The Trash Olympics: Burly men maneuver monster machines
Edward Wright sits on a metal folding chair, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting atop balled fists. He’s shaded from the heat of the sun, just beginning to gather strength in this early part of the day, by a tented awning lashed to four posts. If he’s nervous he doesn’t show it, his face a blank monochrome and his eyes, bereft of gleam or glimmer, fixed to a spot on the dirt track that he walked with his fellow contestants just an hour or so before.
‘“You try to forget everything you know,’” he says.
Behind him black buzzards forage on the outskirts of the garbage pile, describing lazy circles and dropping heavily to the ground when they spot decomposing morsels in the heap. Around here they call them ‘“landfill chickens.’”
When they call Wright’s name he stands slowly, purposefully. He swings his arms at the shoulders and moves from the shade into the sweltering day towards the rubber tire loader, a Hyundai HL 737 TM-7 with torque proportional differential, 164 horses, a fully automatic power shifter, West Coast mirrors and fitted with a heavy-duty loader. The whole package weighs upwards of 30,000 pounds.
‘“I’m gon’ do what I do,’” he says.
He operates a machine like this every work day for the City of Raleigh, sometimes for 11 or 12 hours at a stretch. Usually he’s by himself or working a big area of the landfill with a couple other operators, each in their own vehicles, pushing and sorting the daily detritus of a society into manageable piles.
Today he is not a civil servant. He’s an athlete, a driver in the 2006 NC Equipment/Truck Road-E-O, held this year in Greensboro. And because he took first place in the division last year, right now he’s the odds-on favorite.
The rodeo is an annual event hosted by the North Carolina division of the Solid Waste Association of North America, giving unsung heroes like Wright a moment in the spotlight, or in this case the scorching sun, to show what it takes to clean up everybody else’s mess.
The competition is open to waste management companies both public and private, and many of the competitors made it to Greensboro this weekend on their own dime and their own time. If they do well they’ll get a trophy and a check for $600 at the banquet tonight at the Holiday Inn and a seed in the national competition in Phoenix, Ariz. They’ll also get to talk smack for a year.
‘“The big thing is bragging rights,’” says Scott Bost, landfill operations manager for the City of Greensboro. ‘“There’s a lot of pride in this industry.’”
Clyde Harding, who works in Greensboro’s environmental services department, echoes the sentiment.
‘“These guys know their jobs,’” he says. ‘“It’s not real glamorous, but’….’”
Edward Wright is a big man ‘— almost all the entrants in every category, it seems, are preternaturally huge ‘— and he adjusts the driver’s seat before firing up the engine and rolling across the starting line.
The landfill course at the Greensboro facility on White Street is a couple acres of sandy dirt, pebbles and scattered wood chips, dotted with tufts of crabgrass and thin puddles left over from last night’s rain. Drivers must run their machines through two orange barrels, set to provide four inches of side clearance, in forward and reverse; they must pull a load of gravel from one pile to another, then approach a stationary pylon and drop the blade within 12 inches; they must roll a barrel 10 yards inside a demarcated lane and then spin around and push it back; they must perform a drag with the blade, something they do when smoothing out piles of refuse.
They are allotted 12 minutes to perform these tasks with point deductions taken at every station.
Wright moves quickly through the course and operates the truck like it’s an appendage, lowering the blade while making tight turns and running in reverse like it’s second nature. He nudges the barrels a couple times for deductions and fails to get his blade within a foot of the marker but overall he’s happy with his performance.
‘“It wasn’t my best but it wasn’t my worst,’” he says and then laughs. ‘“It was way better than my worst.’”
Over in the maintenance shop, landfill equipment mechanics from around the state with pencils clutched in grease-stained fingers take the written exam that will contribute to their total score. Then they’ll examine carefully sabotaged trucks to find the problems.
By the starting line treaded bulldozers and behemoth, cleat-wheeled compactors wait their turns at the course while their drivers sit with their families in the bleachers or pull cold drinks from the bucket of a front loader that’s been filled with ice.
Tim Brown lazes in a golf cart with his son Austin, 7, and daughter Alex, 3. He’s a compactor driver for the city of Greensboro and he ably fills out his red competitors T-shirt with burly shoulders and an abdominal mass that looks as if it could break sheetrock.
