The Ten Toughest Jobs in America
Seven hundred feet within the belly of the earth, it is cool, dark and silent, save for the occasional rumble of the conveyor belt bearing black coal toward the sunlight above. The tunnels, sprayed with limestone powder to keep down the killing coal dust, are a ghostly gray. Every workday for 17 years, Hans Mohr, 40, has descended into this strange, inhuman world. "The whole first year I just couldn't get used to it," he admits, "but you start, and the money's good and you stay." Three men he has known have died in mine-related accidents. Earning $115 a day, Mohr rises at 5 a.m. and operates an ominous-looking, 60-ton machine called a Joy miner, which carves coal from the cavern walls. "It's not so much that it's dangerous down here," he says, his face lighted by the glow from his battery powered miner's hat, "but if something does happen, it's hard to get out."
Ben Colli, window washer, Atlanta
Maybe Ben Colli has a fear of the earth. Or he's got an allergy to safety. Even Colli, 38, will admit, "I've lost all normality in my life. It's normal for me to go over a 75-story building." When Colli says "over," he means falling at around 75 mph with only a rope to sustain him. Of course that's when he's having fun jumping off the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel—his annual Fourth of July stunt. In everyday life Colli owns Rainbow Services, which will spiff up any building. Colli can replace a dead tree in a planter six stories high in a hotel atrium, hoist a 5,000-pound tapestry 42 stories in the air and clean the skylight 28 stories up in the Nashville Hyatt Regency. Part Algonquin Indian, Colli does about five "big jobs" a year (for up to several thousand dollars each) and confesses, "I've lost 15 pounds not sleeping or eating before a job. But since I was a kid, the big thing was jumping off roofs. It's natural to end up scaring myself to death."
Bobby Merrill, tanner Philadelphia
"What smell?" cackle Bobby Merrill, 52 (below), and Johnny Downs, 48, whenever a stranger asks the obvious question upon venturing into the reeking pit where they have labored for a combined total of 59 years. These two gentle giants work the "wet room" of a Philadelphia leather factory, where rotting cow flesh combines with the stench of caustic chemicals to create a noisome nightmare. But it's better than it used to be. "I couldn't take it when they burned the hair off the skin," Downs explains. "It made me sick." (Today they use chemicals.) Merrill scrapes and pounds the cowhide. After being dyed it is dried on huge cylinders that Downs operates. Despite the heat, the stench and occasional 14-hour days, both men love their jobs—and not just because they make about $30,000 a year. "I wouldn't do anything else," says Merrill.
Casandra Deal, meter person Washington, D.C.
First, Casandra Deal admits, "People look at me and hate my guts." Then they put their loathing into action. The perky 26-year-old has been spat upon, sworn at, hit in the eye, pulled from her Jeep by the hair, scratched on the face and chased by a dog. Marauding gangs have hurled bottles at her, and everyone from a 300-lb. Terminator clone to a 70-year-old grandmother wants her dead. (The latter told Deal she was going to hire somebody to "blow your damn brains out"). From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, Deal writes out approximately 125 parking tickets daily on the streets of our nation's capital. But, she says curtly, "Don't call us 'meter maids.' I don't clean meters; I'm not a maid." The D.C. native became a "parking control aide" back in 1983 because "I thought the job looked real easy, just walking around all day. I thought the uniforms were neat. It seemed," she says wistfully, "like fun." Today this battle-scarred veteran, who earns $14,000 annually, says in her best Hill Street Blues voice, "In this job you have to watch your back all the time. Every day I get up and go to work, I say, 'God, help me make it back.' "
Rick Sullivan, tower climber Nashua, N.H.
Once a year, around 2 in the morning, the observant Chicago resident, looking carefully at the Sears Tower, would see the lonely figure of Rick Sullivan perched on the antennae of the world's loftiest building, 1,707 feet above the Windy City. He chooses the wee hours because the seven million watts of radio and TV waves emitted during the day are turned off or drastically reduced. Every year Sullivan, 32, scales hundreds of structures—among them smoke stacks, ships and television towers—to service or change the lights. An employee of Flash Technology—a Nashua, N.H. company—Sullivan is paid $30,000 a year, and his assignments take him all over the world. He estimates he has scaled one million feet in his 10-year career, in temperatures ranging from 20 degrees below zero during a Minnesota gale to 110 degrees in Oklahoma. "I've made some mistakes," admits Sullivan, who has been knocked unconscious, suffered electric shock and been temporarily blinded by the sun's ultraviolet rays. Despite these experiences, Sullivan stays cool. "Hey, I can't get nervous," he says, "or I wouldn't be in this business."
