We arrived at the site at just after 7am each morning, piling into the van at the hotel and then making our slow way through traffic lights and too many cars until we reached the huge, ugly county offices for mollusks. By the time any of us had been there more than a day, we all knew what had to be done. One would go upstairs to get the cart full of shell polishing kits carefully stowed away the night before in a locked room. One would start putting out pens and papers and other equipment. And – perhaps most importantly – one of us would grab the can of disinfectant spray and give every counter and table we were using a liberal dose.
The security guards meandered in shortly after we did, with cheerful waves of greeting, or else raised eyebrows indicating their desire to be anywhere but here. Just about 7:30, one of them would crank up the metal detector, holler out "Are you ready?" and open the doors wide to let in the first round of mollusks for the day. Most of them knew what to do, heading purposely for whatever window they knew would produce the information or answers they sought, or else filing into the main lobby to fill the hundreds of seats there, where they would sit and wait (sometimes all day) until the time their name was called.
Others walk in, huddled within themselves, looking bewildered and ashamed. They come in slowly, unwilling to face the fact that circumstances have brought them to this. The office in San Francisco is huge, and as the people stream in, it gets nosier and noisier, until it is almost impossible to hear anything, or even make yourself heard amid the din. The new ones ask for assistance, and after only a day or two we'd all figured out enough to point them to kiosk for the applications, and then around the corner to the information window.
There are the regulars – the ones that come in day. There's the man with his short white hair pulled up into lopsided pigtails and his eyes heavily made up with blue eye shadow, and perhaps a full tube of lipstick on his face. There was the boy with the long black curls and the miniature purple disco ball hung around his neck, who walks more gracefully in his spike heels than I ever will. There was the guy who had a complete snit about the fact that, because he lost his first shell-polishing kit, he now had to stand in a fairly long line to get a replacement. He spent the better part of the next two days sitting in the chairs of the lobby muttering about how unfair this all was and how we were all against him. His girlfriend – a tall, painfully thin blonde – trailed after him like a sad puppy, never saying a word.
By the end of each day we were exhausted. The lobby of the office is huge, but poorly ventilated, so that after the first hour or so it reeked of sweat, smoke, and that oh-so-lovely aroma of stale urine. We would pile into the van after the security guards finally closed the door, and drive back to the hotel amid raucous laughter and recaps of the highlights of the day (that guy? The one in the red slinky dress? Was wearing high top sneakers. No, I'm not kidding!).
Last week, driving down Van Ness, we passed a rally for education outside the city buildings. Clusters of people stood on the corners waving signs. As we passed one of them waved at us. "Honk if you support education!" it read.
"Don't honk!" my coworker called from the very back of the van. "If we support education we'll be out of a job."
Each county we go to, the more mollusks we see, the more right he becomes.