Memoir

When We Were Garbage

Anyone who’s worked for the State, County, or Federal Government knows that the best time to make a ton of money is the holidays. Cops who sign up for the New Year’s shift in Times Square, postal workers who work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, garbage men who still go out on their runs, even when their workday falls on Thanksgiving: these are the people who are making bank. You want to ring in the New Year with a kiss from your wife? You want to see your kids open up their Christmas presents? You want to barbecue in your backyard and drink beers with your best buds? You’re a chump, a grade-A sucker.

Free will wasn’t a luxury my friend M and I enjoyed. We were expected to work the 4th of July at R Lake, a state park home to running paths, picnic areas, a golf course, and two swimming pools. I remember the morning of the 4th, picking M up in my 1987 Chrysler LeBaron—a garbage truck in its own right—and driving to work. Dressed in our work boots, jeans, and 100% polyester New York State Park shirts, M and I rolled down our windows and tried to savor the peacefulness. P, our shift supervisor, was waiting for us in the employee parking lot, wearing his trademark boots, jeans, and navy blue t-shirt. His hair was slicked to the side and he smelled like cheap after-shave. M and I had often talked about the strangeness of a man who put on cologne before going to pick up trash.

“You pussies ready to work,” P said, walking over to one of the garbage trucks and pounding the windshield with his fist.

P had worked the previous summer and was therefore allowed the privileges of driving the garbage truck, using the radio to communicate with other lake employees and only rarely having to get off his fat ass. He enjoyed his status of slave-driver, and never missed an opportunity to remind M and me of our peon-like status. Phrases such as peasants, fairies, and half-retards—which was apparently worse than a full-retard, because if you were half you actually knew you were retarded—were directed toward us while we hopped out of the truck to retrieve rusted garbage cans full of empty beer bottles and uneaten hamburger buns, hefting them onto our shoulders and carrying them to the back of the truck where we dumped the contents into the compactor. In his heart, P was a good man, but it was apparent that his low social standing in the real world was such that he relished any opportunity to remind M and me that while we were both going to college and had future aspirations, we were nothing but groveling pissants, and should act as such.

As we pulled into the first picnic area, P slammed on the air breaks and the cab shot forward and then stopped abruptly (this was something P did every morning—a kind of alarm clock for me and M). “Always be ready, motherfuckers,” he said.

We went from picnic station to picnic station, checking cans. By ten a.m., the park was starting to fill up, so we handed out extra-large, black plastic bags to groups of picnickers, asking them to let us know when the cans began to overflow.

P had warned us about this day. He painted a grisly picture: swarms of Honda Civics with tinted windows, and Cadillac Escalades, bumping music, lining up to get into the park—three thousand city dwellers, ready to go native in “upstate” New York. He told us how the pool guys had to dump double the amount of chlorine in the pool just to keep it from smelling like piss. He told us how the cans were going to be stacked with seventy-five pounds worth of empty Corona bottles. He told us how we’d work harder than we’d ever worked in our miserable lives. This was going to be a garbage apocalypse, a day that was going to make us question humanity.

By noon, the parking lots were completely full, three thousand spots taken in mere hours and replaced with shiny SUVs blasting reggaeton; minivans packed full of screaming city children ready to swim in the chlorinated waters of our pools; souped-up sedans with Puerto Rican and Dominican flags tucked into the hood, humming in the heat; BMWs, immaculate and clean with their Jersey plates.

P was not nearly as interested, nor as thrilled, with the glut of various ethnic make-ups in the park as M and I were. He seemed to resent that he was required to pick up garbage for almost every “minority” in the Tri-State area. M and I didn’t see color, race, or creed; all we saw was garbage. They all made it, and we were there to pick it up.

P cruised through the picnic areas’ narrow winding paths with M and me on the back, hanging our arms through the metal handles. Every time we saw an overflowing can, P would stop the truck, M and I would hop off and fetch it.

