Tough Jobs [Somebody’s Got To Do It]
The first challenge in compiling a list of tough jobs is defining what makes a job tough—and that, it turns out, is highly subjective.
We’d likely all agree that the job of chief bum wiper for King Henry VIII (“Groom of the Stool”) was not an enviable one, but some jobs considered loathsome are not seen that way by those who do them.
that’s certainly the case in the cross section of professionals profiled here, chosen because their average workdays involve some degree of danger, disgust or humiliation.
The most striking thing about those who do these tough jobs is that they find their work both rewarding and fulfilling. It turns out that what makes a job difficult is not so much what it requires you to do, but how you feel about it. And that would suggest that the worst jobs of all are those that numb your mind, kill your spirit and invalidate your personal contribution. The paycheck received for such work takes more from you than it gives. Now that’s tough.
Think your job is crappy? Meet professional diver Greg West. He’s the guy who willingly jumped into pools of excrement to find out more about the ruptured sewer main some 10 feet below Kaiolu Street in Waikiki. Soon after a 42-inch sewer line broke on March 24 and 48 million gallons of raw sewage were being diverted to the Ala Wai Canal, the city called Sea Engineering, and West started assembling his gear—a vulcanized rubber suit, neck dam and dive helmet—checking carefully for leaks. Crews had excavated the area around the rupture enough to allow the diver to enter the pit, submerge himself and feel his way to the top of the pipe: “I could feel where the water was coming up, I located the pipe break and measured distances with my hand.” When asked about the stress of his job, West doesn’t linger on the dark, slimy water (“at least it’s not cold”) the smells (“only when you take off your helmet”) or the nauseating forms you bump up against (“tampons, rubbers, needles, cans, bottles, chunky corn-looking stuff … but that’s mostly just on the surface”). His stress rather comes from the responsibility he feels to the people who are waiting above to hear exactly what he’s found. When 43-year-old West says that diving is “in his blood,” you have to hope he’s not being literal. Guess where he spends his days off? In the ocean.
Even in their white lab coats, most brand-new doctors look awfully young to many of their patients. You can’t help but wonder how many procedures, exams or surgeries they’ve done before yours. That’s where people like Rosemary Casey, Ph.D., come in. For nine years, she was a professional patient for gynecology exams as part of a clinical program started 30 years ago at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawai‘i. Wearing nothing more than a paper drape, Rosemary would repeatedly undergo a pelvic and breast exam as well as a Pap smear, and grade each second- and third-year medical student on technical skills, language and attitude. “Stop,” she might say, “your hands are not in the right place;” or, “Watch my face, not my breasts;” or, “You withdrew the speculum at the wrong angle.” Yikes. For Casey, the lessons flowed in both directions: “I got to learn more about my own body and about being a partner in my own health.” In fact, part of the reason she decided to participate as a professional patient was to help other women by educating their future gynecologists. Next time you undergo a skillful exam, consider that someone in addition to your doctor deserves your thanks.
Kermit Brown Jr.
Brown’s Driving School
Most parents are only too happy to turn over the hair-tearing task of driving instruction to Kermit Brown Jr., owner of Brown’s Driving School. For the past nine years, this unflappable fellow has spent up to eight hours a day in his car—coaxing, calming, demonstrating and, sometimes, admonishing his students. He teaches them not only to drive well, but also to anticipate that not everyone else will. While most of his new drivers are nervous, Brown must be anything but. “Tension is contagious, so I have to be ultra-calm to help my students relax and use their heads.” A cool exterior does not belie how hard Brown is working when his students are behind the wheel: “I’m constantly watching their wrists and their ankles, because they indicate what the driver is about to do.” In all of his years of teaching—both white-knuckle novices and cocky hot-rodders—there have been no student accidents: “I don’t let them get that close.” Brown is grateful for what some would consider a dreadful job. He feels he has helped an individual (not only teens, but adults, too) achieve a measure of freedom and a sense of confidence that he can watch grow before his eyes … without taking them off the road.
