Like many a youngster, when I was a boy, I wanted to be a trash man. The arrival of the trio — two men on the back and the driver — each week in their big trucks, sweaty pits and dirty duds, always provided an epic two-minutes in my life.
These men looked like all the bad guys on the “Rockford Files,” the ones my father would light a fresh smoke too when they came into the scene, cheering them on. Wiry, fueled, inked-up, grinding away house-to-house, purging us of our waste. In my young eyes, these men were God’s, from another place, another time.
Call it what you want. Gods I say.
Every week you’d hear the truck churning down the street as you sucked at a bowl of Honey Nuts. Barrels crashing into the rim of the compactor, cylinders hissing, metal crunching, then the heavy toss of the barrels back onto the concrete driveways. Working … then gone.
That’s why I got so excited when a new friend of mine named Alfredo “Fredo” Benavides from Manchester came into my life shining like a new diamond, a musician I’d never met, someone with real chops, killer instincts, a man with a real taste for the game. Fredo was more than I expected, much, much more.
As if not spoiled enough by this encounter, I soon found out Fredo was a trash man for many years, straight up. All forms and levels, from the streets to the inner office workings. Beyond being one of the brightest musical talents in the Queen City, Fredo is also a great interview.
So, we did one.
How long were you a trash man? I mean, “sanitation engineer.” I really have no clue what to refer to the profession as.
I was a driver/operator and picked up trash, recycling actually, from age 22 out of college until 29 when I became a manager of trash truck operators. I also transported electronic waste or “e-waste” for long hauls across California.
How much music did you write in your head when you were tossing trash all day?
I was always writing melodies in my head when driving a truck. I’ve heard it said that if you can remember the tune in your head without music, you have a good song.
Like performing on stage, is there a similar rhythm you need to find in order to maximize your work performance when you were in the middle of a workday, jumping up and down off a garbage truck for eight hours.
There actually are some similarities in regards to productivity for work rhythms between sanitation and music. The beginning of the day is my most productive. In the trash game we start early at 5 a.m. and that’s the most productive time because no one else on the road. It’s where you make up the most time. Similarly in music, when I wake up and am clear-headed and full of energy I am the best writer. As the day gets longer and I get more tired and I am less creative. I can still perform when tired but I’m not fluid …i f you get lucky you get a second wind!
Physically, it must be one of the tougher jobs to work. Talk to me about that.
When it comes to the physical aspects of the job, picking up trash is very demanding. A lot of guys in this industry have replacement knees and hips, shoulder surgeries — and not to mention missing fingers. After doing it for seven years I was convinced to go into management after my daughter was born to protect my body from long-term damage. I already had bad tendinitis in my left elbow from the repetitious activity of dumping barrels … and I didn’t want to be another old trash guy with bad joints and a beat-up body so I went to a management position.
You must have dreaded workdays after certain holidays. Which ones were the worst?
Holidays … ugh! I do in fact dread holidays. In particular, Christmas is hard. Any holiday just means you have to work the Saturday after, but people also create a lot more trash on Christmas because of the wrapping and packaging from presents and all of the extra food waste from everyone’s feasts. So you have to work an extra day and there’s a lot more work for us after that particular holiday. We also watch out for the 4th of July because people dump hot coals from barbecues in the trash and the industry tends to have a spike in truck fires around July 4th.
Technologically speaking, has the advent of the cylinder tipper on the residential garbage trucks cut back on the need for workers? And has it made the worker’s day easier?
Technology hasn’t made the workforce any smaller because there’s always more people and more trash. That said, an automated truck is safer for the body of the “industrial athlete” and you can pick up trash twice as fast as a manual loader. Automated trucks cost a whole lot more but they pay off in the end. People say that in the near future all of our jobs will be done by a robot, but there will always be a need for people to repair and program these machines … and if the work is getting done by robots, maybe I’ll have more time to play guitar!
What was your biggest/weirdest/grossest find while on a trash route?
My biggest find on a trash route was in Oakland in the mid-2000s. I found a perfectly good Peavey Gold Series guitar someone threw away. I gave it to a dear friend and he plays it to this day. He recently had it appraised around $1,200! The weirdest was a prosthetic arm some guy accidentally threw away and we went through 12 tons of trash to find the guy’s arm. He was so happy when we found it because it turns out those things are very expensive and very uniquely molded to the individual. The grossest has to be animals. People illegally dispose of carcasses more often than you’d think … and not me personally, but I know folks who have encountered human remains, even.
What’s one misconception people might have about trash men? Up to a certain age, for young boys, personally speaking, I wanted to be a garbage man!
I’d say the biggest misconception about garbage people is that there is a stereotypical garbage man. The truth is that we come from all walks of life. Men, women, young and old and from all different socio-economic upbringings … The one thing we all have in common is that we are hard workers.
Rob Azevedo can be reached at email@example.com. His new book “Notes From The Last Breath Farm” is available at The Bookery on Elm Street and on Amazon.