Friday, December 16, 2011

A Day in Hell

11:30 a.m.: I’ve been at a factory south of downtown L.A. all morning long. I’m here because the factory received a shipment of exotic metal that was a little more exotic than even they’re used to: it’s radioactive.

This happens more often than you’d believe.

Usually, when this happens, the facility receiving the used metal rejects the load, and we get called. These geniuses didn’t reject the load, and then realized that they were now stuck with hundreds of pounds of an exotic metal used to make Ferrari parts—that they can’t use.

So anyways, I got sent out to their factory to use my fancy portable equipment that can identify any isotope, and generate enough data for my boss to tell them what they can do with their radioactive crap—I mean—scrap. After hours of collecting data, I call up my boss. He tells me to call up this very important physicist in another county. This guy used to be in nukes in the navy. My boss says, “Be very deferential when you call this guy up. He’s a very important person. Be polite. Be professional.”

Actually my boss didn’t need to tell me that—and I suspect that he knew that. I think he said that to reassure himself.

The phone rings.

“This is John Smith!”

“Yes, Mister Smith, my name is Tom Miko. I work for XY in L.A.””

“Who are you? Who? Oh, you’re one of the new fellows!”

“Yes, sir. I am.”

“What do you want?!? I’m in the middle of a live fire exercise! I can’t talk, right now!”

“Oh, okay. I’ll email you, later.”

“Well, what are you calling me about? I’m really busy. I’m in the middle of something.”

“XY wanted me to call you about the radioactive titanium.”

“I’m in the middle of a live exercise. I can’t talk. Are you at the factory?”

“Yes, sir. I am.”

“I’m in the middle of a live exercise. I can’t talk! What are your results? Wait! How much does the titanium weigh?”

Huh? WTF? He wants to know how much it weighs? What does that have to do with anything? I’m holding the phone in my hand, and brain cells that have been doing radiation physics for 20 years are searching desperately for any formulas or equations that involve the weight of radioactive material. I got nothin’. So I said the only intelligent thing to say.

“Uh…um…I don’t know.”

“WHAT? You don’t know how much it weighs?!?! I can’t believe XY sent you there, unprepared! I’ll need to talk to him, let him now how disappointed I am. I’m in the middle of a live exercise. I can’t talk.”

I stand there with the phone in my hand, and don’t say anything.

He says, “Well, write up a report, and email it to me. I’m in the middle of a live exercise. I can’t talk.”

After getting the titanium’s weight from Carl, the ex-Marine who runs the factory, I climb into the Jeep, and drive off with my tail between my legs. I have no intention of telling my boss about this phone conversation.

Okay, no more radioactive titanium for me. I think I’ll drive to East L.A. to analyze that radioactive trash truck that’s been parked in the side lot for the last couple of days (They’re not allowed to dump its contents until I use my equipment to figure out why their garbage truck is radioactive. Typically, it’s something innocuous, with a short half-life. Okay, let’s use some plain English, here: it’s usually the body fluids of somebody who had some kind of test or radiation therapy in a local hospital. Let’s just leave it at that. Probably somebody who just got scanned at a hospital that I just inspected (which is my real job i.e. what I got hired to do—these side trips to garbage dumps are not why my agency exists. The reason we go out to garbage dumps is that if something really hinky ever shows up at one of them (some nasty isotope with a long half-life) we want to nab it before it winds up in the water table).

Okay, so I get to East L.A., where Maria, Queen of the Dump has her paperwork in order. I love that about her: whenever they call me from East L.A. their paperwork is all filled out, with information that is actually useful (One of these days I’ll tell the story of Euphonio, the mumbling King of the San Fernando Valley Dump. He talks like that Peanuts character that nobody understands. My boss actually can’t understand him at all—all he hears is, “Wam woam wam wamp da hospital?”)

So I get out my equipment that is worth more than my car, and get ready to start checking the truck parked in the side lot, when I remember the one reason I don’t like going to East L.A.: the mud. Their side lot is a muddy field. We’re talking about the kind of mud where your shoes make a rude SQUISH sound with each step. Mud that you spend ten minutes scraping off your shoes, before you get back into your car. Mud that a farmer would approve of.

