears hardly compare to what Salazar's encountered. Miscreants "wad up paper towels with nails and staples and throw it in there. Just to be jerks. I spend an hour unclogging it; I gotta go in there, man. A couple two, three weeks ago, they did that, and the staples got stuck right in the middle of the hose. I had to make a big old wire with a hook and pull it, pull it. I was so mad I felt like calling out at everybody, 'You jerks...' " his voice trailing off. Every so often a unit is tipped over, and it's Salazar's job to set it back up and open the door and curse the brown-black smears on the walls, which are like, well, you can imagine.

When the hose puts the waste in motion—that's the worst smell: something unholy pierces the air, the crap and the sodium hydroxide vying for dominance. Despite a long hot shower, the smell can linger in the membranes of one's nose and mouth. A regurgitative spasm (the gag reflex) may kick in. "Sometimes, it gets to me," Salazar says. He feigns retching, "Ugg-huk, ugg-huk," then flashes an avuncular smile.

Once a week Salazar offloads the truck's waste at Pump Station No. 1 on Harbor Drive. During the week, he often gets headaches or suffers pain in his shoulders and neck from twisting his head around to back up the pumper truck. In Poway, he has to back up a mile and a half to get to one unit. Sometimes he gets bacterial ailments; he suspects it's the feces' germs. Once his throat and tonsils swelled and he couldn't breathe—he waited 90 minutes for his HMO doctor, got disgusted and left, then drove to Tijuana, where he bought antibiotics over the counter that fixed it.

On the back of the truck a sign is bolted: Drivers Wanted / Great Benefits / Will Train. (Nothing rivals a back East promo: Scott's Pots: We're Number 1 in Number 2.) At Spanky's, guys come and go; they're fired or on Monday morning they don't show. Maybe it's Salazar's values that keep him showing up. He says, "My conviction is different from the conviction of the world. I have to clean those toilets just like my wife or my daughter was going to use it—or myself. I can't leave without putting all the chemicals in. I won't be at peace; I'll have to come back and do it the right way.

"I'm content," he says at last. Not just with his job but with his life. It sure beats the cold rooms he's been in, before God gave him wing. "Besides," he chuckles, "somebody's got to do it." An old cliché about dirty work, but Salazar says it with the conviction that he's the somebody.

* * *

Except on Ramon Salazar's route, the world of the privy, the world many of our grandparents knew, rarely exists. Instead, we flush it away. If it doesn't stay away, we call the Metropolitan Wastewater Department. Metropolitan is best known for the number of sewage spills—365 in 2000 and 63 in 2005. The reason for the decrease is simple: city sewer crews now record the clogs via a computer program; they scour drains that have a larger amount of grease, roots, and sludge more frequently.

Such routine preventive maintenance is the domain of Brian Kirkendall and Henry Rodriguez, both 40. Kirkendall, who is Tony Gwynn-big and sports a rascally laugh, has been cleaning sewer lines for five years, two years longer than Rodriguez, who is less animated but equally involved. One day in June, halfway down Tierrasanta's Escobar Drive, Kirkendall positions the truck above a manhole cover. On the truck's back are several water tanks, 11,000-gallon capacity, and a large tank to vacuum up spills (Rodriguez brags about its power: the vac can lift a 16-pound bowling ball). At the nose of the truck, placed just above the manhole, is a 600-foot hose coiled on a winch. Rodriguez pries off the manhole lid, and the pair gaze in. Only certified personnel, the confined-spaces unit, are allowed down there. The truck's noise obscures the rivulet, 20 feet below, which is flowing vigorously.

Kirkendall begins lowering the sled and its heavy nozzle into the manhole. The sled is a dual-purpose device: its six prongs, shaped like an asterisk, loosen and drag out debris while a nozzle squirts water at very high pressure, 65 gallons per minute. Sewer lines are a gravity-based system through which the constant drainage of toilets, sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines starts the effluent moving. Kirkendall says he cleans "against flow" and pulls back "with flow." Hose-and-nozzle travels up the drain, dislodges debris, and pulls it out.

