"It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it." Sure, you've said it, but have you ever wondered about the men and women who earn their daily bread working the jobs most of us would be unable--or unwilling--to perform? How many among us could disrobe in front of strangers or risk life and limb handling volatile explosives? We talked to a handful of Knoxvillians whose professions are often embarrassing, frequently dangerous, and all in all, just plain tough.
Maid for You
Though people literally run when they see her coming, Evelyn Lowery doesn't take it personally. For 19 years, the exuberant parking control officer--you know her as the meter maid--has been the woman we love to hate, the proverbial drop of rain that into each life must fall. In her sporty, three-wheeled blue and white cart with the left-handed gearshift, Lowery spends her working hours slipping parking tickets under the windshield wipers of illegally parked cars and trucks. Her tiny, hot-in-the-summer, cold-in-the-winter cart is her office, and her beat covers the entire University of Tennessee campus, some 350 one- and two-hour meters. Averaging 100 to 150 tickets a day, Lowery insists that she has no quota to fill nor any ax to grind.
"I just do a day's work," she says with an infectious grin.
Despite a perception that meter maids spend their hours waiting to pounce on cars whose meters are minutes away from expiration, Lowery's territory is just too big for that to be feasible. She considers her job a service like any other. Consequently, she's tough on self-appointed do-gooders who feed other people's meters.
"You're not doing a good deed," she says, "you're depriving someone else of a parking spot. But if you're gonna feed the meters," she laughs and shakes her head, "don't let me see you!"
Though not a police officer in the strict sense, Lowery does have the power to arrest parking offenders who become abusive or who attempt to run. She once arrested an intern from the News-Sentinel who drove off as she was in the process of ticketing his car. After calling for additional officers to "cuff and transport," she followed him and waited for her backup to arrive.
"He called me all kinds of nasty names," she says. "He went to jail and it cost him a lot of money in court costs."
She says it matter-of-factly, without a trace of indignation over his behavior or glee at his retribution. She puzzles over the behavior some miscreant parkers display.
"Some of them try to belittle me," she says in wonder. "Some say, 'Do you know who I am?', or 'I'm taking this to Phil (Chief of Police Keith).'" A well-dressed woman in a new Mercedes once threw her ticket at Lowery in frustration, screaming, "There's money in my meter!" Problem was, Lowery chuckles, the Mercedes was parked not in one, but two metered spaces.
"They give me the blues sometimes," she confesses. "People would rather get a $100 speeding ticket than a $5 parking ticket. I don't understand it."
Then there are those who don't mind $5 tickets--they just don't pay them. If a driver has two unpaid tickets, Lowery has the power to tow. Last week, a woman with 26 delinquent tickets forked over $359--on the spot--to keep her car. As a courtesy, Lowery occasionally takes payments downtown to save ticketees the hassle. She'll also call a wrecker if you need one, or call your boss to say you'll be late if you're having car trouble. But don't try to sweet talk her into fixing a ticket. Even her friends and family know better. Before Lowery's mother died two years ago, mom frequently received calls asking her to plead with Evelyn for leniency.
"Mama would say, 'I didn't give them your number, honey. I told them, 'My El don't do that.'"
It takes a resilient personality to perform such an unpopular job with humor and cheerfulness for 19 years, day in and day out, and without a doubt, Lowery's got one. The handsome 43-year-old denies her days are filled with consternation and discord.
"I just love people," she says with a sunny smile. If people don't love her in return, it's no big deal. She refuses to take it personally and hopes those she tickets won't either.
"It's my job," she says convincingly, "and I love it."
Kevin DeBusk is not having a good balloon day, but the ten silly, fidgety, giggling 7-year-olds sprawled at his feet don't seem to care.
Shrieking with delight, they're trying their best to guess what animal Spec T. Clown is creating from a handful of multi-colored balloons.
"It's a wiener dog!" one yells. "From Wienersville," clamors another. "You popped his head off!" they scream in unison as the balloon expires with a loud POP.
"I'm not having a good day," Spec T. says with dismay. "I want my mommy." A gaggle of giggles erupts from the circle of kids as he tries again. Another loud pop echoes throughout the otherwise quiet slice of suburbia.
It's not the worst gig he's ever had: Kids' parties are generally fun--when the kids aren't holy terrors--but bad days are not unusual in clown territory.
"A bad day can be people canceling at the last minute, bad makeup, bad-hair days. I've had kids cuss me and flip me the bird. I've had kids come up and hit me. You can't just reach down and make them stop; you're in character and they expect you to behave a certain way," he explains earnestly. "It's a trying job, mentally. You have to be mentally prepared."