It turns out that the truck is dedicated to a local hospital. Busted! Somebody’s getting a ticket. That’s right, boys and girls: if your local hospital allows radioactive trash to escape its premises instead of (a) holding on to it until it breaks down & is no longer radioactive, or (b) shipping it to an authorized site that collects and stores radioactive waste, and we catch them, they get written up by us. If it’s a particularly egregious incident, we’ll make them drive out to the dump, and dig through the trash truck until they find said offending item, and take it back to their hospital.

Good times, good times.

Okay, I’m done with East L.A., and instead of typing all my reports on my laptop in their office, like I usually do, I’m gonna drive to my office on Wilshire and type it there, along with my big report on the radioactive titanium.

Okay, where’s the card key that will get me into the building?

Here’s the problem: to get into our building, you need 2 card keys that are separate from your i.d. badge. They record when you enter and leave the building and the garage. I keep the one for getting into my office attached to my i.d. badge, and you would think that I would also have the one for the parking structure attached, too, but I have been told not to do that. “Why?” you ask? Well, because the magical secret technology that makes the card keys work will also cause the 2 card keys to ruin each other, rendering them both useless. Okay, fine, I’ll keep it in the car, like my boss.

Yeah, but I have 2 cars. And it’s in the other car. I’m sitting in the Jeep, on a steep, hilly street in East L.A., and picture that stupid card key in the Celica’s glove compartment. The car radio is on, and they’re talking about how a truck full of gasoline has burned to the ground on the 60 Freeway. Oh, shit. That means that the 60 will be completely closed, and everybody who normally drives home from work on the 60 will take the 10. Everybody who takes the 10 home from work will take the 210.

Everybody who drives home on the 210 will be cursing the day they were born. The only way that I will get home is to sit on the 210 with tens of thousands of other cars, their drivers quietly mouthing obscenities in Spanish, Chinese, Hungarian, Russian, Armenian, and Tagalog while violently pounding their steering wheels.

Well, I’ll deal with that, later. Let me get to the office, first. Okay, Stupid, just call somebody else in your office, and ask them to walk down to the parking structure, and use their card key to get your car into the building.

And…how am I going to leave, tonight?

That’s right: you also need that &*^%$#! card key to leave the parking structure. Big Brother is watching you.

No problem, I have a backup plan. I always have a backup plan. I’ll drive over to USC’s medical school, park for free across the street from Lincoln Park, take USC’s employee shuttle bus to Union Station, and get on the Purple Line subway. The Purple Line’s stop at the intersection of Wilshire Blvd & Normandie Ave. is literally at my office building’s front door. Sweet.

Half an hour later I’m in the bowels of Union Station, waiting for the subway car.

I am not kidding: every single person on the train was texting or browsing the internet.  While they were updating their FaceBook status, none of them made eye contact, or spoke with each other.

It screeches to a halt, the doors open, and I hop aboard. I have all my work equipment with me, because I don’t want it stolen out of my car, in East L.A. Should I sit down? Nah…it’s a 12 minute ride. I’ll just stand over here. The train zooms out of Union Station, and slides to a stop at Civic Center. It accelerates again, and whooshes in to Pershing Square. Next stop, 7th and Metro. Five stops later, we’re at Wilshire and Vermont, only one stop away from Wilshire and Normandie. Easy. No problem. The automatic announcer says where our next stop is. I’m lost in thought, composing my two reports, so all I hear is, “Wam wom, wem wamp wo.” The train slides away from Wilshire and Vermont. It runs. It flies. It jostles. It screams. It flies. It decelerates. The automatic announcer says, “Now arriving at Vermont and Beverly!”

Vermont and Beverly???

What the hell???

Oh, shit, I got on the Red Line. I’m in Hollywood!


Okay, I’ll just have to take the Red Line back toward Union Station for a couple of stops, get off, and make sure that I get on the Purple Line. Now I’m losing time that could be spent writing reports. I will leave work that much later. As it is, I don’t look forward to driving home from East L.A. to Claremont: that tanker truck fire has really messed up traffic all over Southern California.

I wait at the Hollywood station forever. Forever. FOREVER.