Kirkendall turns the sled into an eight-inch-diameter lateral line that brings the waste of an eight-unit apartment complex to the main line. Once the nozzle is tucked into the lateral line, Kirkendall cues the winch motor to push the hose up the line's length. He eyes the above-ground distance of the apartments' carport; experience tells him it's about 110 feet. Watching the counter, he sees the hose reach its end at 119. He then activates the nozzle's spray and begins retracting the hose. As it's wound onto the winch, the force of the water pressure cleans the drain.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez has dropped a long steel pole into the manhole; at the end of it is a large scoop (like those in grocery-store nut bins, though this one is perforated). The scoop sits against the main sewer line so as to trap tree roots, sand, rocks, debris, which the crew is freeing up from the lateral line. The scoop collects the debris, which the men lift out of the manhole and later dump at the landfill.

Rodriquez uses a mirror to shine light into the hole. At the first whiff, Kirkendall says, "That's a light smell." He laughs: "I do this every day, so I can tell you what's going on down there." One minute later, the gaseous stench wafts toward us, and it's bad—battlefield-dead bad. It's bigger in volume and thickness than a vacuum pump humping a Porta Potti. What is that smell? In 2001, five Japanese scientists decided to study "the malodorous substances of human waste." Testing excreta and urine, they found very small amounts of ammonia, other nitrogen compounds, and hydrogen sulfide (the rotten-egg smell). However, 90 percent of the malodorous compounds were fatty acids. When such waste meets air, uncovered or nozzled loose in a sewer drain -- wheeyyyeeewww, it comes to rancid life.

Suddenly a very light fecal mist rises out of the manhole; just as it meets me, I bend back. To no avail. Part of this visible stink, Kirkendall says, is "any kind of grease these people decide to pour down the drain." The hot grease flows from the kitchen drains (San Diego, don't pour grease down the drain) and hardens as it cools. Once the high-pressure spray loosens that rotting grease, agglutinated to the walls of the drain—"Peee-u," Kirkendall spumes. "You never get used to that." When Kirkendall began sewer maintenance in 2000, he threw up his first three days on the job. Day four he was used to it.

Rodriguez says on occasion they get slimed from the backwash; especially bad are sprays from shallow manholes. Both men wear flexible grip-mesh gloves; Rodriguez has on disposable pants, their tarplike white plastic fitting loosely over his jeans. "If it's on you," Kirkendall says, "it's rough." They carry cleaning solutions and, at home, leave their boots outside and shower right away.

They bring up the scoop: there's sludge (sand, rocks, semisolid waste) and root-balls. In the root-balls, they've found cell phones, pagers, silverware, jewelry, tampons, drug paraphernalia. Finishing, Kirkendall and Rodriquez hoist up the sled. From its end dangles a pair of thong underwear. "Hey, Henry," Kirkendall calls out, grabbing the torn pair. "It's Calvin Klein."

* * *

A law of nature, we leave our messes for others to clean. When a local person dies or is removed from a home and his or her mess can't be tidied up by next of kin, the County of San Diego's social services gets the call. A crew of two estate movers comes to "marshal the assets"—salvage what's personal and saleable and trash the rest. Performing such home autopsies is the job of James "Sam" Samson.

Samson and his partner Hymie have been working on a trailer on Jamacha Boulevard in Spring Valley. They've been at it for three days: "We've popped a pretty good hole in it already," Samson says. Using chest-high wardrobe boxes, they've made a trash run. "We're finding the floor." The day I arrive Hymie's out sick, but Samson needs to keep going. He's backlogged: landlords want him to finish several places by the first of the month (a week away); unsold or unrented property is an asset dying on the vine.

His work order says that a week before, the County moved out a 90-year-old woman with a debilitating disease. Now under the conservatorship of the County, she's been put in a nursing home with her permission. (In many cases, relatives won't or can't help; a court order then allows the County to become the person's public guardian or, after death, public administrator.)

Inside the trailer Samson asks, "You don't mind rats, do you?" "No...," and then I enter a stink that must have been common during bubonic plagues: rat urine and feces. The stench is repulsive. On the linoleum floor lies a young rat, flattened and moist: it might have met a bootish death. Surrounding the sink, rice-sized turds stipple the counter; rat-munched bits of paper dot the floors. The carpet's soaked with rat urine. The tiny turds are everywhere. "What's that?" A live one rustles in the corner. Samson estimates there are a half-dozen rats here; every cereal box (there are many) has a finely chewed hole through the cardboard, its contents gobbled.