Clowning is a full-time endeavor for DeBusk, who estimates he performs 250 to 300 jobs a year, occasionally working as many as four and five parties a day. It's hot and sweaty work, made even more so by costumes and heavy makeup. And then there are the kids.
A nuclear-powered, freckle-faced boy in shorts and T-shirt jumps to his feet and eyeballs him intently.
"Hey there clown. I'm the birthday boy."
"How old are you today?" Spec T. asks. "Seven," the boy says proudly. "Sixty-seven?!" the clown shoots back in astonishment. "Seven!" the boy retorts. "Wake up!"
"You're not a very smart clown," a second boy yells maniacally.
"Anybody know what this is?" DeBusk asks the boisterous youngsters, holding up a 7-inch piece of rope and a pair of scissors.
A blonde, wise-beyond-his-years blue-eyed boy responds, "Scissors and a string. I know what you're gonna do." Still, he watches carefully; this could be magic, after all.
It's a tough crowd, but Spec T. is equal to the task. Clad in rainbow-striped pants and vest that complement his bright yellow hair and shoes, he plays along with the mini-hecklers, clowning around the way only a clown can.
"There's only one rule," Spec T. announces firmly. "No giggling!" It is, of course, a rule intended to be broken.
"Anybody like magic? Anybody like juggling?" Ten wiggling hands shoot like rockets into the air. "Too bad I can't do either one," he lies. It's the laughter he loves, the 29-year-old DeBusk avows; he's been hooked since his involvement in the 4-H Club led to a stint as Tennessee Valley Fair mascot Jasper the Rooster 11 years ago. It's an odd contrast to the degree in Food Technology and Science he obtained at the University of Tennessee some years ago, but his feet are firmly rooted in entertainment, and one day, he aspires to host his own children's television series.
"I grew up on Romper Room," he says, flashing a greasepaint smile. "I like slapstick and cornball humor."
Today's audience does too. Birthday-boy Jonathan slaps his head and does his best Stooges' shtick as DeBusk eggs him on. Nearly 45 minutes later, DeBusk winds down his act, but the kids are loath to let him go. He exchanges high-fives and handshakes with the miniature adults and poses for one last photo.
DeBusk basks in the limelight his chosen profession brings--goofy makeup and all--and tries to weave a touch of morality and encouragement into his shows. All clowning aside, his ultimate goal is to give kids a lot of fun and a little encouragement.
"I try to encourage kids. I tell them, 'you can be anything you want to be.'"
The screams emanating from the Ft. Sanders house reach a fevered pitch as the little red Toyota pulls up in front. Several young men appear from inside the bungalow and greet the new arrival anxiously. Clad in a white hospital-like smock, Nurse Nina rushes up the sidewalk as the men clear a path through the expectant crowd. Demanding to know the whereabouts of her patient, she finds him slumped in an easy chair in a crammed 13-by-13 dayroom, glassy-eyed and close to comatose. She whips her stethoscope from her bag and places it on the young man's chest as he breathes heavily. Her assistant assembles her equipment on a nearby table and cautions onlookers to stand back and let Nurse Nina work. And work she does.
Straddling the young man, the buxom redhead rips open her smock and flashes her glitter-covered breasts, shimmying and gyrating to the blare of 2 Live Crew. Within seconds the smock is history and 30 boisterous spectators roar their encouragement as Nurse Nina pops off her sequined push-up bra and thrusts her chest in the guest of honor's face. Dollar bills appear out of nowhere as friends of the soon-to-be graduate stuff ones in their mouths, waiting for Nina to remove them with her mouth, breasts, or other body parts. Whooping and hollering, Buddah's (as his friends call him) buddies convince him to lie face-up on the floor as Nina covers him with confiscated cash which she then removes as efficiently as a vacuum cleaner. A can of whipped cream materializes and the petite dancer invites a bystander to apply the sweet topping to her breasts and offers them to another, who gets a mouthful before she pulls away and moves on to yet another. Standing by, her assistant collects, counts, and folds the money as one after another crumpled bill is tossed onto the pile. After twenty minutes or so, the music comes to a halt and so does Nina. Giggling thank-yous and goodbyes, she slips into the bathroom and emerges clad in short shorts and a tiny tank top.
Nina is not her real name, she confides as she slides into a booth at a nearby restaurant; Nina is her stage persona--her alter ego, if you will.
