The garbage collecting business is rife with euphemisms. The corporate name of the company that takes my household garbage away on Fridays is “Prime Sanitation Service”. If you didn’t know that their only business is the hauling away of the leavings from households and businesses, the name might give the impression that they are a janitorial service and sterilize hospitals and medical clinics.
Like most folks, I don’t give much thought to the garbage collecting business beyond seeing garbage trucks on the streets and the monthly bill to pay. That attitude shifted in 1988 when my then boyfriend had been out of work for several months. One afternoon he walked into the house and greeted me by saying, “Hello, I’m your new garbage man.” He had just been hired by one of our town’s garbage collecting companies.
I became worried about Steve’s new job’s working conditions and their possible effects on his health and safety. Fortunately, he did have his tetanus booster up to date and the company supplied their employees with thick canvas work gloves.
He already owned an old pair of sturdy work boots and several pairs of well-worn blue jeans. This was supplemented with bundles of tee-shirts bought from the 25-cents each bin at the Goodwill Store. Eventually, Steve started buying second-hand jeans and chinos from the thrift store, too, because laundering his work clothes became an act of futility.
After arriving home from work in the early evening, Steve headed directly to the basement, stripped down, discarded his tee-shirt, set aside his jeans to wear the next day, then showered away the filth that had accumulated on every inch of him. Even though he had a grotty job, he smelled fresh and clean when we were together.
Each day, Steve described some of the unusual stuff he and his coworkers found in customers’ trash bins. Among the swill and drek they usually found nice collectible mementos, furniture and appliances. The best things were either kept by the boss or sold on consignment.
Summertime Mondays were the best times for treasure hunting in well-to-do neighborhoods. Many times, leftover things not sold at garage sales were placed in the trash or curbside near the dumpster bins. The garbage men often found lamps and televisions. The better ones were placed in the cab of the truck. The employees took turns on who got what items.
The best TV treasure was a large, top of the line Sony Trinitron that required two men to lift it. As expected, the boss claimed it for his own living room.
Besides televisions, the next most discarded items were sofas. For some reason, it is nearly impossible to give sofas away to anyone. Most days, there were at least two or three unwanted sofas set near the curb. The worst sofas and easy chairs placed near the street were waterlogged after rainstorms. Oftentimes the truck would have to come back for the stuffed furniture after emptying a load of compressed garbage at the landfill.
The thing about Steve’s stint with the garbage company most memorable to me was his nearly constant fatigue. Although he liked to put a positive spin on his job, he was quite unhappy with his coworkers and the extremely unsanitary working conditions.
It was especially worrisome on Summer days after rain storms when the humidity combined with extreme heat. Not only was the garbage at its worst state of rot, but the still, muggy heat was nearly impossible to work in. The winter months were dangerous for other reasons, mainly exposure to bitter wind-chills and the ever present possibility of frostbite.
One day, after his crew was severely scolded by the boss, Steve and the driver handed in their resignations and never returned. A month or two later, Steve found work as a data entry clerk at a downtown business. He once again had time and energy to devote to what really mattered in his life. The garbage gig became just another entry on his resume’.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the late, great Pittsburgh Pirates baseball player Willie Stargell. “I see a lot of people who love their jobs. I see some garbage collectors smiling as they go about their work.”