The first day, Samson recalls, Hymie "was emptying the linen closet. He pulled out the top linen pile—he's a bit shorter than me—and there was a rat on top of the towels that came out; he had to jump out of the way while it bounced off the wall." Samson's a "reptile person" with a pet boa at home; he's caught rats (he wears leather gloves) and fed them to his snake. "It's the only thing I've ever got free out of this job," he says, laughing. Though Samson washes his hands often, he forgoes cleaner's garb. The stench doesn't bother him either. Yes, it gets in his clothes and hair: "It's with me all the time." Can he describe it? "A human death, a rodent death, a snake death—it all smells the same. I can't describe it."

Rat and dead-human smells are nothing for Samson. In a collar-close aside, he tells me the most gaggable story I would hear. In one woman's home that he was emptying, he discovered that the son, who lived in the garage, had stored his own feces in five-gallon buckets in an attached room. "We had walls and walls of it. Lined up, boards and buckets, floor to ceiling." Why? "I don't know," Samson says, "but it was a bad smell," and he laughs raucously at the ridiculousness of what he's just said. He didn't end up with that bucket duty: "A private attorney took the house over. And we were very happy."

The trailer has a kitchen, living room, two small bedrooms, two bathrooms. Unopened boxes, canned goods, dressers whose drawers won't close. To case a bedroom, Samson must shoulder the door to get in. Coolers, furniture, lawn chairs, rolled rugs, draperies are strewn about. Grease slathers the range top; a smear beside the door, probably a grimy hand, dirties the wall. In a shed out back is an upright freezer, its six shelves bulging with packages of meat: thankfully, the power's still on. (Many senile seniors stash as much food as they hoard junk.) A tub in one bathroom, a shower in the other, are storage shafts—bric-a-brac, laundry baskets, hangered blouses, a plastic Christmas tree. "She didn't shower, she didn't bathe," Samson says. I hear no hint of judgment in his voice. At 53, he has clear eyes and a trim moon-white beard; a long, graying ponytail streams out the back opening of his ball cap. In 1997, when the Heaven's Gate community committed mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, it was Samson who disposed of the home's contents, including the purple fabrics, triangularly draped on the victims.

Neighbors knew about the old woman's plight and tried to help, Samson notes. But she wouldn't let anyone in to clean up. How bad it had gotten is evident by her mattress—one side is covered with merchandise and pillows, electrical cords, and shoe-boxed photos; the other side is worn to the stuffing, flattened at the spot she sat on getting in and out of bed, and badly stained. When he first arrived at the trailer, Samson discovered a little path that the woman had worn from her bedroom through the living room and kitchen to the workable toilet. He recalls that the bathroom sink—like the one in the kitchen—was heaped high with stuff; presumably the sinks, also, were unused, perhaps unusable.

Most places Samson and Hymie clean feature some danger: uncaged birds, black widow spiders, vicious dogs, scared cats: "The cats hide until you move something, then they run out and scare you." The worst? Fleas.

"We go into houses," Samson says, "where the owner's left or deceased and the pet's been taken to the humane society. One time there were three of us, and we forgot about the pet. We started working. Nobody had any problems. The next thing I know, I'm feeling things on my legs. What the heck! I ignored it for a while. But then—we all wore white socks—I pulled my pant leg up, and my whole sock was completely black. I told the guys, 'Let's get out of here.' Outside, all of us were covered with fleas. We're taking off our shoes, our shirts, our jackets. Everything. We're just beating on each other. We sprayed ourselves." Later, after nine flea bombs and a professional exterminator, they went back in and finished the job.

Another danger is one Samson detects but never sees. When someone dies or is moved out of a home, neighbors "unfortunately have the attitude that whatever's here is free." He's had locks changed and left homes over a weekend; come Monday, he'll find evidence of a break-in—his sorting trashed; addicts' needles; pants on hangers, their pockets turned inside-out.

