Tommy has been 28 years with Public Works. His crew usually clocks in at 6 in the morning, even though the trash man’s day doesn’t officially begin ’til 6:45. Don’t plan on finishing routes if that’s when you start, Tommy says. Today—like yesterday and most days before that—will feature too much garbage and not enough time. And chances are there will be even less to like about a job that never offered much to like in the first place.
The day is momentarily halted almost as soon as it starts. Tommy and his crew can’t go up South Capitol Street—blocked with downed wires. Barely out of the gate and trash route 602’s already a pinch behind on its designated route—A to G, 3rd to 9th, Southeast, Capitol Hill.“It’s a different one today, it’s a new one,” says Tommy. “Any given day they give it to you. They don’t give you advance warning of it. Six this morning, they said, ‘Hey, you got a new route.’ ”
It used to be same crew, same truck, same route—now it’s a scramble every which way.
“If things were just to stay in one way, and not with all this switching up and changing, it’d be a lot better,” Tommy says. “But every day you come to work, it’s something different. You never know what to expect.”
The truck lurches along, leaving 3rd Street and banging a right on South Carolina Avenue. Every street is slow going with stops at every house almost for bags, barrels, boxes, maybe a TV or something bigger. At least the truck runs. A couple dozen that don’t sit at the South Capitol Street truck yard; many more live over at repair on West Virginia Avenue.
“You got to take care of them,” says Tommy, leaning on the wheel. “If I could just drive this one only….When I park it and somebody else gets it, there’s no telling what the hell’s going to happen. Each driver should get their own vehicle. You’d have less problems. Everybody doesn’t drive the same way. They don’t keep the maintenance the same.”
Bad tires, jammed lifts, broken steps, clogged filters. It’s meatball surgery every a.m. with the mechanics rounding up 59 trucks for 59 routes. In the wintertime, some drivers quick-start engines with a shot of ether in hopes of getting through another shift. Garbage truck maintenance went to hell when the District’s budget went south. Don’t get Tommy started on the budget.
“They got no money for maintenance—no money for nothing,” he says. “Took the damn money it took me 28 years to get. They took that away without no warning. My damn salary. They had no business doing it. You got to get a new way of living, adjust your living style and your budget. I’d prefer for them not to give us a raise than to take the damn money away from us that we already had.”
Did he see that 6 percent salary cut coming?
“Hell no. Not after 28 years….It took me that long to get it. I only work every day trying to do the job right, and this is what you get,” he says, slapping the wheel.
Tommy gooses the truck forward a piece on the shouts from George and Steve.
“HEY BABY! LITTLE BIT, LITTLE BIT!” Steve says. When the lip is full, he calls, “GIMME SOME GEAR. WIND IT UP!” Tommy flips the switch so George can pop the lever in back, allowing a blade to smash the trash into the belly of the truck.
Tommy sets the mirrors while the trash is being pulverized.
“These two mirrors are your eyes,” he says, the driver’s side mirror reflecting him as he speaks. “The guys in the back got to be your eyes too, because you can’t see in the back of the middle of these things.” It’s a 20-yard truck, eight tons of trash per load, three to four loads a day. It is a loud machine. Loud in engine, compactor, horn, and the scream of brakes. Got to speak up to be heard on this truck. Tommy has no problem speaking up when it comes to the District’s approach to garbage and the workers who make it go away.
“They have no business cutting this damn department,” he says. “They need to cut them damn salaries up there with the mayor and the city council and Congress and the rest of them damn so-called leaders. They keep messing with this department here. They make me sick as hell about always getting the little man to take care of this damn city. They don’t give a damn about your responsibilities and your family, how you supposed to make it. I don’t make no $80,000-$90,000 a year. Nor the rest of us. What we was making, they took part of that away.”
Tommy heads up a tight alley, narrowed still more by overgrown trees.
“They took the tree department away under that budget situation, too,” he observes. “There was a time they were keeping alleys trim and all. It’s been years since that was happening. It’s the budget again. You used to get awards for driving. It makes you feel good to get a driving award. Used to give you something when you get your evaluation at the end of the year for excellent or outstanding. You used to get an award for that, too, but not anymore.”
Back on the rear of the truck, George and Steve weigh the new route.
“We got a monster now,” says George. “We got a long way to go, brother.” Steve and George have been together just a few weeks. “My regular man got caught up in the layoff,” George explains.
“Our route’s bigger today,” says Steve. “We’ve got to go up to A Street, East Capitol Street almost.”
They take inventory of the “crisis” between shouts to Tommy, bag tossing, trash crushing. “They don’t have that many people no more,” George says. “They’re making routes longer. HO! HO! HOLD UP!”
“We need to get some more equipment,” Steve says. “We need some more men, too. They got nobody picking up the bulk, the yard, the recycling. They let ’em go. You know, we didn’t even get started on our regular work yet. All this is add-on.”
Capitol Hill alleys seem especially full of trash.
“They’re taking our money,” says George. “Pay cut, furloughs. HEY! BACK IT UP! What do they care?’ They don’t got to get out here and pick up the trash.”
“HEY! GIMME A GEAR, BABY!” Steve works the blade, eyeing the trash as it gets crunched. “That juice’ll get on you sometimes.”
“It’s going to get on you more than sometimes,” George advises.
Brakes squeal, truck stops, four five six bags, one two barrels. Stoop, lift, throw. Whoa. Damn unpleasant smell there.
“There’s gonna be a whole lot more unpleasant,” says Steve, nodding ahead to the bags that await.
Collection at this house is up front; the next, round back in the alley. A nice lady speaks out.
“I’m very pleased by the trash collection in this area,” she shouts pleasantly from the steps of her home. “I’ve lived here for about 20 years. I know about consistency and inconsistency, good trash routes and those that aren’t so good. But I can say consistently that I have been pleased with the trash service.”
“HEY! LINE IT UP! GIMME SOME GEAR!” Tommy gets out to walk ahead, pull trash off the sides and set it up for George; Steve drives. Little bit of rain starts as the crew moves up 6th Street, D Street, 7th Street, and so on. It’s time for trip No. 1 to the dump to unload.
Riding to the dump, the crew picks up juice and cookies and cigarettes, and Tommy talks about how not to get sliced.
“You know you got to be careful how you grab the bags, ’cause you might hit a needle or a piece of glass,” he says. “They come right through them gloves on you, hit you on the legs, whatever. Lot of guys got cut and got stuck with needles like that. You try to grab them by the tie.”
A roach crawling on one man’s shirt makes him chuckle wryly.
“You’re liable to get anything on you,” says Tommy. “Roaches, maggots, bees, whatever. You might run across a snake, too. Live and dead. Years ago, people’d find dead babies in the trash. Matter of fact, some alive.”
Sometimes, he says, the garbage has a life of its own. “You got to be careful how you’re standing behind the back of that truck cause you might get acid on you or any kind of material might shoot right back at your face. Contaminated blood, whatever. Had that happen to guys. This is a dangerous job, you take my word for it. That’s why they give you that hazardous pay. It’s even worse when they take back the money that you took so many years to earn. They’re just robbing you without a damn gun.”
Back on D Street, back on the route, five minutes are lost picking up piece by piece a mess of trash spread all about.
“Then they say the trash man did it,” says Tommy, depositing a handful of garbage, and climbing wearily back in the cab for the short ride to the next batch.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.