What San Diego trashmen think about their work

To heave and to haul

Trash man taking cans to garbage truck
  • Trash man taking cans to garbage truck
  • Image by Jim Coit

The dust billowing up from the unpaved alley broke the morning sunlight into shafts which knifed down from the lips of the corrugated roofs after the garbage truck roared by. Willie Carter, who’d just maneuvered the truck off the busy streets of Logan Heights, brought it to a quick halt past the first set of garbage cans, about halfway down the alley. Carter’s partner, R.J. Coleman, riding on the back of the truck, spotted the two dead cats lying in the dust nearby. “Musta killed each other,” Coleman quipped before Carter even had a chance to hop out of the cab and trot to the garbage cans across from the carcasses. Grabbing two cans. Carter smiled at the mangy bodies and stepped up to the truck, dumping the garbage out with quick jerks, one can at a time. Coleman had fetched two cans from the other side of the alley, and as he emptied the second one both he and Carter interrupted their brisk pace to ransack the can’s contents. A stack of what trashmen call ‘‘pussy books” had fallen in among the egg shells and potato peelings, and the two men fished some of the magazines out and laid them open on the edge of the truck's garbage trough. Gloating over the pages of Hustler and High Society, the two trashmen and their observer moaned, whistled, and cat-called at the photos of nude women. As the cats lay quietly dead behind them and the rancid smell of old beer and rotting milk wafted up in front of them, the soft skin and lustrous hair in the pictures created an atmosphere of delicious incongruity, not unlike the presence of bagpipe music at a scene of carnage. “Mmmm-Uhmmm, lawd have mercy,” pleaded Coleman, taking one last look before closing up the magazines. Then he placed them in a box affixed to a step on the side of the truck where he puts the rest of his perquisites. Casting one last chuckle toward the cats, Coleman stepped up next to the garbage trough, activated the hopper, which scoops and packs the refuse into the garbage cavity, and the truck heaved off, wheezing diesel fumes and belching through the air brakes. The light shafts faded as the dust settled on the cats.

Willie Carter (left), R.J. Coleman

Willie Carter (left), R.J. Coleman

The magazines were only a part of this day’s booty. The two veteran trashmen, whose combined careers total fifty years with the city (Carter, twenty-six; Cole-man, twenty-four), also salvaged two pairs of serviceable Levis, a bagful of old albums (Roberta Flack, West Side Story, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelics), and assorted pots and pans. The city doesn’t mind if the trashmen rescue items thrown out by other people, as long as the items aren’t sold later. For the record, Carter and Coleman keep everything they find, but, other trashmen are known to collect brass and copper fittings and sell them by the pound when they accumulate a boxful. Some stockpile clothing, utensils, toys, and household appliances, which they donate to churches, writing off the estimated worth of the goods from their income taxes. In a way, the bounty from the trash heap is an added compensation to the men who have one of the dirtiest and most injury-prone jobs in civilized society. At the same time it’s one of the most essential jobs, as well as the most maligned. So nobody really begrudges the small items the trashmen sift out of civilization's swill before it enters oblivion. “I think I’ve bought just one pair of boots since I been working for the city,” says Coleman, referring to his success at scavenging.

R.J. Coleman (the initials may stand for his two grandfathers’ first names—Rush and John—but Coleman’s not sure) is forty-six years old, tall, stout in the middle but solid, with a trim, gray-tinged beard rimming his shiny black jawbone. Like most other trashmen, his pace is not frenetic. He and Carter have been partners on a city trash truck for about nine years and the two of them work together like synchromesh gears. They've driven the same routes, lifted the same garbage cans, called out to the same friendly people, and turned their lumbering truck around at the same spots for too many years to hit each other with a flying can or even come close to catching one another’s arm in the hungry and undiscerning hopper. They work at a respectable pace, alternating thirty-minute stints behind the wheel and “swamping.” The swamper picks up most of the trash, though the driver helps out when there are more than four cans at a stop. “Some like to work fast, some slow, and some not at all,” remarks Coleman, chuckling and reaching for a beat-up trash can at the curb. “You have to get with a guy you can work with. Sometimes there’s guys easy to get along with and there’s guys hard to get along with, and you put 'em together and they get along fine. ” At this Coleman unleashes some of the laughter that always seems to brim just under the surface of his smiling face.