The cans were made of steel, but hadn’t been replaced in years. Many were rusting, sometimes so badly that the edges were jagged, and sharp; just looking at them made you want to get a tetanus booster. Adding further to the misery, to prevent rain from filling them, the cans were drilled with holes. This was a good idea, but obviously not one that considered the plight of the garbage man. Every time you lifted a can to your shoulder, some sort of liquid—beer, ketchup, chicken grease—would make its way onto your shirt, or worse yet, down your back or chest. This occurrence was referred to as getting “juiced.”

On that day, there were two very unfortunate juicings. P had pulled around to the “grove,” a picnic area that was set back in the woods, making it an incredible pain in the ass to get to. After verbally insulting us, P told us to go in and check for cans. M and I walked amongst the happy picnickers, searching for cans that we’d have to lug back. It was hot, the kind of hot that sticks on your skin and drips down your whole body. I knew M was realizing what I was realizing: we were going to have to work overtime—there was just so much garbage. And then, as if we were being punished for some unknown karmic crime, we came across two cans, overflowing with trash.

The picnickers, a Dominican family, watched us as if they didn’t actually believe we were going to be able to lift them and carry them all the way back to the truck. Walking to my can I detected a foul odor that I immediately recognized as Clamato, a drink comprised of tomato and clam juice. There were about ten empty bottles of the stuff, and from the smell it, they’d been marinating in the sun for some time. It was bad luck to draw the Clamato can, but I couldn’t do anything about it, so I hefted it over my head, and started trudging to the truck. M was ahead of me, his can swaying back and forth, losing bits of napkin, tinfoil, and plastic utensils as he went. About halfway to the truck I felt the dreaded garbage juice, making its way down the back of my neck. I grimaced as I felt the slimy substance go down the center of my back. “I’m getting juiced,” I yelled, picking up my pace, my arms and shoulders burning.

P looked out the window and let out a cruel laugh. I didn’t look at M, but I imagined he was enjoying it. But this was no ordinary juicing; it was pouring from every hole in the bottom, soaking my back and arms. I brought the can down and emptied it into the truck. Then I ripped off my shirt and threw it in too. I had been sufficiently juiced. And while M was certainly enjoying the sight of me, he was having his own problems. The can he had selected had a rusted bottom. And as M lifted the can to dump its contents into the truck, the bottom dropped out entirely, emptying the contents onto M’s shoulders. This alone wouldn’t have been so bad; after all, we were used to working in garbage. But his particle can contained a used diaper which plopped onto M’s boots. Whether or not the diaper had hit M anywhere else, I couldn’t say, but he ran to the side of the truck and doused himself with a water-rigged fire extinguisher, screaming epithets about mothers, children, and all things diaper related. After M had washed himself off, I took my turn with the extinguisher, as I could already feel the Clamato juice crusting on my back and chest.

The day had taken a turn for the worse, and P didn’t help matters by refusing to let us into the cab, claiming that I smelled like a rotten seafood bar, and M like baby shit. After silently cursing him, M and I got on the back and drove to the park office to get new shirts.

Runners often claim they get a high from their exercise. This is not a new phenomenon. It isn’t hard to believe that a rush of endorphins will make you feel “high.” Friends of mine have told me that once it hits them, they feel like they can run forever. Suddenly, the aches in their legs and lungs are gone.

Picking up garbage isn’t exactly running or jogging, but you still get a high from it. You get into a rhythm, where time slips by and you see yourself picking up the garbage and hanging of the truck and flipping the compactor on, but you don’t feel any of it: it’s automatic. And from the hours of noon to three, M and I got into one of those grooves. We didn’t need to talk or joke to make the time pass. We hung off the back of our truck and scanned for garbage. We hoisted the cans on our shoulders and trudged back to the truck to empty them. We nodded to the park patrons and even P seemed to understand that he should stay quiet and drive the truck. We were in the zone, and even as the garbage piled up around us and the sun burned the smell of rotting food into our shirts and jeans, nothing seemed to faze us. Spans of time like this always made M and me appreciate the garbage crew; we craved that rhythm: the halting truck, the swing of our arms, the sound of waste being compressed.

