Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I Recommend Divorce

Compressed Disaster

I was reading a blog over at Mrs. Hall about the nightmares that we sometimes run into when we have to enter into other peoples homes in the course of our work. Often times in our search for a career we land in jobs that we never really intended to pursue. These jobs sometimes lead us into places that we did not know existed and wish we had never found out about.

In a previous career, I was an insurance claims adjuster. This job quickly teaches you one thing. No one likes insurance or claims adjusters. I often found myself making up stories at parties when folks I did not know asked me what I did for a living. If I ever told them I worked in insurance, I was bombarded with a list of questions about how their agent had screwed them and if it was legal. Sort of like being an oncologist. Everyone has a question about cancer.

As a claims adjuster, you only meet people who are in crisis. No claimants showed up at my office to give me a cake, or free movie tickets or say 'great job'. They usually showed up to spit in my face or serve me with a subpoena.

In the course of doing this line of work, I collected more horror stories than I can ever recount. The horror had more to do with the way people lived and perceived what was normal as opposed to the actual claims they expected payment for.

One such claim was a burned out shed in the back yard of a home in Yuma, Arizona. The shed held paint and tools and had caught fire. Simple enough claim, go out and measure the shed, verify what its contents were, apply some depreciation, subtract the deductable....ta-da....claim settled. Life is never that simple though.

I showed up at the home and was greeted by an elderly gentlemen who had a hard time getting around. He led me around the side of the house to the back yard and there was the shed, or what was left of it. So far, so good. I photographed the remains and measured it and then asked if we could go inside to add up the numbers. I followed him through the back door of the home and that is when things started to get a bit strange.

All through he house, there were these little clear plastic tubes running along the floor. They almost looked like clear spaghetti. I stepped over them on the way to the kitchen. The old man sat at the kitchen table and proceeded to put a set of the tubes in his nose. It was evident that he had emphysema and was on oxygen most of the time. As I followed the tubes to their terminus, there stood two 6 foot high oxygen cylinders in the corner of the kitchen. I never realized you could buy oxygen canisters that large.

As I started taking out the paperwork, what I assumed to be the old man's wife came shuffling into the kitchen to join us. That is when I noticed the second part of the equation. She was puffing on a cigarette as she sat down at the table. It was then that I looked more closely at the centerpiece on the kitchen table. It was huge and in fact was nothing more than an ash tray....with about 200 cigarette butts in it.

I looked at the man wheezing across the table, seated next to his smoking wife...and between the lite cigarette and the oxygen tubes in his nose was about 18 inches.

It quickly dawned on me, that the house could go up at any minute. Never mind the fact that this man could barely breath and his wife was blowing smoke in his face. The idea of that much open flame near that much compressed / explosive gas sort of made my heart skip a beat. If the shed fire had spread to the house, half the neighborhood would have been blown away.

I added up the figures as soon as I could and got the hell out of there.

The lesson learned here is that these folks were not out of the norm or freaks. I ran across these types all the time in the course of adjusting insurance claims. These are the types of lessons you can't learn about in school or from a book. This is where bad choices will lead you. Into an old oxygen tent with a smoking spouse to wait for the grime reaper.

We all need to have jobs like this at some point in our lives, to give us perspective and teach us some lessons. What I worry about more than anything else, is not the old folks living with the oxygen canisters, but the thousands of folks that I have encountered since, that don't know they are there.