Our Job is Picking Up

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“What I don’t know can’t hurt me,” said, Kimball, the owner of the trash collection business in Coddington. I had asked his permission to spend a day riding with Franklin, the garbage truck driver, on his way through town picking up Coddington’s trash. Kimball’s declaration of ignorance in the interests of future plausible deniability was all the ticket I needed to spend a day seeing what it was like collecting trash for a living.
I picked the perfect day for garbage collecting: bright and mild with gentle breezes lasting from morning into late afternoon. I would appreciate those merciful, refreshing winds as the day wore on and the garbage-stuffed truck became more fragrant. This is the same locally famous truck with the motto, “Our Job is Picking Up” painted on the side that every July brings up the rear of the Coddington Day parade. Last place is the only position it has ever been allowed in the parade: nobody wants to march behind it.
At 8:30 a.m. Franklin backed down the long, curving driveway to pick me up along with my week’s accumulation of trash. As I helped empty my own trash barrels, I noticed there was already six inches of garbage soup in the truck’s maw. In addition, something was moving through the stew. “Must be summer,” commented Franklin. “The maggots have arrived!” I climbed on board and was surprised at what I found: the cab was perfectly clean! There was no smudged kewpie doll rescued from the trash sitting on the dashboard, no grime on the windows, no passenger seat with split seams and stuffing hanging out. “I cleaned up for you,” Franklin mumbled. “‘Wanted you to have a good impression of trash hauling, right from the start.”
Franklin is a trim, handsome fellow of sixty-six. His intelligent face is remarkably un-lined with eyes forever dancing and a mouth fixed in an eager half-smile. His silver wire-rimmed glasses help give the impression that he could be a college professor if he weren’t our town’s trash collector. Franklin was born, raised and educated in Coddington. His mother, he says, named him after the thirty-second president, “in the sad hope that I’d turn out smart!“ The route began along the town’s main road, the neighborhood where Franklin grew up. As we bounced along, he described it as if he were a modern-day, two-faced Janus, speaking not only of the present occupants of each house, but also of relatives and friends who had once lived there and were now long gone. “Boy, if these beautiful buildings could talk . . .” he said, his voice trailing off. And not only the buildings, even Coddington’s empty fields hold stories for Franklin. He pointed to a pasture and described the magnificent barn that stood there forty years ago. “When they tore that beauty down, I almost bawled,” he said.
We passed the gravel drive to Franklin’s home, not visible from the main road. “I live out back, he said, “so I won’t be an embarrassment to the town!” Then he said in a tone barely audible over the engine noise, “There was a time when I really was an embarrassment.” Franklin pointed out what was once his grandparents’ house, the place where he spent most of his time as a boy. “Dad and mom fought a lot,” he said. “My grandparent’s home was a better place to be. They probably had their issues too, but by the time I needed them, they were kind of argued-out and preferred to be content.” We passed another house, where his dad and uncle grew up. “Both of those brothers had to be right,” Franklin remembered. “They loved cars and trucks. My father was a Ford man and my uncle was a Chevy guy, so they could never get along. Eventually, the fighting got so bad, they stopped visiting each other!”
“I guess I caught the truck bug from them,” he went on, “It runs in the family. I operated a front loader at the mill — a job I liked. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut though, and got in trouble with the union. I got ‘retired’ after twenty-seven years, but it didn’t last long. I hate laziness. Everybody’s got to bring in work, to my mind. Around that time the boss got sick and asked me to drive for him until he figured out what he was going to do. That was seventeen years ago, and here I am!”
We pulled into the local fish and lobster shack and Franklin told me: “I try to get here early, before business really gets going. Customers don’t want to see a garbage truck out front,” he explained. “There’s a lot more to this job than people think!” The luncheon owner came out to greet us and, looking me up and down, said he was glad to meet Franklin’s side-kick. He had a lot of respect for garbagemen he told me: “When these guys stop, the whole world comes to a halt.” Since I wasn’t allowed to help with pick-ups for insurance reasons and was still wearing an orthopedic boot to protect a slow-healing leg fracture, I had decided I’d only climb out of the cab at stops where customers came out to talk with Franklin and to meet his apprentice for the day. I soon discovered, however, that staying in the cab was more of an assault on the body than climbing out and hopping back in at every stop. Remaining in the truck meant that each time a bin was emptied I had to deal with the slamming, shuddering, bobbing and rocking that seized the vehicle and jostled my frame. It was like riding atop the digestive track of a giant mechanical creature that stopped every few minutes to feed on human offal and then continued, rumbling and groaning, on its way.