Samson calls the trailer, stench and all, his "office." For better or worse, "This is where I work." So what's salvageable? A Victrola, a rifle case, fishing poles, a package of clothespins, a stack of LPs. Time's long ago has been frozen inside the trailer. "There's not a lot of new here," Samson says. Any letters, pictures, bills, mail, items with handwriting, "We get all that back into the family stream." So far, in searching this trailer, he's ferreted out $3000; in another mobile home, he found, wedged under drawers and taped behind mirrors, $142,000. That money, as well as proceeds from auctions of the conservatee's belongings, is deposited into the person's estate or, in the case of death, is given to the heirs.

At one point, Samson's boss, Kent Schirmer, shows up, dressed for E. coli. Office-bound Schirmer is unaccustomed to filth. He's wearing a Tyvek jumpsuit (a disposable protective garment) and a breathing mask. Tyvek booties too. He says that sometimes the County will pay to have the home cleaned. But after inspecting the trailer with Samson, they agree: not in this case. Schirmer says, "It's so bad, we'll probably pay someone to pull" it off the site. The landlord will like that. He'll get a new tenant right away.

* * *

Blue-collar work abounds in positions where stigma and stain are partners. But what of those whose job is "clean," at least, its conditions (office, desk, paper, phone) steer clear of bodily fluids—and yet the work is labeled dirty? We live in a society landscaped by corporations and their hierarchies. In fact, some white-collar positions, in which an employee must evaluate the finances or the performance of others, can be just as tainted as any blue-collar job. Most corporate work includes decent pay, benefits, even social standing. But such incentives seldom alleviate the anguish many experience when dealing with angry or wronged or broke or fragile people.

Take the bill collector. In Escondido, Barbara Crayton is the city's collections officer, a job she's been doing for four years. Friends believe that her job must be hard: "You have to deal with all those bad people." Bad as in debtors, who themselves are stigmatized as criminal, unstable, chaotic. But, Crayton tells me by phone, "They're not that bad. People are hounding them day and night for money. Not just me." They fight back, yelling and screaming at her at times. "But when I catch them, they know they owe me money, so they're a little sheepish. They may lie to me still. When they're yelling, I think it's a defense mechanism because they got caught. Every now and then it bothers me."

She mostly goes after people who've bounced checks for unpaid city services: park fees, library fines, paramedic costs, false alarm charges, and utility bills. The amounts are typically $200 to $300, sometimes more. Until she was laid off, Crayton worked in the banking business, collecting overdue home-loan payments. Home debt is secured, while money owed a city is unsecured, which Crayton calls "difficult because the target's moving." It's up to her, using her most professional, friendliest, and nonintimidating customer-service voice, to nail the debtor.

Seeking payment, she calls indebted customers or sends certified letters. Most don't return calls, or "they play a game": the collector's stupid. One woman insisted that her 20-year-old daughter didn't have to pay her debt because of her, the mother's, wealth and her Rancho Santa Fe address. Those cases Crayton shunts to small-claims court. She invariably wins, though most will settle the bill before any hearing takes place.

Every year Crayton has four or five customers "who get to me." These individuals "were yelling and screaming. They refused to listen. They knew they owed the money, knew that they were wrong, but they continued to give you all the reasons why they shouldn't pay you the money: 'My mother died, my dog died, my husband left me'—anything but 'Okay, I owe you the money.' And that bothers me: I'd like them to take ownership of their debt. Instead, they attack me." She says they'll get livid and cauliflower her ear with "You don't understand. I have other bills to pay." Which is true: other collectors are already pursuing most people Crayton calls. "Or they say, 'I'm taking my kids on vacation.' I've had a customer who had a debt from summer classes tell me it was Christmas and she had to buy gifts. That's why she didn't have the money to pay me."

Sometimes people come into the office, visibly upset and making demands. Crayton says they try to snow her with lies she's heard repeatedly: they know the mayor; they know the councilmembers; they're going to have their attorney contact her. "Always, people say that," she says. To which she'll counter, " 'Fine, give me his or her name or number and I'll call.' Usually people think that using the term 'attorney' intimidates me. It doesn't." Common sense tells her that a person who owes $150 is unlikely to have an attorney who will charge $250 to handle the debt.