"When Nina's dancing," she says, referring to Nina as a separate person, "she's in character. If I were a real person in that room, there'd be a fist fight." The loquacious chocolate-eyed redhead insists there's no shame in what she does; the money's incredible--on her best night ever she made $890 for four hours work--and although it's not an easy job, she doesn't have any trouble sleeping at night.
"I was married for a while to someone I couldn't stand," she says. "To me, this has more integrity than living with somebody for money."
Most women would be mortified and more than a little apprehensive about dancing naked or nearly naked in front of rowdy, frequently inebriated strangers, but Nina swears she's imperturbable. There's always the potential for danger, she acknowledges, but she makes sure she's in control of the situation, one way or another. Usually, this means bringing along a chaperone, but if things get dicey, she'll attempt to handle the situation alone first.
"I can chastise the guys better than the chaperone," she says knowingly. "I'll smack them on the hand and tell them to stop being so naughty." And if anyone assumes she'll do more than just dance, she stops them cold.
"I play dumb, I look shocked, I giggle," she says. "Then I say something like, 'My mama would die!' I've never had any problems."
She revels in the attention.
"I am spoiled rotten," she confesses. "The guys treat me like I'm a queen. I just dance and smile my Miss Tennessee pageant smile."
A few days shy of 29, she figures she's still got a couple of good dancing years in her, and not just because of the inevitable pull of gravity; she's the mother of a 10-year-old boy.
"When I'm 30, he'll be turning 12," she says, "and I don't want to have to explain what I do."
In her off-hours, she's just another mom with plans to open a thrift and consignment store one day. She and her son rollerblade, go to movies, and hang out in the library "like geeks."
The one drawback to her lifestyle, she says, is that it's hard to keep a boyfriend. Still, she's in no hurry.
"I figure I've got plenty of time to get one before my butt falls," she says with a giggle. "There's plenty of time for that crazy stuff later."
It's the math problem of your worst nightmares: You have 6,800 roads, 50 elementary schools, 13 middle schools, and 12 high schools with a total bus-riding population of approximately 30,000 kids. If you have 325 school buses with an optimum capacity of 48, how do you maximize the efficiency of each route to satisfy 105 bus owners/contractors, 325 drivers, and 55,000 parents--and get the kids to school safely and on time 180 days each year? Tick tock tick tock tick tock.
Give up? Then breathe a sigh of relief that you don't have Jennifer Downs' job. The 27-year-old Montana native has the overwhelmingly complex and frequently frustrating responsibility of routing every Knox County school bus to ensure that all school-age children in Knox County residing further than 1.5 miles away from their zoned school are picked up and delivered safely, on time, with maximum efficiency every school day of the year. If that's not enough to boggle the mind, add in her incidental concerns: hills that create additional wear and tear on buses, contractor seniority, narrow and poorly-maintained roads, and "deadhead"--the distance between where the buses are housed and where their bus routes start, a distance for which the bus owner/contractors are not paid. Oh sure, she's got computers and software to assist her--in fact, she used to work for Edulog, the makers of the Education Logistics software package she utilizes--but there's a catch: She has to train the computer system how to work. So for now, she's busy with pens and paper maps, plotting out routes along the squiggles and curlicues that represent Knox County roads.
She began laying out bus routes in March for the school year that begins in August, and hopes to be finished by June. Her first meeting with bus owners went well this afternoon, but the phone has already started ringing.
"She's got 60 kids on that bus. We can't have that. That's too many kids," she says firmly into the receiver. "Listen Charlie, you cannot complain about reducing the loads on your bus!"
"They hate change," Downs says of her contractors and parents. She does her best to be understanding, but it's stressful nonetheless, especially "when they give you down the road and tell you what an awful job you're doing."
What contractors and parents don't understand are the constant changes Downs herself deals with--rezonings that shift whole neighborhoods (or, even more complex, half-neighborhoods) from one school to another, annual route shifts as students move from elementary to middle to high school, families who move in or out of a zone halfway through the school year.
A self-confessed "over-negotiator," Downs does her utmost to please everyone--an impossible task when dealing with protective parents and bottom-line bus owners. Complaints range from the mundane to the ridiculous: loose dogs in the neighborhood, squeaky bus brakes, bus stops too close to a house or too far from a house, bus routes with too many hills or too much deadhead. Childless homeowners complain if a bus stops in front of their house; parents complain if a bus doesn't stop in front of their house; busybodies complain about everything. One man has called Downs four times this week to complain that school bus headlights are blinding him.
