Port-a-potty cleaning not such a foul job after all

July 14, 2008

Danny Hutson jumps down from the cab of his truck, grabs a giant yellow and black hose, and gets ready to deal with a familiar smell: human waste and disinfectant.

He gives a quick warning: "If you think about it," he says, "it will make you sick."

Then, with machine-like precision, he swings open a port-a-potty's plastic door, tightens his grip, and shoves the hose and its giant suction cup into the toilet. The hose bulges, jumping up and down as more than five gallons of ick pass through. In a matter of minutes, the toilet bowl is empty.

It's all part of the job for Hutson, who cleans as many as 45 portable toilets a day for Aardvark Tidy Toilets, a division of Indianapolis-based Gridlock Traffic Systems Inc.

The company's ubiquitous modular toilets dot the landscape at summer festivals, outdoor concerts and construction sites. And Hutson wants to keep them clean.

Summers are busiest

He starts his day at 5 a.m., when it's still dark outside and few cars clog the roads. By 9:15 a.m., his Diet Mountain Dew is mostly empty and the cabin of his truck quiet. Only an oldies station plays in the background.

Hutson, 53, keeps his eyes focused on the road, breaking the silence only to explain his route.

It changes every day, depending on the day and the season. During the winter months, he spends 30 hours a week cleaning toilets and another 10 fixing them. Most of the repairs are minor: a new toilet paper dispenser here, a new door latch there.

But the units have to be in top shape for the company's busy summer season, when Hutson puts in an average of 50 to 55 hours a week. The warm weather brings him to all kinds of summer events. In the past, he's pumped toilets at Girl Scout camps, the James Dean Festival in Fairmount, and even a Mexican rodeo.

Usually, the toilets aren't too messy. But occasionally they need more than a quick clean.

Hutson said the worst-case scenario goes something like this: A port-a-potty gets knocked on its side--by either strong winds or a mischievous vandal--with the door facing the ground. All the foul-smelling contents spill out of the tank and onto the door and walls.

Hutson gets stuck cleaning it up.

"Everything goes everywhere," he said. "It's the hardest to clean because you actually have to kind of get inside and wash the inside of the door."

Those dirty units take about 15 minutes to fix up--nearly three times longer than the average toilet--although Hutson shrugs it off as just another part of the job.

He relishes the days when he gets to clean the toilets at the Girl Scout camps. Those units are always fairly clean, he said, and occasionally a Girl Scout will even stop to thank him for his work--a rarity in what is usually a thankless job.

"You get them clean and they act like they actually appreciate it," he said. "That makes it all worth it."

He also has enjoyed watching the city grow. During his 30 years here, he's seen buildings pop up, highways change and the suburbs boom.

The toilets have evolved, too. When Hutson started, most of the units were made of heavy fiberglass with few frills--usually just a toilet tank with a seat on top.

These days, manufacturers build units with durable plastic that is lighter and easier to transport. Today's toilets also come with special features such as sanitizers and hand washers users can operate with a foot pump.

One day, dozens of toilets

On this day, though, Hutson is cleaning mostly older toilets on a route that includes stops at various north-side construction sites.

It's drizzling outside when he pulls up to a gray port-a-potty at the Indianapolis Power and Light substation on 91st Street.

Hutson slides on a pair of elbow-length black gloves and follows his usual routine of sucking the toilet's contents, wiping down the floor, and pouring in fresh water and disinfectant.

People have told him that he has a crappy job (pun intended), but he doesn't see it that way.

"You probably get more on you changing a diaper than I will servicing a toilet," he says. "Unless you don't use common sense, you'll very seldom come in contact with anything."

With the IPL toilet clean, he hops back in the cab and steers the shiny stainless-steel tanker to the next location: the Martin Marietta rock quarry on 96th Street.

He goes up to the first port-a-potty, takes off his glasses (they'll fall in the toilet otherwise, he says) and gets to work.

Suck, wipe, pour. The movements are similar at each stop, but he is methodical and thorough, giving each toilet plenty of attention.

Occasionally, he throws in a new roll of toilet paper or sprays some air freshener to reduce particularly pungent odors. These are the little niceties he could easily skip, since he's almost always alone. But he wouldn't think of cutting corners.

"I've taken a job that most people don't understand," he said. "It sounds weird to say I take pride in cleaning toilets, but it's a job and you have to take pride in it."

He developed that work ethic from his late father, who worked in Tennessee's coal mines before moving his nine children to Indiana to give them a better life. His dad's lessons were simple: Push hard and do a good job.

"That's what men are supposed to do," Hutson said. "They work and support their family. That's how I was brought up."

An unlikely journey

Even so, it would be hard to say Hutson followed a traditional life path.

He joined the Marines in 1975, shipping off to California, where he had top-secret security clearances to study radio and communication technologies.

Three years later, Hewlett Packard hired him to be a computer technician and salesman. He accepted the job, but on his way to pick out a company car, he had a revelation.

"I didn't really want to wear a suit and tie all day," he said.

So, he stopped at the offices of Indianapolis construction equipment supplier Flasher Barricade and Lite Co. and got a job. He stayed there 28 years, first working as a driver delivering road signs and port-a-potties to construction sites, then as a dispatcher. Since it was a small company, where everyone pitched in on different jobs, Hutson also learned how to pump toilets clean.

In 2006, Gridlock Traffic Systems purchased Flasher. Hutson stayed on board, initially working in the office. But when pump-truck drivers kept quitting, management eventually asked him to go back in the field.

"If I did this, they didn't have to worry about it anymore," he said.

He declined to disclose his pay, but said starting drivers make around $12 an hour. Training consists of a few days of on-the-job shadowing.

Hutson, a father of four, said he expects to continue working for at least another five years. Then, he might retire, buy some land, and settle down.

Occasionally, he thinks back to that HP job, and what might have been. It would have meant more money, and maybe more prestige.

But he quickly shifts back to reality, saying he's happy with how things turned out.

"Sure, I could have made more money, and I have could have spent more money, and my divorces would have cost more money," he said with a chuckle. "It's been all right, it really has. ... Life's pretty good."

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