You wouldn’t think mopping up someone’s sweat and spit was an enviable job, but there’s a waiting list to do so, according to Bob Nash, associate head coach for UH basketball. The “ball boys” Nash oversees are, in fact, boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 14, who tend to be avid basketball or volleyball fans. For the price of wiping wet spots, these kids get to be close to the action, watching players they look up to and have come to know personally. And, if they’re lucky, they might be on TV. For an hour before each basketball or volleyball game, the ball boys also pass back and chase down balls, as the players warm up. From a long list of wanna-be floor wipers, Nash assigns only four to a game. Many of these kids go on to leave their own marks. Nash proudly enumerates the subsequent successes of his ball boys: Ph.D., military officer and head coach, to name a few.
Andrew Harris Ph.D.
University of Hawai‘i
Open up the door to an oven that’s been preheating for an hour at its highest temperature and you’re practically blown backwards by its scorching blast. Now, stick your head inside. Where most of us would actually pay heed to our screaming amygdalas—“Get the hell out of here”— volcanologists like Andrew Harris, Ph.D., forge ahead. When he is not teaching at UH or pouring over spreadsheets in his office, Harris can be found lying prostrate near a vent at Kilauea, or any one of a number of active volcanoes around the world (his favorite is Stromboli, north of Sicily), while attempting to measure the core temperature of the lava with a long metal rod called a thermocouple. Magma is only one of several ways a volcanologist can die. There are also incinerating clouds of gas, molten pieces of rock, ash and trees, and the garden variety of hazards involved in hiking in to active volcano sites while lugging half your body weight in equipment. To scientists like Harris, singed hair, burns, seared nasal passages and sulfuric acid in the eyes are reasonable prices to pay for getting intimate with what he calls “magnificent mountains.” Indeed, compared to the job he once held as a bartender in an English pub, Andrew Harris feels “very lucky” to be serving a bigger cause.
When a partial whale carcass washed ashore at Waim-analo this winter, it was so decomposed that marine scientists could not even establish its species. The great slab of rotting blubber and bone was eventually transported on a front-end loader to a dump truck and sent to the landfill, but not before Jeff Walters, co-manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Marine Sanctuary, was called in to inspect it. For what it’s worth (and we’ll just have to take Jeff’s word on this), rotting turtles smell even worse than dead whales, and both can trigger your gag reflex and make your eyes water if you get close to the fumes. (And that’s after dabbing Vicks VapoRub under your nose and attempting to stay upwind.) Walters, whose primary job is to manage living whales and promote their conservation, has nonetheless dealt with dead whales at least half-a-dozen times since 1999. “No one really wants to do it twice,” he says. “Even if they get used to the smell, their spouses stay haunted by it for a while.” The job entails extracting tissue samples and picking up gushy bits and pieces that might attract sharks if not moved from public areas. While the smell and grease linger long after showering with diluted bleach, Walters stays focused on the vision of what a magnificent animal the whale once was.
Wherever there is hair on a person’s body, there’s a reason for removing it. Aesthetician Renee Ane has heard it all, seen it all and removed it all: bristly outcroppings from ears, noses and moles; thick fur on chests and backs and downy coats in nether regions. Ane’s clients—women and men, ages 18 to 80—pay to choose their torture of choice: waxing or electrolysis. The first involves painting hot wax on the targeted body part, placing a strip of muslin on top, and ripping. Electrolysis employs a needle-shaped electrode and takes longer, but it actually destroys hair roots, so they don’t grow back. “If you don’t mind going where the sun doesn’t shine,” says Ane, who’s been at it for 15 years, “it’s a really enjoyable job.” Reaching certain places can be awkward, except to her most flexible clients, who are dancers. Hair, it seems, is not the only thing this aesthetician pulls out of her clients; many also choose to share intimate details of their lives. If there’s anything about her job that makes Ane squeamish, it’s some of the stories she hears.
