Jun. 16, 2008
I never thought of a closed freeway offramp as someplace I'd want to be standing at 2 a.m. on a Sunday -- until I tried teetering 30 feet over it, on a 2-foot-wide catwalk in 20 mph winds.
Today I'm the newest and scaredest member of the Nevada Department of Transportation's graffiti abatement crew, a five-man outfit charged with de-tagging all state roadway structures in Las Vegas.
There is no guardrail around the Interstate 15 southbound Sahara Avenue sign, by the way; nothing whatsoever to grab hold of except the sign itself. (And you can't. I tried.)
"You'll be fine," says Vincent Ruiz, the 230-pound graffiti remover to my left, whose every footstep makes the catwalk bounce like a diving board with one jump already taken.
Our harnesses are clipped to the bottom of the catwalk, so we probably wouldn't die from a fall. I'm guessing that the midair stop wouldn't be much fun, however -- considering how the harness attaches to certain lower body regions.
"Yeah, but it would make a great photo," says Review-Journal photographer Louie Traub.
Walls and bridges are spray-painted their original colors, signs scrubbed with solvents. The workers wear Flying Elvi-like white jumpsuits and goggles to protect themselves from exposure.
"It's a stable job," said Ruiz, 32. "And I like working where my father was working."
Before retiring, Ruiz's dad worked 25 years for the Transportation Department -- on a landscape crew. Ruiz is finishing his ninth year. He works from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays -- and once a month on a weekend night, when lane closures are required. He earns $17 an hour.
"I was born and raised here, too," Ruiz said, "so I like to keep the place clean for my family and friends when they come in town.
"I don't like it looking all ugly and stuff."
Not only is there danger in graffiti removal, there's drama. Earlier tonight, spray-painted black and menacing across a Spring Mountain Road overpass, was a message aimed presumably at this very crew.
"Step your game up!" it said.
Ruiz stared upward, like Batman being taunted by the Riddler.
"What can you do?" he asked.
Tonight, the removal of this message and others -- including "J YISNER," "EWK" and "Poop Dick" -- will cost taxpayers approximately $5,000 and, judging from all the expletives yelled at us by motorists forced to bypass Sahara, considerable aggravation.
When police catch a tagger on the I-15, they call Ruiz's crew, which maintains a photo database for all removed tags. If a match is discovered, the suspect also will be charged with the previous offense.
"People think taggers are just young punks, and a lot of them are," said highway maintenance supervisor Albert Chavez. "But most of this is pretty serious stuff -- and people don't realize how serious. There are a lot of gangs involved in this, trying to claim their territories.
"It's a wonder we haven't been shot at yet."
There is no easy access to these places, by the way. People assume that the freeway sign poles have ladder rungs, but they don't. For us, a boom truck is necessary. Yet this is the crew's second visit to the Sahara sign since January.
"They just shimmy up," Ruiz said. "You'd be surprised the lengths taggers will go to."
Recently, Ruiz's crew discovered a climbing harness tucked underneath the I-15 Russell Road bridge.
"When you clean up the graffiti and the next day it's back up, that's what sucks the most," Ruiz said.
By the way, if any police officers are reading this, I have important information regarding "Poop Dick," information I gathered while unsuccessfully trying to reach the top of his signature on the Sahara sign as my co-workers on the ground chuckled.
Your perp is taller than 5-foot-5.
The wind howls again, shaking the Sahara sign like a 900-square-foot leaf. Ruiz, amused by my freaking out, looks down at the catwalk, where he has been hiding a secret. Segments of fold-up guardrailing have sat folded down this whole time.
"You can lift these up if you want," he says.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.