A man smaller of stature wouldn’t look right piloting the compactor, a steel-wheeled dinosaur designed to obliterate pockets of air in the steadily growing pile of the day’s trash. It’s bigger than an elephant. Hell, it’s bigger than two elephants.
‘“That machine right there weighs 106,000 pounds,’” Tim says. ‘“That bulldozer, now you can turn it right on a dime. It’ll spin right around.’”
Like many of the drivers, Tim believes his chosen vehicle is the most challenging to operate.
Mechanic Dave Sherman, employed by the City of Garner, rests a pale and muscular forearm on a rubber tire bigger around than a hula hoop and surveys the course laid out on the asphalt parking lot while an automated side-loader negotiates the obstacles.
‘“I believe he has a little more of an advantage,’” he says.
‘“Man,’” says Arlee Moore, of Raleigh, ‘“if he hits something they oughta take away his license.’”
The side-loaders, which rumble through residential neighborhoods each day and pick up curbside receptacles with a mechanical arm that reaches out from the right flank, have several perceived advantages in the competition. For one they have flat fronts that make it easier to see low obstacles and nose closer to the finishing point of the course for more points. Also they can be driven from either the right or the left side ‘— today they’re configured with the steering wheel on the right, giving these trucks an innate advantage during a stretch of the course where drivers must run the curb-side wheels through a lane bounded by short sections of rubber tubing stood on end with tennis balls balanced on top.
At this point in the day only two drivers have made the pass without knocking over at least a few of the balls. The obstacle is the subject of much speculation in the crowd that sits on the fringes of the street course and when somebody makes it through clean they are rewarded with cheers and applause from the hundred or so people watching.
The third entrant to clear the tennis balls is Daniel Caudle, a Raleigh rear-loader driver; he gets his due from the fans. And though he blanks out on the parallel park, where touching obstacles and repeated gearshifting cost him all his points, he’s made one of the better runs of the day. He slaps his hands together as he exits the cab at the finish line.
‘“[You] focus ahead, don’t panic, just ride right through it,’” he says. ‘“We do these things every day at work.’”
True, but while a mistake out here will earn you some ribbing from your buddies at the yard, on the streets of Raleigh a botched parallel parking job could cause an accident or damage another vehicle. Caudle is as upset about the error as if he just wiped out a Camry.
‘“That’s supposed to be my specialty,’” he says.
Caudle’s truck, the rear-loader, is one of the few models that must routinely make parallel parks during the day. The side-loader guys rarely, if ever, need to pull such a move but it’s a part of the competition nonetheless.
Three side-loader drivers, local boys from Greensboro, eye the course from their cluster of lawn chairs set away from the picnic tables by the giant diesel tank. They’re buddies, of course. Four years ago, before he went off to Afghanistan with the Army Reserve, Kevin Matherly trained Josh Lineberry on the side-loader. Their pal Santos Velasquez seems to be the man to beat: a quiet, cool-headed guy who tosses out witticisms like hand grenades.
‘“It’s a friendly competition,’” Matherly says, ‘“until you lose.’”
‘“Nah,’” says Santos. ‘“There’s no friendship here.’”
It’s hot out on the blacktop and children linger by the cooler, holding ice to their foreheads. On an inclined concrete railing red-shirted drivers in ballcaps and wrap-around shades hang their beefy, roped forearms. As a group they’re tremendous people, with bowling-ball shoulders and vast, solid midsections that challenge the limits of their waistbands. One guy, Big Joe from Hickory, is rumored to stand 6-foot-8 and tip the scales at 425 pounds.
‘“We got some drivers, from the steering wheel, they wear down their shirts across the middle,’” says Sheldon Smith, a course judge who works in Greensboro.
Scott Bost, the Greensboro landfill supervisor, considered this when ordering the T-shirts for the event, which he says run up to XXXXL. That’s four X.
Over by tennis ball alley, Diamantino Marreiros, a Greensboro city employee, sits on a lawn chair under an umbrella as a rear-loader rumbles through the course.