For the past few years Coleman and Carter have been loading about sixteen tons of garbage a day. Five days a week, regardless of weather and stopping only for holidays. These they make up on the following Saturday, pocketing both the pay for the holiday they didn't work and time-and-a-half for the Saturday. The load they hauled ten years ago was lighter, and there used to be three men assigned to a truck, but with the development of the hopper the loading and packing of the trash has speeded up, and though the supervisors of the trashmen brag about how much more trash can be hauled for the same price today, the trashmen themselves bemoan the fact that they have to do more work each day. For customers, it seems a price to brag about. San Diego residents currently pay about $2.10 per month to have trash removed by one of the city’s 139 trashmen. It’s figured into property taxes.

“With the open-body trucks we used to load maybe twelve tons a day,“ says Coleman as the truck wends up Imperial Avenue, then turns into another alley in Southeast San Diego. “I used to like it, but it’s getting pretty rough now. The equipment has changed. It’s better now, but better equipment means more work. “This route is neither the heaviest nor the lightest in terms of the weight of the trash. A light route is one where there’s a lot of paper being thrown away, for example, among the apartments in Clairemont. A heavy route is on Point Loma, where a lot of yard work is done and Coleman and Carter have to haul grass clippings. In the summer, a route out there can go eighteen tons a day. The trash on today’s route is primarily garbage—kitchen wastes—but there is plenty of paper and clippings, too. The discarded newspapers in this southeast neighborhood are often those published in Tijuana, and though there seems to be a preponderance of empty cans of powdered baby formula, there are almost no neatly wrapped and smelly bundles of throwaway diapers. Neither are there as many plastic garbage sacks as are found on other routes. And the garbage cans tend to be anything with an orifice at the top which will stand up. Concerning the scarcity of plastic sacks and containers designed to hold garbage, Carter and Coleman have few complaints.

Carter grabs two rotund plastic sacks of trash and throws them into the truck. Grasping the plastic with a gloved hand, he tears it apart and explores the rubbish. No goodies. “Before the bags [came into use], you could see the trash,” explains Coleman as the truck rumbles down the alley. “Now, some guys have really good cars and can tell what's in the bags when they pick ’em up. Like me, I can hear bottles clinking and tell whether it’s a soda bottle or a beer bottle.” Later in the day Coleman demonstrates this ability. The deposit from the bottles buys their lunch-time sodas, which they guzzle between bites of bologna sandwiches every day on their first trip to the dump.

Plastic sacks have a tendency to weaken from the heat and break in the summertime. If they break over the street, the trashman has to pick it up; if they break over the sidewalk, he can leave it there. Plastic garbage cans take a beating in the winter. “Plastic cans ain’t no good,” complains Coleman. “In the summertime they ’re flimsy, and in the winter they break if you put too much in them. If you bang ’em like this [he smacks one against the back of the truck, trying to dislodge its contents] they crack, and then they’re no good anymore. People will call my supervisor and say we wrecked their cans. But people will use anything that's on the market.”

Willie Carter

Willie Carter

Coleman has been hauling trash since the days plastic garbage cans and plastic sacks were a dream of the future. By the time he’s able to retire, at the age of fifty-seven and a half, he’ll have given almost thirty-six years of service to the city. “Any man should be able to retire with thirty years,” asserts Coleman. ‘‘I’ll have thirty-five in by the time I retire. And I can’t draw social security then either. I’ll be too young, and I can’t live on retirement pay alone.” He’ll be drawing about half his $1200 monthly salary when he retires. Many city trashmen go to work for private disposal companies after retiring from the city.

Coleman’s partner, Willie Carter, is fifty-three and can retire in about four years. He’ll have thirty years in a garbage truck by then, but the only apparent physical effect those years will have etched on him is a taut, muscular body. Bony, knotty, and wiry, he looks thirty-five. But the years have taken their toll. When Carter punches out in the afternoons, usually to go work on the ten rental units he owns just off Imperial in Logan Heights, he takes the scream of the trash truck’s engine with him. He describes it as a constant static in his ears, and doctors have diagnosed hearing damage. He and Coleman have mentioned their truck’s excessive noise many times to their supervisors, and one time the truck was even tested, but the noise remains the same. Carter has been paid about $1700 for his hearing loss. He hopes to get more money eventually. Coleman’s ears also bother him, he says.

