Post Road Magazine #11

Trial by Trash

Jon Stattmann

It was 4:00 AM on a Monday when I pulled the garbage truck around behind Applebee's, backed up to the enclosure, hit the button marked N, and pulled on the air brakes. My other hand having already flipped the Power Take Off switch, I grabbed my green and grey work gloves from the dash, lowered my clear safety glasses, and reluctantly climbed down from the cab, into the cold. I put on the rawhide gloves and stretched a little, bending at the waist and swinging my arms. My gloves were warm and toasty, the palms worn smooth and polished and hard. They retained the shape of dumpster handles, until I flexed my fingers into a fist. High leather boots with once-bright yellow laces, brown Carhartt coveralls stained with splotches of tar and oil, and a red, ripped, and dirty windbreaker covered by a filthy green mesh fluorescent work vest completed the ensemble. In my work suit, I felt like a spaceman, or more likely a monster, on a cold and isolated planet.

I walked to the back of the truck, thinking about how I got here. I had graduated more than a year ago, but learned too little too late about the trap I set for myself. I had skipped the graduation ceremony and told my family to stay home. What was there to celebrate? My "nearest exit" degree, tens of thousands in debt, and no job? I bitterly recalled my na•vety, mistaking graduation for freedom.

So there I was, Managing Waste instead of Natural Resources, like it said on my diploma. I took out my keys to unlock the enclosure doors, but the lock was frozen. I pulled off my glove, quickly reaching into the pocket of my windbreaker for an orange plastic lighter. I heated the lock, then the key, and it opened with a yank. I threw open the doors, and kicked them along frozen grooves and tracks in the ice. The concrete floor of the enclosure was slick, barely walkable; cardboard boxes were piled in front of the overflowing cans. It had snowed again over the weekend, melted and had refrozen, so the cans were frozen into the ice. In addition, because there was no pick up on Sundays, the cans were heavier than usual. The employees left the lids open to pile on trash, which got wet, soaked, and heavy with rain, ice, or snow.

I kicked cardboard boxes aside, or threw them into the corner to clear a path. I then grabbed the dumpster's handle, and pulled. Nothing. I put my boot onto the cinderblock wall behind it, to try again. No. I got behind the can and pushed with my back against the wall, shouldering into the load. The can budged and I got it out from the wall, but then I didn't have any traction for my feet.

I hated this. But in a way, it was what I was looking for. I wanted to taste life's extremes, to get the worst job I could find, a job that would be

so miserable I would be forced to face myself, to discover my calling if I had one. I was financially against the wall, too. During college I washed dishes, worked as a roofer, did concrete. After graduation I resisted taking on more of the same. I looked for a job using my degree, lived on savings, then on credit, finally coming up empty. These same back-breaking, mind-numbing jobs paid more than those in my field. The commercial driver's license I earned in one day had more real-world earning power than five years of college.

I was stuck. Abandoning the dumpster, I minced carefully across the ice back out to my truck for a pry-bar. I went to the side where I pulled the long heavy piece of rusty steel rebar from behind thick rubber hydraulic hoses and metal brackets. This, along with the shovel, broom, and other tools, was saved from the landfill. Back at the can, I angled the wrist-thick bar under its bulk and pried it open. It bit into the ice, making the dumpster lurch forward a few feet. I repeated this until I was finally able to get it to the back of the hopper where I dumped the load, lowered the can, pushed it back where it belonged, and did it all over again with the next Applebee's dumpster, the dumpster at my next stop, and at every dumpster for the next fifty-nine stops between then and the end of my day, more than fourteen hours later.

I sometimes thought of Applebee's and many of my other stops as little more than labor-intensive garbage factories, metaphors for our modern, first-world lives. Often, I got there at about the same time as the Yancey's food service guy. He brought it in, I brought it out. He delivered the factory-farmed beef, pesticide-coated vegetables, and old-growth paper products. I picked up the shrinking wildlife habitat, silt-clogged streams polluted with toxic runoff, and clear-cuts choked with nonnative invasion species. As a former student of our natural resources, it wasn't hard to see those resources disappearing into my truck on a daily basis, and multiply that by every truck in the fleet. Sixty trucks billowing black smoke, sixty trucks guzzling hundreds of gallons of fuel daily, sixty trucks turning the dirt-lot truck yard into a hazardous waste zone, replete with rock-hard soil compaction from waist high tires, and black, tarry pits in oval streaks where the trucks rest at night.

