I arrived at Truck 42 only to find that there was already a driver and two garbagemen on board, which was one person too many.
“Hi, I’m assigned to this truck,” I said.
“That’s bullshit!” an angry, yellow-eyed black man barked at me from the right-hand seat. “I always ride this truck!”
“Yeah, The Man With The Clipboard needs to see you about that,” I said, gesturing over my shoulder with my thumb. He jumped off the truck and stormed over towards The Man With The Clipboard to register his displeasure. I grabbed hold of the door handle and swung myself up into the cab of the truck, slamming the door behind me.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said to the driver. He looked at me, shrugged, and pulled out of the yard.
I sure hope he’s not waiting for me when we get back, I thought.
As we rode towards the beginning of our route, I shook hands with “Shorty,” who would be my fellow Garbageman on the back of the truck. On the way, I asked him to teach me the finer points of garbage collecting.
“Goddamn, white-boy! Just put the fuckin’ trash in the back of the truck! Shiiiit!” he told me. I explained to him that my name was Jeff, not White-boy, but that it was okay, since I apparently closely resemble somebody named White-boy. “Happens all the time,” I assured him. That got him laughing, and we had no more tension after that.
We arrived at the start of our route and I was relieved to see that we were in Fat City, a section of town I was well-acquainted with, being comprised mostly of cheap apartment buildings and drinking establishments of the variety that stay open 24 hours a day. Shorty and I dismounted from the cab of the truck and hopped onto our perches on the rear of the truck.
Then we were off! I was doing it – I was standing on the back of a moving vehicle! Unfortunately, it was 4:30 in the morning and there was no one on the streets to witness my triumph.
Three minutes later, we backed up to an apartment building and we got to work, slinging bags into the semi-circular well in the back of the truck. It had rained the night before, making the bags heavier than they appeared. I smelled the familiar odor of crawfish, beer, and red beans and rice. Someone had obviously had a party the night before.
“Since you new, Jeff, I’ll work the blade,” Shorty said.
“Blade? What’s that?” I asked.
“It pushes the bags back in the truck. Watch,” he said.
I watched as a gleaming panel of steel lowered down into the well on two hydraulic arms. Cool, I thought walking around the back to get a better look. I arrived just in time to see the scything blade cut into the middle of the pile of trash bags…
and got squirted from the knees up with crawfish guts, stale beer, beans and other susbstances too foul to identify.
“Hey man, don’t stand behind the truck when I’m workin’ the blade,” Shorty said. I just nodded and tried to clean myself off. We got back into our rythm, slinging bags into the truck, then trotting to the next pile. I was starting to work up a sweat. Even just before dawn, the heat and humidity on an August morning in New Orleans are oppressive.
This continued for about twenty minutes until we pulled up in front of one of Fat City’s 24-hour bars. I was puzzled as to why we were stopping, as there were no bags or garbage cans lined up at the curb for disposal.
The driver and Shorty dismounted and started walking toward the entrance. I grabbed Shorty’s shoulder.
“Shorty, don’t they have to put their trash out?” I whispered.
“Just shut the fuck up and watch,” he said. Following his cue, we went inside the bar.
The place was empty except for a hard-eyed female bartender and a single patron, passed out face down on the bar. It was a rough joint – dimly lit, dirty. The kind of place that never sees a mop, with perpertually sticky floors, buzzing neon beer signs, a dozen or so angry red hot-dogs lazily spinning on a rolling grill behind the bar, and a giant jar of pickled eggs maintaining its dusty vigil from the end of the counter, its murky contents a metaphor for all the bad decisions you had ever made.
Shorty and I emptied all the trash cans inside, heavy with beer bottles, and made trip after trip to the truck with cases of empty liquor bottles. After ten minutes of this, I was getting pretty annoyed. This was going to take all day!
Then I spied Shorty and the driver at the bar and it all became clear. I walked up to the bar and Shorty handed me a Long Island Iced Tea – 24 ounces of it – in a big plastic cup. The bartender also put six hot dogs and a six-pack of Budweiser in a plastic bag.
“For lunch,” she told us. I gave her a smile and a knowing nod, raising my cup to her in an appreciative toast.
