After graduating from high school in 1977, my summer before college included a wide variety of work experiences that helped broaden my view of the world, including being a Garbage Man for one day. While it is more common to describe the latter role in PC terms like “Sanitation Technician,” I’m still comfortable with the original title.
Having spent most of my high school years working at a Piggly Wiggly Grocery Store on St. Charles Avenue, I was looking for some new employment opportunities, as well as possibly more money. The minimum wage when I started working at the grocery was $2.00 and went up to $2:30 by the time I left near the beginning of my final senior year semester.
The grocery job did have its own diversity per stock work, check outs, helping the butcher clean up, unloading the delivery truck on Wednesdays, produce set up and maintenance, taking bags out for customers and delivering groceries for them in those old fashioned bikes; the latter two tasks were helpful, since we would usually get nice tips.
So anyway, after checking out the The Times-Picayune Classifieds for various employment opportunities, I came upon a listing for a position with the Algiers Sanitation Department. I forget what the pay was but compared to what I was getting in the grocery business, it was great - probably around $5.00/hour.
The job description basically described being a "Runner" for the Garbage Disposal agency with the wages noted and work hours of 4 AM - Noon. I had never worked that early in a job other than when I was a paperboy in grammar school and had to get up early on Sundays for that delivery only. So I applied and was told on the spot that I got the job, as well as being told to report to work in a few days.
So I made plans for my big first day by borrowing a wind-up alarm clock from my parents as a back up to my own electric one - long before "Snooze Buttons" were invented! I tried to go to bed a little early the night before so I could be better prepared to get up so early.
Well, after sleeping through my own alarm clock and thankfully being awakened by that manual back up one with a very aggravating sound at 3 AM, I half-slumbered through breakfast. I didn't like coffee back then, so I couldn't try that as an eye opener. I think I drank some Barq's Rootbeer, a favorite in New Orleans that has a hefty amount of caffeine.
That weekday when I went to work as a Garbage Man, the ride over the Mississippi River Bridge to the Westbank of New Orleans was a breeze, compared to what would normally be hectic rush hour traffic. When I got to the work site, with that imposing Incinerator nearby, I waited with others newcomers for processing and assignments for the day.
One of the regulars on the job gave us neophytes some sound advise: before starting work, go across the street and get some gloves at the 7/11 store to protect our hands from all the varying types of debris that we would be exposed to.
So Jeff and I were assigned to an experienced driver for some Westbank Garbage pick up routes. At first, it was a blast for us to be able to simply hitch on for a ride to the back corner edges with standing spots for us riders of the Large Garbage Truck. As time went on, I learned to hold on stronger, since the drivers paid incentives were to do as many pick up routes as possible in an 8-hour time frame.
Those old metal garbage cans could sometimes be very heavy, as Jeff and I found out. Even though I was 18 and felt in great shape from running 10 K Races, etc., I soon realized how much more in shape experienced riders must be. No sooner had we picked up a few trash cans and had fun ditching them into the back container area that our driver was already peeling away for the next pick up!
And we had to be johnny-on-the-spot with learning the art of engaging the garbage crusher that pushes the waste back into storage to allow for more trash. I can't describe the varying amounts of odors and sounds that were produced by the garbage being crushed up, and we had to be careful with flying glass, long before recycling, that would dart out in the air - we didn't have goggles.
After about 3 hours, our driver did give us a quick 15-minute break to get some twinkies and water from a faucet after we went back to dispose the garbage at the Incinerator from our pick ups. Next, we were off and away to another neighborhood and didn't finish till close to Noon. I was beaten and certainly learned a much better appreciation for what Garbage Men do.
While nowadays, most garbage collection is done without riders per those automated pick up devices that Drivers use, I will always have fond memories of what I learned in appreciating what Garbage Men do.