Fear and loathing are commonly associated with the three-letter acronym, IRS, though Chuck Buckla prefers to consider the folks coming into the agency’s local Taxpayer Assistance Center as merely confused over the complicated tax code … and rightfully so. To meet him, you might think this soft-spoken, polite and knowledgeable fellow is more likely an engineer than an enforcer. Perhaps that is the point. Buckla’s diplomacy enables him to juggle the oversight of his two roles: pal to the average taxpayer and police to the noncompliant. In the midst of filing season, the Taxpayer Assistance Center might see 200 people at its windows; that number goes up to 600 just before April 15. While the job would appear to be a thankless pressure cooker filled with irate interactions, this 25-year IRS employee actually likes his position. To Buckla, each person has a story, and the toughest for him are those involving financial hardship: “What do you with an individual who owes a lot, is on a fixed income, and has no assets to liquidate?” Buckla believes that coming up with payment arrangements “is never as hard as people think it’s going to be,” but he can’t be Mr. Nice Guy in every case—such as the one where a very delinquent taxpayer went out and bought a brand-new Harley-Davidson. His skillfulness in interest-based negotiation has lead many of Hawai‘i’s taxpayers to discover that the IRS does have, if not a heart, at least a face.
Picture the trash can you lug to the curb twice a week. Now picture it filled up three-quarters of the way—each and every day—with poop, and you might never look at a white rhinoceros in quite the same way again. The shoveler of Kruger’s prodigious output is animal keeper Miki Nagatoshi, who also tends two zebras, two ostriches and five giraffes. After 12 years at the Honolulu Zoo, Nagatoshi can identify who left what for her each morning. The giraffes make “jumbo olives”; the rhino forms “balls”; the zebras create “capsules”; and the ostriches drop “plops.” While this may be too much information for most of us, the close observation informs an animal keeper about how her charges are doing. The job of shoveling excrement (even that of an elephant, who creates record yields, or that of a lion, whose meat-rich diet makes for foul-smelling feces) is only a small part of caring for these creatures, some of which are endangered. Ken Redman, the zoo’s director, uses this analogy: “Nobody appreciates changing a baby’s diapers, but it’s just one small part of a much bigger job.”
Beverly Quon, of the Reproductive Biology Laboratory, finds her chosen work of 16 years “incredibly satisfying.” The job of analyzing sperm on a micro slide and then separating the strongest of the bunch from the rest of the semen (called “washing”) is somewhat routine, though it’s anything routine to the fellow whose sperm she’s studying. Usually, the guy is part of a couple that’s having trouble conceiving and always, according to Quon, “he thinks he’s the only one who’s ever done it.” It, in this case, is spending some time in the “collection room,” where he will hopefully produce a sample in a sterile cup, with the help of his wife or a girlie magazine. A tech will take the specimen in a brown paper bag from its often sheepish donor and just hope that the cap is on tight. “You’d think they’d treat it like gold,” says Quon, of an occasional donor’s carelessness.
In the hierarchy of those who spend their days inside of furry animal suits, Moose McGillycuddy beats Chuck E. Cheese by a rat’s tail. Just ask Roy Huff, who has donned the 15-pound, furry moose head seven days a week, from 8 to 11 a.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., for the past 10 years. “I love this job; I’m outside; I get profit sharing, vacation, medical; and I work with great people at the pub.” Who would think that professional satisfaction could be found right between your antlers? It gets better, too. While handing out leaflets and posing for photos with tourists near Lewers Street in Waikiki, Huff can listen to music (“There’s plenty of room inside for my radio”) and, get this, “I can clear my head, get a little peace and quiet.” Granted, the Moose has had to deal with the occasional sly remark: “Why didn’t you go to college?” or “Does your mother know what you do”? And he has been assaulted a few times by groups of teenagers who forget there’s a person—indeed, a 29-year-old father of two—inside. (He no longer turns his back if a large group is headed his way. Instead, he picks one of the moose’s two eyes—they are spaced too far apart to do otherwise—and looks out for harassers.) But this moose is a different kind of animal: “It’s not about the money,” says a blissful Bullwinkle. “I want to be in this job as long as I can.”
Jana Wolff is a well-known author and an unknown ghostwriter, based in Honolulu.