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Doing Albuquerque's Dirty Work

By Susan Kyne

AUGUST 4, 1997:  A semi truck blew past me on Coal Avenue the other day with a logo that read "Batesville Casket Manufacturing." Being passed by the Grim Reaper's delivery boy doesn't exactly give a person that good omen feeling.

But the folks at Batesville Caskets have considered that, and they're even quite sensitive about it. Right under the company logo was painted "Please drive safely." They want you to know that they're not out drumming up business. They want you to know that even though they make their living off of death, they in no way promote death. And they don't, by any means, want you to purposely go driving your car at a high rate of speed directly into a cement berm on their account.

They're thoughtful, if nothing else. Besides, when they do get your body--and they will--they'd rather it not be messy.

I suppose if you're going to be on the Grim Reaper's payroll, driving his tractor trailer has got to be one of the better jobs.


CASKET CASE

The employee break room at Hillcrest Funeral Home looks like your typical break room. Typical except for the shiny, mauve casket that's blocking the soda machine and the sign on the refrigerator that reads "For Food Only." Right next to the break room, through one thin door, is the "prep" room. That's where bodies are made up for open casket viewing. They offer full-service prep at Hillcrest: hair, makeup, clothes. They'll even give you a perm. On this particular day, an elderly lady inhabits the prep room. She's lying on a metal gurney, one of her hands propped up casually on a purple aerosol can of hairspray as if at any moment she's going to pick it right up and give her 'do the once over. (I was later told her hands were propped up so her nail polish could dry without being smudged.) If you shimmy between the gurneys in the prep room and open the door at the other end, you come upon the embalming room, which is fitted out with lots of stainless steel, rubber hospital tubing and bio-hazard containers.

There aren't any big refrigerators at Hillcrest. Funeral director Jim Edwards tells me refrigeration isn't necessary after embalming. And while embalming isn't required by law, Edwards says it cuts down on communicable diseases. (Coffins aren't required by law either, you can elect to be buried in a body bag or cremated in a cardboard box.) Most people go with embalming for aesthetic reasons. It gets rid of the pale, purplish look you get when all of your blood has settled. "People always say, 'I want them to look natural,'" Edwards says. Of course, foundation and blusher aren't the natural look of death. "We've always been a death-denying society," he says. Meaning we don't lay our dearly departed out ourselves in the parlor anymore. (Once funeral parlors came into vogue, we started calling the parlor the living room because we were sending our dead out.)

I wouldn't even want to be a window washer at a mortuary, let alone a funeral director, and I wondered what would lead anyone to this sort of profession. "You get drunk one night and fall into it," Edwards says in what must be his standard defensive rebuff. But soon he gets business-like and ticks off the list of requirements for the job. Aside from a two-year degree from an accredited school of mortuary science, you've got to apprentice for a year, pass the national boards and pick up a local license. With a starting salary in the low 20s, it's not the money that's drawing new recruits in. And having a job with an image that gets disdain from the general public isn't a draw, either. Edwards says it's the desire to help others. "There's a sense of care giving," he says, and that can even lead to long-term bonds. Edwards is referring to his "funeral home groupies." He tells me about a woman who needed funeral services for a family member years ago. "Every year she brings me a tin of cookies," he said. "Another guy comes by just to drink coffee."

Oscar Portillo didn't happen to mention whether he makes long-lasting friends. He did say, though, that he makes good money. Portillo sells preplanned funerals at Hillcrest; you know, the kind you buy for yourself in advance of the big day. "It's like selling life insurance," he said. You can pick out your own casket (people have even asked to try them out), flowers, clothes, the works. Of course there's nothing stopping your survivors from changing the whole shebang once you're gone. If you buy in advance, though, you're much more likely to get a deal on a casket that, say, is being closed out. "I know people who have bought them and taken them home," he said. And there's an infamous funeral director somewhere, it's said, who uses one as a coffee table.

Portillo can also show you a lovely collection of urns for the storage of your ashes. They're not really ashes, per se, they're actually pieces of carbonized bone that have been powdered in a blender. Or if you prefer, there's the plain pine box. The classic shape right out of the Old West is called a "toe pincher." Edwards showed us one tucked away in a closet. He keeps them on hand for certain religious denominations. They're put together with wood dowels and a vegetable-based glue, and there's a hole in the back that aids in quick decomposition. No satin pillows, no plaques, no muss. He told me he was thinking of setting one out on the floor and marketing it as an environmentally friendly funeral. Not a bad idea: for folks who live green and want to die green.


CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO ...

Every new work assignment is signaled by the ritual of the dress: a full-body, zip-up, disposable suit; surgical booties; a respirator, and gloves. "People have to be so careful about blood spills," says Susan Woodford, one of the owners of Webr Trauma Clean-Up. As the name implies, Webr is a cleaning company that deals with a lot of ugly situations. "Unfortunately there's a growing need for it," she said. Woodford and her team go into homes, apartments and hotel rooms after police have concluded their suicide or homicide investigation but before the crime scene tape has come down.

Webr's only been around since last August, but business is already booming. "People say 'I'm glad your business is going well ... I think.'" But Woodford is practical: "These things happen anyway," she says. Before there were trauma cleanup specialists, families and friends of the victims were left to deal with the mess themselves or move out. Another plus for the survivors is that homeowners' or renters' insurance usually picks up the tab.

