A Day in the Life of an Urban Archaeologist

Dennis removed the top of the hamburger bun, flipped the meat out of the way, laid down catchup on both sides and reassembled the Cheeseburger Special Agnes had just laid before him as deftly as he always did. And, as expected, the new guy shyly and quietly took note of this culinary quirk, and I knew that starting soon, if he remembered having seen this today, he’d be putting the catchup on both sides of his burger too, as we all did once we saw Dennis do it. It’s just better that way. It’s not like it’s more catchup. The same amount of catchup distributed on both sides of the hamburger works better for three or four reasons, all of which anyone who tries it a few times will learn. Now that you know to do it, I think you’ll start doing it too. If you remember.

For or five of us sat squeezed into the booth at Shuluski’s Diner, internalizing a much deserved lunch following a long morning of digging trenches all over town. Waterford, New York had never had a proper modern sewer system. The entire town’s sewage, and at the time this was the most populous “village” in the state, entered an ancient pipe and vault sewer system that barely served as a septic tank as the sewage made its way fairly quickly to an outlet just below the waterline in the Mohawk River, down on Front Street. None of us will forget the day we discovered the outlet, which had never properly been mapped.

We were sitting there on the edge of the river eating our lunch, when a change of hidden currents in the murky, notoriously polluted river below our dangling feet caused several minutes of fresh effluence to rise to the surface before dispersing downstream. I guessed that it depended on the temperature of the water and the flow of currents around the nearby Erie Canal locks. Fresh human shit, wadges of recently used toilet paper, and a condom came floating by in the first batch. Being some ten feet or so below us, it didn’t smell any more than the background olfactory heaviness that followed this river for much of its course. But it did strengthen our resolve to continue with our trenching, which would ultimately lead to the installation of the most modern, cleanest, and most efficient waste water treatment system Superfund money could buy for this quaint and sleepy town on the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers.

Across the restaurant at a table were Henry and his two boys. Henry was little and tough, the boys very large and in his employ. Henry wore a wife-beater tee and a perpetual two-day-old shadow, and when he worked the levers of his backhoe, his tongue protruded from the side of his mouth to keep an eye on things. He was precise, professional, and fearless. He could pick up a shard of historic pottery from the shadowed bottom of a 15-foot trench. Most of the time, I was the crew leader and had the job of telling him where to dig, how deep, and most importantly, when to stop and when to switch from trenching to centimeter by centimeter careful archaeological excavation. This old historic village was build on amazing prehistoric and contact period sites, and a sewer pipe was going to be laid down every single street. So by the time we got half way done with the backhoe survey, looking for sites, assessing the lay of the underground historically modified landscape, tracing out areas of disturbance vs. “high potential” for sites, Henry and I had become twins connected at the bucket. My subtle hand signals guided him, but he needed little guidance. I rode the bucket into and out of the deepest trenches, and the occasional shared knowing sidelong glance would have us agreeing tacitly but firmly that a particular trench was too deep. Then, as we would watch the trench collapse with no one in it, we’d exchange another sidelong glance knowing we were right to not go in that one.

And as I said, fearless. We had a trench that would ideally be dug perpendicular to the edge of the bluff overlooking the rapids below the damn and waterfall. Henry dug the trench perfectly, backing his machine up to the point that only two of his four wheels were on the ground, the giant back left wheel dangling off the cliff with nothing but air for a hundred feet below, the smaller front right wheel hanging forward in the air like the flailing arm of some moron going down on the ice for the last time. He balanced the damn backhoe with his tongue, sticking out, watching him straighten the edge of the trench and just as the last bit of solid ground started to crack beneath him, using the bucket to drive the backhoe off to the side and to safety. Even his sons, almost pathologically emotionless as they watched their father daily work his backhoe magic, breathed a sigh of relief. And somehow I was not surprised when Henry sauntered over to me and pulled up his shirt, pointing to two bullet holes in his chest.

“I had to do almost the same exact thing in Korea once, but under fire. Today was easy!”

So as we sat munching our cheeseburger specials, Arnold sat at his habitual, perpetual, butt-worn stool at Shuluski counter, overlooking the window through which we could see Albert S. cooking up the orders transmitted to him by his wife Agnes. Arnold was a young man in an older adult’s body. A very young man, if you know what I mean. And his main job seemed to be to say, “Hello,” to every person who came into the diner and, “Goodbye,” to everybody who left the diner and, “That looks good,” to every blue-plate special Albert shoved up on the back counter for eventual delivery by Agnes to an expectant, hungry customer. And if he knew your name, he’d append that to his goodbye or his hello. So, when he said, “Goodbye, Mr. Wilson,” it was not a surprise to see Old Man Wilson, a crumpled mess of bills and change left on the table next to his empty soup bowl…oh, the soup at Shuluski’s was the best for miles around, and this was soup country…hobble, all old and shit, towards the front door of the diner. Mr. Wilson’s left arm rose in a backhand, friendly goodbye for Arnold’s benefit, but he mainly focused on keeping his balance as he maneuvered his oldness around some tables, bones creaking and joints stiff.

Munching on my double-catchup’ed cheeseburger special, about halfway done now, I watched as Old Man Wilson stopped on the sidewalk in front of the diner and cleaned his glasses, waiting for a car or two to pass on the only busy road in town. Which was not. Busy, that is.

