My name is L.Ron Mexico, and I will change the way you feel about human feces. I work at a return activated sludge plant, but we’ll get to what that means later. What you need to know now is that I’m a magician. I take the collective feces of my parish and transform it to water that would be considered drinkable by Mexican standards. That might not seem that cool, but what do you do, sell sub prime mortgages or something? Try drinking sub prime mortgages. Better yet, try turning poo into them. Nevermind, some guys already did that. Almost collapsed the whole economy. Leave the transformation of shit to the experts.
(above is a diagram of a return activated sludge plant. You may refer to this complex drawing periodically for this very science filled article)
When most people flush the toilet, not a single thought or feeling is given to the fate of their turds, to the outcome of their urine. It’s out of body, out of mind. Your favorite value meal or high dollar steak inevitably leaves your body with an unceremonious push of the anus. Water spirals around a bowl, accompanied by the cascading sound of a distant waterfall. You might then glance in the mirror, wipe the sweat off your brow, and exit, already thinking about your next meal.
What you don’t know is that your poo is now traveling at a scouring velocity down a pretty substantial pipe at the rate of about two feet per second. It might go through a series of pumps, through dozens of lift stations and holding basins, and finally arrive at the Inlet of a sewage treatment plant. This is where my unique set of skills comes into play. This is where all turds go to die or live on in eternity, depending on how you view the excremental, existential universe.
(The Inlet is that concrete building in the distance)
THE INLET: The Inlet is a lot like Hell of the Upside Down Sinners from Big Trouble in Little China. A desolate, cursed pit of wretched stank, and anytime your feet start walking up those grated steps, you’re reminded your life didn’t work out exactly as you had hoped. It’s the place where the death of your dreams isn’t only realized, it’s physically felt from your olfactory glands down to the pit of your stomach. The Inlet is equipped with grit chambers and blowers, but its main function is the bar screen, which must be cleaned manually every day. I once had to dry off my naked grandfather after he exited the shower because he was too old and sick to dry himself. That was less traumatic that cleaning the bar screen. Think of everything people flush down the toilet that can’t be liquefied. That’s what the bar screen catches and filters out. It’s packed tightly, in a wet mass of condoms, Kotex, and corn. Sometimes there is even a dollar bill or two, mostly around Mardi Gras, when drunk fools drop money in the toilet and decide it’s not worth picking out. Many of the plant employees who’ve buried their dreams long ago, decide it is worth picking out; they rifle through the bar screen with small tools, searching for that big payday. If money is found, it’s washed and placed in the sun to dry for the day before inevitably finding its way back into general circulation. The filth of lucre and the free market couldn’t be more clearly manifested. Anyway, the contents of the bar screen are pushed with a giant squeegee into a dumpster, which is picked up once a week and scattered in a landfill. This is the function of the Inlet.
(the bar screen and its contents pictured above)
Fun Fact: Why even eat Corn? It comes out just the same. We might as well eat pennies or little watch batteries. It would serve the same function.
(The E.Q. and you can almost smell it through the picture. Fart Soup.)
The EQ: Otherwise known as the Equalization Basin, is where pure, raw sewage gathers, festers, and mixes after going through the Inlet. Four giant aerators assist in keeping the smell down and oxygen levels just high enough to keep the entire basin from turning septic. A picturesque pond, where turds and every idea you have of them go to die. This is their great beyond, their nirvana. The cozy, familiar confines of intestinal linings become faint memories of home, as they are thrust into that great void, churning in great chaos and fury towards formlessness. Their old fibrous natures are stripped of all humanity; their log-like forms are deconstructed into the most basic elemental visages. Their terrestrial identities transcend into some sort of infinite, vast diarrhea with Bodhisattva wisdom. The EQ water represents everything the human spirit yearns for and strives to be. Outside, in the human world, my city is filled with class tension, racial hatred, and a general mix of misplaced anger and inner pain. We are all separate people, living selfish, individualistic lives, divided masses fighting for ill-conceived notions of happiness. The EQ represents the hope of humanity, us at our absolute bests. Here, our turds have become one. On a unified, peaceful accord. Insulated selfhood gives way into innate, homogenized harmony. If there was a stubborn turd who refused to evolve, he was left at the barscreen, like the chaff which the wind driveth away, cursed to dry out and die with a condom ring around his neck. Meanwhile, EQ water, traveling with newfound dignity, is pumped into something called Primary Settling Tanks. The journey continues. The beauty of divine formlessness is that movement and constant speed render time mute. As long as there is a voyage, there will never be a death. Matter’s constant flux and inability to be created or destroyed reminds one that our shit, which we hold most vile and offensive, contains the blueprint for eternity. Instead, we cling to materialism and distractions. Pity.