“This is Dogtown!” Franklin announced as we arrived in the far northern portion of the town. “It’s also called Monksville because here, the Monk family has inter-married with the Appleby’s. Most of the houses are built into the barns. They say the horses live on one end, the folks on the other and sometimes you don’t know who belongs where. Here, the most important things in a man’s life are the coons and the guns he shoots them with. In this neighborhood, they shoot everything that moves and drink anything that pours. But, I guess I’m no one to judge. They all smell better than me!”
I soon got ‘up close and personal’ with the hounds of Dogtown. I was grateful that Franklin fancied the creatures and that they were partial to him. “Even if they’re not around, I’ll leave a treat where I know they’ll find it,” Franklin told me. These canines were fierce customers. They growled at me but wagged their tails for the man who always came in the noisy truck with the great smells and who passed out over-sized dog biscuits.
As we made our way along the route, I noticed that people would chat with Franklin and often ended up asking for his advice. One man sought his counsel on removing tree stumps, another fellow carried out a plastic bag containing a deer leg to show him and get his judgment on whether it might still be good to eat. A young farmer complained about having to live with his grandfather. Franklin put his hand on his shoulder and told him: “I’m sure it’s tough, but your grand-dad’s a good man. I know he respects you and wants you to have this place. Try not to cross him, if you can.” As we pulled away, Franklin said, “I figure that if he heard what I told him from his dad, he’d think his father was just trying to be right. But, hearing it from me, some of it might just sink in.”
I pressed Franklin about the value-added counseling service he was providing his trash customers: why did he think so many folks wanted to pick his brains? “Well, I guess I’m my father’s son after all!” he replied. People always came to my father for advice. They’d talk with him and things just seemed to come together after that. Everyone asked his advice, except me, of course. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of being right.” After a pause he added, “You know, there’s another thing.” Franklin asked me a question: “You have a Ph.D., don’t you?” I admitted to the charge and he went on: “Well, who’s gonna talk to you? Lot’s of folks I know wouldn’t be comfortable asking you much of anything. But me? I’m the garbageman. It’s easy for people to feel a little superior when they ask me for some advice. They know they don’t have to do what I might suggest. After all, I’m just the guy who picks up their trash!”
As we arrived at our next stop, a change came over Franklin. He was giddy as a teenager as he stepped out of the cab. “We’re gonna spend a little time here,” he said, “that’s why we had such a short lunch!” ‘Here’ was Suffolk Punch Farm, a legendary local institution, which uses work horses to power all its machinery. As he emptied the farm’s bins into the truck, Franklin talked about working as a boy on neighborhood farms. “When I was good, my parents would let me work the horses. I never could get enough of it. That would have been my dream job in life, working with horses.” Franklin shut down the truck and we walked up the hill to the barn. “These Suffolk reds are fairly rare and really beautiful,” he told me. “They’re nice and quiet. You don’t want a lot of fire in work horses.”
We reached the barn where we greeted the owner of the place. In a moment Franklin had cozied up to two magnificent chestnut draft horses about to be fitted for the plow. I looked around and felt transported to an earlier time. Hens pecked underfoot, roosters strutted and crowed. Swallows streamed in and out of the barn. Newly-sheared sheep paraded in their pens. Goats bawled in the near-by pasture. We lolled as long as we could amidst the tranquil beauty. Finally, Franklin pulled himself away and we were back on the road.
“This next stop’s a sad outfit,” he said, as we drew up in front of a double-wide pre-fab home. Strewn across the yard were a plastic doll house, toy trucks and trikes, even a plastic medieval castle. Christmas had been big here, but the only signs of young life to be seen this afternoon were the half-smudged chalk drawings on the driveway. “This young father was blown up in Iraq,” Franklin explained. “He grew up in the house down at the corner — sweetest, most cheerful kid you’d ever want to meet. His wife tried to care for him and their kids on her own in this place. But she couldn’t keep things going, he was just too beat up. He’s a permanent resident now at the vets hospital in Augusta. She’s still here with the kids. I refuse to charge her anything.”
