Friday, January 26, 2007
Let's Talk Trash
By Richard E. Noble
It’s Friday morning and I wake with a start. My eyes pop open and the word “garbage" flashes before my mental screen. I jump into some street clothes and run out to where I have my Green Monster hid from the bears, boars, beavers and what ever other garbage eaters are out there. I have to do this because I never know at what time the “Garbage Guy” is going to arrive. One morning he was out there at 6 a.m.
As I drag my big green, plastic dumpster with the wheels on the bottom out to the side of the road, I always think of the same things. I always think about the way it used to be. The way it was when I was a kid. And let me tell you “children” the garbage business ain’t what it used to be!
When I was a child growing up (have you ever heard this intro before?) garbage was important. You had to know somebody to get to be a garbage man in my neighborhood. It took some pull. There was a long line of eager young men waiting to get a permanent position on the garbage department. Sometimes when things were tough, your dad could go to the neighborhood councilman (like county commissioner) and get temporary garbage duty - and your dad would be mighty glad to get it, let me tell you.
Garbage meant City and City meant steady, dependable, reliable job - with benefits. The majority of us “way back then” didn’t think of college as a way out of the old neighborhood. College was for rich kids and the “brain class” guys. But you know even today with all the talk of education and college only 10 to 14 percent of the working population are college graduates. So that still leaves 86 to 90 percent of us looking to a good job with the garbage dept. More optomistic sources offer a figure as high as 25% - but even with that figure we're still left with 75% looking for the garbage dept. job.
But any-whoo, when it was garbage collection day in the old neighborhood, the first thing you saw was these four guys - four dirty, grubby looking guys - rounding the corner of the block. There were two guys on each side of the street and it was their job to go into everybody’s backyard and roll out the metal, fifty gallon drum garbage cans. And these guys were good at it too. They could roll two full garbage cans on their edge at the same time - one with each hand. As kids we used to run down the street and watch them - it was like going to the circus. These guys were great!
A short while after the four “rollers” finished the block a big garbage truck would come rounding the corner. The old-time garbage truck looked pretty much like today’s garbage truck in size, color and smell but it was slightly different. It used to have a giant container strung along the back. The garbage from the fifty gallon drums was dumped into the container and then somebody flipped a lever or pressed a button and the container slid up the back of the truck like a basket or carriage on a Ferris Wheel. Watching that thing slide up to the top of the truck - open the “secret” trap door - and dump all the garbage, was another big childhood wonder for us city kids. It was a noisy wonder of modern day science. We were all thrilled. We would drive the garbage guys nuts pulling on their shirts and bugging them with questions and requests. They all wore big dirty industrial gloves and either had a cigarette butt dangling from a corner of their mouth or a short piece of a stogie jammed between their teeth.
Each truck had two “tippers”. The tipper was a better job than the rollers. The tippers actually had a step built on each side of the truck that they rode on. One of the tippers would let out with a yell when the truck had reached the proper position between two flocks of garbage cans. The tippers would jump off the side of the truck, stroll over to the sidewalk, roll a can over to the troth and then they would each grab a side and lift the drum and dump it. They had a technique of dumping it whereby they bounced it on the edge of the troth in a rhythmic fashion. It was neat - we kids liked that also.
Of course each tipper was an experienced roller. You couldn’t get to be a tipper if you hadn’t put in your apprenticeship as a roller - everybody knew that.
The best job of all was the driver. It probably took ten years or more to actually become a driver - you had to have been a roller and tipper first of course. The driver was almost always a big fat guy and he was invariably eating something - a bag of potato chips or an apple or something.
The rollers walked and the tippers strolled and the driver moved the truck at an even paced, methodical lumber. It was smooth man.
I remember one time I asked my dad if being a garbage man was a good job. He was a mill worker at the time and had worked in the “hole” (engine room) when he was in the Merchant Marines. He said; “Are you kidding me. Good pay, good bennies, and there you are out in the fresh air all day. Man, I could only dream of a good steady job like that.”
I asked one of the rollers one day if he liked his job. He said that it was all right but he was hoping to become a tipper one day and get out of people’s back yards - with all the dogs, cats and rats. The tippers made ten cents an hour more than the rollers. The tippers aspired to be drivers; “Just sit on your fat butt all day and give everybody orders,” one tipper once whispered to me out the side of his mouth. “No eaten diesel fuel behind this stinken truck all day.”
When I told the driver how lucky he was and how much all the other guys admired his position he told me that being a driver was nothing. The big jobs were up at the incinerator. He himself was hoping one day to be the crane operator up at the main dump.
In my youth, I always thought of garbage as a potential career. But I got sidetracked with the basics of everyday life and just making a regular living and I never got to pursue my real dream of garbage - and now it is too late. The “garbage guy” now works alone. He has no assistants - no tippers or rollers. He has a big mechanical arm and I would guess a computer inside the cab to tell him when to stop the truck. That’s progress I guess.
Interesting though; the truck is pretty much the same. It’s got a big mechanical arm on the side instead of a troth on the back. But everything else looks and smells pretty much the same. The driver on the modern day garbage truck doesn’t sit in the cab eating potato chips and stopping and starting at a modest leisurely pace. The man is always going at top speed. As I rode by him the other day I waved - he was so busy and moving so fast he didn’t even see me. He had no kids following his truck or watching him work, admiringly. I don’t know if he makes good money or has any benefits, but I would doubt it. But I can tell, I no longer want his job. It doesn’t look like as much fun as it used to seem. I don’t know, either the job has gotten worse, or I have gotten spoiled.
But progress in the garbage industry seems to have been getting rid of a lot of workers, cutting benefits, having the customers roll out the garbage themselves, and installing expensive computers and hydraulic lifts and video sensors. I sometimes wonder which was the better way of doing things - a bunch of guys with good, rather easy, unskilled jobs or one guy running his butt off with a world of new million dollar technological devices to pay for.
We’ve made much the same kind of progress at gas stations, grocery stores, fire stations, banks and elsewhere. On my last visit to the grocery store I not only bagged my own groceries and wheeled them to the car but I rang them up myself on a new self-serve cash register computer and gathered up six carts in the parking lot just to be nice. I know this progress is good - at least that is what all the pointy-heads say - but pretty soon, if this type progress continues - everybody will be unemployed and we’ll all be at the dump picking through the garbage instead of paying somebody to collect it.
But new dreams replace the old in the ever hopeful human being. My wife would like to be the biscuit lady at a Hardy’s one day and I have been kind of playing with the notion of becoming a “greeter” at a Wal-Mart. That really looks good to me and I’ve been practicing: “Hi! (big smile). Welcome to Wal-Mart. How about a cart? Have a good day shopping now.”
I don’t have any teeth any more so maybe I should skip the big smile - ahh, who cares. I’m just as pretty as I ever was with or without any teeth. If you don’t believe me ask my wife.
You know I’ve heard that Wal-Mart is paying nine dollars per hour. If I am able to get that greeters job and it really does pay nine dollars an hour - that would be more than I have ever made in my life working for the other guy anywhere in America. Man, now that’s progress!