Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Milk & Cheese Vs. the TSA

Just got back from visiting my sister in Austin.

In addition to eating like an asshole, as is my Austin tradition, I also had the traditional visit to Austin Books & Comics, my favorite comic shop in the whole wide world. If you can think of a graphic novel or comic book trade paperback collection, chances are quite high that Austin Books & Comics will have multiple copies of it in stock. They also have a huge supply of statues, toys and figurines to keep your inner geek happy for decades.

While there I happened to spy a set of vinyl figurines cast in the shape of cartoonist Evan Dorkin's most famous creation Milk & Cheese. For those unfamiliar with Milk & Cheese, they're dairy products gone bad, known for their hatred of most things that aren't alcohol, mindless violence or the late TV show A Current Affair. (They once engaged in a successful two man war on drugs because they were tired of the anti-drug commercials interrupting their viewing of A Current Affair.) I love the characters and own every one of their comics, most of which are #1 issues. I also have both the flat illustrated Milk & Cheese refrigerator magnet set, but also the now rare three dimensional porcelain magnet produced by Graffiti Designs in the late 1990s. (Oooooh, ahhhhh.) Until that moment, though, I'd only seen pictures of the Milk & Cheese figures, as they were produced several years ago and in limited supply. Another reason I'd never seen them in person is because they cost around $70 at the minimum when they were first released and I was still smarting over the cost of the porcelain fridge magnet. Because of this, I had no idea how huge the figures are. The photos I'd seen didn't really give any sense of scale, so I'd assumed that Milk was probably smaller than the typical smallish carton of milk and Cheese a smallish wedge of cheddar. The figures were easily twice the size I had expected, though. They came packaged in a huge foot and a half long box decorated with Milk & Cheese comic strips. The display of the figs in the shop listed them for the usual $70, so I still wasn't going to bite. However, on further exploration into the toy section of the store, I saw that they had a endcap display of them that had the sets listed for $30 each. I figured they must be a former display model, or something had to be wrong with them to be at that low a price. But when I asked a clerk he said that the figs were dairy products reduced for quick sale because the store had bought too many sets. So I bought a set for $30.

And they're completely awesome!

Inside their box, Milk & Cheese are nestled securely inside a bagged, plastic vacuform insert along with their weapon accessories: a plastic broken gin bottle, a large plastic hammer, and a plastic stick with a plastic nail through it. I left everything in its place, didn't even crack the seal on the plastic bag and put it all back in the box. For a bit I considered shipping the box to myself in WV, saving me the trouble of packing such an enormous item in my check luggage. I also considered collapsing the box and packing the figs loose within my clothing. Then I changed my mind and instead packed the full box into my carry on gym bag since it was light enough that it wouldn't be a hassle.

On Saturday, we headed to the airport, checked our check bag and proceeded thorough the TSA security line. We did the whole remove all metal and run your carry on through the x-ray machine bit. I made it through the security screening before the bags and was able to look back at the x-ray display screens while I put on my shoes. On the screen was what looked like my satchel, at least from the snake nest of media cables I could see. I was sure this would take them a few moments to suss out. But it was actually the gym bag that they'd paused the conveyor belt to examine in depth. The tech stared at the x-ray. Then stared some more. Finally, he called one of the TSA officers over and said something to her before starting the belt again. My bags came rolling out.

"Whose bag is this?" the TSA lady asked pointing to the satchel.

"That's mine," I said.

"This is your bag?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Sir, do you have any glass products packed in here?"

"Not that I'm aware of," I said.

Then the TSA agent seemed to look at the satchel for a moment, perhaps listening to someone speaking to her in an earpiece, for she then said, "No, this isn't the bag." She slid the satchel to me in its plastic tray. Then she pulled the tray containing my gym bag close and said, "Whose bag is this?"

"That's mine," I said again.

"This is your bag?" she asked again.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Sir, do you have any glass products packed in here?"