Crayton believes that when the customer comes in, "It humanizes me." The customer sees that "I'm not a big ogre or I don't have on all-black clothing." More important, "They think that they're going to be humanized in front of me." It works both ways. "I'm going to see them as a person," so, in effect, "I'll understand." She says, to sweeten the appearance, they'll bring in the children—to show how difficult their lives are.

Once Barbara Crayton hangs up the phone with a customer, "I move on to the next person. I try not to take anything personal," even the in-person confrontations. Nowadays, Crayton says, laws don't allow the hard-core collectors, in the boiler rooms, to operate: those who were hired because of their nasty personalities and would collect a debt or else. "Some people like collections because they like intimidating people." But in her position, a job that she says most people don't want to do, Crayton's self-description perfectly cleaves the collector's temperament: "I'm not easily intimidated, and I'm not the intimidating type."

Ditto for G.T. Allen of Allen's Approval One, an Escondido private collection agency. Allen, a fiftyish man with light blue eyes and a fine tan, fits the image of the cuddlier collector, or "counselor," as he calls his eight staff members, who work day and evening shifts. We're on the second floor of a two-story office. Below us one elderly man and three young bilingual females staff the automatic-dial phones, making 125 calls per shift (three to five minutes each), some 100,000 calls per year. Allen tells me that when he was trained in the 1970s, collector and debtor shared morally offensive dispositions. The collector was "the guy with the black hat, big cigar, beer belly, no sense of humor, who was badgering and out to make people's lives miserable. It used to be a badge of honor to be nasty." The debtor was a "dirtball, a scumbag, a credit criminal who deliberately charged up everything, knowing he'd never pay."

Then, strong-arm tactics were thought to be justified. It was "easier," Allen says, "to holler and scream at somebody, belittle them, to get the money. It's a lot more difficult today to negotiate with people, to empathize with their situations." Municipal and hospital accounts make up 60 percent of his clients. With "this constituency," Allen says, they tread lightly. "Our job is not to upset the constituent, but it's to get the constituent to understand that it's taxpayer money, which helps city services—fixing potholes." Using kid gloves means training counselors to think and listen so that they will invite the debtor in "to find a solution for the debt. You can't talk to an adult" as if he were a child: "You owe $500 and we want the money today!" At the same time, "While you're on the phone, you have to identify what kind of person this is." Counselors assess the kind of person they've got and adjust their responses. But, Allen continues, debtors may get abusive—"it's a defense mechanism; they'll call you every name in the book"—or "you may get someone who's on the brink of a total meltdown, and you can put them right over the edge. That's not our job." And then, as the call nears the five-minute maximum and the woes of the debtor keep spewing out, the counselor still has to press for payment. (Allen's operations manager, Robert Felan, says that one of his main tasks is to monitor the counselors telephonically, making sure they aren't trapped in a therapeutic session with a debtor. "When the call gets to eight minutes," he says, "something's wrong. I intercede because we're not making any money by then.")

So, Allen says, it gets to them. The staff turnover is about 50 percent annually, and they leave because of the "stress and strain." Allen tells his workers that collecting municipal debt is "for the good of the community. You can go home at night and feel good about yourself." But, he admits, the daily disaster that people disclose takes a toll on his staff. "Have you ever driven by a horrible car crash? For days, that can stick in your mind, make you horribly sick to your stomach. Sometimes you'll get one of those calls, and it'll tear you up. We can't sympathize, but we can empathize."

* * *

Among the dirtiest managerial tasks in the white-collar domain is that of firing employees. Letting go of staff can drive those who manage human resources nuts. Companies and institutions pay these people to sack workers through layoffs or involuntary termination (a classic euphemism). It's a profession that attracts women; the work takes time, relational savvy, and lots of TLC. One such human resource manager is Lorraine Barrett (not her real name). At a local college, Barrett oversees a permanent staff of 200 and a revolving student staff of 600 who do low-skilled work. (Since workers' compensation claims and employee counseling make up the daily workload, human resource managers want anonymity for themselves, their employers, and their divisions.) Barrett's been toiling in this field for many years. Her self-possession feels well-earned in a job that requires as much mordant laughter as gentle force.

Though Barrett counsels more than she fires, both duties are what she calls "time suckers." Why so much counseling? "There's an awful lot of walking wounded in the workplace," she says. "Functionally crazy. They really do have issues that impact others. They may be just not right—depressed, anxious; they take offense where no offense is intended. They're wounded before they get here."

