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A Day in the Life: The Trash Men

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By Ada Kulesza

At 4 a.m. the alarm goes off, and Terry Lawson rises.

He enjoys a few quiet hours to himself, drinking coffee in his first-floor apartment in a wide duplex near 50th Street and Haverford Avenue. The dawn hours of this August day are cool, but by 7 a.m., as Lawson and his crew leave the yard to start their shift, the sun bakes the streets. Today is overcast, humid, with temperatures in the 80's -- a relief from the three-digit scorchers of recent weeks. Searing heat, driving rains, frigid winds and icy roads - no matter the weather, five days a week this city sanitation crew and their countless comrades crawl the streets of Philadelphia, picking up everyone's trash. Lawson, 51, has been doing the job for 13 years.  On the city payroll he is known as a sanitation laborer. To everyone else he is a trash man.

If you're depressed about your job and want to save money on therapy, walk with the truck that picks up your trash for a day. You will be cured. This is tough, grungy work. There are the foul smells and all the putrid juices. In those cans and plastic bags that line every street corner, you never know when you'll find a dead dog or a live racoon. It's like a Crackerjack box: every block has a surprise -- and all of them are unpleasant.

Hauling the trash costs a lot of money. The city maintains the truck fleet, fills the tanks with diesel fuel, pays private companies to dispose of it, and pays the 1,200 city employees who do the work. Lawson is one of them. A tall man, a mix of African, Native American and Dominican, he is strong-boned, with a wide face and a broad, fleshy physique. Grey hairs poke through his shaven scalp, covered in a blue Phillies cap, and his trim goatee and mustache are more gray than black. He has thick circles under his eyes and walks with a slight limp, but as he starts lifting trash cans and bags into the back of truck No. 40, he and his partner, Delroy Myrie, fall into an almost nonstop dance that has, as strange as it is to write it, a certain gracefulness.

Lift, spin, toss, repeat. Lift, spin, toss, repeat.

First, Lawson picks up a garbage can and empties it into the trough. A beat behind him, Myrie twirls to gain momentum and lobs a bag in. On either side they perform their nearly-synchronous routine until the truck is full. Then they pull a lever on the side and the truck's jaws go crunch, scooping the trash into its hopper.

Behind No. 40 crawls a supervisor's pickup from the Streets Department. Barbara White tails them, coordinating eight crews on the radio. She delivers water from a cooler in her truck bed to each crew. As Lawson and Myrie dance she says, "Hypnotic, isn't it? At training they warn the guys not to get mesmerized by the hopper."

Terry Lawson.jpgThe hopper claw has a steel overbite that eats sofas or bookshelves like potato chips -- mercilessly decimating every unfortunate thing that passes through its whining hydraulic-powered jaws. Juices spill down its lower lip into the trough as it tears through plastic bag after plastic bag. Trash removal, as it turns out, has its violent moments.

Lawson's truck covers 51st to 54th Streets, from Woodland to Chester Avenues. Mark it on the map and it comes to roughly seven miles. Tomorrow, they will do another chunk. And then another. And then another.  Five days a week. While they work, 147 other Street Department crews criss-cross the city, 400 men and women performing exactly the same task. Philly is 135- square miles. so it takes a small army to perform this task for citizens who sometimes fill their trash (literally) with bricks.

"That's the thing about this job," says Myrie, with a soft Jamaican accent. "You don't know what to look for. What's in the bag? Anytime it could be your health. Things splash up. You don't know what you're grabbing. You don't know what will be tomorrow. You don't know what day'll be your last."

After three hours of nonstop action, the truck is full and ready for the transfer station. Lawson, Myrie and the driver of No. 40, Niles Berry, take a smoke break. They recount some of the wonders they have seen.

"They actually put piss in bottles," says Berry.

"Bottles of them!" exclaims Lawson. "Remember that spot on 45th street? The guys had whole crates, maybe 10 of them, and each crate holds nine bottles of urine in Frank's soda bottles."

"They put it in a box and it splash up on us," says Myrie, dead serious.

Urine? Really? White says people will put human feces in the garbage, too. There's tons of cat and dog refuse, which most (mercifully) double-bag. But in Philadelphia "we have squatters and we get our mixture of it," she says. That was her biggest fear when she worked as a laborer: urine and feces.

 

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At midday, Lawson, Berry and Myrie pull up to the land of no return, the Covanta-Energy Transfer Station on 58th Street at Woodland Avenue. From the road, the station looks like a giant warehouse with one wall missing. A construction worker across the street says, "I wouldn't even know this was here, except I can smell it."

No 40 is weighed at a booth, then pulls in and tips its contents onto the floor. It pulls out and gets weighed again. The city is charged the difference.

The men brought their lunches and scarf them down during the tip-out. So far, they have collected about 18,000 pounds of trash.  In their afternoon round, they will collect another 18,000.  It totals up to 18 tons in one day.

