For 26 years, Mort Anoushiravani took care of your water.
He kept it clean and kept it flowing, first as an engineer and, eventually, as the boss at the Portland Water Bureau.
Then one day, a new mayor came along and did what new mayors do. Suddenly, at the pinnacle of his career, Anoushiravani was 52 years old and unemployed.
His four kids were grown, and he was divorced. So he jumped when Mercy Corps called to offer him a job taking care of the water – and the electricity, sewers and roads – in places such as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Kosovo.
As far as Plan Bs go, it's a pretty good one: Saving the world one drop of water at a time.
"I'm not going to say losing my job was necessarily a good thing," Anoushiravani said. "But it led to good things, as these things often do."
Anoushiravani figured he would go home to Iran when he came to the United States for college in 1973. He fell in love, his country fell to Islamic extremists and he wound up an unlikely Portlander for life.
He got an engineering degree and then a job at the water bureau, which provides H20 to a quarter of all Oregonians. He assumed he would spend his career in city government until that day in the summer of 2005 when Mayor Tom Potter decided to replace him as head of the bureau. Potter offered to let Anoushiravani, whose technical skills outpaced his political ones, stay on as the city's chief engineer, but he said "no thanks," to the demotion.
He'd worked with Mercy Corps, the Oregon-based relief agency, to help in Iran after the devastating 2003 earthquake. A few months after his very public dismissal, Mercy Corps executives offered Anoushiravani a newly created job running their infrastructure operation.
Here in the United States, we take it for granted that we can turn on a tap and water will come out or flip a switch and the lights will blink on. Elsewhere in the world, wars are fought over such basics.
"Infrastructure is often the first step toward recovery," said Anoushiravani, a short, round-faced man with sad brown eyes but a broad and easy smile. "Just making sure people have a place to get clean water, making sure they have a working irrigation system for their crops, making sure they have a way to get to market. Those are things that help you feel human."
In three years, he's seen plenty of destruction and death, heard gunshots outside his motel room and witnessed to the kind of poverty most Americans cannot imagine.
He's also been amused, like the time in Africa trip when his plane, about to land, suddenly veered upward about 100 feet from touchdown.
Sorry, folks, the captain announced, but there's a donkey on the runway.
More than anything else, he's been inspired: "I went into this classroom in Somalia, and there was literally no furniture, no chairs, no desks, nothing," he said. "The kids had brought in these big rocks to sit on. They were that desperate to learn."
Such scenes stay with him. But there's always more work. Anoushiravani hasn't had time to decorate the walls of his corner office in Mercy Corps' new Old Town building, an open, airy space as impressive as the nonprofit's mission. He returned from Africa three weeks ago. On Halloween, he leaves for North Korea.
"I do not have those emotional calluses yet, and I hope I do not get them," he says. "Leaving a place, leaving the people, is really the hardest part of the job. You're never really done."