Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Garbageman’s Christmas Tale

On a bitter-cold Thursday afternoon near Christmastime last year, I pulled up to a stop in Roseville; a modest rambler with a yard full of Christmas lights and figurines (aka "gaak"). I was training in my friend Mark, another underemployed Lutheran pastor who, like me, thought there was something oddly fitting about “men of the cloth” hauling trash.

I flipped the lid on that first can of the wintery morning, and looking back at us was the cherubic face of a plastic figure of the baby Jesus. Mark and I looked at each other and broke into laughter, wondering at the odds that the first stop together of two pastors in a garbage truck would involve Jesus in the trash. We also mused at what moved people to throw it out: Was it broken? Light no longer worked? Faded from exposure? Or just time for a new cresh…perhaps one where Jesus does not have pale skin and blue eyes?

Anyway, I showed Mark how to tip the can with the hydraulic lift and we moved on. By the end of the day we had all but forgotten about baby Jesus until we got to the dump. Because first in is last out, the last item to fall atop the pile of garbage we had collected that day was the figurine of Jesus, only now smeared with the garbage in which he had been compressed.

I simply had to snap the picture. And, like so many of the images that present themselves in trash, this got me thinking. I thought about the extent to which it is a startling image of our disposable culture. Use it and toss it, the turning of natural resources into mountains of trash, but also the way in which people, workers, are increasingly viewed as disposable. This Jesus was disposable too. Is not that the way the story goes in the Gospel as well? He is disposed of at Golgatha, the site where it is said garbage from the city was tossed.

But it is Christmas, and not time to contemplate such unpleasantness, right? A time for hearth and home, warm welcome and good cheer, tidings of comfort and joy, except…

The story is that Jesus was born into poverty and dirt, his family was homeless that cold night. They took shelter in a stable, most likely a dank cave full of animals and manure. From birth to death, the Gospels speak of Jesus as a person of lowly means and estate who lived with the “unwashed” and the out-cast, whom the powerful refused... and treated as refuse.

The more I think of it, the more “The Little Lord Jesus Asleep in the Dump,” as my daughter gleefully sang when she saw the picture, is a truer and more powerful image to contemplate at Christmas than the shiny, happy, pretty ones we would rather imagine and place in our yards.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Back Alley Prophet

"The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls..."
                      - P. Simon

And also on old Toyota pickup trucks parked in the alley! The first time I passed this truck in St. Paul it brought a smile to my face and moved me to thought. That's what prophets and poets do; their words disturb.

The words stenciled on the side of the truck are: "DARE TO DISTURB THE UNIVERSE."

It's a line from T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" (ok, I had to look it up). In the poem it is in the form of a question: "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

Do I? Eliot calls this the "overwhelming question." This is also the poem with the famous line: "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." The poem muses that there is time for a hundred indecisions before tea. Do I dare? Do I dare?

The poem and the Toyota (and its owner) point to the need we have to live out loud, to create, to choose and to act, to do express what is in us to the world. But it also speaks of the hesitancy, the fear, the worry over exposing ourselves, standing out, making mistakes, being wrong and looking foolish. The aging Prufrock (with a bald spot like me) is caught between desires: to express or to repress. The choice is by no means easy.

The prophet who owns the Toyota speaks to this Prufrock in a Garbage Truck: I dare you...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Your Garbageman, Your Confessor

Having worked both as a pastor and as a garbage collector, I think I can safely say that I know more personal secrets of the average trash-customer than I have of the average church-goer.

Our trash betrays us. Last spring the police stopped my colleague, Wes, and commandeered the garbage of a residence under investigation. They put the trash in the trunk of their squad and sped away. We learned later they found evidence that led to arrests. I told Wes they should make a TV series out of us. We heroically clean up the streets and alleys of the city every day, sometimes with the cops.

There is one stop on my regular route where the trash is predictable. Next to the trash can is the small recycling basket. It is always full with three collapsed Miller Lite boxes, and crushed Miller Lite cans. When I flip the lid of the garbage can, I always find another four cases of empties, uncrushed and neatly replaced in their boxes. Those four boxes neatly fit, stacked in the 35 gallon can. On the bottom of the can are several frozen pizza and TV dinner boxes. The gent is older and evidently lives alone. He seems a kind soul when I greet him. And he is medicating--a case of beer each day.

When I pull the lever on the truck that lifts and crushes the trash, invariably one or two items fall back down into the bay, as happened at the "Squirrel Ranch" in a previous blog. These items capture my attention, like the chipmunk that leaped straight at my face in panic to get away. One day an unopened gold envelope slipped down. I noticed that it was from a college where I had applied for a chaplain position just that week, addressed to an alum, no doubt. I further noticed it was a fundraising letter and I casually picked it up to inspect it. On the back was a hand written note: "I have tried it all and but I can't stop the pain." A song lyric? A suicide note thought better of? Written by the addressee, or by someone else? Whatever the case, definitely someone acquainted with pain.