"We also get all the complaints from parents who don't like the school their kids are zoned for," she says.
Two years prior to Downs' arrival in 1995, owners and drivers were comfortably entrenched in routes that hadn't varied in 26 years. In 1993, funding cuts eliminated 68 buses, and widened "parental control zones"--areas (theoretically) within walking distance from a school. The county was forced to downsize bus routes dramatically. By the time Downs arrived, public outcry had subsided, but population growth and building trends have continued to keep her on her toes.
Downs frequently spends her weekends driving the county back roads, making mental notes of road widths, potholes, precipitous shoulders, and tight turns that impinge on school bus safety. It's important to keep focused on the big picture, she says, and she tries not to get bogged down in the minutiae that might distract her from her ultimate goals: safety, timeliness, and efficiency. When a new bus costs as much as a new teacher, she knows her needs are secondary in the grand scheme of the educational system; that's how it should be, she acknowledges.
If there's a perk hidden among all the hassles and negotiations, she says, it's a thorough knowledge of the county she now calls home.
"We know all the shortcuts," she says with a wide grin.
In with a Bang
The sky is an exquisite robin's-egg blue this cloudless spring morning; the breeze off the Tennessee River diffuses the sun's intensity as efficiently as a Hunter ceiling fan, and Mother Nature's thermostat is set at a heavenly 67 degrees. In short, it's a perfect day to blow something up.
That's just what Duane Dickens has in mind. In his condo-size, earth-moving Komatsu with its giant claw appendage, the explosives expert skims the top layer of soil, scooping up tons of dirt and rock with the ease of a boy digging in the sand with a pail and shovel. It's not yet obvious, but he's building a lake, adroitly altering the landscape to complement the developer's blueprints.
This site is odd for East Tennessee, the square-jawed, weather-chiseled contractor notes: It's uncharacteristically devoid of the marble and granite that lie beneath so much of the region's red-clay surface. As an added bonus, only one existing structure adjoins the pre-construction site, making this job a piece of cake--relatively speaking. But after a half day's drilling and laying out of detonation wire, only one of 30 charges set to explode does. Grimly, he walks back to the site to investigate what went wrong. Onlookers hold their breath; it's especially dangerous to return to a site after a partial blast.
But Dickens returns unscathed and when he pops the cap again, the remaining 29 charges kick gravel, dirt and dust 20 or 30 feet in the air. It's anticlimactic, but Dickens says if it's done correctly, it's supposed to be.
Carelessness is the most frequent cause of accidental death in Dickens' line of work. One man lost his life using the wrong equipment to measure electrical charges (Dickens relies on non-electrical detonation); a second man failed to keep a safe distance from a blast.
Most accidents are man-made, but Mother Nature adds an occasional element of surprise as well. Though he works under weather conditions other types of contractors can't, summer thunderstorms that move in unexpectedly are particularly hazardous.
"Lightning can detonate the caps," he says.
Then there's the threat of damage to nearby structures--in this case, an adjoining house.
"Anytime we blast in an area that's congested, we have a company that comes out and examines nearby property for [structural flaws and weaknesses]," the mustachioed Dickens explains. "We're allowed a certain amount of vibration." He measures the earthquakes he generates using a seismic monitor so as to stay within state guidelines that establish the level of acceptable vibration.
The rules and regulations governing the explosives industry have tightened considerably in the last 10 years, Dickens says, but that's been to his advantage since he's been blasting in Knoxville and surrounding areas for 15 years.
"There's not a lot of people that do it," he says of his chosen profession, and the additional red tape has served to keep any fly-by-night competitors at bay. Governmental restrictions aside, prohibitive equipment costs have the same effect: The machinery he uses to drill into the earth's crust cost a cool quarter-million.
While cartoons and action-movies depict blasts that kaboom and spray debris thousands of feet skyward, Dickens says if that happens, "You've put way too much powder in." To avoid unnecessary and dangerous spray, Dickens covers the surrounding earth with blasting mats--12'-by-14' mats made from recycled truck tires--weighing as much as 3,500 pounds. The mats absorb the aftershock and protect bystanders from hazardous fallout. If all goes as planned, the blast is muffled and vibration is kept to a minimum.
The trickiest part is estimating exactly the amount of dynamite powder needed.
"You always wonder if it's right," Dickens says. "The nice thing is you find out pretty quick."
Dickens won't confess to a lifelong fascination with explosives but does admit a childhood flirtation with fireworks.
"Cherry bombs, M80s," he says with a small grin. "Oh yeah."