(The Primaries. I heard you can get AIDS if you sniff this tank too much)
The Primary Settling Tanks: The Primaries lack the chaotic hum and torrid splashing of the EQ. Peaceful, placid tanks where the solids are left to settle. Gravity, which governs the entire universe, does not take a break here. The heavier, solid particles, suspended in a murky unknown begin to fall slowly, like listless pollen tumbling through the air of a brisk, spring dawn. Through the gray, turbid waters, a dichotomy appears: solids, which we wastewater professionals call “sludge” and laymen worlds away refer to as “shit”, are collected in a giant hopper at the bottom of the tank and pumped into digesters. Meanwhile, the lighter, purer water falls unevenly into weirs and tumbles into a thrashing, churning sump.
The Sump: The Sump becomes a crossroads of sorts (kind of like that Bone Thugs In Harmony jam) where this new shit-laced water meets older, shit-laced water that we call “return activated.” This causes an explosion in fecal fecundity: the mixture of these bodies results in the new waters being activated, doused with ciliates, baptized with tiny organisms which will remove the Ites from the land. Here, it’s the ciliates, which are a friendly protozoa, that indicate healthy sludge and a stable wastewater system. They feed on the bacteria and help clarify and purify. These new waters are then pumped by sump pumps into the Aeration Basin. You could even make a song about this because sump, pump, dump, and hump all rhyme, but I won’t because this is a serious article. All you need know is that such a song exists, as well as a dance that accompanies it which pelvic thrusts and various outdoor turd-squatting poses are involved.
The Aeration Basin: We call it the A.B. and it’s cray-z. It tickles the senses, grabs one and doesnít let go. If gazed at long enough, the inner beast is awakened inside you, and thatís when you realize as you stare into those churning chocolate waters, that the beast is staring right back. Six mega-giant aerators tear into these primal waters, indiscriminately destroying any type of serenity it ever dreamed of having. Itís baptism by fire, with each aerator operating at the rate of 6,000 submerged elephant farts per minute. The sludge filled waters here arenít meant to settle. We do everything in our power to make sure this tank stays crazier than a rabid crackheadís wild, desperate street antics. If things ever did settle down, and the water became as placid as a puddle of urine behind a Dennyís dumpster, bulking and flocculation would commence, nitrification would set in, killing our celestial ciliates, depleting dissolved oxygen levels, raising the PH, and sending the biochemical oxygen demand soaring. In short, it would be like the Challenger shuttle fiasco of 1986 all over again. This tank, and itís trusty aerators, insures that our sludge soaked waters keep their suspended solids in a healthy medium before sending said waters into the Final Settling Tanks.
(The Final Settling Tanks, with Clarivac shooting poo)
The Final Settling Tanks: As the murky, mixed up chocolate waters make their way in, they are met by something called Clarivacs. As the water enters this calm basin, the particles start to drop out, creating a layer of thick sludge at the bottom of the tanks. Thatís where there Clarivacs come in; they meander the bottom of the tank like granddaddy catfish ambling along the cloudy bed of the mighty Mississippi, sucking up all organic particles in the way. This sludge is siphoned through four giant tubes, each one like a shit-shooting cannon. Hundreds of gallons of thick shit are shot every minute into a trench that funnels this sludge back into the sump. This prodigal poo now is return activated, charged to infiltrate and mix with the incoming cascade trickling in from the Primary Settling Tanks. Meanwhile, at the back of the Final Settling Tanks, crystal clear water, where almost all the sediment and solids have dropped out, falls into weirs and is shuffled off into the Chlorine Contact Chambers.
Chlorine Contact Chambers: A deep, cement labyrinth guides these pristine waters around sharp corners and difficult angles. So far, any fecal content, bacteria, or microorganisms which have made it to this point are undoubtedly the best of the best. John Rambo type feces. Nothing short of chemical warfare will destroy them. Enough chlorine to kill an assisted living community is pumped in. You can smell the chlorine in the air, reminds me of a fresh, fluffy load of white laundry. Now, I know you may be thinking that we just can’t discharge millions of gallons of chlorinated water into nature. There are rules about things like that, rules we try and follow. At the end of the chamber, after the water has fallen over yet another weir, it’s met with sulphur dioxide. If Chlorine are the Crips, then Sulphur Dioxide are the bloods. They fight an underwater battle to the death, neutralizing each other, making our water free from chemicals, bacteria, and solids. This purified, divine H2O makes its way down a giant pipe and is pumped into a drainage canal that leads to a huge freshwater lake. The dissolved oxygen level of our finished product is about 6 milligrams per liter or parts per million, whichever you prefer. Fish come from miles around simply to breath and play in this water. It’s a bastion for aquatic life everywhere. Sometimes, I’ll throw my cast net into our effluent (where our pipe meets the canal) and come up with 30 to 40 fish. At least one 5 lb Bass is expected. I don’t eat any of them though because it feels like cheating. I’m a sportsman, not a fish massacre-er. I just look at them, maybe poke one in the stomach and make a joke about how they don’t have any arms or legs, and then throw them back.
