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Check out some of the oddest jobs around

By Carl Kozlowski

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Imagine dishing out 10,000 meals and making just two dollars a day. Or having twenty minutes to run into the midst of raging chemical fires and rescue people before your oxygen tank runs out.

Now picture yourself as a Playboy photographer. Or being swarmed by poop-spraying penguins. How about blasting ovens to carry on the chimney-cleaning tradition set by the beloved Dick Van Dyke?

These are actual jobs performed by real people across Chicago. While most of us toil quietly behind computers, or suck up to customers as retail staffers, there are hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people in our city with truly odd jobs.

Come punch the clock with five of these people.

Most kids love animals, and many entertain fantasies of working with exotic species as a vet or a dolphin trainer riding atop God's most slippery creatures as they arc through the water. But only a lucky few who grow up and apply for a job in a field like aquatic animal training will get their foot in the blow hole.

Pete Davey is one of the chosen breed. As a senior trainer and lead caretaker of the beluga whales at the Shedd Aquarium for the past eight years, he has built a career as a real-life, aquatic Dr. Doolittle.

"It's a tough field because there's only about 1,000 jobs like this nationwide, and 1,000 applicants for each one of those jobs," says Davey, who gets invited to every show-and-tell his kids have. "It's funny because you really have to love animals to handle the time commitment involved."

Davey starts his day at 6:30am with paperwork before supervising the morning's ninety-minute food preparation for the animals. More than 1,800 pounds of "restaurant-quality" seafood (to minimize the chance of bacterial infection) are sorted by ten staffers and volunteers.

The most involved feeding experience of the morning takes place in the penguin exhibit, where thirty-seven birds waddle around each day wearing numbered, color-coded ear tags to ensure they receive their own special diets. Protected by a thick inner coat and a waterproof outer coat designed to keep me from freezing if I fall into the penguin pool, I'm led into the 37-degree habitat with Davey's warning: "Penguins will walk across your feet and tug at your coat. Don't respond or they'll peck at you instead of eating their food."

Penguins aren't the peaceful, silent creatures you see from a distance in documentaries on Antarctica. Instead, they swarm around strangers and unleash a horrendous braying noise. And watch where you're stepping the next time you find yourself enclosed with the aerially challenged birds. Penguins produce a lot of guano, shooting it out without compunction. Hitting you is not their concern. But that's nothing compared to watching penguin parents feed their young. The babies peck and harass their parents while waiting for nourishment. Then daddy leans in and swallows their mouth before spewing his own regurgitated breakfast, a stringy, mucous-like string of freshly digested parent food, down their gullets.

As I run from the habitat, Davey invites me to stick around for the beluga whale feeding. Armed with the promise that I won't be seeing any more gastric fluids this morning, I wade into the water. While I don't see any food (the whales are fed during the public training sessions), I am invited to stick my arm down the whale's mouth and stroke its tongue while Davey promises to keep its mouth open. Even if he can't keep its mouth pried open, I probably won't be hurt anyway, because beluga whales only have a few, very small teeth.

Having successfully kept my arm intact, Davey reveals his secret. "Peacefulness is achieved through trust and building a relationship with the animals firsthand," he says. "Once you learn to work with them, you can even turn them over and take a blood test from their tail."

Unfortunately, the next odd job holder doesn't invite me for any hands-on training at his craft. "The first reaction I get from people who hear about my job is that I'm a pervert or a sexist," says Playboy photographer Victor Sanabrais. "But the men usually say, 'Wow, you must love your job!'" Taking 500 pictures a day on location, 28-year-old Sanabrais analyzes negatives and camera positions the way another man might study a stock portfolio. But Sanabrais realizes he's in a business where the commodities are women.

"People who don't understand the business think we all have orgies and do drugs, but it's just a business to us," he says. "You can find bad elements in any business, but when I'm working I'm completely focused on creating beautiful images. It's only after the shoots, when I'm studying which negatives to choose, that I step back and say 'Wow. I'm really lucky to be doing this.'"

Sanabrais chanced into the business. He grew up in Bloomingdale with "very open" parents who allowed him and his older brother to read Hef's guide to lusty living, then attended chiropractor college. His rescue came through a summer job as an assistant to another photographer of nudes, from whom he learned not only about photography, but also about how to work with models in a revealing way.

"There's a right way and a wrong way to do this, because positive energy makes the difference," he explains. "You could say 'Stick out your ass,' but you should say 'OK, push out your tush a little more, that'll make your curves more visible.'"

In fact, much of a typical 9-to-5 shoot is taken up with such mundane details as makeup and styling, as well as the infamous seductive props. Finding the right location can be tough, although several of the city's finer dining establishments have secretly thrown open their doors for after-hours shoots.

The most difficult part of the job lies in finding a nice way to coat the truth when a prospective model doesn't live up to the magazine's standards. And mishaps can occur in the midst of even the most intense shoots.

"We once had a woman lather herself with baby oil before having her pose climbing across furniture," he recalls. "Instead of using a sofa, I said 'let's find something else this time,' and the model picked an orange plastic chair that was kind of like an inflatable beanbag seat.

"I got the camera ready and told her to climb onto the chair. Problem was, she'd gotten a little too slick with the oil and she slid right off crashing into the floor. Needless to say, that didn't make the centerfold."