The garbage high was promptly ruined when P told us to get in the truck. The message had just come across the radio: contamination in the north pool.

“Let’s go check it out,” P said. “The truck is almost full anyway.”

M and I agreed. Pool contaminations were always a welcomed respite from the garbage truck, and guaranteed some good entertainment.

When we got to the pool the other garbage crew and a few other park Rangers were already looking at a turd floating listlessly in the shallow end of the pool. It seemed we weren’t the only ones in need of some entertainment that day. The late-shift garbage crew stood on the opposite end, their supervisor, a man named J, looking hungover as usual. The late-crew was the lazier bunch. They worked from 3:30 until dark and took every opportunity to pick up as little garbage as possible. M and I suspected that the entire late-crew was on drugs, and today seemed no different. J looked especially haggard, his jeans ripped and stained, a pack of Marlboros tucked into a white t-shirt two sizes too small. He refused to wear the park uniforms, claiming they were pussy deflectors. Our boss, D, who resembled a small, sun-burnt garden gnome with a mustache that could rival any child molester, was trying to reach the floater with one of the nets. Everyone, including the pool guests, looked on.

“D, who put the Baby Ruth in the pool?” P said, walking closer to the edge of the pool.

D let out a strange cackle, but then wrinkled his nose as he put more effort into nabbing the bobbing piece of fecal matter. “What are you guys all doin’ here? Get back to work. It’s 4th of July,” he said.

“You’re too far away, D,” I said. “Maybe you should get in the water and grab it.”

“We need to close this pool for at least thirty minutes,” D said, ignoring me. “We’re gonna need to re-chlorinate and then check the pH levels.” D’s stubby arms were stretched to their limit yet he still couldn’t reach the floating contamination. He let out a long wheeze of frustration through his sunburnt nose. Inching closer to the edge, he reached out with the net but lost control and hit the piece of poop. We looked on as it broke into two pieces and sank to the bottom.

P scoffed. “Bunch of half-retards, can’t even get a piece of shit out of the pool.”

D pushed his New York State Park hat back on his forehead and sighed. “I really thought I had it.”

It took another thirty minutes for D to scoop both pieces of what looked like a soggy candy bar out of the pool. By then the pool goers were livid, saying they’d paid their money and wanted to get back in the pool. D used a bullhorn to explain they couldn’t go in until thirty minutes had elapsed.

“Just put more chlorine in it, motherfucker,” someone shouted from the crowd.

D chuckled and told them to be patient, his whiny rat-like voice squeaky and weak.

People demanded refunds and started to circle D. They tried to talk to us, but we said we were garbage, this wasn’t our jurisdiction. It was hard to fathom why anyone would want to get back into the pool, but sure enough, right at the thirty minute mark everyone jumped in and started splashing, dunking each other under the water and doing cannonballs.

D soon noticed that both garbage crews weren’t doing anything and told us to go back to work. P gave him the finger and walked away, something he did almost every day on the job and never got fired for. “Oh P,” D said, waving us away, “you’re such a joker. Why don’t you guys jump in and cool off before you go out for more garbage.”

“No thanks,” M and I said.

“What a fuckin’ pervert,” P said. He slammed the cab door shut. “I’m getting out of here an hour early. No amount of money is going to make me stay and clean up after these people.”

This is how it went on most busy days with our crew. P would always cut out early, leaving M and me to finish our shift. We never really minded when he left. It meant we could work in peace. “The late crew isn’t gonna do shit, so you guys better work overtime,” he said. “I know when someone is strung out, and J is strung out.”

We dropped P off at his car, and M got into the driver’s seat. “See you fuckers tomorrow,” P said.  Before peeling out of the gravel parking lot, leaving a trail of rising dust and gravel in the humid July air.

