"A straight flush always beats a full house" reads the business card of Abe Jones Septic Service, owned by Mark and Gayle Johnson for the last 20 years. Employing seven, including Mark's son Tim and son-in-law Matt Finnestad, this family's business is all we would rather flush and forget.Mark is actually the third Abe Jones, as explained by Matt: "Abe is fictitious. Sherman Jones was the original, and Mark thinks he picked Abe to be first in the phone book." Though Mark doesn't advertise, Abe Jones Septic Service is well known, with most business coming from word-of-mouth. They work as far as Summit Lake and all the way south of China Hat. Where there's a mess, Abe Jones Septic is available.
Jovial and always on the run, Mark has only a minute to spare after lunch before he must leave, grinning while saying, "You drew the short straw today," then instructing me to join Matt and new-hire (and family friend) Jake Dennis to service a septic tank in Cascade Village off Cooley in NE Bend.
Mark is installing a drainfield to the south, which draws a smile from his son-in-law Matt, who offers later, "All the guys who don't want to get dirty do installations."
Having worked for Mark 11 years, Matt is only partially joking, yet how he married Mark's daughter Casey and joined this family's rather foul business says much. "I was out of work and having dinner with the family. And Mark said, 'Do you want to go to Mount Bachelor?'"
This was no ski trip but, rather, a trip to pump. The sublime nature of this job strikes Matt often, as he describes a recent trip up to Paulina, "Driving way out there, the beautiful views, dirt roads, then the forest service vault, which are really outhouses."
"They have his and hers," adds Jake with a laugh, "But they mix underneath."
Our task today is regular maintenance of the septic system at Cascade Village, a retirement community of modular homes and double-wide trailers with decks and sunflowers planted all around. It's quaint yet our intent is suspect; the target is obvious to Matt, "You know the septic is near because the drainfield always has the greenest grass."
He's right, as we pull the hoses over a long lawn, Matt finds the riser lid and starts to unscrew its bolts to open it. All too soon we've drawn a crowd, retirees watching, leaning over wooden decks to watch; one man remains during the entire job, literally talking shit.
And, as that riser lid is lifted and contents revealed - white toilet paper, diapers and/or Depends, and too many handy wipes to count on top - Jake turns to me and says, "I thank God for any job these days." Though a rookie, Jake obviously likes the work, outdoors and something always new, especially after abandoning a career with awful hours and little pay as a musician throughout his 20s. "Considering my last profession I've come full circle."
Jake is sifting the excrement with a shovel as Matt slips the pipe inside to start sucking it out with a thick, heavy sound. But the stink isn't so bad. Matt explains the bacteria at work in the system as Jake breaks up a chunk reminiscent of roadkill. Sometimes they have to use "the clam" to detach and expel solid gunk, a task Jake describes with much sarcasm, "I'm pretty passionate about it... "
"Blowup dolls, diapers, you name it... " lists Matt when asked what they find in clogged systems, deliberately adding that handy wipes, paper towels, diapers and virtually anything advertised to decompose quickly and safe for systems, aren't. Thus, the top layer of white always found when the riser lid is lifted. Diet and throwaway items aside, basic maintenance and a little vigilance can prevent an emergency call.
"The biggest thing is a leaking toilet because it will flood the drainfield," explains Matt, detailing how Central Oregon and Bend offer unique challenges. How the city sprawls, yet many parts are still on septic systems, not a sewer. "DRW was the Wild West only 10 years ago, hunting cabins, still all septic. The county really has a big job of getting everyone up to code. People complain how the thousands of dollars to connect to the sewer system is prohibitive. It's not just the cost, though, try digging deep through the hard rock."
Adding to these issues are anomalies, like lava bowls that don't drain and constantly fill the drainfield or, more curious, how two houses built the same year by the same developer, only 50 feet apart, can have one septic tank that seems new and the other look like "Swiss cheese," as described by Matt, "I don't know if it's the acidity of their diet or what."
We're almost done, seven or so feet empty, and then there's a trickle of water followed by the plop of toilet paper and waste, maybe Mexican food last night. This brings us back to why we're here, all that Abe Jones Septic and the entire sewage infrastructure mean. "This is what separates us from a third-world country," offers Matt, "We don't have sewage running down the street."
And then the man who has been watching us says how kids in those countries have higher immunities to disease and if we were there we'd be totally sick. Silence follows, as Matt pulls the pipe then instructs Jake to close the valve.
This is a dirty job, but not a drop has landed on any of us. Other than the pipe and shovel, we're totally clean. This is when Matt pauses from replacing and bolting the riser lid and says, "When I started I got inoculations for hepatitis. And they told me I'm low-risk. So I told them that I'm going to be working with waste every day, but they still said I'm low-risk. So I said, 'Hmmm, I'll take the shot anyway.'"
Septic cleared and somewhat clean, for now, and pipes back on the truck, I mistakenly extend my hand to offer Jake a shake as thanks for the time. Instead he shakes his head and gives me a forearm bump. "That's how we do it."
They will pump five to seven septic systems on any given day, even late night when it's an emergency. Abe Jones Septic doesn't charge extra for emergencies, and Mark was almost dumbfounded that I later questioned his courtesy over the phone, "1,000 gallons costs what it costs. Why would I charge for after hours calls?"
The truck is now full, 3,000 gallons of total waste inside, filthy portholes swashing gray-brown. Another job done and more incoming. So Matt and Jake jump inside and wave farewell, off to empty the tank and have all of that waste processed with lime, later sprayed across alfalfa and farm fields throughout Central Oregon as fertilizer. We are what we eat, including all we thought long gone.
At a Glance
Abe Jones Septic Tank Service
1721 Northeast Cackler Lane,Bend 541-382-7761
Started: circa 1972.
Owners: Mark and Gayle Johnson
Fast fact: Abe Jones was actually an alias for company founder Sherman Jones.