A train finally shows up, and I take it one stop to Wilshire and Vermont, where I get off. This time, I pay attention to the tape recording that instructs those passengers who want the Purple Line to go down stairs. This station is like a mini Deak Ter, the subway station in Budapest where you take very long escalators to different levels, to get on different subway lines. So, now I’m standing in the Wilshire and Vermont station, and I’m thinking, “You know, it’s not that far to Wilshire and Normandie. I should just go upstairs to the street, and walk on Wilshire Boulevard. That way I won’t make a mistake, and get on the wrong train, again.” Nah…not necessary. The Purple Line train will be here any minute, and I’ll get to the office quicker.

My train pulls into the station. It slides to a stop. Might as well get on. Get to the office a lot quicker.

I get on.

That’s when the fucking gauchos boarded the train.

Wait, back up. Let me explain: My best friend*, Juan Mas, is from Buenos Aires. I call him “gaucho”, but that doesn’t excuse the gauchos on the subway.

They had an accordion.

I should stop here. My wife has an accordion.

The thing is, though, that I am now trapped aboard this subway car, and a gaucho is literally occupying the car door, using his accordion as body armor. There is no escape. His wife stands across from him with their baby boy asleep on her chest, in one of those kangaroo pouches. She is clutching a red, wrinkled paper Starbucks cup full of $1 bills, and she does the one thing in the universe that I hate more than my first wife’s mother: she stands there, and gives me the look.

You know that look. The look. The look that says, “You have money, and I don’t. If you don’t give me and my starving baby boy money, then you are a selfish, immoral, materialistic bastard.”

Meanwhile, the husband stares off into infinity with a practiced air of resignation. He starts fingering the keys. He launches into a tango. At 127 deciBels.

At least it felt like it.

Here’s the thing: I am a fat, middle-aged guy with a wrinkled face, plantar fasciitis, presbyopia, crooked teeth, and thinning hair, but I have one thing going for me. I have great ears. My hearing is awesome. When I go birding, I hear birds that nobody in the group—even guys 20 years younger than me—can hear. Yes, Vivek, I’m talking about you. I can hear a Golden-crowned Kinglet’s high-pitched whistling a hundred feet up a Giant Redwood. Hearing is my superpower. If I was a superhero, I would be Ear Man.

So, of course, I can’t stand loud noises. My son is the same way. Being 18 inches away from a gaucho and his fucking accordion while he blasts “Pa’ Que Bailen Los Muchachos” in a subway car is my ears’ worst nightmare.

So I keep on avoiding his wife’s eyes, and wince while he inflicts permanent damage to my left tympanum, because all I need to do is outlast them, and get off when we roll in to Wilshire and Normandie.

Focus, Tom, focus. Get to the office, and write your reports.

The automatic announcer bellows, “Now arriving, Vermont and Beverly!”

That’s when I had the seizure. I couldn’t breathe. I stared at the gaucho, forced some air into my lungs, and screamed, “Vermont and Beverly? VERMONT AND BEVERLY??? I’m back in Hollywood?” OH MY GOD!!! HOW THE FUCK DID I DO THAT, AGAIN?”

Somebody shoot me. Just put me out of my misery. I can’t take it, any more.

The doors opened, and I got off.

I waited 20 minutes for another train back towards L.A. needless to say, when I got off at Wilshire and Vermont, I didn’t take the subway. I walked to the office.

Two hours later, having written a beautiful report about the radioactive titanium (my friends who are research scientists would have been proud) I re-traced my steps to Union Station, where I met Patrick, who volunteered for the heroic task of riding home with me in the Jeep. If he wanted to, he could have taken the 6:10 p.m. train home, and been home before I even got to the car in East L.A. Instead, he rode shotgun, and for the next 2 hours we talked about Bacon’s rebellion (not to be confused with the Bacon Rebellion), Peter the Great, and Charles De Gaulle, while we hit every single red light in East L.A., Alhambra, South Pasadena, San Marino, Monrovia, Arcadia, Duarte, San Dimas, La Verne, Pomona, and finally…at 8:45 p.m., Claremont.

That’s right: thanks to Carmageddon it took 3 hours to go 36 miles.


* Okay, I have 4 best friends: Juan, Dave, Balazs, and Larthur.

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