"Not that I'm aware of," I said again. Did I, though? We had been to a Penzeys Spice store and had loaded up on little glass jars of curry powder and peppercorns and what not. But I'd definitely packed those in the check bag.

"You don't have any glass products?" she asked again, now with suspicion.

Had I stuttered? "Not that I'm aware of," I repeated.

Another pause and perhaps another listen to a voice in an earpiece.

"Sir, do you have any figurines in here?"

Figurines? Ohhhhh! .

"Yes," I said. "Yes, there are two."

"May I search the bag?"

"Go right ahead."

The TSA lady unzipped my gym bag and there at the top was the long Milk & Cheese box. She removed it from the bag, nosed around in the clothing that had surrounded it, found nothing made of glass, figurine or otherwise, and then began the process of opening the Milk & Cheese box itself.

"Um, technically I guess there is kind of a bottle in there," I said. "But it's a fake plastic gin bottle," I added. I didn't mention that the fake plastic gin bottle was sculpted to appear broken, nor did I mention the fake plastic stick with the fake plastic nail through it, nor that their accessories were supposed to represent weapons. By then she had the box open and had pulled out the plastic bag-covered vacuform insert with Cheese and Milk (that's the order they're packed in) staring up at her baring expressions of malice on their little Dorkiny faces, their hands clinched in fists of dairy fury. The TSA lady blinked down at them for a few seconds as though what she was seeing didn't compute. At least they're not flipping her off like my Milk & Cheese magnet, I thought. Then she smiled and said, "Oh, it's a game!"

"Actua-- Uh, yes, it's a game," I said.

She took the insert over to the x-ray tech to show him "the game". He seemed to approve, or at least not deny. She then repackaged my toys and zipped up the bag, after which I gathered my possessions and made my way over to where my wife was standing, shaking her head.

"Apparently Milk & Cheese caused some problems with the TSA," I said.

"Naturally," the wife said.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Humiliations and General Grossness (Part 4)

I slept very poorly. I kept having mini panic attacks that once the septic guys dug up the other side of the tank they would find something even more horribly and expensively wrong. What if the reason the pipe had broken within the tank was because that whole end of the tank had collapsed? That would suck.

At the ass crack of dawn, I finally arose to await the arrival of Terrance and his assistant. They'd said they would roll in around 7:30. I made extra coffee in case they needed some and commenced to wait. While I did, it began to snow. We'd had nary a flake since mid-November, which I've attributed to the fact that I'd had my snow tires installed in mid-November. But down the flakes were coming now. I wondered if it would mean a halt to the project for the day.

Around 8:30, Terrance and his assistant arrived driving a different truck from the previous day. This one was a smaller and with a flat black metal bed in the back upon which was mounted a bright and shiny new portajohn pump. Hitched to the back of the truck, though, was a long trailer on which was secured a medium sized backhoe. Terrance unloaded it and soon its treads were rolling up my driveway and then across the yard to the septic dig site.

As they set up, I told Terrance the story of Sadie rolling on the pipe. They agreed it was an awful experience, but I know it was far from the worst septic-based thing that had happened to them, so they didn't feel too bad.

With a bit of digging from the backhoe's scoop, a new hole was opened a few feet to the right from the previous one. Some fine tune digging with a hand shovel later and the tank's other lid was exposed. This time they hooked the chain for it across the backhoe's shovel and lifted it off. Inside was a deep dark and relatively empty space, save for some liquid in the bottom. Terrance borrowed my flashlight again and poked his head into the tank to have a look around. He explained that he needed to see which direction the pipe leading out to the drainage field was headed. The interior portion of that pipe was the broken one that Sadie had rolled on, which is why he had to look inside the tank to see where it had been connected before the break. It seemed to be at the southern end of the tank, so that's where they next began to dig to expose the pipe leading into the yard. As expected, this pipe was also broken and partially collapsed. He said this was likely due to the whole tank settling at some point and sheering off the pipe on the outside, which led to the breaking of the interior part of the pipe as well. It probably still worked to some degree, but not at prime efficiency.

