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NewCityNet Strange Days

Punching the clock on some of Chicago's oddest jobs

By Carl Kozlowski

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Face it: work sucks. And in the nineties it seems you're not well adjusted unless you hate your job. But have you ever wished you could scale the side of the Sears Tower'battling heat, rain and gusting winds'while getting paid to live a daily adventure? How about listening to crisis after crisis for hours on end? Or having to ask complete strangers about their most private bodily functions in order to determine if they've been poisoned? And did you realize you could get a job smelling the city's water supply?

There are plenty of people doing crazier things than you are for a living and getting paid good money for it too. So quit complaining about how boring your job is and come along for a ride on the wild side of the workplace.

Riding high

Al Gehrke has a job that seems so risky it would give most people vertigo. As one of the chief building engineers for the Sears Tower, he spends each night supervising crews of men whose job is washing and replacing each of the 16,000 windows in the North America's tallest building.

That means he's literally on top of the world every day, and with a shift that stretches from 4pm to 4am (not counting overtime), he's privy to Chicago's most intimate and spectacular views of sunsets and sunrises. His job is also one of the most overlooked in the city. Just as Disney doesn't want visitors to see its cleaning crews scrubbing down the Magic Kingdom, Sears Tower management wants tourists to think the building remains a perpetually clean monument to mankind's ingenuity. Thus all cleaning, inside and out, takes place in the dead of night.

"The whole cleaning rigs are dull black, so they're inconspicuous when it's on the side of the building," says Gehrke. "If people could see the rigs, pedestrians and drivers would stop to look, and the next thing, you'd have accidents everywhere."

Keeping crowds away also helps maintain an extra level of caution during the Tower's mammoth window replacement project. The windows haven't been changed since the building was finished in 1974, and it's easy to understand why: The panes weigh 200 pounds apiece, requiring six men to maneuver and seal each one into place. Yanking the windows out means that an extra crew of movers has to empty out each night's scheduled offices to prevent furniture and paperwork from being sucked into the outside world.

The team makes it through eighteen windows a night, spending at least thirty minutes on a single one. The windows are replaced only in the summer months due to weather concerns, meaning that it will take crews a full eight years (till 2006) to finish. And on top of the sheer risk and monotony of it all, there's the fact that, despite having a phone on board their sliding platforms, the guys are only allowed to use it for emergencies rather than for calling friends and saying, "Hey, guess where I am?! Sliding down the side of the Sears Tower!"

"The phones are the main means of communication between the building offices and supervisors and the platforms," Al says. "But we did have a guy order a pizza from a platform once. When it arrived he got busted, but we only scolded him. He just thought it would be funny for the pizza man to hear he'd have to deliver it to a guy hanging off the side of the Sears Tower's sixtieth floor."

Safety precautions for window crews include the provision that no one works outside during a storm or when the winds are greater than 25 miles per hour, requiring Al and his fellow crew leaders to become naturally gifted meteorologists. In fact, while out on the fiftieth floor, we witness a phenomenon: While sheets of rain cascade down on the city, we stay dry'thanks to the fact that the raindrops are being completely deflected by the fifty-nine higher floors on the north side of the building.

Up on the roof, there's a funny thing: On what once was the world's tallest building there are no fences or platforms, nothing to keep you from falling or jumping with the greatest of ease. The fact that no one has ever plummeted off the building is a testament to the Tower's strict security precautions, which include secret elevators, hidden staircases, coded doors and cameras that would make the Pentagon proud.

"My wife worries a little bit every time I come up here, but I love everything about this job," says Al. "The views are terrific, and you never get tired of them."

Sorry, wrong number

"A lot of the calls I get are just crazy, like people saying they've been throwing up for three days. If you've been throwing up for three days, why aren't you already in the emergency room?" says Janice, a twentysomething operator at one of the city's 911 centers.