(Picture of my typical catch)
At this point, you maybe wondering what happens to all the solids. Well, the heaviest solids which fell out in the primary settling tanks are pumped into Digesters, and we also periodically pump solids from the sump into said Digesters, to keep our sludge fresh, lively, and exciting. You don’t want your sludge to get too old, as nematodes and rotifers take over and eat the ciliates. In this microorganism warfare, we the gods, tip the scales in the favor of our own laid plans. I’m sure the rotifers have no idea why they can’t win, can’t gain foothold in our tanks. In the same ways we futility pray to the heavens for a new car or a superbowl victory. We don’t understand that bigger things are afoot, a grander scheme plays out, a scheme that rarely overlaps with our deepest or most frivolous desires. All which is meant to be will be.
The Digesters: Imagine a fifty foot cylinder, chocked full of shit, and try not to smile. Every time I’m at work and glace at those towers of terror, I chuckle. Inside them, anaerobic bacteria eat away at the poo, changing its molecular structure. Explosive methane gas is the byproduct. We’re supposed to burn off or release these trapped gasses, but we never do. The whole things could explode any minute, sending shit flying miles away, raining on unsuspecting citizens, caught in a fecal storm of epic proportions. An elderly widow toils away in her garden at dusk. The shadows of her dandelions undulate with a light breeze. Suddenly, a mass of burning human excrement falls from the heavens upon her like molten lava spewed by a volcanic blast that would make Krakatoa seem like a science fair project. It would be hellish; not even John the Revelator could predict such diabolic catastrophe. One time, a safety man came to the planet to inspect our digesters for danger. When he put his little machine next to them, the needle pegged out as super dangerous, and he couldn’t even reset it. The gasses literally broke his machine. If I die in an explosion, I’m sure my family will get super rich due to this negligence. That is my only condolence, that and knowing it will be a quick death, unlike the hoards of cursed fools destined to suffer the slow demise of a fiery fecal napalm. In any case, the digesters can’t hold all the shit in the world forever and must be emptied. The poo is sent to something called the Filter Press.
Filter Press: The Press is a fat, loud shit-eating machine. It’s like most Americans, but it has more of a personality. It sits there all day, squeezing the juices out of the sludge, producing dried cakes of flat, black cork-like material. There is no semblance of human excrement left. Everything it once was seems like a faint memory or a half forgotten dream. It doesn’t look, smell, or feel like anything that could ever come out of your butt, a reminder we live in a world where change is abundant and necessary. These flat, black pancakes can either be buried, burned, or sold as fertilizer. We generally just send it to the landfill, as that’s the easiest way to get rid of it. I mean, we could just flush it down the toilet, but where would that get us?
And that’s the process. That’s how it all works. You now have a shit education (something the public school system gave me years ago). It’s admirable the way we humans have colonized and controlled this planet, but the way we treat it is a disgrace. Our trash, the things we leave in our wake, things like rusted metals, cheap plastics, and harmful emissions curse the air, land, and sea; however, the refuse we find most contemptible, the refuse we can’t stand to look at, touch, or smell can be recycled back into the environment not only seamlessly, but in a way that actually benefits the natural world. And it’s sad because we know more about the Olson twins’ filmography than we do about the fate of our own flushed feces. Well, news flash: The Olson twins shit too. Hell, they probably sit in a special bathroom with adjoining toilets, holding hands while grimacing and shitting tiny, identical little turds in unison. Wake up America! Turds and water are like caterpillars and butterflies. That’s an S.A.T. question.
Now that I’ve pretty much overwhelmed you with science, let’s get to the fun parts. I will now rank the three least desired places at the poo plant to fall in.
3.) The AB: If you’re in, it’s certain death. Even someone with superior swimming abilities, like a burly Hasslehoff wearing floaties, couldn’t survive. The buoyancy you know and love that follows you to the beach or swimming pool won’t be by your side. Here, the aerators are so effective and chaotic, the bubbles change the water’s density. You would sink faster than Stephen Hawking wearing a brass toilet seat around his neck. As you slowly fall to the bottom of this 30 foot tank, you’d be swallowing shit all the way down. Your feet would finally touch the soft floor. You’d struggle. You could even walk around a bit even, like a curious astronaut on the moon, but you could never come back to the surface. The sky would seem like an opaque window to another world beyond your grasp. You’d then die.