But for sure someone who had thrown the note away, and my job is to get rid of it for him. I offered a prayer for a fellow suffering soul, without knowing the particulars of his pain...

Friday, July 20, 2012

Maggots! Read at own risk...

I'm not sure what is worse; picking up trash in the extreme cold or the extreme heat. Freezing fingers are no fun, but this summer the heat index has been over 100 degrees a few times.  In this heat, garbage cans become little birthing centers for... yes, maggots.

Like so many things in life, maggots are both really dirty and really clean. They are fly larvae. They spread microbial infections, but they are also used to sterilize wounds in hospitals. Think, hospitals are also the most clean and the most contaminated places around. The sick go there to heal, and the infections also breed there.

WP_000611.jpgMy sanitation truck is a traveling infection. I think about this when I come home and take off my gloves.

What these hands have touched; all the normal human by-products of living. The positive spin on me is that I am a "sanitation engineer." I am a "clean maker." But I get really dirty to make others clean... must be some kind of parable in that.

There is an absolute balance in the universe. There is no clean without making something else dirty. And there is no dirty without cleansing. Pick your poison; religion, politics, housekeeping. It all goes. I am a sanitizer by picking up your garbage. I am a garbageman who sanitizes your space. We call "sane" those who are mentally well. But to be "well" what is discarded?

Back to maggots. They are the perfect balance that live and dwell in garbage. They heal wounds by taking to themselves the infection. These are hospital maggots cleansing a small wound:

Now here are the unscientifically grown maggots in my truck. I initially thought this was a bunch of rice discarded from a kitchen, but in reality they were my own wild sanitation engineers, nature's little recycling agents. Cute little guys...


Sunday, June 24, 2012

To Recycle or Not to Recycle...

Among other things, we Americans are really good at producing trash. We collectively produce a third of the world’s garbage. 4.5 pounds of garbage, per person, per day. Economists find the amount of garbage we produce to be one of the best indicators of our economic “health.” More garbage production = a healthier economy. Beautiful. What do you think, Charlie?

But there is better news. While our per-person trash production is up roughly one pound per day since 1980, the percentage of that waste that gets recycled instead of dumped in the pile behind Charlie has climbed from roughly 10% in 1980 to roughly 35% today. If you do the math, you will realize that the increase in recycling has not reduced our waste, but only offset the increase. But still...

In the areas I haul, curbside recycling is paid for by the municipality. Yet my observation is that more than half of what we haul to the dump (i.e. to be burned or sent to landfill) is still recyclable. Here's a favorite image. I don't know how many of these I saw in the trash. Guides to recycling, printed on recycled and recyclable paper, sent out by the recycling company. What do you do with it? Why, throw it in the trash, of course!

(Statistics from the U.S. EPA. http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/index.htm )

Friday, June 8, 2012

Squirrels End Ranch

The first time down a particular alley I noticed a wooden arch over a doorway through a fence to a yard. On it was written, “Squirrels End Ranch.” I imagined the people who would give that name to their property. 

“This must be the gathering place for neighborhood fun and mayhem,” I thought. I imagined youngish adults, maybe pre-kids or with little ones staying up late on crisp fall nights with a bonfire, beer and smores. I smiled inwardly at the image that formed in my mind. Fun loving, “squirrelly” people. This is the story I wanted to imagine.

Then I tipped their can and out fell this:

I guess the sign was meant a bit more literally than I thought. 

In Greek mythology, the God associated with interpretation was Hermes, the trickster (from his name comes the word in theology and philosophy for interpretation: hermeneutics). Whether interpreting words, people, or events, interpretation is tricky…or perhaps I should say, squirrelly.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Now You're a Garbage Man...

Ever been sprayed with garbage juice?  You don't need or want an image for this one.

A steamy afternoon I pull up in front of a suburban rambler next to a garbage can surrounded by three thick plastic bags on the ground. I tip the can first, then go for one of the bags. Amazed at how heavy it is, I struggle to hoist it into the bay. Then the other two. I hit the lever that operates the hydraulic paddle that crushes and pulls trash into the truck. As I do, one of the bags rips open and out sticks what looks like the lower part of an arm without the skin. I flash on that scene from Goodfellas where the murdered body falls out of a garbage truck. But quickly I realize that the parts I have just hoisted are the remains of a deer.

Having grown up in the country, it has never occurred to me that someone might throw a deer carcass in the trash. You bury it, or leave it out in the woods—but you don’t throw it in with broken toys and Victoria’s Secret catalogs! I called my boss and asked if this was legal. He assured me that it is considered the proper way to dispose of deer carcasses by the city.