If she knew they were "that way," of course, she wouldn't hire them. Psychological problems surface later. "My toughest employees," she goes on, "are really intelligent people in a low-level job. They're underemployed." A job's monotony is seldom an issue. Rather, in Lorraine's experience, it's the interpersonal they can't handle. She says workers need anger management or medication, which she'll refer them to. One case deeply affected Lorraine. A woman "fit the profile" of an intelligent, organized, and facile worker. She had been at the college for five years and did her job without a hitch. No absenteeism. But she got into disputes with her manager and her coworkers. "When she did, she was very emotional. Crying. Yelling. She would say, 'I work so hard. I'm here every day. I don't understand why you can't do what I want.' She was—this, from the rumor mill—having an affair with somebody. She was separated from her husband, who worked on the campus but in another division.

"One day she broke down on the job, and we had to call an ambulance. Her husband was called to go with her, and in the ambulance she tells him, 'I'm going through a miscarriage.' But she had told her boss two weeks before—to miss a day of work—that she had had an abortion. The husband then accuses his wife's boss of causing so much stress that she miscarried." But the woman had actually had an abortion. "This is high drama." Back on the job, the woman fights with coworkers; she hisses at the public she's serving; she becomes very isolated. She pounds on the table, she gives people the evil eye. She and a female coworker "verbally square off: 'Do you want to go outside and settle this?' " At that point, Barrett disciplined both—letters of warning went into their files. The woman who had lied to her husband was transferred to another unit and had an affair with another man, who, in turn, spent his savings of $15,000 on her—"and then she dropped him like a hot potato after the money was gone. This is what I mean by craziness."

During each scene in the opera, Barrett says, "I'm right on her doorstep. 'This is not acceptable behavior.' 'So-and-So is stalking me,' she says. 'We'll take care of that, but you need to stay focused.' Then she has a child by this other man." By now, all these machinations had got in the way of the work itself.

Why not fire her?

"Because you need a lot to terminate," Barrett says. Easy cases are theft, sexual harassment, poor attendance, job abandonment, a fight on the job—"usually there's witnesses and evidence." Here, there was never enough evidence. "It didn't happen constantly; it happened sporadically. By now, though, I've got counseling, a letter, another letter, then a one-day suspension, then a three-, four-, five-day suspension. See what I mean? You're upping the ante. All the while, the woman's a hard worker; she's got no attendance issues. So she finally quits. And I'm sure she quit because she was sure I wasn't going to give up," that is, eventually fire her.

"That was a sad case. There were a lot of broken bodies, I mean, people who were hurt by it." The wife of the man with whom she had the child—she also worked at the college—"was convinced that this woman was a witch. She had cast a spell over her husband and felt that her husband was leaving her and her two children." The accusations affected Lorraine's well-being. "I'm agonizing over what I think is right and wrong. I'm trying to keep my objectivity. I want to rescue the wronged wife. I want to fire this woman, and I don't have enough evidence. What should I do? I can't misuse my power. I'm trying not to cry when I meet with the wife. Terrible. Terrible." Today, she's still trying not to cry—and not succeeding. Often the taint goes home with Barrett at night and on weekends. "Sometimes I need a scotch and a hot fudge sundae. There is some anaesthetizing that you do to cope."

Human resource manager Kristin Hubler does the firing for an international firm that has an employment services contract with the state. Hubler doesn't mind having her name used, but she prefers her company not be identified. At 39, Hubler is a jaunty woman, with brown eyes and chestnut hair; she's buoyed by her work. With a master's in business administration, she's been employed at several companies, handing out pink slips for 15 years. Hubler's been the regional director of human resources at her current gig for 2 years. Every day, she calms the tempests that rock her subordinates: eight human resource managers who oversee eight facilities and 1500 employees scattered throughout Southern California. At her office, in a glassy gray building on a cul-de-sac in Carlsbad, she does background checks and investigates employee-manager conflicts. She travels to mediate and resolve employee issues and, when necessary, wields the hatchet.