And I thought about our afternoon. We’d go with Henry down to Front Street to continue trenching the low ground in the oldest historical part of town. In my mind, I was imagining how long it would take for us to dig each trench, how much time we had before shutting down for the afternoon. If we could get in four trenches, we’d be done with the zone and could move on to the next area. Not likely to get that many trenches in one day. The engineers were hoping we could finish here and move on because they needed clearance on on the northwest side of town for some geotechincal work they’d be doing. Yes, yes, I was thinking, we’d push to get all the trenches done this afternoon and that would make Mohan, the head engineer, happy, and my job was to respect the archaeology, abide by the regulatory law, and keep the engineers happy, all at once. With luck, this would be an easy week to do that, in case nothing went wrong….

…and as these thoughts developed and started to settle down from analysis to conclusion, I noted that Old Man Wilson had made it across Main Street and was just closing himself into his giant wood-side suburban wagon. I started going over the trenching pattern in my head again, trying to think whether there was a certain order we could do the trenches in so we could possibly rule out digging the last one…if we found evidence of disturbance, or evidence of amazing archeology. Either way, digging the fourth trench would be unnecessary.

Old Man Wilson was starting his car as I thought of the irony…if three trenches showed nothing, we could go home knowing the fourth would be of no use. Mohan would be happy, we’d move to the new area on Monday morning. If three trenches showed great amounts of early archaeological material, we would not need the fourth trench to know that much more archaeology would need to be done here. Either way, we could likely finish this afternoon if…if nothing went wrong.

And it was just at that moment that Old Man Wilson slammed his car into gear and took off in a sudden lurch. Then, as quickly as his giant wood-side suburban station wagon had lurched its first 15 feet backwards and onto the curb, in the wrong direction, Old Man Wilson stopped the big-ass car on a dime.

Unfortunately, the dime was sitting right next to a recently painted red and yellow fireplug.

The fireplug sheered off cleanly at the base. This fireplug was the second or third lowest fireplug in elevation in the whole town, I was thinking. I knew this because it was my job to know things like that. This meant that this fireplug would have a very high pressure unless there was a fire or something bleeding off the water. Which naturally there was not. The water that came out of that fireplug was enough to keep one or two tires of Old Man Wilson’s wood-side suburban wagon off the ground as the vehicle rocked back and forth and side to side and up and down, rubbing on a nearby power pole, which kind of kept the vehicle in place as it bounced up and down on the unnatural cold water geyser.

Old Man Wilson found his own personal athleticism just at that moment. He was out of that car and standing, staring back at it from the middle of the street, in a matter of seconds. And as he stared, head-scratching, and I finished off the last of my hamburger and was about to start on the french fries, the images of a dozen cartoons in which I had seen this exact event or something like it flashed before my eyes. And probably his as well.

The new guy said, “Wow, what do we do?” to no one in particular, and following this cue, we all looked over to small, tough Henry and his giant sons, who were now squarely on their feet, watching Mr. Wilson’s wood-side suburban wagon dancing on the water column across the street.

“Well,” Henry said, “we’ve got to inform the head of the public works department, call the fire chief, and have the city’s fix-it contractor get out there, turn off the water, and fix the fireplug.”

The new guy stared at Henry. Henry’s sons started to laugh. I said, “Well, I guess that means we all are going home for the day, because if I recall correctly, those three people would be you, Henry.”

Dennis, who had progressed to about the same point as I had with his french fries, all the cheeseburger specials at the table ancient history, glanced at Albert, who was standing in the cook’s window holding his patty-flipper to the ready. And he looked at Agnes who’s eyebrows were riding high over her lightly watering eyes, visibly working out something kind to say to Mr. Wilson (Agnes was nothing if not kind). Old Man Wilson himself was by this time heading back to the diner to fetch help. And as he glanced around the diner, Dennis groked the situation. And he said what we had all been thinking.

“Finally, for once we have time to get a bowl of that soup!”

And we did.

Mohan would understand, and one more day of sewage after 300 years of wanton effluence by the good people of Waterford, New York would make very little difference. That day’s soup was Minestrone.

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5 Responses to “A Day in the Life of an Urban Archaeologist”

  1. March 29th, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    When minestrone is involved, there is nothing more important. Not even wanton effluence.

  2. March 29th, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Paul Hutch says:

    Great story Greg!

    Although I probably shouldn’t have been eating dinner when I got to paragraph three :-).

    PS – Hope the knee is feeling better.

  3. May 10th, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    dzdt says:

    Greg — perhaps you could consider a different term than “wife-beater tee” for that item of clothing. Maybe it is just me, but to me the matter-of-fact usage of the phrase “wife-beater” lends a small degree of implicit acceptance to the practice of spousal abuse. Its a little thing, yes, but also an easy one. How about “sleeveless t-shirt”?

  4. May 10th, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    dzdt… you could be right. It depends on what one is trying to convey. For example, implicit to whom, acceptance by whom? Broadly, this is a cultural phenomenon, or theme, and meant to be that way. (I was there, not you, and I’m responsible to make the explanation). On the other hand, I don’t see Henry as a spousal abuser.

    Yeah, in a rewrite I’d consider doing that bit differently.

  5. May 10th, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Actually, let me rephrase that because I think I may not have made myself clear.

    I did not chose “wife beater tee” to describe a tee-shirt. Had I wanted to describe that tee-shirt, I would have used the phrase “tank top.” (Or, as you say, “sleeveless t-shirt”.) Indeed, using a phrase like “wife beater tee” as part of normal day to day lexicon in the early 21st century in our (more or less) shared culture would be offensive (not just a little thing, really.) But that is not what I was doing. I chose to use that phrase in that part of that story so that you would go “ick.”

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