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If you drive around San Diego, you’ve seen Mario Escalera’s work. At 7 a.m. he gets his daily marching orders to begin the never-ending task of filling the potholes that mark the city’s roads. Escalera and his partner in the city’s Streets Division patrol San Diego’s North Park and Hillcrest neighborhoods while a list of potholes requiring his attention pop up on his laptop.
Escalera, 42, has worked for the city for more than half his life, including 18 years in the Streets Division. His current job, driving a truck and patching the road with fresh asphalt, is his favorite. He’s outside all day and can get anywhere in the city without looking at a map. We spoke with Escalera this week in North Park and noticed signs of work on his boots. They were covered in dried asphalt.
What’s the biggest pothole you’ve ever seen?
The biggest pothole I’ve ever seen. It was over there on 28th south of [Interstate] 5. In front of NASSCO. That one looked like a Jacuzzi. It was that big. I could have gotten in, put some water in there and taken a nice shower. That came to my mind really quick.
How long ago was that?
That was at the end of last year. It took like one ton of asphalt.
One ton? No.
Yes. It was that big.
What did you do when you saw it?
We just stopped. It was right in the middle of the road. We had to stop. You can’t just turn your head away from it.
How long did it take?
It took easily like 40 minutes because of the traffic. We have to do the traffic control and all that.
Have you been by there since?
Yes. It’s still good.
Tell me about the material you use.
We have at least four types of asphalt. We have half-inch, which is like a big rock. The big crew they use that for dig outs and all that. We have three-quarters. We have sheet. Sheet is like sand. It has no rock. It’s just like sand mixed with some kind of emulsion. It creates the asphalt. I use three-eighths fine. It’s like a smaller rock and for potholes it’s perfect because it will stick inside the pothole and the cars won’t bring it up.
So that’s used for all potholes?
I used to use sheet. But I noticed that all the cars were lifting up the new patches. So I kind of put that in my mind that I had to get three-eighths fine. A little bit more rock.
Is that a decision you made?
That’s a decision that you make as you are learning and you are experiencing how it looks or how you can do it better.
What’s the most interesting story you have from doing this?
It was a long time ago, downtown. It’s not a good one, but it’s funny. We used to take care of downtown, all the trash. We used hot water to clean the streets, the sidewalks.
We were cleaning the sidewalk on 5th and G, on the west side. We already knew all the homeless there. There was this guy and he was a veteran, ex-Vietnam and all that. My partner, we used to have those pickup sticks to pick up the trash, and he came behind the guy and picked up a piece of trash. The guy reacted out of nothing. He started screaming at us and then he pulled a Rambo knife. He started chasing us. On the sidewalk, on the street.
You were running?
We were running away from that guy because you never know, and well he was crazy. He was chasing us with a knife and it was a scary thing.
How did that end?
We had some offices near there and we hid. Then we called the police. From there, I don’t know.
The nice ones are when we’re doing potholes, the people come to us and they offer us water or they offer us sodas. Lately I’ve been noticing the people are more thankful to us. Every time we’re patching or something, the people that go by they go, “Hey thank you guys, we appreciate it.”
Everyone around the city admits that there isn’t enough money to fix the roads. How does that affect what you do every day?
That’s a thing that is very frustrating for us. There’s some streets they scream for mill and pave. People keep calling because they say there’s potholes. When we get there, there’s no potholes, but the whole street is full of cracks and lumps. There’s nothing, at least on these trucks, that we can do about that. They were not made for paving. That’s out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do. We’re just the workers.
But yeah, money’s a big issue here.
Do people that you meet ever talk about the fact that there’s a lot of potholes?
Yes. I understand. You can’t argue with the people. They have their right to complain about it.
San Diego is such a big city, and sometimes people don’t stop and think about that. I have friends, they tell me, “Hey Mario are you lazy? There’s a pothole here on Third Avenue and Broadway.” I’m like, “You know what? That’s Chula Vista, man.”
Asphalt has a strong smell.
Is it hard to get it out of your clothes?
It’s hard to get out of our clothes. I’m not going to lie when I tell you that I like it. I like the smell of asphalt. But I know it’s very harmful for us. But it doesn’t bother me anymore.
Does your wife like it?
She never complains.