Idle Hands in Field Work

Not too long after the start of The Great Recession I was an environmental geologist. I did a lot of work for different firms – ranging from Phase I Environmental Site Assessments to ongoing soil and groundwater remediation and environmental characterization – and on this partly overcast, gorgeous early autumn day I was waiting at a closed gas station with an environmental scientist from another firm. I’d run out to supervise the plugging and abandoning of a groundwater monitoring well, he was waiting to sign a chain of custody sheet and see several drums of designated waste off for proper disposal, and frankly we got bored. At some point – once we’d chatted a bit and realized we had several interests in common – my erstwhile companion realized that there were boxes of candy set out by the trash for pickup.

Him: “Hey, how long has this place been closed?”
Me: “I dunno, two months?”
Him: “Well, it’s in plastic bags… It’s not like any rain could have gotten in. Let’s see what we’ve got!”

Excited as little boys, we scurried over and examined this forgotten bounty. As you’d expect, results varied. The sugar candy was mostly alright, and while gummies had been fused by the heat, we agreed expiration dates on those were more academic than anything. Whatever you may have heard about Twinkies being immortal constructs is complete crap, they were mildewed and disgusting and safely packaged so we could gawk at them without experiencing their horror in a visceral way. But chocolate… oh, the chocolate. Sweaty, beginning to show that uneven marbling of wax as things fall out of solution, and no small whisper of malodorous peril. But how often does a chance like this come along?

I took a big bite out of a Butterfinger bar that looked more like a camel turd from a city in sub-Saharan Africa than something Bart Simpson would have shilled for. Grimacing, I said, “Well, uh, I don’t think this was what you’d call my best decision,” bits of crumbling and waxy, rancid chocolate tumbling out of my mouth onto the ground. I gave the rest to a teeming mound of fire ants, then ran back to my truck and took desperate, thirsty gulps of (fresh!) Gatorade from the cooler I brought with me.

There wasn’t much else to note – a few bottles of expired diet soda, some free newspapers already disintegrating from exposure, and the distantly terrible, existential realization that so much petroleum had been refined and so many food resources had been grown, all to end up in a landfill without a moment’s contemplation or pause for remorse. But eventually time was up: my fellow scientist’s waste collection crew came along, my crew finished pulling tubing out of the ground and poured cement into the hole, and we parted ways. I wonder what he’s up to sometimes.

Around a year later I was laid off as real estate transactions fell away to nothing. The rule of last one hired, first one fired applied. The fact that nothing I did in that line of work was ever as much fun as that stupid morning bothered  me more as time rolled on. Grad school just cemented the conviction that I needed to find something else to do.