This transfer station has the most expensive fee in the city, charging $61.50 per ton. The others charge around $58. No. 40 whirs, creaks, rumbles and beeps as it backs up, making a "cha-ching" sound as the load hits the tipping floor. One load, one crew, $1,107.

This is just the beginning of the tally, because we buy and maintain the trucks, fill Delroy Myrie.jpgthem with fuel, and pay the office workers and crews, including recycling, bringing us to the Streets Department sanitation budget of $90 million a year. (A figure which does not include the cost of employee benefits.)

Lawson and Myrie make $17.28 an hour. White, who supervises eight crews, makes $20.41 an hour. The driver, Niles Berry, has been working with the Streets Department for 33 years. He's a talker, a bejeweled man who wears a gold chain with a Freemason's square and compass, and a gold Freemason ring. He makes $21 an hour, and he's counting down to retirement.

By now, Lawson's reflective neon Sanitation t-shirt is soaked down to his cargo pants with a mix of trash juice and sweat.

"I'm glad I took the job because the benefits are great," Lawson says. "I have a son that's 21 and he's on the [health] plan, and my wife. The benefits make it worthwhile. If I didn't have benefits I probably wouldn't show up to work anymore."

He's says he is lucky to have work at all. "It's the truth that it's a blessing to have a job right now. A lot of people are out of work and frustrated," he says. But his position is slipping. Prices have advanced while his salary has stood still. "We haven't gotten a raise since 2008," he says.

Lawson is not the only one.  All the city's blue- and white-collar workers have had wages frozen while they await their unions to negotiate a new contract with the city.

"To be honest with you, right now we should get at least a 15 percent [raise]. That's still not enough, but it would be a start," he says. "But I do know that what we do get will be subpar. It's going to be something like a bonus of $2,000, after taxes something like $1,800, $1,700, and then after that it'll be something like a two percent raise, three percent raise."

It would take a $1.10-an-hour increase in his pay just to offset the effects of inflation over the last four years. No one seems optimistic a new contract will be coming soon. Contract talks have been stalled for three years.

Terry Lawson never finished college, where he studied math. He grew up on 48th Street and Cedar Avenue. For the first part of his adult life he had a job he loved, supervising the mentally ill.

"You have a house, three or four male clients. We taught them how to cope," he says. "I would take them food shopping, they'd give us back the receipts, we teach them how to cook the food. Take them to see the doctor. Things they couldn't do themselves."

He got married when he was 29 and children came soon after. "I really loved that job, but then, I was making something like $9 an hour and that was no money even back then, in '99."

Cousins recommended the sanitation job. It paid $3 an hour more. When an offer came in 1999, Lawson snapped it up.

He has been behind a trash truck ever since.

 

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Some Philadelphians act as if the trashmen are their personal servants. Others argue over what they can or cannot place curbside. Some help, coming out of houses with trash to toss into the truck or telling the guys which cans are heavy. This being Philadelphia, there are also characters familiar to every crew.  For instance, there was the skinny man in a WaWa uniform, with crossed eyes and thick glasses, whom Barbara White spotted following No. 40. He is, for want of a better phrase, a trash truck groupie.

"That's Kirky," she explained. "He's been around since I was nine years old. He talks to our guys all day long." Kirky's bending over, talking to Lawson, who pointedly ignores him. When Kirky reaches for the lever on the truck to activate the claw, Myrie brushes him away. We're on Woodland Ave., and Kirky lives at 52nd and Market Streets. "I see him at least three times a week. He knows every truck that's out there," White says.

Niles Berry.jpgNearing the end of the day, the truck looks fatter. The hopper claw draws the trash up and a hydraulic plate pushes it to the back of the cab - much like a giant trash compacter -- stopping when it can't go further. When the last load is done and No. 40 empties its contents on the transfer station floor, the crew goes back to the yard in South Philly to get showered and cleaned in the locker room.

Lawson enjoys the physical aspect of his work and likes being outdoors; he even calls the lifting "fun."  But, he hates the smell. He has tried everything to get rid of it once he's finished working at 3 p.m. - cologne, aftershave, laundry detergents. Yet it never seems to get out of his nostrils. Sitting on his front porch as the afternoon turns pink, a stray kitten rubbing against his ankles, he has a pile of dried sage he's going to burn to smoke out the smell.

The job of trash collector can wear a body down.  Lawson has had to deal with a torn miniscus. Bad backs and achy knees ar common. Others are more serious. Limbs can be taken off, Barbara White says, adding: "They get cuts from bags. Things splash in eyes. The bags will be too heavy. One day a guy picked up a bag and a [car] battery came out."

Luckily, the steel-toed boots each worker wears protected him.

"If you go up to someone and ask about their experience behind the trucks, you will be scared about what they tell you," says Delroy Myrie.

Weather rarely helps. For Lawson, cold rain is the worst. For Myrie, it's heat. "When it's heat, it's the worst for everybody. You turn here, it's hot. There, it's hot. We don't get that much pay for what we do. Everyone suffers."