It was around four and the heat of the day seemed to by dying off, leaving a slick haze of moisture that covered us as we bumped and jostled in the cab, heading back into the picnic areas. It didn’t seem possible, but it looked as if there were more people than before. What were once green lawns were now brown, foot-trodden paths, turned to dust by the feet of the park guests. The barbecue areas were recognizable only by the piles of aluminum trays and tinfoil around them, shining like silver in the dimming light. Every way you looked there were people, carrying beach balls, chairs, coolers, and beers.

M and I hadn’t even made it through the first picnic area when the truck filled. The compactor whined as if complaining. It was getting dark and we still hadn’t seen the late crew, but we knew they were somewhere in the park, not doing anything. We could have ratted them out, told the boss they weren’t pulling their weight, but it never really crossed our minds. It seemed like a violation of some unspoken garbage code.

M and I were happy to get the mini dump truck because it had a radio, which meant music. The mini dump truck was a fairly new Dodge Ram pickup that had been converted to accommodate the various refuse needs of the park. With leather seats, air-conditioning and musical entertainment it was pure bliss compared to the garbage truck.

After getting a box of garbage bags from the supply room, M and I went back out into the park, trying to ignore what we knew lay ahead of us. The dump truck posed entirely new problems, as we couldn’t just throw lose garbage into the back of it. As a result, garbage was a two-man job. After putting a bag over top of the can, one guy had to flip the can while the other held the bag and tied it off. After tying the bag closed you had to throw it into back of the truck, where it needed to be stacked.

After picking our way through the first picnic area and moving to the second, M and I were exhausted, our shirts sticking to our backs, our faces smeared with grime and sweat. Gnats and mosquitos swarmed around us in the orange and purple light of dusk.

We didn’t talk. We didn’t complain; we worked, methodically going from can to can, flipping it, lifting it, tying the bag, tossing it. We repeated it over and over again. After clearing an area we’d get back into the truck and idle it a few more feet and then jump out again. People were beginning to leave the park, sunburned and drunk from their day of celebration. From where we were, I could see the parking lot was beginning to empty out.

M and I trudged on. By nine the park was completely dark and almost everyone had left. D told us to stay as long as we wanted to; whatever we missed tonight we would have to pick up the next morning. M and I sat in the truck. The park was empty now, except for us and the late-crew, who had most likely taken the garbage truck and gone into town for something to eat or drink. M and I could work forever, as long as we were getting paid holiday pay and overtime. The park was ours.

By the time we got to picnic area three it was pitch black, and the truck was filled to the brim. M cut the engine but left the key in so the radio would work. We pushed open the doors and stuck our weary feet through the windows. The wind came off the lake and brought with it some relief to the sweltering night. Bugs played in the headlights, and every once in a while we’d hear children calling back and forth to each other and people starting up their cars and leaving. M tuned into a classic rock station and waited for something worthwhile to come on.

We’d survived the garbage apocalypse. Tomorrow we’d have to come in early and see the wreckage in the light of the day. I was too tired and sore to think about anything, except for the darkness out in the park—that seemed tangible enough. We’d done a good day’s work. We’d collected people’s trash, made their 4th of July a little less stinky. As for M and me, this was how we liked spending our holiday. Sure, seeing family was nice, standing around a grill with a cold beer felt good too, taking your girlfriend to go see the fireworks somewhere—that was all nice, but none of it measured up to the garbage crew. Nothing compared to the thrill of seeing three thousand people streaming into a park and leaving it trampled and trashed; nothing beat hefting a massive garbage can over your head and depositing it into the truck and then hearing the sickening crush of the compactor as it consumed the waste. We were garbage men that summer, and we wouldn’t have wanted to spend our 4th of July any other way.

Soon Wiley is a native of Nyack, New York. He received his BA in English and Philosophy from Connecticut College. He currently attends the MFA program at Wichita State University, where he is the assistant editor of MOJO. His work has appeared in or is forth coming from TINGE Magazine, the Hawaii Review, Columbia College Literary Review, and others.