4:05pm: José Conesa, 30, prepares his equipment: helmet, fluorescent overalls, waterproof gloves, rubber crotch-high waders, boots with tungsten soles (that will grip but won’t spark), a utility belt with a gas detector and mask, and flashlight. This is the second year he has worked in Barcelona’s sewers, clearing blockages, maintaining the 120-year-old network and keeping the flow flowing away from the city.
4:40pm: Jose and three colleagues park their van at the junction of Passeig Sant Joan and Carrer d’Aragó. They cordon off the area. Two stay aboveground in case of dangers such as gas or a sudden heavy
flow brought on by storm water. They also guard against “feather-brained passers-by” falling down the manhole.
4:45pm: A gas detector is lowered into the manhole by rope. Its alarm will warn if hydrogen sulfide – which can asphyxiate instantly – is at a level of 15 parts per million (ppm) or higher. The alarm stays silent, so José descends, and his buddy follows.
4.50pm: He reaches the bottom. It doesn’t smell too bad: sewage is 90 percent water. Soon he is up to his knees in it. He stirs and pokes the bottom of the channel with a steel rod. He stirs up chunks of fibrous stuff from wet newspaper, which can block the flow so it backs up into homes.
4:50–6:20pm: José walks for three kilometers under Barcelona’s streets, looking for blockages and trouble. In two years, he has seen fewer than 30 rats.
6:30pm: Inspection over, equipment cleaned, José is in the shower. He favors Head & Shoulders shampoo, often using half a bottle to get rid of the smell and “any other kind of crap stuck to my skin.”