Still, I thought about the guts and flesh in the back of my truck that had been fermenting in those black bags in the hot sun. That is why what happened just a couple stops later was so disturbing…

“Solid waste,” as trash is called in the business, is a bit misleading. There is plenty of liquid in trash. You don’t want to think about it, but that’s what gives garbage a lot of its heft. Full diapers, rotting fruit, chicken carcasses, used cooking grease, old paint—you name it. The laws of physics provide that when solid waste is compressed, the liquids seek a way out. Yet I was still new enough on the job not fully to have grasped the principle yet.
Four stops after the putrefied deer stop, I tipped a can and pulled the lever, and—not a squirt, but a steady stream of  warm, liquefied, brownish, greenish something sprayed me from head to foot.

I stood there, hand on the lever. Soaked. And shuddered.

I found on the floor of the cab an oily terry cloth rag that ordinarily would never touch my face, but gladly I wiped myself with it. I pulled out my phone to call my boss. He howled with laughter, and exclaimed, “Now you’re a garbage man!” I was initiated.

Quite a baptism.

p.s. Though you don't want an image, here's one anyway. I took this picture this morning to capture how juicy garbage can be, and, poetically, as I took it, I and the camera caught a little spray.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Livin the Dream...

                                                            Wes, livin the dream...

Two events (and a billion more, I’m sure) events were critical to my ending up behind the wheel of a garbage truck. The first was a conversation I had with a friend who teaches at the U of MN. I asked for any advice she had as I was coming to the end of writing my dissertation. She said very matter-of-factly, “Get a job. Any job. Bag groceries.” The difficulty people experience in the transition from a period of intense work and focus to no one thing in particular is a big deal. New retirees experience it all the time. My friend had seen friends become unraveled once the book was written and there was nothing more to do with it. I knew she was right and I needed something to do once there was nothing more to do with what had consumed me for two years.

The other event was that I had a dream. I knew when I awoke that it was somehow a big dream. In it, I was driving down a treacherous mountain road in my ’93 Toyota Corolla. Suddenly before me there opened a yawning crevasse that I could not stop in time to avoid. Somehow, I got out of the car before it plummeted over the edge and found myself hanging onto the car with one hand to keep if from crashing to the bottom. An impossible situation to be sure. I had to let go (or die), but I couldn’t.

Suddenly the scene changed. A white garbage truck appeared and slowly rumbled past me down the same stretch of snowy mountain road, only now it was smooth and wide and well plowed. The truck easily rolled down the road that had been impossible for me before.

A couple days later (not dreaming) I was working at replacing the porch on our house. I looked up and a white garbage truck rolled to a stop in front of the house. We had just switched our garbage service to a new local hauler. Wes pulled up in his white truck that day, grabbed our can, and came over to introduce himself. With the dream on my mind and my friend’s words still ringing, I asked if he might need some help. He did not at the moment. But two weeks later I got a call late at night from a very weary sounding Wes. He asked if I was serious about driving… I didn’t even ask what it paid. I started the next day.

Wes started his small garbage business at the age of 40, after a career in sales. A garbage truck was not his dream, but being a small business owner and entrepreneur was. Since I first met him, he responds to “How ya doin?” with an enthusiastic “Livin the dream!”

I guess I am too, though in a different way. Makes me thoughtful about the way dreams got Joseph (the biblical patriarch) into trouble, but also got him through trouble.

Monday, May 14, 2012

To Begin...

I have a Ph.D. I also have  MA and MDiv degrees. I am an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church and I turned 50 this year.

Currently, I drive a garbage truck.

This last bit is either a conversation starter or stopper, depending on who I’m talking to. From the latter category, I generally get sympathetic looks and comments. I don’t write for them. I write for those whose eyes light up.

What is it about garbage trucks? Children are universally attracted. They stare, they wave, and they sparkle if I invite them closer to watch as I tip a can and crush the trash with the powerful hydraulics. Parents—moms especially, in my experience—appear uneasy with this attraction in their children. Grownups don’t delight in garbage trucks the same way kids do. A little boy and his mom crossed in the crosswalk in front of my truck. The boy was all eyes. I waved. He waved and pointed for his mom to see the truck six feet away. Her grip on his other arm tightened and she pulled him along without casting a glance.

Was it merely to get her boy safely across the street that she would not entertain the brief connection? Or, even at an unconscious level, was there an instinctual impulse toward a different kind of protection going on? Who are the people who pick up your trash? What must they be like? We all want our kids to take out the trash. But few, if any, want them eventually to pick up the trash.

It’s dirty business for sure. And those of us who do it get dirty, sometimes in pretty disgusting ways. We touch the trash of a lot of people. Because I don’t drive one of those big rigs with a robo arm that picks up the can, I get out, open the lid, tip the trash and pull it into the back with hydraulic levers. I see a lot back there. The trash tells stories. I know who is remodeling their bathroom and who is on Weight-Watchers. I’ve been squirted by rotting juices. The trash I pick up sometimes sets me to wondering—about the people I serve, but also more philosophically about what our trash says about us as a culture of people, and about human nature itself.

These will be some of my stories.
I am, for the time-being, the Reverend Doctor Garbage Man.