The city uses General Motors trucks manufactured in 1971, and many are now in need of replacement (twenty new models will soon be delivered). Still, not all trucks in the fleet are excruciatingly loud. Homer King and William Douglas can carry on a normal conversation (unlike Carter and Coleman) in the cab of their truck on the way to the dump or to the first can on their route, which this day begins downtown. King does most of the driving because Douglas, his partner of three years, hurt his leg in an accident a few years back and if he drives, the leg cramps. But King leaps from the truck, seemingly before it stops, at nearly every pick-up site and loads about as much as Douglas. Yesterday, two days after Christmas, they loaded sixteen tons, dumping twice; today they expect to load about fifteen.

Carter taking a can to the garbage truck

Carter taking a can to the garbage truck

King, forty years old, scrappy, with a reddish mustache trimmed down to the top of his lip, powder blue eyes, and big, yellowing teeth, is one of the few Caucasians working out of the city’s central yard at Twenty-sixth and B streets. The father of two children, another due in June, he grosses about $1100 a month. In between frequent stops (King and Douglas work at a furious pace). King has a chance to talk. “When I was in the service,” he says, steering the truck down J Street, “I worked four years as a clerk-typist. I hated that, sitting at a desk all day. I hated that. Here, you work five hours, and you get a workout. I like the exercise. It feels good.” King hops out to help Douglas, who is big, husky, and sweating profusely. The trash from the downtown bars, hotels, and card rooms is particularly heavy. Hundreds of liquor bottles and the dead weight of thousands of sopping cocktail napkins fill the garbage trough, and neither trashman looks for anything of value. Speed is more important to King and Douglas, and besides, they seem to get a lot of gifts from customers. A weaving black man hands them a six-pack of Coors at 7:30 a.m. downtown, and a Filipino woman on Nineteenth Street in Golden Hill gives them a bowlful of uncooked rice an hour later. “She gives us tomatoes the summertime.” says King. “Always tries to give us something. Some people’s nice.”

King worked at a dairy for nine years before signing on as a trashman with the city nine years ago, and contrary to the feelings of some other trashmen, he

doesn’t feel stigmatized because of his job. “Nobody’s better than me and I ain’t no better than anybody else, ’ ’ he drawls in his Alabama accent. “I guess some people are smarter than me and make more money, and I envy them; but that’s the way things are.”

As King says this, Douglas is on the back of the truck, swamping and sweating and paying little attention to the trash he’s collecting. “You don’t find anything anymore,” he says later, placing an empty can back on the curb. “You used to find a lot more clothes. Times is hard. People are keeping it for themselves now.” Douglas steps up on the truck and rides a few yards to the next stop, near the corner of Nineteenth and Island. With much effort he takes the time to empty four cans of the type he’s not required to handle. They are sixteen-gallon drums, with two ribs running their circumference which hold the trash in and make it a devil to get out.

“You don’t have to empty those kinds of barrels, do you?” asks an observer.

“We ain’t supposed to,” Douglas replies, reaching into a can to pull out its contents.

“You guys are too nice.”

“Well they’re poor,” Douglas retorts, his eyes hardening as he gestures to the very modest house behind the cans.

It’s 10:30 a.m., three and a half hours after King and Douglas started, and time to make the first of two trips to the dump at Chollas landfill, out on Highway 94 just off College Grove Drive. Both men realize this is one of the last times they ’ll be able to rush as fast as they’d like in order to finish and go home early in the afternoon. In less than a week, the trashmen’s supervisors are not going to allow their men to punch out before two o’clock, both in an effort to spread the dumping of the garbage over a longer time (to ease the congestion at the ever-shrinking Chollas landfill), and to cut down on injuries and accidents by slowing the men down. Some used to finish as early as 12:30 p.m. after getting underway about 7:00 a.m. Though accidents involving vehicles aren’t that common, injuries to the men, especially back injuries, are a serious problem. It’s a rare city trashman who hasn’t hurt his back at one time or another. Due to the high rate of injury, and to the fact that you can’t pick up trash if you're not feeling your best, there are about forty men who work part time for the city, ready to load trash (and hoping eventually to get on full time) any day.