 

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Delroy Myrie grew up in Jamaica. He's used to a sight increasingly common in Philadelphia --  trash entrepreneurs.

In the dark hours of trash night, pickup trucks scour the streets looking for scrap metal. Scavengers pick through piles on the curbs, taking furniture, clothes, appliances, and bottles. Our trash is their cash. Young scavengers furnish their apartments with our discarded furniture. Old men in battered trucks have a practiced eye for what will fetch a good price as scrap.

Still, after the sun rises and the scavengers scatter, the amount of trash left is staggering. What we throw out amazes the crew.

"We got to have the new washers, new dryers, new bedroom set," says White. "New TVs were a huge thing, when the flat screens came out. We saw all these TVs put out."

"Say people get a new TV for Christmas, they'll throw away the old one. And then they'll do something real cold, they'll cut the cord on it so no one else can use it!" Lawson exclaims. "Instead of, say, giving it to a friend or neighbor..."

"Let me put it this way," says Myrie. "Come winter they pay a lot of money for the winter jacket, maybe $400. As soon as you reach summertime they throw it away. So the people come and take that from the trash. And then wintertime you see them buying a new jacket. You throwing in the trash what other people cherish in other countries."

If the type of trash Lawson and Myrie collect was put on a pie chart, 75 percent is a plastic mystery bag; another 20 percent is furniture. As to the rest, you name it - toys, umbrellas, clothes, books, junk. The list could go on.

On the Route.jpgOn this day alone down the gullet of No. 40 goes: a carved wood nightstand, a bag full of clothing, a TV set, a briefcase. Also, a cruddy box fan, a three-seat blue velvet recliner sofa with wooden cupholders, five mattresses at one place, an Art-Deco '90s mirror-and-glass entertainment set. A desk. A futon. A pink plastic tricycle. A holey plastic garbage can. Computer speakers. And, inexplicably, tinsel.

People accidentally toss wallets, jewelry, packages they've just received, and have to wade through the mess, searching.

Other untold valuables have disappeared. "Know what I found one time? True story," says Lawson. "Maybe eight years ago we're working and I find this giant box of old letters. Guess what they were? Letters from some guy writing to his mother in the beginning of World War I. He's getting ready to go to World War I and fight the Germans, right? Of course, my partner messed it up, got trash on it, but I took one of the letters. It was about his experiences at basic training and what happened during World War I. It was dated something like October of 1917. Who threw that away? Maybe someone moved into an apartment and found it. It was so deep that instead of having a ZIP code, it just had two numbers."

 

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In terms of sheer wastefulness, the crew agrees that college students are the worst.

"College kids, they start all over again when they get back, so every year they throw it all away," says Niles Berry. White agrees: "It's just piles and piles."

There is a happy ending to the refuse that ends up at the Covanta-Energy Transfer Station, where this crew takes their full truck after today's route. Happy for someone, anyway.

The city gets invoiced for each load. Once on the floor, it gets crushed again and loaded onto tractor-trailers that haul it to a waste-to-energy plant in Chester, Pa., where it gets burned to heat water. The steam powers turbines and converts all that energy into electricity, while the noxious gases get separated, treated and filtered.

Most of that electricity, in turn, gets sold to PEPCO, the electric utility of Washington, D.C. and Maryland. Covanta-Energy is in a win-win position: the city pays them to take the trash, and they turn it into energy and sell it.

Waste Management handles about 75 percent of the city's solid waste. That company's jumped on the waste-to-energy bandwagon, but a large percentage of solid waste - tossed microwave, cell phone, sofa, and half-eaten sandwich - goes to landfills, such as the one at Falls Township, Pa., sitting on the Delaware River, directly upstream from Philadelphia.

The waste industry knows how valuable trash is; a spokesperson for Waste Management says, "Someday all the things we put in landfills are going to be taken out and sorted and recycled. There's a lot of value in what's in the nation's landfills. It's a question of developing the technology to mine, essentially, the nation's landfills."

Until that day arrives (if it ever does) the trash will sit moldering in landfills - with truckloads of new material added every day.

Philadelphia is an empire of trash. Our residents alone produce about 124,000 pounds a day and 225,000,000 pounds each year - equal to 170 pounds of trash annually for each man, woman and child in the city  And this total includes only the refuse picked up curb side by the Streets Department. Restaurants, businesses, and apartments with dumpsters hire private companies to haul away untold tons of trash. At the bottom of the trash chain are the scavengers who take away their share as well.

So relentless are we at making trash that the work of crews like Lawson, Myrie and Berry never ends.  At the end of this August day, they will clean up, go home and get a night's rest, only to resume the same hypnotic dance again the next day.  And the next day. And the day after that....


Cover Photo: Truck dumping at a landfill, Google 

Story Photos: Ada Kulesza

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