Wednesday nights are a big deal at my house. It’s a time of celebration. That’s the night I put the garbage cans out so they can be emptied the next day by the man in the truck. It’s not as much fun during the winter – so part of my enthusiasm is to mask my reluctance in going out into the cold.
Garbage has a special meaning for me; I spent 12 months of my life on a garbage truck. I treasure that experience and wouldn’t throw it away. It was hard work – so every Wednesday night I celebrate the experience, the memory and the fact I don’t do that for a living anymore.
Garbage was collected differently in the early 80’s than it is today. The garbage was in metal cans, and we picked them up, not by grabbing them with a mechanical arm extended from a truck, but with our hands. Some days 700 cans were emptied. I don’t seek pity or praise – rather I offer the perspective of walking in another’s shoes.
The first six months of my stint as a garbage man were in St. Cloud. I had graduated from St. Cloud State University and was waiting for Rhonda to do the same; she had started a year later than me. At night I tended bar at The Red Carpet (another column?) and drove the trash truck during the day.
Hermie rode on the back. He was not a big man – maybe 5-foot-6, 140 pounds – but he was tough. No can was too big for him to abuse. If people put out too many cans or they had forgot to put there cans out he would holler obscenities at the house. I would get out and help on an especially heavy stop, but he preferred that I stayed in the truck to keep our day moving.
One of my favorite memories is when two toddlers waved as we drove by their house. When I pulled the air-horn in response they both tipped over. When Rhonda graduated in the spring I moved from St. Cloud. The following year we were married, and I began law school. The next year I was out of school with that dream dashed, so I needed a job.
I felt that my degree should account for something but was having trouble finding someone to agree with me. It’s hard to look for work when you’re working, but I found it harder not to work. So I got a job as a garbage man, except this time I was riding on the back of the truck for $5 an hour.
It took more grit than I possess now to get out of a warm car and climb on the back of a garbage truck in an October rain; cold, wet gloves may be worse than no gloves at all. My index fingers were so calloused after a few weeks of emptying cans, that I could pop the metal lids off two tightly sealed garbage cans with one movement.
Glenn, the driver, weaved in and out of the alleys and streets of South Minneapolis while I threw the cans. Rhonda would pack me a lunch, which I learned to share with Glenn in the truck in between stops (don’t worry I wiped my hands on my pants before I ate).
“What’s for lunch today?” he would ask. After we ate he would toss the candy wrappers out the window. “Job security,” he would say with a grin.
We worked for a guy who would haul away anything. Sometimes we would carry hide-a-beds down from the third floor of a house, other days we would back up the truck to a busted-up concrete driveway, open the back end and shovel the chunks into the truck.
I know that there are people who work harder than this every day, and I respect them for it. It was brutally hard work and not what I went to school for, but it was a job and I was getting paid. Those days as a garbage man are gone, and on Wednesday nights I think of them when I take out the trash.