Woodford tries to distance herself emotionally as a means of coping. "I really don't want to know about the victims," she said. Still, when she's cleaning up a suicide in someone's home, Woodford says, it's impossible to ignore things like family photos.

With the rise in violent crime in Albuquerque, it's a pretty good bet Woodford's business will continue to grow. But there is one inevitability she's dreading. "We haven't had any (jobs) with children. I'm not looking forward to that," she said.


SHOTS IN THE DARK

Lynn French begins her shift during the 10 o'clock news. She sits in the newsroom at KOAT-TV, listening to the police scanners that are perched on various cluttered desks, and waiting for blood to be spilled on the streets. French is an overnight news photographer, a job she describes as "a ghoulish thing ... almost a sick, voyeuristic thing." When French hears a call go out for a 45 (accident with injuries), a 33 (structure fire) or 27-1 (homicide), that's her cue to load up her camera and go. "You're just waiting for bad things to happen," she said. "Nothing else really happens every night in Albuquerque except death and destruction, blood and gore."

And in the five years she's been a news photographer, she's seen her share of all of the above. Take, for instance, a police shooting in the fall of '93 when a suspect, who was threatening officers, was taken out. "When they shot him, somehow they shot him in the face, and they literally shot his face off," she recalls. "He fell forward, and as they picked him up, his brains started falling out," she recalls. French expects to see a lot of blood when she's rolling on a head wound, but she wasn't prepared for this. "All of a sudden you see, like, chunkage falling out."

As one would expect, shooting the seemier crimes of the night takes French to the seemier parts of town. "Central Avenue is like the world market for creepy people," she said. But it doesn't end on the streets. French takes phone calls at the station late at night from drunks, downright lunatics and prison inmates who just want to talk. "This guy called the station saying he had a vision of the O.J. Simpson murders. He went detail by detail by detail through the murder itself ... of O.J. performing, essentially, the decapitation of Nicole and Ron."

French keeps her cool in the face of some pretty grisly stuff, but she hasn't been untouched by her work. While working out of Portales two years back, she found herself covering a murder that occurred just two blocks from her own home. She went to the scene with mixed feelings of fear and newshound curiosity. The victim turned out to be a good friend. "I can't believe I was being such a vulture," she said. French got the assigned crime scene footage. "They kept bringing out stuff I recognized. They'd bring out the crockpot, and I'd think 'Hey, that's the crockpot Elizabeth and I made fondue in.'" She even supplied the station with a snapshot of her friend. Now, when she has to approach a family for a photo of a murder victim, she's backed up by gritty experience. "You know you've been there," she said. "You know a little bit about what they're going through."


BUGGING OUT

The death and destruction of millions is a daily business for David Tafoya, but it's on a very small scale. The owner of A Dynamite Pest Control, Tafoya is bent on ridding your home of vermin, and he's got stories that will make your skin crawl. Do mice make you jump? "I treated a residence the other day where every vent in the heating system had mice and mice droppings in them," he said. Maybe it's armies of little bugs that bug you. Tafoya treated a home where the fire ants were waging war on the family cat. "They were eating the cat's food, and if the cat tried to eat it, they attacked him. They're small but very aggressive."

Not surprisingly, his most notorious case involved the dreaded German cockroach. He was called to a home that was crawling from floor to ceiling with them. "The walls were supposed to be white but they were brown from roaches," he said. The kitchen cabinets had a quarter-inch layer of roach droppings in them. A government agency had removed the children and placed them in foster care. "I had roaches in my hair when I left," he said.


HAULING OFF

If that doesn't make you nauseous, consider what a body looks like when it's been decomposing for a week: "The skin is literally crawling with maggots. It moves in waves."

That's what Tony Wieczorek says. But he doesn't go on "body hauls" anymore. Picking up D.O.A.s is left up to the ambulance services that don't have paramedics on staff. Wieczorek's been a paramedic for 13 years, and he says he can't imagine doing anything else. He calls his job at Albuquerque Ambulance Service "very interesting," although a shift can stretch into hours of boredom seasoned only by moments of extreme chaos. The most bizarre moment of chaos was an attempted suicide call he responded to in Nevada. "(The woman) got into her car with a butcher knife and basically flayed her guts open," he recalled. Distraught that she wasn't dying, she started her car and drove toward the freeway. There she met up with a semi truck. When the two collided, the truck jackknifed, pulling another car underneath it, which then burst into flames. When Wieczorek arrived on the scene, the woman had gotten out of her car and was pulling her own organs out. "The last I tracked her down she had made it to surgery."

"Body hauls" are all Adrian Martinez does for Superior Ambulance Service, even though he has emergency medical training. He refers to body hauls as "transfers." He transfers bodies from crime scenes to the Office of the Medical Investigator. He transfers bodies from hospitals to the mortuary. He transfers bodies from homes to the mortuary. Although the majority of his fares die of natural causes, he does see his share of trauma. And in the case of severe trauma, picking up a body sometimes means gathering stray body parts. "I try not to look at their faces. I try to get 'em bagged as quickly as possible," he said. Very often there are family members on the scene, and Martinez says he deals with them by working quickly and in a professional manner. "Sometimes I'll ask them if there's any valuables (from the body) they want to keep."

Martinez isn't bothered by the gory nature of his job. "Life goes on, that's the way I look at it." He's not bothered as long as it's not his blood. "I get woozy about my own blood."

Even the Grim Reaper's work force has to have an Achilles heel somewhere.







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