Within half an hour, Terrance and his assistant had dug out around the pipe, sawed through it below the break, installed a new section of thick PVC pipe that ran from within the tank, through the tank wall and connected to the drainage field pipe. We were now back in business.

"Wait about two weeks then pour a whole box of Rid-X down the toilet," Terrance advised. Then he added, "You still want that tree pulled up?" I explained that the wife did not want that tree dug up at all, but had agreed to it on the grounds that within a couple of months this would no longer be our house and we would not have to be concerned with whether there was a tree imbalance in front of it. Terrance's assistant hooked their chain around the middle of the tree, the other end to the backhoe and with a smooth application of reverse they pulled it right out of the ground, roots and all. Then it was just a matter of recovering both sides of the freshly repaired tank and smoothing the mud back down in a mostly level fashion. It doesn't look too bad. Not nearly as bad as the wife expected. The tree itself I sawed all the limbs from and will shortly carve it up for firewood with my chainsaw. I'll plant grass over it and hopefully by the time the place sells we'll have something of a yard over there again. And when it comes time for the new owners to have the septic inspected, we expect it will get a good grade. Much like the one the house that we are purchasing has received. The location of that new house and the story of how and why we came to buy it, however, is another story.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Humiliations and General Grossness (Part 3)

I went back in the house and was greeted by our dogs, who were very interested in getting outside to potty and explore and see what smells these strangers had left behind. Oh, you'll smell some smells, I thought. I opened the back door and out they ran.

After several minutes, I began to wonder why the dogs had not returned to the back door. They're usually only good for a couple of squirts in the yard and then they're back wanting to be let in. Oh, they're probably around front checking out the smelly hole in the ground, I reasoned. So I stepped out onto the front porch where I could see them over by the hole. I clapped my hands to call them and they came running. Moose trotted up the steps first, happy to see his pa as always. Then Sadie rounded the edge of the porch, a huge smile on her doggy face, and I was afforded a horrifying sight nearly as bad as the gates of hell earlier. Sadie's neck and shoulders were coated in something black. To the untrained eye, it might have appeared to be very black mud. But to my trained eye and nose, I knew it to be raw sewage.

Where did she... ? How did she...? What the f...?!

And even as I watched, she gave me my answer by dashing back to the poo tank pit where I witnessed her bend over and roll gleefully onto the sewage-coated piece of broken pipe that was still laying in the grass above the pit.

"LEAVE IT!!!!" I screamed. "YOU! LEAVE! IT!!!"

Sadie looked up through a haze of filth and flashed a big ol' grin of satisfaction. This was by far the greatest and best stinky thing she'd ever found to roll in and she was in doggy heaven.

Cursing, I threw open the front door and yelled at Moose to get in the house. I then marched back to the bathroom to prepare to give that damn dog the queen mother of all baths.

But which bathroom to use? Normally we bath the dogs in the big tub in the master bathroom. But we'd not yet sealed the new grout in the master bath tub surround. I could bath her in the hall bathtub, but did I really want to chance this dog shaking wet sewage all over the freshly painted walls? Onto the good towels? I finally opted for the bathroom with the most room and the most tile and went with the master. First things first, though, I snatched up my phone and texted "YOUR DAUGHTER JUST ROLLED IN SEWAGE!!!" to my wife. Then I started the tub and turned it to hot before undressing and putting on my ratty painting shorts and a T-shirt I wouldn't mind throwing out. Sadie could not, after all, be willing to come to the tub on her own, so I would have to capture her in my arms and carry her. This would mean time spent in physical contact with sewage.

Sadie was on the back deck when I went to look for her, but she caught a glimpse of what I was wearing and went into red alert. I tried to coax her over, but she dropped her front down to the deck and woofed. Any move I made toward her sent her skittering away. She knew I was out to get her and bathe her. I opened the back door and ordered her into the house, determined to get her into closed quarters where her running range was limited. I then cornered her in the kitchen where I was able to reason with her until she let her guard down enough for me to slip my arms under her chest and lift her up.