The men I worked with made unlikely environmentalists. Take Kenny. How often do you hear a guy who drives a hotrod, whose remaining teeth are orange with black gums, and who wears his red hair in a biker/meth-dealer style ponytail complain that he wishes more people would recycle, "because all them pop cans and bottles take up extra room in the landfill."? These were hard-drinking, hard-cursing ex-cons with swastikas tattooed on their neck. These were guys who showed up at work with busted grills on their pickups, from the deer they purposefully hit for its meat. These were guys not usually invited to Greenpeace meetings. And yet, these same people dug through the trash to remove the bat

teries, old paint, and bottles of used motor oil. Christmas was when you really saw the trash pile up, thanks to consumer garbage. We got a few days off, but the trash stops for no one, and it took a full week to catch up to it, after the holidays. Like the bumper sticker says, "Throw it away? There IS no away." Either people with trucks get out there and pick it up, or the rats and crows and raccoons start doing it for us.

Although working on the side of necessary evil, I tried to play good-guy when possible. I would try to help dumpster divers get a better look by letting them stand right by the hopper while I spilled the trash, or, if I knew they wanted aluminum cans, would set those bags aside. I took mattresses for free from the V. A. Homeless shelter. There's always someone worse off. I rolled past a Mexican lady and her little girl looking for cans, and gave my lunch money. I don't say these things to show what a saint I am, but because it felt good to help out, even if all you had to do it with was a trash truck.

When I started, I thought I would work days and study at night. I would come home, shower, have supper, maybe do some reading. Yeah, right. I averaged twelve hour stints, with fourteen- and sixteen-hour days peppered in for good measure. I pulled an eighteen-hour shift once, 3AM to 9PM. After a while, you go beyond tired and feel like you could work forever.

My route was in Greeley, a town on the edge of Colorado's eastern plains. The town supplies the Monfort Foods meat-packing plant with workers, and is surrounded by feed lots, agriculture and natural gas mining. It isn't a well-to-do place. Just as archeologists sift through discarded ceramic pots, jewelry, and other garbage from ancient civilizations, I could tell something of the lives lived in the tired, run-down apartment complexes and trailer communities whose trash I dumped. When you take it all together, the dirty diapers, Wal-Mart toy packaging, food-bank cans of USDA beans, you get a sense of how folks are doing. Welfare food, welfare trash, welfare lives.

I wasn't doing much better. At first I drove to work, but then my car hemorrhaged coolant in the middle of winter. Then I was biking it, until I got a flat tire. Then I was walking, until my boots wore thin. I was always, always behind. At Waste Management, there was no such thing as working fast enough. The pressure was always on: work harder, work faster, work longer. Put safety first, but clock in one way, fill out the Dept. of Transportation driver logs, another. Put safety first, but send overworked men to drive overweight trucks, and when dispatch calls with warnings about D.O.T. portable scales, avoid those roads. But put safety first.

I thank my lucky stars I didn't kill anyone. Every morning, I followed dark county roads southeast to Greeley. One morning, after three, maybe four hours of sleep, I got into my nice warm truck and set out. I was tired. Tired from not enough sleep last night, tired from not enough sleep all week. I had the window down, the radio on. I was pulling my hair, biting my lips

so hard it brought tears to my eyes. I guzzled Mountain Dew and coffee. All the usual tricks. I knew I would be ok once I made it into Greeley, into the streetlights and traffic signals and fast-paced physical work.

But now, like many mornings, I had to face forty minutes of terrifying drowsiness, blasting down undivided two-lane roads in a twenty-sixthousand-pound truck, waking up just enough to safely pass motorists in their tin and plastic coffin-mobiles, before letting my eyelids droop half-closed again. It was foggy, and I just didn't see the stop sign in time. I couldn't slow down fast enough. Before I knew it, I ripped through, tearing across the intersecting county road, without a stop sign of its own. I didn't have to swerve. I didn't have to hear the terrible crunch of metal as my truck smashed into and crushed someone's car on their way to work. I didn't have to feel the regret and shame and horrible, empty sickness in my guts because I had killed someone's wife or husband, and killed my own life too, neck-deep in legal bills, or serving for manslaughter. Thankfully, all I have to live with, and always will, are the shivers that run through me at the thought that I, along with whoever came along a few minutes earlier or later, got very, very lucky that mid-November morning.