"Then you've got the people who call in with various foreign objects stuck in their body, like a pen wedged in their ear. You have to ask questions like, 'Did you fall on it?' and they say 'No' sarcastically, like you're the one who's crazy."

Janice has only been on the job for a year, but she already possesses the world-weary resignation of a veteran. After all, she's listened to an unceasing array of the worst atrocities humanity has to offer, and very few callers bother to thank her for helping them round up support from the police and fire departments.

Instead, the injured ingrates often unleash a hailstorm of profanity. Granted, they're often in pain, but there is a list of questions that Janice and her fellow dispatchers have to run through in order to determine whether to send in fire trucks, police cars, ambulances or the National Guard. And they do have to screen out the nut cases.

"Ten percent of the people are calm if you're lucky, but a lot of them are just screaming 'Get the police!' fifty times without explaining," she says. "The funniest ones are people who call from the pay phones at halfway houses and mental wards, but you've got to let them go quick so you don't block the people who are really needing to call."

Working the 9:30pm to 6am overnight shift, Janice has found that the public's behavior turns as dark as the night sky. Surrounded by forty operators per shift, a crew total matched by each of the city's thirteen police zones, the calls come fast and furious with even "slow" periods averaging a call every three minutes. She receives two days off after every six days on, often leaving her with prime nights like Monday and Tuesday to party.

Surprisingly, most calls fall into relatively few categories, such as domestic violence and requests for standard ambulance service. The most common are the nuisance complaints from people railing against the loud music of neighbors and gang members hanging out on the street. Yet thankfully, there is blessed comic relief in the bizarre calls that are too funny (albeit painful) for words. Take the lady who called to report a curling iron stuck up her butt.

"Normally the police wouldn't have gone on that kind of call, but they went because they just wanted to see it," she recalls. "I personally wouldn't have called an ambulance for that. I would've just called up someone trusted to help be get it out, 'cause God, an ambulance would be embarrassing!"

Water, water everywhere

Chicagoans love their water, draining the Lake Michigan supply an average of 700 million gallons per day. But with a constantly replenishing supply of sixty trillion gallons available in the lake, there's plenty for the Chicago Department of Water to work with.

Their main base is the Jardine Water Purification Plant, which occupies 66 acres of heavily guarded land near Navy Pier. Its 400 employees literally work 24-7 to keep the flow going, although the one aspect beyond their apparent control is ComEd's ever-popular blackouts. If power is cut to the pumping stations (which is almost impossible but nearly happened in August), good luck slaking your thirst.

A tour of the plant (which are available to the public on a smaller scale) not only offers a great chance to put on a hard hat, but also a sense of the impressive effort involved in getting a swig from your sink. Water is first sucked in by several giant concrete structures called intake cribs, located a few miles off the city shores, and pushed through tunnels built 180 feet below the lake and into eight shore gates below the plant.

After six chemicals including fluorine and chlorine are added, water is sloshed through mixing basins that properly distill it and then drop it into settling basins before it's filtered through several layers of sand and gravel. Finally, it passes through thirty million-gallon reservoirs located beneath adjoining Olive Park and scattered pumping stations before shooting along the city's 4,200 miles of pipes.

The plant is packed with odd jobs. There are guys who ride oversized tricycles, delivering packages from one end of the monolithic structure to the other. There are guys who pull used tires, dead fish and other oddities off a post-filter conveyor belt of Lake Michigan's lost treasures and toss the goods into giant trashcans. And there are those who volunteer for the weekly smell-and-taste panel that determines whether the water bouquet has been exuding too strong of a chlorine or zebra-mussel odor.

But the king daddy of all weird jobs in the water department are the guys who spend their summers doing painting and carpentry work on the Alcatraz-style intake cribs. The cribs, two 100-year-old concrete cylinders joined by a 100-foot-long bridge, lie seven miles out into Lake Michigan and are just barely visible from the end of Navy Pier. The men literally live their jobs, spending Monday through Friday on the cribs because of the hardship involved in tugboating them there each day in time for their 7am shift. They paint the century-old, silo-like structures from 7am-3:30pm in a several-week-long annual maintenance drive.