I held my breath as I carried Sadie back toward our bedroom, but half way there I had to take a breath. Oh, it was awful. I felt my throat tighten, suppressing a gag. You never consider when you use the bathroom that you'll ever see, let alone touch that waste ever again, but here I was carrying a dog coated in it.

I lowered Sadie into the tub and set about spraying her off with the shower hose. I avoided her head, though, because that's usually the trigger that makes her shake and the longer we could avoid that the better for the surrounding room. Pulling the shower curtain as far closed as I could, I then sprayed it off too then growled loudly at her when she did shake. Dots of dark water struck the shower surround and dripped down. Ewww.

Unfortunately, in my haste to get things ready I neglected to actually bring doggie shampoo into the bathroom. What I had brought was doggie conditioner. I couldn't leave her there to go look for any shampoo, either, or she'd be out of the tub and dripping diluted sewage around the house for sure. So I grabbed the next best thing, a bottle of Head & Shoulders, and started pouring it on her. I gave the bath extra attention to detail and spent a lot of time scrubbing her face, neck and shoulders. Then I rinsed her off and, since I'd brought it in, poured on some conditioner. Finally, I took a sniff of her neck to see if the sewage was gone. It took my nose a few seconds to process it, but it seemed like the smell was gone. I gave her some extra rinsing to make sure, then toweled her off with three different towels--all of which were popped into a hot washing machine before the dog could finish her triumphant post-shower victory prance around the house.

This accomplished, I cleaned up the bathroom, washed all the sewage drops away and then had a shower myself using the same H&S technique as with Sadie. After I too was dry, I grabbed one of our industrial strength contractor's trash bags and went outside to deal with the poo pipe. I managed to get it into the bag without actually touching it, then sealed it inside the trash can.

It took a few hours before I risked letting Sadie out again and even then I watched her every move and called her back every time she tried to head around to the front of the house. I had dispatched the pipe, but who knew what sort of drippings she could sniff out and roll in. I only hoped the following day's adventure would prove fruitful and far less disgusting.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Humiliations and General Grossness (Part 2)

Terrance said that when he was first starting out in the poo game, about the same age as his assistant, he was working on pumping out the tank of a man and wife whose septic system had become clogged. After they got the tank open and the clog roto-rooted, the man of the house came out and asked Terrance what had been causing the clog. Young Terrance said, "Condoms."

"What?" the man said.

"Condoms. You know, rubbers?"

The man of the house said that this was not possible. He and his wife didn't use condoms.

"Well, maybe they're from house guests," young Terrance reportedly had offered.

No. This wasn't likely either.

"Well, maybe it was the people who owned the place before you," Terrance said.

At this point the man of the house said, "I built the house." The man then excused himself, went inside and there shortly followed a great deal of shouting. Terrance's boss, who had been at the truck during this, came running up at the sound of the screaming from within the house and asked Terrance what he'd said to cause it. Terrance told him.

"Boy, you never tell the customer what's in the tank!" the boss said.

I laughed at this story, but within mere minutes we were to discover something of a different brand of disturbing within my own poo tank. As the level of the poo decreased within the tank, a large PVC pipe was exposed near the entrance. This was the end of the sewage pipe that ran from our plumbing beneath the house. It ended in a vertical T-joint, allowing the sewage to freely fall into the tank--at least until it had been submerged by it. Unfortunately, as the level of poo finally reached the bottom of the tank, yet another section of T-capped pipe was exposed, lying in the muck at an odd angle. It was not running from the house, but was instead broken, as evidenced by the shards of its non-T-capped end.

"Ohhhhh," Terrance said when he saw it. "If that's what I think it is then you're in for a world of shit."

"What?" I said.

Terrance borrowed my flashlight then got on his hands and knees and lowered his head down into the gates of hell for a look around. He shone the flashlight into the darkness, specifically toward the easterly end of the tank which extended several feet beneath the ground, running in front of the tree. When he came back up he looked grim.

"Yeah, you're in a world of shit."