After weighing their truck, Douglas and King drive down into the landfill, an area enclosed on three sides by a huge hill composed of San Diego’s trash. The only visible life forms are the men and a few marauding seagulls. In the early fall of 1979 the Chollas landfill is expected to reach its capacity, and the city hopes to shift its dumping activities across the street to what is called North Chollas. Residents in the area are determined not to have a new dump in their backyards, though, and much doubt exists as to whether the new dump will be realized. Even if the new landfill is opened there will be a gap in time between then and when the present dump is forced to close. In the interim, trucks would have to dump at either the Miramar or the Otay landfills. Considering the closure last October of the Jamacha dump in the east county and the December closure of the Oceanside dump, it appears that San Diego is running out of room to bury its garbage. (The private companies, about a dozen of which service the areas outside San Diego city limits, are prohibited from dumping at the city landfills, so they’re already feeling the pinch from Jamacha’s closing. Most of the private-enterprise trucks have to drive out to Otay to dump now.) If the North Chollas landfill is not built, the city estimates it would cost an additional $36,000 a month to pick up the trash and dump it at a more inconvenient site; the increased cost would presumably be passed along to residents.

Garbage trucks unloading at the dump

Garbage trucks unloading at the dump

Through a combination of the city’s efforts to slow the trashmen down and the specter of longer drives to and from gradually disappearing dumps, one of the mam attractions of the job of trashman—the short hours—is dissolving. Indeed, it’s one of the few attractions the job ever had, not counting the scavenging privileges. There are plenty of detractions already, the main one being the fact that people look down on trashmen. Ernest Burton, who’s been a city trashman eleven years and once found a color television in the trash heap that only needed twenty-six dollars in repairs, doesn't even tell people what he does for a living. “I tell ’em I'm a truck driver,” he says sheepishly. “Look, the two lowest jobs you can have are janitor and trashman, right?”

R.J. Coleman, working his Wednesday route in North Park between Adams and El Cajon Boulevard, believes the trashman's image isn’t as tarnished as it once was. “They used to look down on you, but not anymore,” he says, standing in a wide, lifeless alley. “With everybody looking for a job, they can't afford to look down on you. At least I’m working, making a living. But I can remember a time when people would put out the trash and hold their nose when you came to pick it up, like it was your fault it smelled, and it wasn’t their stinky shit sittin’ there.” Coleman uncorks another high-pitched, resonant laugh that somehow seems out of place in the solemn alley. The laugh belongs in the zestful alleys of Southeast San Diego, where groups of men gather to drink beer on back porches, children cavort and women chase them. The people one sees from the alleys of North Park are generally peeking out of back windows.

Coleman rides a few feet down the alley, thinking about his job. “It’s the word, ‘trashman,’ that messes people up,” he continues. “They think trashman means you the trash. Shit, all I do is pick up the trash. I ain’t no trash man.”

Around the comer in another alley a friendly customer hands Coleman two six-packs of Michelob. It ups the day’s take to twelve bottles of beer, an electric can opener (no visible damage), a waffle iron, two cans of soup, various pots, pans, and knives, a pair of Levis, and half a loaf of Holsum white bread. “I got a dog,” Coleman explained as he picked the loaf out of the trough and inspected it. “He’ll whip my ass if I don’t bring him something every evenin’.”

In contrast to the city trashmen’s caution in divulging what they do with the merchandise they salvage, the trashmen who work for private firms readily admit that they sell a lot of what they find in the trash. It’s looked upon as a legitimate way to augment their relatively low income. At Edco Disposal Corporation, the largest trash-collecting firm in the county, top wage for a veteran trashman is forty-five dollars a day. It works out to about $ 180 a week in take-home pay. Hank Berry, who’s worked for Edco off and on for about ten years, knows the extent a man will go to in order to save something valuable from the trash heap. ‘‘One time we were picking up at a bank,” Berry relates, ‘‘and my partner saw a fifty-dollar bill in the hopper. He jumped in to get it while the hopper was moving. If I hadn't stopped it he’d be dead.”