Jordan Youngerman, M.D. Detroit
Blood slowly congeals on his green surgical smock as Dr. Jordan Youngerman, 27, describes his job in a Detroit hospital emergency room: "All a surgical resident does is eat, sleep and sew up people. The most important thing a resident can know," he jokes, "is how to phone for pizza." Youngerman has just stitched up the lip of a mugging victim and now, a few minutes before 2 a.m., he awaits the next crisis. "You can see 50 to 60 patients a night," he says. "They've been shot, stabbed and jumped on." Youngerman is on duty 12 hours a night, six nights a week and earns $21,800 a year. He has learned that summer is busier than winter, nights busier than days, Fridays and Saturdays worse than other nights, and the first three days of the month—when welfare checks come out—are busier than the rest of the month. Two a.m., when the bars close, is the worst. "Even on a real snoozer of a night," he says, "suddenly you're faced with a guy who's been shot." Almost immediately it is announced that a "gunshot [victim] from Highland Park" is arriving in three minutes. Says Youngerman: "It never stops."
Sandy Decker, C.P.A. and mom Los Angeles
She's given up her sports car and put away her antiques. She's quit shopping for stylish clothes, and the very idea of working out at a health club makes her giggle. At the end of a day, after snuggling her quadruplets—Elyssa, Jessica, Jeffrey and Anna, all age i—into their jammies and off to sleepyland, Sandy Decker simply collapses in the gigantic playpen that used to be the living room of her San Fernando Valley home. Then she utters a heartfelt sigh: Thank God they now sleep through the night. This time last year, Decker confesses, "It was constant baby. One would wake up every two hours, and just as I would get one back to sleep, another would wake up and another and another." A single mother and a C.P.A. with her own firm, Decker rises at 6 a.m. to change all four. A babysitter, who arrives around 8:15, feeds them, and Decker returns for dinner and bedtime. Quadrupling everything is also hard financially. "No matter how much money there is, with four babies to buy for, there is never enough."
Hugh Duffy, firefighter Boston
For 33-year-old firefighter Hugh Duffy, the date—Jan. 6, 1981—is seared in memory. He and members of about 30 Boston fire companies were battling an eight-alarm blaze when suddenly the old building's upper floors gave way. Flaming beams crashed down, killing two of Duffy's colleagues and disabling several others. "I came away thinking it could have been me," Duffy says. "But you can't dwell on that or you can't do your job." This was not Duffy's first encounter with death. "We've all seen dead bodies," he says. "You like to think they were already dead when the fire department arrived on the scene. Otherwise you'd be a basket case." Duffy earns $31,000 a year fighting dozens of fires and says the hardest part is seeing the survivors standing on the curb, watching their dreams burn. Still, Duffy relishes the battle. "You come out of there drenched with sweat," he says. "The fire is out, and you're tired enough to fall asleep. This is a profession you don't leave."
Doug Thompson, poop buster Maplewood, Minn.
Make no bones about it: Doug Thompson is raking it in as a canine "poop buster" in suburban Minneapolis. "Your dog does a job," he says, "we do a job." For a monthly fee of $10, Thompson, 35, will clean a one-dog yard once a week. With two pooches the price jumps to $17, and three-dog blight means a $23 bite. Thompson treats some 40 yards on weeknights and occasional weekends. He has a regular assembly line job at American Can but scooping pays so well he considers giving it up. Armed with a fishnet lined with a heavy duty garbage bag and a garden glove, Thompson wields a sawed-off rake for about 20 minutes per job, which, his friends chortle, makes him "No. 1 in the No. 2 business." At present he takes the fruits of his labor to a dumpster, but he has bigger dreams. "I'm in touch with the agriculture department of the University of Minnesota," the super scooper says. "There's a way to turn it into compost." Ah, the sweet smell of success.
Lauren Hauser, ballerina New York
Twelve hours a day, six days a week, seven months a year, for the past 10 years, Lauren Hauser, 27, has been on her toes. She is one of the corps of the New York City Ballet, and the toes show it. "Ugh," the 115-lb., 5'6" ballerina says as she reveals her gnarled feet. "They're so ugly." The callouses, bumps, corns and blister scars all testify to years of class, rehearsal and performance that Hauser has undergone since she first donned a tutu at age 9. Like many dancers she has scoliosis—curvature of the spine—as well as substantial knee problems. "Sometimes you wake up in the morning and you can barely walk," she admits, but insists that "most dancers can dance through more pain than people might think." And more than most people would for her $30,000 a year. "You have to be so aware of your body," she says, which means no solace in heaping portions of comforting tortellini or glazed donuts. "When you're thin," she says, "you dance big because you're proud and you look great."