‘“I drove a truck for ten years,’” he says, ‘“and I volunteer [for this event] every year and I’m still amazed.’” He gestures at the 10-wheeled monster threading the course. ‘“Look at the size of that brute, what [the driver’s] doing with it, and he does that 50,000 times a day.’”
Over at the backup station, where drivers must back into a spot as close to a marker as they can, the rear loader comes within a finger’s distance of the marker.
The call goes out for side-loaders and Lineberry, from Greensboro, is first up. He hits the horn and eases through a thin lane and then shifts to traverse another, nudging a barrier on the left side. He turns wide at the end of the slalom and barely clears the middle barrel in reverse. He backs the truck to within 18 inches of the marker at the next station ‘— 30 points ‘— and then wipes out a line of tennis balls for no score. He nails the parallel park and then gets within 9 inches of the finish line for another 75 points.
Despite blanking the reverse park station, his buddy Matherly fares well, mainly because he cleared the tennis balls and gunned the engine between obstacles. He’s sweaty when he drops down from the cab.
‘“It doesn’t hit you until you get up in that truck,’” he says.
A few runs later Santos is up. He opens slowly and drives methodically through the course. He shoots through the chute and he nails the tennis ball run, but he’s made a fatal error even before he put foot to pedal ‘— he forgot to fasten his shoulder belt. He’s summarily disqualified.
Safety factors heavily into the scoring.
‘“Big time. Big time,’” says Bost. ‘“The whole waste industry is second only to mining in injuries.’”
So as part of their final tallies, drivers must take written tests reinforcing industry safety and maintenance standards and also perform visual inspections to discover pre-laid flaws on the vehicles before driving them.
The scores are meticulously calculated and scrupulously ranked and the results are kept secret until the banquet this evening.
Near dusk the heat has dissipated a bit at the Holiday Inn by the airport and entrants from today’s contest ‘— some decked out in party clothes and Sunday suits, some still in their standard-issue red T-shirts ‘— stream into the building, crowd the tables in the banquet hall, jostle for position on the buffet line: chicken fried steak, chicken fried chicken, mash potatoes with gravy, green beans, candied yams, pasta salad, green salad and four rapidly diminishing bottles of hot sauce.
At the front of the room Drew Isenhour, the SWANA committee member in charge of the event, braces the podium with his arms and speaks into the mic:
‘“Anybody has an issue with the scores or scoring, you gotta see me.’” He pauses. ‘“And I’ll be brief.’”
Isenhour, a big butter and egg man who looks as if he could still toss a loaded garbage can a good 15 yards, is the area president of Republic Services in Hickory. His high school biology teacher once told him, ‘“If you don’t straighten up one of these days you’re gonna have to be a garbageman.’”
He laughs at the memory.
‘“When I bought my house on the golf course I saw him watering his lawn. We lived in the same neighborhood. I pulled over and thanked him.’”
Now at the podium he announces the winners in each division and class as a slideshow depicting the day’s events unfolds on a screen behind him.
The guys from the story fare pretty well: Edward Wright takes third place on the rubber-tire loader; Arlee Moore of Raleigh takes first place in his front loader; and the side-loader boys from Greensboro accomplish a near sweep: Josh Lineberry wins the division and Kevin Matherly takes second.
‘“We definitely would’ve won them all if Santos hadn’t been disqualified,’” Matherly says.
Isenhour moves on the fringes of the party, granting face time and handshakes to the people in waste management, and he stops for a short soliloquy.
‘“[This was] an opportunity for us to do an event where these folks can represent their industry,’” he says. ‘“What it means to ’em is, this is the best of the best in the public and private sector in North Carolina. It’s a sense of pride’…. We’re forgotten about. People want their garbage to disappear so they won’t worry about it, and these guys are on the front lines every day.’”
The house lights dim and the band ‘— an incarnation of Lube with Walrus manning the mic ‘— drops a tune: ‘“Beast of Burden’”
There’s drinking. There’s dancing and loud conversation. It’s a party.
And when the balloons sink low and the streamers drop to the ground, they’ll be collected and run out back to the dumpster. By Wednesday they’ll make it out to the landfill where they’ll sit out the rest of their days, quietly decomposing.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.