2.) The EQ: Only one man has lost his balance and tumbled in, claimed he swallowed some corn and spit out a condom. He said he wasn’t worried about hepatitis because he already had it. He fell very ill afterwards, but claims he has never got sick since then. Whatever was in that water prepared his immune system for a lifetime of germs. Many claim that if they ever fall in, they won’t fight it, but succumb to death’s rank embrace. It would be better to die than live with the memory that you were once submerged in a filthy fecal-filled fountain. And the stench is indescribable. There is a saying, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” but by the smell of our incoming wastewater, I think that’s exactly what people do around here. I can best describe the putrid smell like this: picture a three day old bloated corpse with a yeast infection who was left in the sun. Now jump up and down on top of its stomach. That’s it. Would you even try and swim out? Could you find the strength to go on living after that?
1.) A Digester: Aged feces, with the consistency of quicksand pulls you down into a murky abyss. If the methane and hydrogen sulphide don’t kill you, you’ll gobble down gallons of shit as you plead for help while sinking into a deep pit of excrement that has been aged like fine wine. There is no way out. You’re body will be fished from the digester hours later by reluctant emergency personnel, and they will treat your mortal coils irrelevantly, like roadkill. Bystanders will make jokes even before rigor mortis sets in. People will do David Caruso impressions, removing their sunglasses while waxing pithy shit related puns. You’ll undoubtedly have to be incinerated. Even your ashes will smell like dookie. Your relatives will make up some distracting lie about your death. A car crash. A chainsaw accident. Anything but the truth. Jesus won’t even be able to stomach your spirit’s stench in the afterlife. You’ll be quarantined in heaven like a leaper. Correction: even Jesus could cure leapers.
Myth and Folklore:
Genetically Altered Gator: Many talk of a giant alligator that lives in the EQ. A thirty foot turd gargling beast who laps up incoming sewage, and these toxic waters have turned him into some kind of super-intelligent killing machine who has mastered stealth and can mimic human behavior. He’s kind of like a big, mean ninja turtle. I don’t believe any of this foolishness, except at night. When I walk the banks, my heart always beats a little faster
The AB monster: The AB is filled with little brown spiders on the catwalks and hand railings. It’s said that in this deep, dark tank, a giant momma spider dwells in a melancholy, subdued state. She’s ten foot high and ten foot across and can breath underwater. And if you kill her baby spiders, she’ll drag you down and eat on your corpse for weeks. They say that at night she awakes and leaves the tank and hunts in the woods nearby, eating pigs, gators, cows, and deer. I don’t believe this crap, but I don’t kill any baby spiders just incase.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night when my girlfriend is sleeping real hard, in the R.E.M sleep they talk about on mattress commercials, Iíll pin her down and place my put mouth an inch from her ear and whisper about monster tales in a really squeaky voice. I tell her that I throw a little of my poo straight into the EQ ,so the EQ Gator will know my scent and accept my sacrifices and never harm me. Sometimes Iíll tell her about the AB monster eating a whole heard of cattle, guts and all. She wakes up slowly and terrified, not knowing where sheís at or whatís going on or if itís a dream. Often, sheíll start screaming and since Iíve already got her pinned down I just hold her there laughing my ass off. Thatís when she really freaks out. It takes her a few solid minutes to piece together whatís going on, and usually after sheís finished crying weíll both have a pretty good laugh about it.
And just to clear something up, my job isnít nearly as gross as one might think. When people picture a poo plant, they think of errant, misplaced turds just lying around in the sun. They think of a shit-stained door handle to the main office, a slack-jawed worker with a skid mark across his forehead fumbling with some giant pipe wrench. Not the case. The smell is only bad around the EQ and Inlet, which are located pretty far away, and the only time Iím up close and personal with sewage (besides cleaning the barscreen) is when I take the daily settling test. I scoop up a bunch of sludge water from the AB, place it in am Imhoff cone, and watch it settle. I have to document the rate it settles. MLSS (mixed liquor suspended solids) and TSS (total suspended solids) are things we have to know. Also, we have to document itís texture (usually fluffy) smell (usually OK) and if there are worms (not usually).
(settling test: you can see the cone full of fallen shit. My first day they told me taste was also part of the test. Not funny.)
Another perk of working there is the natural beauty that is abundant throughout the area. There are lakes, ponds, bayous, and canals that surround the plant. Sometimes Iíll climb on top the digesters and cool out for a while. Or Iíll watch a peaceful sunrise or sunset to wind down the day. There are gators, turtles, deer, snakes, nutria rats, and all sorts of animals to study and throw rocks at. I typically enjoy this job. I donít know how long Iíll have it, but at least I can say I fully understand Shit. And so can you.