One man’s trash

by Brian Clarey

I spent the summer of 1991 working in the Municipal Services Yard of Garden City, NY, my home town. My days working for the incorporated village came to mind often as I was working on this week’s cover story [“The garbage equation”; page 16], stirrings elicited by a whiff of trash or diesel fumes, the sound of garbage being pushed across a concrete floor. Sense memory can be a powerful thing. A couple dozen of us from my high school worked there that summer, all home from college and looking to cash in on our village connections. We spent our workdays riding around in trucks with the full-time guys, their resentment of our inherited socioeconomic status made manifest by the pleasure they took in relegating to us the most laborintensive, least desirable tasks. “Whatsamatta college boy? Never seen a dead rat before?” Still, they joked with us and we drank with them, and in the hour or so before quitting time we’d wander around the yard together, killing the clock. The yard was a fabulous place, loaded with all manner of heavy trucks and machinery, guys with stooped backs and hairy forearms, hidden crannies where you could smoke. One corner was devoted to the dump, the village’s version of a transfer station, where the day’s tippings would collect before getting hauled out to the county landfill. And old, bearded guy tended the pile with a rake, I remember, teasing items of interest out to the periphery of the ever-growing mound. I assume he kept the choicest bits for himself — I know he personally stripped down every washer, dryer and other major appliance as they came in, trapping out copper wire, brass fittings and whatever else could be sold for scrap. But he was always quick to point out other items of value he’d culled from the heap: wood-veneered electronics, dusty furniture, salvageable artwork, reams and reams of bundled pornography (which, in those pre-internet days, came in glossy-magazine form and was a lot harder to come by than it is now). It was in this manner that my friend Eds accumulated scores of old vinyl LPs that summer, including Gordon Lightfoot’s entire body of recorded work. A lot of people were throwing out their albums in the summer of 1991, replacing them with CDs — still a relatively new technology. Eds worked on the recycling truck, which clambered through town collecting empties from green bins in front of every house. Eds — who, like me, was seasonal help — ran alongside the truck dumping bins with a full-time guy whose name I forget but I remember he had bleached blond hair, had covered his hatchback with fingerpaint and mirror shards, and once showed me a tattoo on his stomach of a skunk in which his belly-button formed the skunk’s anus. A fat guy drove the truck, I recall. Eds told me he and the skunk man would sprint through their routes each day, finishing in about half the allotted eight hours. They would then skim enough recyclable cans and bottles from their payload, worth a nickel apiece, to buy a case of beer. The rest of the day they devoted to beer drinking and box ball, which is a poor-man’s version of handball, played without a wall but using squares drawn on asphalt with chalk. The fat guy would watch. If they ran out of beer, they pulled more empty cans and bottles from the truck. I spent my own summer with the parks department, mostly pushing a lawnmower or a weed-whacker. But we would spend long hours cruising in the truck, smoking cigarettes and looking at pornography, which, it seemed, was everywhere that summer. At least once a week a sheepish husband or groom-to-be would haul a bound stack of smut to the dump at the yard; we would find it in parking lots or stashed under bushes in the parks; once in a while, some dumbass would even buy some and bring it in. And it wasn’t any of that classy, airbrushed Playboytype stuff. This was pretty raw — the kind of hardcore stuff that made Larry Flynt look like Benny Hill. Halfway through the summer, one of only two women who worked in the department complained, and all the skin mags came out of the trucks. The other woman on crew — a sweet, slight blonde with the words “Harley Honey” tattooed on her bicep — did not seem to mind as much. It was undoubtedly a proud day for women’s rights, but the move was an unpopular one in the Garden City Municipal Services Yard, where looking at pornography on company time was theretofore seen as one of the perks of the job.