I think it was then that I realized I could actually become the person I had only been pretending to temporarily be, on this and other jobs. I always thought, "Oh sure, I'm wearing the uniform, but this isn't me. This isn't what I actually DO." But it is. What we do with our time is who we become, little by little.

I made a brief visit to Bismarck, North Dakota for my grandfather's funeral. His people were Germans, north-country farmers. In the chapel, my aunt came up to me and shook my hand, immediately saying, "Look at these rough, callused hands of yours! What do YOU do for a living?"

I felt my mind growing calluses of its own. I worked alone from night through day and sometimes into night again, with only the occasional call from dispatch or another driver. I saw myself talking to friends on the weekend, and noticed my thoughts getting more sluggish, could hear my grammatical mistakes and rough speech. We tend to pick up on the language spoken around us.

That doesn't mean there weren't times I could safely let my thoughts wander. At each stop, I had a few idle moments to stand and pull levers, hearing the turbo howl and roar and blow smoke so black as to blot out its own shadow, while the diesel Volvo worked to cycle the load. I would enjoy the weather or curse it, maybe notice the surprisingly pretty mixture of colors that sometimes flowed down onto the curving sweep of the hopper's gouged and scored gleaming metal face. I used to wonder just how sick I might get and how quick, if were to drink "hopper juice," or even inadvertently swallow some that splashed onto my lips, for that matter. Blech! Or, I would think of how, after being violated by the rotting slabs of meat, rancid milk, hypodermic needles, used tampons, and cat shit, the hopper could be squeegeed surprisingly clean again with a load of clean cardboard or sofa cushions.

Ah yes, sofa recliners and couches. A garbage truck snaps couches in half the way you or I might snap a pencil. Easily. Noisily. With relish. During the time I spent driving for Waste Management, I would say crunching couches ranked among the highest of my on-the-job pleasures. That and huge bundles of fluorescent lighting tubes. And washing machines. And microwaves. And so on.

You might wonder what else folks throw out. I was dumping an apartment complex on a cold sunny day in January. I started pulling the can when I heard rustling inside. At first I thought it was just trash settling to the bottom, but the shuffling noise kept on. Uh-oh.

"Here we go," I thought. "This is going to be bad."

I almost didn't want to look. I pulled a few bags off the top, and peered over the edge. Sitting on the bottom looking up at me was… a brown rabbit. It looked ok, not bloody or injured, thankfully. At first I thought it might be frozen to the metal. I tried to lean in and get it, but it burrowed under some trash. Always in a hurry, I wasn't about to hand-empty the whole dumpster. I pushed the can against the truck's hydraulic tailgate so I could clamp it with the black rubber bumpers, like the ones on loading docks.

I slowly tilted it up to let its contents slide out. No bunny. I lowered the can, then let the heavy steel blade slide down on an angle to cap the trash. With my hit of another lever, the blade swept the garbage backward into the truck's belly, compacting it against a steel wall backed by a hydraulic piston. The curved hopper cleaned out, I dumped again.

This time the bunny slid out along with the remaining trash. I expected it to try and leap out of the hopper, but it just sat there. I reached in and lifted it out. I walked to the front of the truck, bunny in hand, and stashed him under the lift-up passenger seat with my flares and safety triangles so he couldn't get out. I dumped another few stops, checked on my passenger, and then drove him to a vet's office. I tucked him against my chest and carried him inside. Still wearing my work gloves, I gently held him down on the counter so the vet's female assistant could take a look at him. When I told her the dumpster was up to my chest, she said even a wild rabbit couldn't jump that high, making it clear he was someone's unwanted pet. I was impressed and somewhat turned on when she bravely ran her small, pretty hands through his fur, even though I still wore gloves and she knew where he came from.

