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What I learned from garbage
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By Stephen Browne
Stephen Browne
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By Stephen W. Browne
Feb. 6, 2013 5:16 p.m.

Note: My weekly column.
During the recent cold snap I wrote a story for my newspaper about workingmen who have to be out in the weather, no matter how cold it gets.
I interviewed a sanitation company worker driving a rear-end loader.
Of course I had to tell him that in my youth I’d spent a total of six years working for a city sanitation department in Oklahoma. And of course just because he was going back out into the bitter cold, I had to rib him about it.
“Yeah, I was a garbageman back when it was a real man’s job, back when we carried the garbage on our backs!” I said. “We didn’t have a robot to do the work.”
He good-naturedly offered to let me come along on his route and pull the dumpsters around.
I became a garbageman after I’d dropped out of college and found myself in an economic downturn with little work experience, no higher education, and no vocational skills. I actually stuck with it for a few years before I went back to college and got my bachelors degree in anthropology.
I then worked a few more years in the refuse rangers before transferring to the sewage treatment plant, which actually taught me useful skills, and had shifts flexible enough for me to attend graduate school part time.
At one time I despaired of the years I’d spent on the job. Till an old gentleman who’d been a successful businessman in many different fields told me, “They’ll be the most valuable years you’ve ever spent.”
Well, perhaps he was right. I’ve lately thought about some of the things I learned on that job, and while I might wish it hadn’t taken quite so many years, I really don’t see how I’d have learned them any other way.
In no particular order, some of them are:
You’d be amazed at the things American’s throw away. Utensils, working appliances, clothes and shoes, unopened bottles of liquor… What a wealthy country we are in material things we can afford to be so casual about discarding!
Market forces rule. If there is a job that has to be done, and they can’t find people to do it, they’ll raise the wages until they find people who’ll do it, and they won’t look too closely at your background either.
We found this out in the heat wave of 1980, when for months the temperature never got below 100 degrees day or night, and often got as high as 114.
We couldn’t keep men. Guys would sign on in the morning and disappear at lunchtime. We were running two-man crews instead of the usual three and putting in hours of overtime every day.
We finally banded together and told our supervisors that we’d come in, work our eight hours, but we weren’t putting in anymore overtime. We just couldn’t maintain it physically anymore. The city responded by raising our wages to make them attractive enough for people to stay on the job.
They also found a way to collaborate with the union (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) to make life for the shop steward who’d organized the job action miserable enough to convince him to find work elsewhere. For the union rep who’d helped settle the situation, they created an easy make-work position of “foreman.”
I found that it really does take all kinds. I worked with guys with masters degrees, illiterates, cons from the local medium-security prison on work release, men who later went to prison for heinous crimes, devoted family men, hell raisers who regularly came to work from the drunk tank of the county jail.
I learned that though you may think there is a job a chimpanzee could do, somebody will find a way to screw up.
And I learned there are some jobs that just have to be done No matter the weather, no matter the burden, no matter what. They never end, there’s no point you can stop and say, “That’s it, we’re finished.”
They are the essential unglamorous jobs that hold civilization together. Nobody pats you on the back for doing them, but they’d miss you pretty quick if you were gone.

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