I remounted my Garbage Steed a hero, taking a mighty chug of my extremely potent drink, draining about half the cup as the truck pulled off, me hanging on with my left hand. What an awesome job!, I thought as we rode down the street, enjoying the view and my fresh buzz.
And then the smell from the truck hit me.
I immediately leaned forward and threw up into the back of the truck. I tried to wash my mouth out with my drink, but the smell and taste of it made my nausea even worse and I pitched it, along with the rest of my cookies into the garbage well.
I am the scummiest piece of shit alive, I thought to myself, weakly gripping the handrail. Shorty was furious at my waste of a perfectly good drink.
“I’d of finished that, why’d you throw it away?!”
We pulled up to our next stop. Shorty quickly ran to the cab and retrieved the hot dogs and beers. He offered them to me; I shook my head, feeling my gorge rise again. He wolfed down three hot dogs and four beers in five minutes – “Gotta finish these off ‘fore anybody see us.” I stumbled over to my side of the truck, where I witnessed the painful death of…
Garbageman Myth #2:you get to ride on the back of a truck. Although I didn’t know it yet, I had taken my last ride on the back of the truck. For the next ten hours, I would be running alongside it. We had reached the residential neighborhoods, miles long streets lined with thousands of garbage cans.
The rest of the day was a blur of misery, staggering from house to house, trying to keep up with Shorty’s merciless pace. He may have been only 5’4″ tall, but he was built like a little black action figure. And he seemed to be enjoying himself! He was singing songs, and I was struggling to lift giant trash bags full of wet grass clippings over the lip of the truck. The dispatcher radioed us three separate times with complaints that I was carelessly hurling empty trash cans onto people’s lawns, instead of replacing them neatly at the curb.
Good, maybe I’ll get fired, I thought, praying the misery would end soon.
I was getting furious at how cheap people are when it comes to garbage bags, especially those used for grass clippings. More than once I would lift a clear, two molecule-thick bag stuffed with grass until it was about the size and weight of a Shetland pony, only to have it split open at the bottom, leaving a perfectly formed bag-shaped pile of grass standing for a brief second before tumbling apart. This was when I learned what the brooms and shovels on the side of the truck were for.
The only brief respites came when the truck had to be emptied. Fortunately, this was the driver’s responsibility and he dropped us off at a McDonald’s near the landfill. I watched in horror as Shorty ate the rest of our hot dogs, drank the remaining cans of beer, then devoured two Big Macs inside.
Not once did I see him wash his hands. He also put paid to…
Garbageman Myth #3:you get to keep all kinds of neat stuff. People don’t throw away neat stuff – they throw away GARBAGE. If there’s any neat stuff, it must be under the dirty diapers, coffee grounds, rotten fruit and eggs and used tampons. You can look for it yourself.
Shorty did keep some stuff, though. He kept a mostly used stick of deodorant – “Hey man, there’s still some in here!”, a discarded comb – “Now I don’t got to buy me one!”, and the remnants of a bottle of ketchup – “It’s still good.” I won’t describe the horrors I saw him sift through to procure these treasures.
Like all good things, all bad things must come to an end as well, and finally we were through. I wearily looked at my watch, which confirmed the death of…
Garbageman Myth #4:you only work in the morning. I had been running behind that truck for over twelve hours.
Exhausted and smelly, I made my way home. All of the windows in my 1977 Dodge Aspen were cranked open, and yet I still couldn’t get away from the smell of myself and my stupid decision. When I got home, it was dusk. Pulling into the carport, I decided to leave my car windows open. There was no way I wanted to come back to that smell again.
Standing in the carport, I pondered my clothes. Where they weren’t stiff and crusted over, they were wet and thick with an unspeakably fetid gravy of humanity’s foulest leavings.
Fuck this, I decided. I stripped off every stitch of clothing, from my baseball cap to my shoes. Everything went into the garbage can – shoes, hat, socks, underwear… EVERYTHING. Opening the side door, I walked into the house, intending to head straight for the shower, when I saw that my mom was waiting for me, way too amused about the whole thing.
“HOW WAS YOUR DAY AS A GARBage… man…” she trailed off, obviously not expecting me to walk in the house stark naked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I muttered, stalking toward the bathroom, slamming the door and cranking the shower up as hot as I could stand.