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.