It seems that the piece of broken pipe at the bottom of the tank was actually supposed to be connected within the other side of the tank and was the pipe that connected to the drainage field of the septic system. The way a septic system works is that all the waste from the house enters the tank where solids sink and paper and general sludge float. The solids are digested by microbes from the monthly Rid-X treatments we send down. The liquids (which include waste, but also gray water such as shower and general water runoff, fill up the tank faster until they reach the pipe leading out into the drainage field--which are a series of porous pipes running down into the yard. The pipes of the drainage field are surrounded by gravel and dirt and the whole thing acts as a filtration system, allowing the moisture to run back into soil where it is further filtered until it eventually returns to the ground water. According to Terrance, though, the broken pipe was preventing this system from working naturally and all the waste had just been building up in the tank itself. The system was broken and if not repaired would just lead to more cleanouts more frequently.

I shook my head in annoyance at this, but was not entirely surprised. After all, it's not like anything around here is ever going to be simple or go to plan. No, it all takes three times as long, cost three times as much and drives me nigh unto madness before the end of it. At least this time, though, I had two guys who were willing to return, venture into the gates of hell and fix our poo pipes. We'd be able to include their work in our packet of Cool Things We Did to Make the House a More Attractive Purchase for prospective buyers.

The poo tank assistant fished the broken pipe out of the poo tank with the poo rake and then dumped it in the yard. Terrance then picked it up and used it as a visual aid to explain the work that would need to be done, including replacing that thin chunk of pipe with much thicker modern PVC that wouldn't break. The work would involve a lot of digging--including possibly digging up the offending and dangerous tree, if we liked--to expose the other lid to the poo tank where the bulk of the work would need to be done. Until the work was done, the septic system would be inoperative and would just fill up to the gates of hell once again. It would take a while, but far sooner than if the drainage field was operational.

Knowing we couldn't rightly sell the house with a broken septic system, I agreed to the repairs. Soon the men were plugging the gates of former hell with their concrete lid again and winding their poo hoses back onto their truck. Terrance promised to return at the crack of dawn the following day.

If only the gates of hell had been the grossest thing I'd see all day.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Humiliations and General Grossness (Part 1)

One of the most humiliating experiences I can imagine is to take a huge dump in the front yard and then invite someone over to have a look at it. It's just not something that is ever done. Even more humiliating and nonsensical, though, would be to then ask them to dispose of it for you. As unbelievable a scenario as this is, it's exactly what I did today, only several thousand times worse.

Let me back up.

We're in the process of getting our house ready to sell. Don't get me wrong, we love our house and would not want to sell it at all, except that certain opportunities have presented themselves and we are pursuing them. (I'm sure I'll have more on that in future posts.) As part of this process, we've been going down the list of home improvement projects we've intended to accomplish for the four years we've lived here and have been finally getting to some of them while consigning others to the "let the new owners do it" heap. Thusly, we finally had the automatic garage door opener on my side of the garage replaced, redid the hall bathroom--though not the complete overhaul we'd planned--regrouted some places in the master bath tub, finally painted another bit of the master bath that we'd intended to completely remodel and had left the old color up so we wouldn't have to paint it twice, etc. Other items, however, were added to the list out of the blue.

"We should call someone to come clean out the septic tank," the wife said over breakfast. I'd already been thinking about that, oddly enough--not because of breakfast but because a cleaning of the poo tank was probably due. According to the paperwork we'd received with the house, the last time it had been cleaned was the year prior to us moving in. So if you figure once every 3-5 years being the norm for emptying a poo tank (according to some standards), it was about time. The thing is, I've never lived in a place with a septic system before. We also had no real clue as to where the tank was located for most of our time in the house. We deduced it was somewhere in the front yard, because that was the direction in which our poo pipe ran from beneath our house, but we were not at all sure where exactly the tank was buried. Our upper front yard has a lot of trees, so it seemed like it would have to be located in between some of them, which didn't leave a lot of room for a 1000 gallon concrete tank.