“I look out for this widow here,” said Franklin as we stopped in front of a neatly kept small home. “I’ll just be a moment.” But he was much longer than that, and finally I climbed down from the cab and went round the back of the truck to see what was taking so long. I found him fishing with gloved hand in the truck’s accumulated swill, now about a yard deep. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Lookin’ for her money,” he answered. “She always attaches a five dollar bill to one of her trash bags. I saw it, but I threw the bag with the money attached into the truck by mistake. Now I can’t find it. Wait . . .” And with that, he triumphantly snared the bill from the garbage gruel. Back in the cab, I asked Franklin if we could stop for ice cream in Bucksport on the way to the conversion plant. He made no objection, and I was glad for that. I was dying for something smooth and cool just then. I was beginning to get a little sick to my stomach from the day’s accumulation of diesel fumes and garbage smells.
In Bucksport, we parked down the street from the ice cream stand and walked over to the riverside park to eat our treat and enjoy the stunning view of the new bridge over the Penobscot Narrows. The handsome modern structure was partly obscured by its predecessor, a decrepit steel bridge that for many years served as the gateway to downeast Maine. “They’re going to take that old bridge down this summer,” I commented as I licked my cone and felt my stomach begin to settle. “It can’t be too soon for me,” Franklin said quietly. “Why?” I asked. “Bad memories,” he replied. “When I was going through my struggles, I got close to a minister who saw me through the toughest times –he always had a calming effect. The last day I saw him, well, that night he jumped off that bridge to his death.” “Why?” I asked again, too startled to come up with a more measured response. “I’ve been forty years thinking about it,” he said gravely, “and I’ve never been able to answer that question.”
We finished our cones in silence and walked back to the truck. When we came close to the vehicle, we were both brought up short. Dozens of yellow butterflies had settled on the truck’s surface, radiant in the late afternoon sun. Who knows what caused them to congregate there — the time of year and its warming weather, or, perhaps the truck’s pungent odor, or its warm and white metal surface. Perhaps it was just our own raw need for nature’s solace that got us to notice them. Whatever it was, it was a blessed visitation. As we climbed back into the truck, the butterflies flew off and we were on our way to the last stop of the day.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at the region’s waste-to-energy conversion plant. Franklin exchanged congenial insults over the radio with the plant’s dispatcher while we waited in line for our turn on the weighing scales. Suddenly came the order for him to drive backwards down the ramp. From the view in our side mirrors, it appeared we were backing into the gates of hell. Slowly we entered the gloom of an immense metal shed, two football fields long and half again as wide, filled to the gills with refuse. The truck crept backward into a narrowing wedge between walls of garbage piled fifty to sixty feet high on every side.
In front of us now was a monster of a front-end loader with a bucket eight feet high and twelve feet across. Dangling above were the menacing jaws of an eighty-foot crane on a cement pedestal. On either side, companion garbage trucks emitted their day’s collection into the foul space. Franklin reached under his seat for his hard hat, looked me in the eye and warned me: “Stay inside the truck.” “Where did he think I was going to go?” I wondered. He hopped out and suddenly the truck lurched backward. Then it began to whine and groan and writhe as it slowly disgorged its slimy offering into the fetid mass. All I could do was hold on, tell myself not even to think what might happen if the walls came slithering down, and wait for Franklin to get us the hell out of hell! He finally climbed back in, supremely unfazed by the gruesome operation, and drove us across the slippery surface and out onto the sun-splashed road leading away from the plant.
In fifty minutes, I was back home. Franklin left me off and I thanked him for a day I knew I wouldn’t forget. I walked down my drive, the bones of my skeleton still echoing from the vibrations of the truck, the lilt and twang of Franklin’s conversation still sounding in my head. I ached and smelled, but I was also moved and comforted by the day’s ride on the Coddington garbage truck. This much I learned: that trash collecting is a demanding, widely-disdained job that the world cannot do without, that this tough, menial labor can be done with extraordinary grace and that, in the end, it’s not what you do in life that’s all that important, it’s how you do your work that truly makes a difference.

3 Thoughts on “Our Job is Picking Up

  1. Ralph Siewers on January 13, 2014 at 8:13 pm said:

    Well said – in all respects.

  2. Edward….thank you for your insightful writing. What a novel and unique “day trip” where you were the one to
    “Pick up” local wisdom……you, dear friend inspire me. Bill and I miss you and Elizabeth and so enjoy your stories of your new rural life…..God bless. Patti

  3. Mark Dirksen on January 17, 2014 at 9:28 am said:

    Butterflies on the garbage truck…. A beautiful image in a beautiful post.

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