Tuesday, March 20, 2007

stories from the train: your tax dollars at work

Last night, I was riding home on BART like I always do and, as always happens, there were conversations taking place that I can't help but eavesdrop on. Last night it seems that I ended up sitting behind two guys who had never met before. The first was a civil engineer from China who has been working here in the States for years. The other guy was just some curious old man, as far as I could first tell.

You see, when I first got there he was asking Mr. China all kinds of questions about waste treatment and filtration. They talked about sewers. They talked about processing solids (ew). They talked about disposal of toxic chemicals and how long it takes for things like that to break down if they end up in the San Francisco Bay.

Mr. China was very well-versed in all of it and Mr. Old-Guy honestly struck me as somewhat senile. China would say something and then old guy would completely not understand it and respond with some statement of complete ignorance contrary to whatever it was China just said.

China: And that's why the water in San Jose is not only double processed, but they have a tertiary processing system to ensure that it's all very, very clean.
Old-Guy: Oooh! I understand now. So, you can dump anything you want into the drain and San Jose will clean it up?
China: (appalled) No! No, no, no. No it's not good to do that at all.

Etc. Over and over again. Eventually, Old-Guy said something like "See, they don't give us any guidelines like that at the school." And then I realized ... holy shit, this guy's a teacher/substitute teacher. He started to talk about how they pour acids down the drain in the chemistry lab classes. China was very bothered to hear this. He told Old-Guy that he had to properly dispose of stuff and that things should be stored safely and in separate containers.

Old-Guy: Oh! I understand now! So, we need to have two separate cabinets: one for acids and one for everything else.
China: (pause) No, no that's not what I'm saying. Why would you want to do that?
Old-Guy: Well, what if you were to put a bottle of acid next to a bottle of ... like ... cyanide?
China: (appalled again) What kind of school has bottles of cyanide?
Old-Guy: Oh, well, it was just the first thing I thought of.

Anyway, this ridiculous conversation went on for a while and eventually I found out that I was wrong. Old-Guy wasn't a teacher.

Old-Guy worked for the county as the person who specs out safety requirements for schools and government buildings. He went on to tell story after story about how the agency that he works for (which he never named) is tasked with making sure that everything is up to code throughout the county. However, while they're required to do it, they aren't funded enough to actually follow through with it.

Old-Guy: We're supposed to certify all boilers every year and make sure that they're working properly, not putting out carbon monoxide, etc. But, we just don't have the manpower to actually do that. Elevators, too. You know all of those elevator certificates? That's us. But we don't have the time to check things. We only take a look at it once someone calls us to let us know that there's an emergency with them.

Needless to say, I'm not exactly feeling so safe this morning. That was not the kind of peek behind the governmental curtain that I really needed.

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