Trash man grabbing a trashcan to empty it out

Trash man grabbing a trashcan to empty it out

Nowadays Berry and his current partner and cousin, Mike Bolden, salvage very little from the trash. They just got assigned to a brand-new purple-and-white truck, a side loader, really a one-man truck, and there is not room to store anything while they drive their route. As in the city crews’ case, new equipment means more work for Berry and Bolden. The truck has slowed down their pace, since the hopper is less efficient, requiring two or three tries to pack the garbage through a small aperture and into the cavity. The garbage trough is smaller, too, so only one man at a time can effectively empty trash into it, and many of the cans they empty have to be lifted over their heads because it’s a side loader. Between Christmas and New Year’s, Berry and Bolden were working from six in the morning to as late as eight-thirty at night.

But there are many factors contributing to the long hours. The truck only holds seven tons of garbage, so the men are forced to make three and sometimes four trips to the dump. And since the Jamacha dump closed late in 1978, they've been driving to the Otay landfill, which is usually thirty minutes away from where they're working. This forces the men to stop at their yard at least once a day to refuel.

Of course Edco's customers are eventually going to pay for the increased travel costs and wear and tear. The increase in trash collecting fees to $3.75 a month in the county and $4.25 a month for Mt. Helix (due to difficult access up long, narrow driveways) have up to now reflected only the increase Edco has had to pay to dump the garbage it collects. In a little over a year dump fees have tripled, from nine dollars a load in September. 1977, to twenty-seven dollars a load now. It's a result of the county's efforts to get the dumps paying for themselves. Edco officials acknowledge the inevitability of their rates rising again in the near future.

For Berry and Bolden, any increase in rates is sure to bring increased abuse from the public. They have numerous stories of getting the finger flown at them, people pulling in front of them to cut them off and chew them out for leaving a garbage can lying in a driveway (one instance like this resulted in a woman calling Berry and a partner niggers and black S.O.B.s, after which Berry refused to pick up her trash anymore unless she apologized. The company later told Berry she said she was sorry, and he continued picking up her trash). Barry has even been accused of stealing four crates of avocados. “Now where we gonna put four crates of avocados?” he asks a cramped visitor whose feet have nowhere but the windshield to rest.

“People are prejudiced,” says Berry, driving down Highway 94 East toward his route in Rancho San Diego, “especially in La Mesa. I got my finger cut off one time [Berry doesn't like to wear gloves when he picks up trash], and I went to this lady's home and asked if she’d call the office. The next week she moved out. A neighbor said it was because I bled on her doorstep. Now what's that do to your head?”

Berry, whose solid forearms and shoulders look like they belong on a man with a much bigger frame, is blind in one eye. This has kept him out of the city’s corps of trashmen. Bolden has also tried repeatedly to get on with the city, to no avail. Bolden, who is twenty-seven, says he had been working at a National City disposal firm for ten years before Edco bought it out. He lost all that seniority, and now the firm’s retirement program counts his time as three years. Berry officially has two years on the books. He is thirty-five and has two daughters.

When Berry and Bolden reach Rancho San Diego they get right to work. From the lifting of the first can the pace is fast, the labor back-breaking. There is little talk while they hustle past the prim yards and load the upper-middle-class garbage, which is mostly paper and Christmas toy boxes. Nearly all the garbage cans are shiny plastic, almost none of them are lying prone from dog rummaging, and the plastic garbage sacks are as numerous as the rotating TV antennaes. There are plenty of throwaway diapers.

After about fifteen minutes the garbage, the houses, the yards, take on a sameness that is almost hypnotic. The hard physical labor and potential danger keeps the men aware and saves them from stupefaction. The high points of the morning are waves from wide-eyed children and the discovery of a 35mm rangefinder camera in good working condition. Neither Berry nor Bolden complains of anything, though Berry mentions the boredom almost apologetically. They lose themselves in the rhythm and let their hours and days click by, and measure the passage with tons of garbage. Asked if he’s going to be swamping for the rest of his life. Berry shrugs and replies, “Yeah, ‘til I die or get fired.”

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