Involuntary terminations take time. Loads to investigate—Why is this person coming in late? Why is he fighting with his supervisor? How long has this woman been on leave? Should we can him for bringing a gun to work, even though he's been a loyal employee for five years, or should we suspend him? What is going on in this man's personal life that's causing such anger? Hubler tells about one man who kept leaving work early on Fridays and coming in late on Mondays. The reason, which took much sleuthing to learn, was that the man was spending the weekend with his wife at a cancer clinic more than 100 miles away. He never left early enough on Monday morning to beat the traffic and was always late. Once Hubler sussed out the facts, she helped him rearrange his schedule.

The big cases she sees involve workers who harass other employees with offhanded remarks or sexual references and workers who constantly fight. These terminations can be hairy. Of late, one personality conflict, she says, has had her beside herself. "I don't know what to do. The two people don't get along, have never gotten along; they've been filing multiple complaints against each other; we bring them into the office, and they say, 'Everything's fine,' then we let them go [back to work], and there's screaming matches. It's disruptive to the entire environment. We have suspended them, and they've filed multiple claims with state agencies against us because, in their eyes, we're doing everything wrong." Why don't they quit? "That's the question we all ask ourselves: 'If you hate your coworkers so much, why are you here? Can I give you a reference to go someplace else?' " Now, she says, the solution is to assign the men separate shifts. They both counter that it's against their individual rights to be reassigned. Neither will change shifts; neither will respect the other; neither will admit wrong. "Short of sitting in that facility 24 hours a day—what can you do?"

Another employee who was hurt on the job and filed a workman's compensation claim stayed away from work beyond the time he was supposed to. When he returned, he was drug-tested, a standard procedure. He tested positive for Darvocet, a painkiller, for which he had no prescription. His "excuse" was that he was in very bad pain, and his mother gave him one of her pills. This violated the company's drug policy: no doctor's prescription, no employment. "The way the policy is set up, you can't make exceptions," says Hubler.

"We wanted to keep him, but we couldn't keep him. It was very hard. He was a good, good employee." Once the dispute "went through the legal department," the word came down: fire him. "You feel horrible. You have to be truthful. When I was starting out, managers would tell me to tell an employee, 'We don't have room for you,' to make it easier on me, the manager. Then we'd hire someone new, and the [fired] person would come back and say, 'What do you mean you didn't have room?' " Such dishonesty creeps back to haunt her.

A year ago an order for layoffs landed on her desk. She went to the facility, she did her duty. Today, when she walks in there, they'll greet her with " 'Oh, who are you here to fire?' Another is 'She's here to do the ax.' When I first started out I worked for a company that did mass layoffs, and I closed a couple of buildings. I'd walk in, and people would just scatter." Group-termination announcements, she says, are much easier—much less chaos. At Enron, the employees were told over a loudspeaker that they had 15 minutes to leave the building. Hubler has never been on a firing squad like that, but she understands its necessity. Employers don't give notice to positions in payroll or IT (information technology). Otherwise, workers "may go back in and really mess up stuff." The employers won't give people in payroll a chance to change records or IT managers to put in a virus. Sorry, but that's it.

Layoffs, which make up more than half of all involuntary terminations, are "really, really tough," Hubler says. "Especially if it's a manufacturing job or somebody in a warehouse, somebody on a forklift, a guard—you're taking away their family's income. I have less empathy for someone in my position who loses a job. I should be able to live on my savings. But the lower level, you know they're paycheck to paycheck. It just breaks my heart. They didn't do anything wrong. It's the finances of the company. Maybe we lost a contract." During the 2002 recession, she says it "was horrible. I was laying off distribution people I knew were never going to find a job," at least not one that paid the same.

In human resources, Hubler says, the joke is, as soon as you make friends with coworkers, the next day you show up to fire them. At the Carlsbad office, she maintains a professional distance with her staff, avoiding all intimacies. If she has to can anyone, she sticks to the talking points. "You go by the numbers you need to reduce; you look at the head count to find where X amount of dollars can be saved; here's X amount of positions that need to go because we've lost clients, we've lost business, whatever."

It got so bad once that Hubler even laid herself off. She didn't mind, though, because she could plan for it, an advantage the other workers lacked. Another time, she laid herself off but made certain that when the company started rehiring, her name was at the top of the list. It was, and she got her position back. Despite the stigma, management has its privileges.