My Turn in the Hole

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I’ve always felt comfortable doing what needs to be done. Been that way since I was a kid. It’s not that I’m against talking things over. That’s usually smart. But when the talking’s done, somebody’s got to do. And if that somebody is me, then do is what I do.

When Butch and I started in business together, we had no doers besides ourselves. There were few, and maybe no, things we wouldn’t do if it meant we’d get a job and make some money. It didn’t matter what degrees or previous work experience we had, or how accomplished we were. It didn’t matter if what needed to be done was above or below our pay grade. We had no pay grade, so we simply did what needed to be done.

Butch was a better doer than me. If you knew him, you might consider that an understatement. If you didn’t, you can take my word for it. When we’d walk together, with the sun at our backs, his shadow would dwarf mine, an appropriate metaphor.

A Day in the Hole

On a rainy day, not long after we’d started our business, we dispatched a two-man crew, consisting of ourselves, to a car wash operation north of Milwaukee. Car Wash operators hate down time and love extended weather forecasts. They try to do all their maintenance on rainy days like this day, when no one gets their car washed.

I’m wearing a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt and a hat. A normal person would be in a rain suit for a job like this, but rain suits cost money and clothes will dry. I’m sitting on an empty 5-gallon bucket, turned upside down, like a kid on the sidewalks of Chicago would position it to play it as a drum. Water is dripping down on my head. The air is fine to breathe, but it’s got a funk to it that makes it smell a little like natural gas. Daylight makes its way in through a hole in the roof above where I’m sitting. A thick steel lid is usually in the hole’s place. It’s the hole I used to lower myself onto my bucket. Butch had been in here first. It took a while of asking to get him to agree to switch places. He wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been a pest about it. He would have stayed there forever, if that’s what was needed.

I have a second bucket. It has a rope tied around the handle that goes up through the hole. I use this to collect the broken license plates, antennas, rags and other debris that get stuck on the end of the hose. When it’s full, I tug on the rope and Butch pulls the bucket up, empties it and rappels it back to me in the hole. That process is repeated, over and over again. I also have a flashlight and a small handled shovel. The rest of my space is very dark. Without the flashlight, I can’t see all the way to the edges. I should have had one of those lights that goes around your head, like a miner would wear. I store the flashlight by clinching it between my thighs because I need both of my hands to do the rest of the work.

Every couple of minutes, I turn on the flashlight to see the progress I’m making. It’s slow. On my hands are heavy rubber gloves. They’re long enough to be halfway up my forearm and the ends are folded over, like a cuff. I’m holding onto a 3” rubber hose that is attached to other hoses, and eventually to the vacuum truck that’s positioned outside the building.

It’s cold outside where the truck is, but in the hole, warmth is the one comfort I have. Suction from the truck is my main tool. I’m using it to suck up the sludge that still occupies a large section of the tank, the residual of built-up dirt removed from 6,000 of the operation’s most recently washed vehicles. Every so often, the suction stops and the hose regurgitates car wash vomit back into the tank.

When we’d started, the tank was completely full. It took us 45 minutes to clear a section large enough for Butch to place his bucket seat and get in. What remained was less than half of what was there when he started. Before my bucket served as my chair, it was a stoop onto which I stepped and balanced on my way in. Later, when the job was done, it would provide me the boost I needed to reach the ground floor and pull myself back to civilization.

Sucking up car wash sludge from an underground tank on a rainy day in Grafton, WI may seem like not a lot of fun. It may seem gross as well and it’s probably both of those things and more. [As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the Jimmy Fallon skit where he and other guys dress up like girls and talk about nothing and say “EW!” a lot]. But it’s also rewarding, like getting a good grade on a test or scoring a goal, although I can imagine some thinking, and saying slowly, as if we’re slow, ‘if you’d done better on the test, you might not need to be in that tank’ (I’ll forgive that thinking for missing the point).

Although the working conditions weren’t ideal, I never regretted (but may have cursed a few times – let’s be real) my turn in the hole, and every other thing we did to get our fledgling business off the ground. The sludge and debris put up its best fight, and we won, making us and the customer happy. Maybe Vince Lombardi would have been proud of us. When survival is the goal, and the things necessary to survive are within reach, or possible (or impossible, but you don’t know that), doing becomes the most obvious, and least avoidable, action.

Doing worked for us. I recommend it. It’s easier to do something than it is not to do it. Doing has helped keep me humble and hungry. It’s helped me understand what it takes to get something done, which in turn helps me figure out what will help someone else get the doing done more quickly, more safely and with less effort. It makes me appreciate the things that other people do for me (and the ask I’m making of them), in a way that can be difficult if you’ve never done the thing.


Special thanks to Hammerstone Marketing for blog design, SEO and featured image selection.

Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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