The accommodations are anything but luxurious, with spartan bedrooms complete with gray walls, gray floors and metal framed beds, which, when combined with the isolation, whipping winds and toilets that incinerate bodily waste rather than adding it to the lake, seem a lot like prison. And then they have to contend with the infestation of pigeon crap and flies on the outside walkways. But these men seem to love their work. Except for one particularly unnerving evening "I was asleep one night at three in the morning when I jumped awake and found a man standing at the end of my bed, dripping wet and pleading, 'Help me,'" recalls Jed. "His sailboat had capsized six hours ago, and he'd managed to swim to the crib and climb onto our deck and straight into our quarters. A crib seven miles offshore is the last place you expect someone to show up in your bedroom, so it taught us to lock our doors even there."

Porcelain gods

Although working on the water all week might turn the steadiest stomach, Daisy Ross probably has the most nauseating job in Chicago. As a Communicable Disease Control Investigator for the city's Department of Health, she asks some incredibly personal questions to those who call to complain about throwing up a cheese pizza.

Daisy has the sweet voice of the world's most understanding school nurse. It's a trait necessary for guiding gastronomically distressed callers through a fifty-question gauntlet used to determine if their illnesses are self-induced, fake complaints or indeed the restaurant's fault. Despite the fact callers are lodging complaints, they still get remarkably offended as Ross explores their gastric distress.

"I've been cussed out, but I always tell people 'God bless you,'" says Ross. "If I can get them to understand why I'm asking about their diarrhea, then they'll calm down."

Ross is one of eight investigators working the phones in the department, with each handling at least 300 cases a year. They prepared to deal with Class 1 reportable diseases such as meningitis, typhoid, anthrax ("which is thankfully something we don't have in America"), cholera and the dreaded plague'in other words, the worst illnesses known to man.

If found in hospitals and labs, these diseases must be reported to the department within twenty-four hours to warn medical professionals against a potential outbreak'thus the need for every possible avenue to be explored.

"The first thing you want to know is an in-depth description of what the person ate, and compare it to the menu of the restaurant," explains Ross. "Second, you want to know what kind of symptoms they had before you get graphic. Then you're asking what the diarrhea looked like and smelled like, and how often they went to the bathroom."

So has Ms. Ross changed her eating habits since joining the department? After all, it would be perfectly understandable if people in her position chose never to eat outside of their own highly sanitized kitchen again.

"There are certain places I will not go to eat, certain food I wouldn't buy for my house, like chitlins, which are just the entrails of animals," she says. "Then of course, I won't eat mountain oysters." Mountain oysters? "Hog nuts. I don't eat that," she says.

Daisy signed on with the health department in 1973, after training as a nursing aide at Malcolm X College. When she moved into her current job in 1989, Ross was at first nervous about asking strangers about their personal business. But in the twenty-six years since, Ross has seen and heard it all: about a mouse in a burger, another mouse in a potato chip bag, and even a toenail in a pizza.

Then, of course, there are the mystery calls from allegedly disgruntled food-factory employees who claim they have exacted such revenge as peeing in a vat of canned soup or vomiting in a vat at a starch factory. But while she believes (and hopes) that such calls are false, there was one disturbingly provable call.

"The freakiest call I ever handled was one from a person who bit into a [cookie] and almost broke a tooth," she recalls. "They discovered someone else's tooth already in there. They called us to investigate, although the staff at the company's 800 number might have been as logical a choice." These are all heartwarming tales, which Ross has shared with her four children's classmates as a recurring member of career day. Before I set her free to fight the good fight against diseases again, I ask her the two questions that have troubled connoisseurs since Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle": What's really in hot dogs? And does she refuse to eat them?

"I've heard they put animal lips and all the things they don't want to throw away in hot dogs," she says, adding with optimism, "But I love 'em. I don't say anything bad about hot dogs."

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