Walking through a shitstorm.

So last week I went for a walk before starting work. It was a simple, small walk, just around the block. I was enjoying the sunshine and the blue sky and paused to appreciate the gnarled, massive pepper tree on the street parallel to ours, which I don’t see nearly enough because I usually don’t walk that way. And then, as I was rounding the corner towards home, I walked past a truck.

It was a vacuum truck, with a hose snaking down into a manhole at the corner, cleaning out the sewer. I walked past, taking care to keep at least six feet away from the two workers at the controls behind it.

As I passed the truck, I realized I was walking through a fine mist. I put my head down, held my breath, and walked until I was clear of the mist, then turned around.

I saw that the mist was coming from an air vent at the top of the truck. The mist had now turned to a spray, and the spray was turning dark gray, almost black, in color. It was blasting against a traffic sign, a yellow diamond warning trucks about the height of the train bridge just ahead, and the sign had turned almost completely black.

It was then I realized I had just walked through a cloud of aerosolized sewage. A literal shitstorm.

I walked straight home, took my clothes off directly into the washing machine, and jumped into the shower. After thoroughly scrubbing myself off and then rinsing my mouth with Listerine, I got dressed for the second time that morning and came downstairs to explain to my family what had just happened.

I called the public works department to complain, and then went off to my office to start preparing for the half-dozen Zoom meetings I had that day. But no sooner had I sat down than I heard the sounds of the vacuum truck, closer this time, and over its machine noise, the sounds of my wife yelling.

I ran back to the front of the house to find that the vacuum truck was now parked right in front of the neighbor’s house, and here it was spraying the black sewage mist all over the neighbor’s car and lawn. The mist was also drifting across our front yard and porch. The workers were trying to control things by spraying their truck with clean water, to no effect.

The truck was too loud for the workers to hear our yells, so we called public works again, and I also called up the number listed on the truck’s side. Eventually the men stopped their work and gave us some lame excuses. A little while later a supervisor showed up so we could yell at him for a bit and — between the yelling — give us the back story.

The truck’s fill sensor had malfunctioned, so its tank overflowed, which caused the first spraying incident. The workers dumped half the tank back into the sewer, and then came down the street to try and vacuum up the overflow that was, by then, going down the gutter, past our house, and towards a storm drain, where, if they let the sewer water flow in, the company might be facing significant penalties, thanks to the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately there was still some kind of clog in the pump, so even though the tank was nearly empty, the shit was still hitting the fan.

I appreciate the work these men do — it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it — but, as I told the supervisor on the phone, they might need to take better care of their equipment, and train their workers on how to handle a malfunction like this. After getting a new truck and cleaning up the gutter properly, the men washed off the neighbor’s car and hosed down our porch (twice). And while I was nervous for a few days, it seems clear I didn’t get sick from the sewage, nor did any of our family members. It’s possible, if it contained coronavirus, that I could still be incubating it. But the black water was from older sludge on the bottom of the sewer line, not fresh sewage, so I think my odds are pretty good.

Still, walking through a literal shitstorm is not what you want to be doing during a pandemic.

Your Zen teachers will have a field day with that story about the shit mist, my friend Susan said, reminding me of the story about Unmon and the shit stick.

I suppose this is a chance to cultivate equanimity. It’s not easy. But in the meantime, it makes for a good story.

Ordinary mind, Buddha mind. Shit stick, shit mist. What’s the difference?

Can you see the Buddha in a cloud of shit? In the middle of a pandemic?

Buddha mind ::
the doctor holds up a nasal swab

Walking through a shitstorm.