Sometimes I find myself tempted to romanticize those days, to think perhaps they weren't so bad. And yet, certain memories resist being filtered through into Disney-vision. Take the smell of human shit. As I write this, I know some other guy pulled up to the Municipal Waste Treatment Plant in Greeley today, where he got his first whiff from the open collecting pools. Some other guy has put on day-glo orange rubber gloves, before walking into a large industrial bay where the plant workers posi-

tion five dumpsters in rotation below a rubber chute. Some other guy tries not to gag as he gets in nice and close to shoulder five dumpsters that don't want to move for all the toilet paper, used condoms, corn hulls, rice, and sanitary napkins you and I have been flushing all week. So do I ever want to be that guy again? Would you? I've already served my turn; let some other luckless bastard do it. And I thank him for it. But the drivers, mechanics, route managers, and the men and women in dispatch aren't looking for gratitude. "Don't thanks me, pays me," is how the saying goes.

The skies had been gray and cold all day. I had already finished my route, and was working into evening, helping another driver. I constantly had to switch out the wet-but-warmer gloves on the dash for the soon-tobe useless ones on my hands. Pulling into a "gated community," I backed up to the green Waste Management dumpster. Someone was building onto his already sizable home, and needed trash service for renovations. As the wind spit grit into my face and mouth, I grabbed a handle and spun my partner 'round, gaining momentum and slamming the dumpster into the tailgate. I thought of how there have always been jobs like this, even in this mechanized age. I looked down at the tattered cuffs of my work-pants, imagining myself a laboring serf in the fields, under the sneering gaze of the hilltop chateau.

What is a person's time worth? Seven bucks an hour? Twelve, with overtime? Three dollars a day? Two hundred dollars per hour, double-billed? My time is priceless. That doesn't mean I don't sell it at the going rate like anyone else. It just means I'm aware of the loss, aware that time, unlike money, cannot be replaced any more than can virginity be, and that this moment and the one before it, once spent, are gone forever.

I remember the women I used to see behind smoked glass every morning, doing pre-dawn calisthenics across the street from Taco Bell and its dumpsters. Maybe they go from there to soft office jobs, trying to have it both ways. They pay to get up before five AM, while I get paid to fight an all-day shoving match against heavy cans. Bally Fitness? Ha! Try the Waste Management fitness program, guaranteed to get results fast, or break you down trying.

The weather was warming back up into springtime when I quit. On my final visit to the landfill, I saw a farm truck full of dead sheep from a nearby feedlot being thrown away. The Latino man with the truck, dressed in jeans and an open work shirt, was chaining their necks, legs or whichever body part was closest in order to yank the carcasses off the truck, where they piled loosely onto the dirt and garbage-strewn earth. He pulled away to make room for the CAT, a yellow metal dozer with a blade up front, and stegosaurus-plated steamroller wheels. With a snort of black smoke, the CAT crushed the sheep into the porno magazines, old tires, and construction debris, dragging and grinding their bodies into

wet, red, glistening chunks of flesh that reflected the sunlight in my rearview mirrors. It was a picture of hell.

But at the same time, I saw a swarm of off-white gulls spackling a sunny late-afternoon scene, in warm but steadily crisping spring air, a swirl of intermediate browns and whites against the un-ignorable yellow of the CAT moving placidly among the gulls, the fading sunlight presiding over their haphazard harmony. I forgot the bad smells. . .the dump seemed pleasant in every way. The roar of diesel machines was comforting; I saw almost an otherworldly beauty, like looking at a different version of the Seurat with all the people lounging by the water's edge on a Sunday afternoon, with kids and boats and dogs and women with parasols. The gulls created an M. C. Escher snowstorm-in-a-glass-ball effect in front of the dozer, like I could see it all well enough, but they teased my vision, making it dreamlike so I was content to keep watching, not even looking anymore but absorbed, a part of the action and yet still a spectator.

The gulls squawked, falling into a chorus with the rumble of my truck and the others; it was loud as anything, and yet the swirling gulls around the dozer were like sound suddenly switched off, like the quiet of a warm, heavy snowstorm that you only notice after it has blanketed your street and yard and everything else in quiet.

The dozer and gulls spend all day, every day, together, and move around each other recklessly, but never touch or interfere with the other's work. I enter the scene just a short time each day, a visitor only in an unfamiliar land, wondering if a gull will fly in my window, or get out of the way of my truck too late, not understanding the language and dance shared between bird and machine, but I needn't cringe because they know what they are doing, they are experts, so although I still cringe at their daring last-minute escapes, I know also that they are professionals, making me feel more thrilled than anything. •

Jon Stattmann lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. His work has also appeared in the Jewish Post & Opinion.

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