Removing trash in the 1960s

Sam Smith, The Idler, May 1965 -I have been observing the trash collection operation in my Washington DC neighborhood. It is an immensely complicated procedure [including commercial recycling] that I am only beginning to understand, but here’s a preliminary report. My first contact with the removers of waste came shortly after I moved back to Washington last summer. Early one July Monday morning, there was a knock on the back door. Answering it, I found a perspiring trashman who inquired, “You got any beer, buddy?” The question was so matter-of-fact that I immediately went to the refrigerator and broke out a six-pack. As if on signal, a half dozen trashmen appeared in the alley and the cans of Budweiser quickly disappeared. I was thanked in the same casual tone of the original question and that was the end of the incident.


I thereupon determined to become better acquainted with trash collection in order to find out if there were any other civic responsibilities I had overlooked. In this regard, I was eventually aided by receipt of a four page memorandum on keeping my neighborhood clean. I was relieved to discover that nothing was mentioned concerning maintenance of an adequate supply of beer on summer Monday mornings.


What was unusual about this document, however, was the slogan at the bottom of each page: THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY CARES ABOUT YOU. It developed that Marguerite Kelly, Captain of Democratic Precinct 63, was just trying to bring the Great Society to my back door. It was the nicest thing a politician had done since City Councillor Alfred Velucci drove a sweeping machine through the streets of his Cambridge, Mass. ward to dramatize the lack of proper cleaning by the city. Old time ward bosses combined their extralegal operations with a genuine concern for the personal needs of constituents. One’s ward leader was a friend out of court who, because of his willingness to fix tickets or arrange individual relief from bothersome local ordinances, saved the voter the need to have a friend in court. Today we demand that our local politicians not fix tickets or in other ways pervert the steady application of the law. But the cost of such political purity has been a loss of personal concern on the part of lower level political figures.
It was nice to find a precinct leader who wanted to help get rid of any rats in my basement. Even the police around here are interested in sanitation. One day I was visited by a constable who explained that he was afraid the D.C. Health Department would consider the 1954 Chrysler parked in my alley lot – aka Gloria since she was sick transit, a public nuisance. He made it quite clear that he would not report me, but it did appear, since I had Rhode Island license plates and since I obviously wasn’t driving an illegally registered car on the streets of the District, that my car was abandoned, a potential haven for rodents, and thus, a public nuisance. The problem was, he went on, that the health inspectors might come around and issue me a notice directing abatement of the nuisance within five days and he certainly didn’t want that to happen to me. I analyzed his advice carefully, got my car registered in the District and have heard nothing from the D.C. Health Department. The officer had, after all, clearly indicated that rats would not reside in a car that was properly registered.

Local politicians and police do not, however, regularly concern themselves with the trash problem in my alley. This task is left to the Sanitation Division plus a surprisingly large number of private firms and individuals. Besides the regular Monday government pickup, various private trash and garbage trucks frequent the alley to remove the contents of specific cans and boxes. I haven’t quite figured this out but I believe there is a local regulation that prohibits government from encroaching too far on private enterprise and leaves a set percentage of waste for private removal. I also suspect this ordinance specifies that private collections by firms with trucks shall take place only during the hours of midnight to six a.m. Or at least that’s the way it sounds. The individual trash collectors, on the other and, work only during daylight hours. These types push long wagons with two small iron wheels. There is one man who removes only newspapers and empty bottles (no magazines), another cardboard and a third who concentrates on rags.

My greatest admiration is for the newspaper man. I have seen him on several occasions carefully time his arrival in the alley with that of the District truck. Then, for several minutes, massive Federal power and Goldwaterite individualism work happily side by side. After the District trashmen toss the cans up to the truck to be emptied, the waste is sifted for old Washington Post and New York Times, which are then thrown back down to the fellow with the wagon. It’s a smooth operation. The District worker on the truck calls out, “Here you go, paper man,” and then – plop! – a stack of newsprint hits the pavement. For the District’s men, the collection of trash is not just a job; it is an art, a sport and subject for boisterous debate, accompanied by a cacophonous chorus of clashing cans.

The first problem is to back the large sanitation vehicle into the alley. This task is made more difficult by the apparent incapacity of the driver, the one mute member of the team, to move his truck an inch without the best advice of all his compatriots. The result remarkably similar to the sound of a squad of athletes peppering a ball around the infield. Somehow the driver is able to choose among the often conflicting suggestions and steer his grey beast between fence and wall. Then the game begins. The cans are tossed back and forth with precision and grace. Occasionally a container comes back low and outside. The man on the ground grabs for it but misses. A brief, noisy critique is held and they try again.

The aesthetic part occurs as the trash cans are returned. They are not placed back in their previous tightly bunched arrangement. Rather a free-form sculpture is created throughout the yard, with a can placed on its side at one corner to neatly balance another dropped upside down at the foot of the back steps. The tops are then scattered to coordinate the design and the truck, after considerably more consultation among those involved, moves on.

The enthusiastic chatter never ceases. These are men with a mission and in a city of bland, quiet bureaucrats it is a delight to find individuals who attack their jobs with such verve and volume. The affair reaches a climax when the truck pulls out into the street again. Several of the trashmen have gone ahead to scout for other grounds of combat. The only trouble is that some have gone north and some have gone south and all have decided their location is the most preferable one for the truck to drive to next. The discussion, which previously had been limited to an alley, now expands until it covers several blocks. And the call, “Over here, Joe” is immediately countered by an unseen voice far off in the other direction: “Come on, Joe, I’ve got it here.” Joe, that somber, silent, embattled man in the cab of truck, sticks his head out of the window, looks around briefly, assays the situation in the light of his experience, and turns right. The decision has to be made. And Joe, his ears calloused to the criticisms of his co-workers, is man enough to make it.

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