Doing the dirty jobs


Roxanne Hatcher's day is filled with snarling dogs and dying kittens. Douglas Carter and his boys push trash around from dawn til dusk.

Thousands of people -- from dog catchers to meter maids to waste water treatment plant operators -- have jobs the rest of us need done but can't imagine doing.

Nobody grows up dreaming of putting softly purring kittens in a permanent sleep or powering a bulldozer through the stench of 800 tons of refuse a day.

But they are jobs. Paying jobs. Jobs with futures. And, perhaps of equal import to the people who do them, they are jobs that need to be done.

"I've got this thing about the [Chesapeake] Bay," said Robert J. Meyers, a kind of Roto-Rooter man who specializes in removing large blockages from Anne Arundel County's 250 sewage pumping stations. "I want to see it survive. That's what I do, I prevent sewage from spilling . . . into the bay."

Mr. Meyers, 42, hated his job when he took it eight years ago.

"God, how I hated it," Mr. Meyers said, who uses a vacuum truck to dislodge grease and other solids. "The smell? The smell was terrible . . . rancid. It was a sour smell. . . . It was pretty much the vTC way somebody would imagine it. . . . if not worse."

But for Mr. Meyers, who for years earned his living on delivery trucks, it was a promotion and a challenge. Certainly, the money is better.

He has worked his way up from an entry-level maintenance worker to special utility crew leader, which pays about $33,000 a year plus benefits and overtime. He commands his own truck and is licensed by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Someday, he said, he sees himself operating an entire waste water treatment plant. "Now, there's a challenge. When that sewage leaves the plant, it's just about fit for human consumption. And it's getting better and better every year."

Mr. Meyers works at one of those "scum jobs" most of us do not want to do, said Stephen F. Steele, a sociology professor at Anne Arundel Community College. But "would society be better off without brain surgeons or garbage collectors?" he said. "Imagine if the garbage collectors went on strike."

Despite whatever stigma they might carry, these jobs often are the easiest to fill, said Lisa Ritter, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works. The qualifications are generally low and the salaries competitive.

"Most people see these jobs as entry level into county employment," Mrs. Ritter said. "They see it as a chance to at least get their foot in the door."

Mrs. Hatcher, who had worked as a dog and horse groom and as a veterinarian's assistant, started at the shelter mucking the kennels 12 years ago. When she learned to give the lethal injections, she said her friends recoiled. "Ooh, you do that," they said.

"You get hardened to it," she said.

Mrs. Hatcher, 37, does not like the role of executioner. She flits past it in a conversation about her job as supervisor of the Anne Arundel County Animal Control Shelter in Glen Burnie. Only that morning, she said, she had given shots to eight dogs. To her, it is a necessary evil, nothing more.

"The euthanizing part of it is something nobody wants to do, but it has to be done," she said. The shelter houses about 30 cats and 90 dogs a day. Room also must be found for the occasional iguana, snake, bear cub and monkey. "We just don't have space to keep them all here forever."

If the kennels become overcrowded, the animals could become sick and die a much more unpleasant death, she said.

Clearly, she prefers to dwell on the shelter's efforts to save animals -- rescuing them from abusive owners, healing their injuries, finding foster and adoptive owners. The staff also has made permanent homes at the shelter for several "mascots": two potbellied pigs, a goose and a three-legged Rottweiler.

"Even though we have to deal with euthanizing every day, we always know that there is something we can love that is going to stay here," she said.

No matter how difficult the jobs appear, the people doing them seem to find something to love.

"Some people will walk by and say, 'How do you sleep at night?' " said Darlice Johnson, one of nine parking enforcement officers in Annapolis. "They see you giving a ticket and say, 'Oh, you're being nasty today.' "

However, Mrs. Johnson, 37, and a former clerk for the Maryland Income Tax Division, said she enjoys going to an "office" without walls. The job allows her to meet people, providing directions, tourist tips and, occasionally, parking tips.

"The hardest part of the job is explaining the parking rules, especially if they don't understand English too well," the mother of six children said, noting that Annapolis draws many international visitors.

More often than not, people take their tickets quietly. Sometimes they don't.

"Some days are fine, but other days people start ranting and raving like they didn't have their morning coffee," Mrs. Johnson said. "They don't know me inside this uniform. Why are they yelling at me like this? Hey, this isn't my life, this is just my job."

Sometimes the value of the job is in the eye of the beholder.

Mr. Carter, 40, shoveled corn at a grain elevator before getting a job picking up trash around the perimeter of the Glen Burnie landfill in 1978.

Now, when someone asks about the awful smells generated by the rotting refuse, he smiles to himself.

"Hey, you ever work at a grain elevator? When that corn gets a-going, that stuff gets ripe," said Mr. Carter, who today is in charge of operations on the face of the landfill in Millersville.

The air directly above the landfill's face is thick with sea gulls snacking on the day's trash and buzzing around the heads of Mr. Carter and bulldozer operators.

Sometimes, particularly in winter when the fish are less plentiful, the birds are so thick the men cannot see the trash in front of them, Mr. Carter said. "I could tell you some bird stories," he said, "but I'd hate to see them in print."

Mr. Carter is proud of the work he does and that he is the sole provider for his wife and three children. What else is there? he asked.

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