You remember "Mary Poppins," the wondrous tale of Julie Andrews as the nanny who flies with her umbrella and sings with cartoon animals. The coolest of all Disney kid flicks also features Dick Van Dyke as the world's most talented chimney sweep, creating an indelible impression of sweeps as men who love to sing and dance.

There are 3,000 fully licensed sweeps in America, including 34-year-old Bill Majewski of Arlington Heights. As the proprietor of City Chimney Sweeps, Majewski and partner Howard Thompson blast potentially deadly soot from Chicago chimneys and send nesting critters packing.

"People always wonder how you get into doing this, but I just answered an ad for chimney sweep school," says Majewski. "I was a carpenter and wanted something to pick up money in the winter months, but I've been so busy that I never went back."

That was four years ago, and now Majewski works fifteen-hour days, six days a week, on his mission to prevent Chicagoans from getting carbon-monoxide poisoning or burning down their homes. For doing the dirty deed, he gets $150 per chimney.

The six-foot-plus Majewski never actually slides down the chimney or sings on the rooftops. Using a carwash-size vacuum tube to suck the muck, he unspools an absurdly long brush from a wheel to dust off the walls before using a dental-style scraping device to rub off the ground-in dirt. Throughout the process, he wears a three-layer mask to block the soot from entering his breathing passages. Once finished, he climbs onto the roofs and checks the results from the top down.

"My worst experience was when I saw a raccoon inside a chimney and tried to push it up and out of the top," he recalls. "Instead, the raccoon plunged down and landed on my arm. I screamed and ran into the next room, where the homeowner asked what the hell was going on. When I tried to explain it to her, the raccoon had already run back up the chimney. I told her that one way or another, she'd gotten rid of it."

Perhaps the most dangerous job in Chicago is performed by the fire department's Hazardous Materials Unit. The brave band of thirteen firemen responds to the cases that less hardy souls pull back from: bomb threats, explosions and chemical fires.

The unit has been in place since 1985, and, according to Haz Mat leader Captain Gene Ryan, it's the group that takes the most time to assess a situation before plunging into the heart of a fire. "Our big rig carries over a million dollars in equipment ranging from cell phones, computers and fax machines to dozens of special firesuits designed to ensure no vapors get in or out," says Ryan. "[With the suits,] that means [the men are] safe from being contaminated by the chemicals they're dealing with, but it also means that when their oxygen tanks run out, they won't be able to breathe."

This is perhaps the ultimate threat that the Haz Mat unit faces. Amid the tensions of evacuated citizens and potentially dozens of other fire and safety officials, Haz Mat crew members don seventeen-layer spacesuits, strap on oxygen tanks and attempt to rescue people and douse flames, all within twenty-minute time frames.

Each oxygen tank has forty minutes of air, the extra twenty-minute stretch given over to washing the suit off in a 200-gallon decontamination pool so the occupant can climb out safely. Once the fireman's vital stats are checked, the entire process starts over. Four Haz Mat members work each eight-hour shift, and some situations require more than twenty-four hours to contain.

"We had a potential biological bomb to get rid of on the South Side a couple weeks ago," recalls Ryan. "One minute we're relaxing at the station, the next we're spending twelve hours getting rid of one bomb and trying to determine whether another was elsewhere in the vicinity."

And while the job requires extremely understanding spouses and families to cope with the daily risks involved (three firemen have been killed this year), the Haz Mat team hasn't forgotten to keep a sense of humor as well.

"I remember finding a hanging victim after two hot summer weeks in an attic," recalls member Kirt Jenssen. "I can't really blame the people thinking they smelled something poisonous up there. And of course there was the man who was so drunk that he forgot he was on the third floor when he tried to sneak out on his wife through the window."

Admit it. We're all curious about what it's like to go to prison. What would force us there? How would we find a way to survive? And, most importantly, could we handle the food?

I satisfy this morbid curiosity by calling Joan Stockmal, public information officer for the Cook County Department of Corrections. Though possessing the motherly air of Barbara Bush, Stockmal knows how to be no-nonsense after 4 1/2 years in the prison business.

"You can never be too careful," offers Stockmal by way of explanation. Indeed. Two sets of doors with I.D. checkpoints lead into each wing of the prisons, which are further joined by a complex maze of underground tunnels to ensure that prisoners have no direct escape route. Deep within the heart of Division Two lies the kitchen. It is here that I am issued a uniform shirt along with a hairnet, plastic gloves and a body-length plastic apron.

I am about to dish out dinner for 10,000 inmates ranging from petty thieves to hardened killers. The assembly line processes every daily meal, racking up yearly totals of more than a million. The men in the line volunteer for the work to get out of their cells, and for their efforts, make $2 a day.

Standing next to random "detainees" (the official prison term), I am handed a scoop and told to slap butter onto the passing trays.

But first, I have to get to the assembly line. Escorted by a guard, I am immediately spotted by the veteran inmate kitchen staff and greeted with bone-chilling cries of "New meat! New meat!" Are they calling out for more food supplies? Probably not. I dollop butter for the next two hours, continuously checking my watch.

Problem is, I can't quite get the hang of releasing the scooped butter. The guy next to me takes the scoop from my hand and mumbles that it's all in the wrist.

The most frightening aspect isn't the food, however. Rather, it occurs when an unwitting guard thinks I am an inmate who has wandered in without permission. Without my wallet and I.D. on me, I can't prove otherwise. The surrounding prisoners cry out for me to be sent to "fight school" in Cell Block 11: the murderers' ward. Finally, I notice the head of food service and run for freedom.

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