During our troubles with the well a few months ago, I had to spend some time on the phone with the health department to try and determine when our well was dug. While I was on there, I asked if they had records of the septic tank's installation and, hopefully, location. They faxed over two diagrams, one for the proposed tank and drainage field location and one for the inspected tank and drainage field location. These diagrams showed different locations for the tank, but I figured the inspected one was correct. However, this put the tank somewhere outside my office window, with the drainage field further down into the yard. I didn't do any digging to check, but figured that would be where I'd have to direct any poo removal specialists when that day came.

That day was today.

The poo removal specialists arrived around midday and were soon awash in the oh-so-vicious barks of Sadiemoose (the collective name for our two dogs Sadie and Moose). While the dogs snarled and slavered from behind the front window glass, I went out to meet the poo removal specialists carrying with me the aforementioned poo tank diagram. I explained to them our lack of knowledge about the poo tank's location, but proposed they check where the diagram showed.

"Has it been backing up on you at all?" Terrance the poo tank man asked.

"No, not at all," I said. "We just want to get it cleared before we sell it."

Terrance and his poo tank assistant then walked out to the area in front of my office window and poked the ground with a pointy metal pole for a while in the clearing in front of the two pine trees planted there. They made their way around the clearing, then back up between the trees near the house, then back down a way. There were occasional thunks as the pole struck either concrete or rock. Still, several minutes passed this way with no real consensus between the men as to where digging should commence.

Terrance took something plastic and orange from his pocket and handed it to me.

"Could you go inside and flush this twice?" he said. I looked at the plastic device. It was about the size of a flattened golf ball, but had a slot along one side within which I could see a small metal disc, about the size of a thick watch battery. By "flush this twice" I knew he meant, flush the tracker down, then flush the toilet again to send it on through into the tank. So I went inside and did this. When I came back, Terrance had produced what looked like a metal detector handle minus the pole and detecting disc. He aimed it at the ground until he found where it seemed to be the loudest, which was beside and beneath some of the limbs of one of the pine trees. They stabbed the pole down once more and struck something solid.

Digging began, hampered a bit by the limbs of the tree.

"That tree's in a bad location," Terrance said. His point was that with the tank being as close to the tree as it was, there would be root problems eventually if not already. They might not make it through the concrete tank, but roots could certainly bore into the septic pipe leading into the tank and gum up the works. He recommended the tree be taken out.

Within 20 minutes a foot and a half deep pit was dug out and the upper surface of a section of the concrete poo tank was exposed. There was a rectangular concrete plug in the top of the tank with a rebar hook embedded in it. They looped some chain through that hook and then lifted the whole thing off. And exposed there before us were the gates of hell itself.

I will not go into detail as to what the gates of hell look like in this case, but I will say that the gates were hellishly FULL. To the brim even. I will also not describe the smell, which you already have a pretty good idea about I'm sure. What I will say, though, is that having four years worth of one's own... um... leavings, exposed to strangers is a VERY embarrassing experience, even if it is the job of those very strangers to view and smell such leavings on a daily basis. I wanted to apologize and run away and issue denials all at the same time. But there was just no denying what we were all looking at and smelling, nor which of us had produced a goodly portion of it.

"Looks like we got here just in time," Terrance said. Then he and his poo tank assistant went back to their poo truck. Soon poo hoses were hooked up and stretched across the yard and into the gates of hell. The powerful poo pumps on the poo truck soon began to make quick work of their 1000 gallons worth of burden. And Terrance stood by with a giant poo rake to help the process along. He seemed pretty skilled with that rake, and was able to use it to retrieve his orange radio tracker, which he then tossed to his assistant. Made me wonder exactly how clean that thing had been before it had been handed to me earlier.

"I been doin this a couple days," Terrance said with a grin. "Thirty five years, actually," he added.

"Wow," I said. "What's the strangest thing you've pulled out of one of these?"

"A dead body," he said. Then he grinned again and said "Not really."

But he then told a story that was nearly as good.