Back in yesterday, which is a couple of decades beyond “back in the day,” I was a garbage man. A garbage man? Yes I was, and I’m proud of it, even thankful. Before I became an actor, business owner, corporate executive, etc, my summer jobs were always adventurous. With few business connections, I took whatever job opportunities I could find. While in high school and college, I was a bus boy, a women’s shoe salesman (that was a hoot), worked construction, worked in the Birmingham steel mills, and my favorite summer job; which I did two summers, I was an ice cream salesman, truck, cute music and all. (That one deserves it’s own story).
The garbage man job occurred the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I was not able to find a summer job and a friend of mine told me about the City of Birmingham satellite lot a couple of miles from my home. He told me many of the guys who worked as garbage men were hired on a Monday, got paid on a Friday and if they were not diligent and got drunk on Friday; they might not show up for work on Monday. Thus, on Mondays there were job openings.
I needed a job! We took off walking for the lot.
Keep in mind these were the days before the municipal garbage trucks were equipped with a lifter that picked up the cans and dumped the garbage in the truck. Men working as laborers did the work, working three to a truck one perched on each end of the truck with a man in the middle. There was also a “set out man,” whose job was to walk the neighborhoods before the truck arrived and set the cans out to the curb and a “set back man” who set the cans back in the yards after they were dumped. I became “the middle man” on the truck.
Getting hired was a story in itself. When we arrived, at least 30 to 40 men, all black, were lined up in anticipation of getting hired. A lone white man was inspecting each of the Men. I was in shape for football. He felt my biceps and asked me to step in the office. My friend, bigger than me, was also selected. We filled out paperwork and we were hired. Being hired on the spot was a surprise. There was no application process, references, etc. I was told which truck on the lot to report to and my first day as a garbage man began.
I met the men on Love’s truck. Love was our driver, a nice man who shook my hand and welcomed me to the crew. I met Stumpy and Ricky the two end guys. They told me Hotshot, the set out man, was already out working ahead of the truck setting out the morning’s cans. Bear would follow along behind and set the cans back.
Stumpy and Ricky wore gloves, soft brogan shoes and worn clothes for the days work. Not knowing what I was getting into, I had on converse tennis shoes, jeans and no gloves. Stumpy and Ricky stood on their perches on each side of the truck holding onto the handrails. With no handrails in the middle of the truck, I stood over the garbage hopper on the slippery ledge of the back of the truck, the truck metal cutting into my hands.
We were off for the day.
Traveling along sometimes at 40-50 miles per hour to our neighborhood destination. It was scary hanging onto and sliding along the back of the truck.
Stumpy, a grouch and the unofficial leader of the backend of the truck gave me a worn extra pair of gloves. I thanked him.
We reached the neighborhood and the slow crawl up and down the crowded streets began. Stumpy flew from the truck, grabbed a can with one hand, spun around and slung the house’s garbage into the hopper of the truck.
I was officially a garbage man!
Love maneuvered the truck. The truck never stopped rolling. Stumpy and Ricky, like athletes ran behind the truck, dumping the days waste into the truck’s backside. I ran along between the two men until one of them called out “two,” meaning there were two cans on one of their respective sides. That was my cue. The second can was mine. I struggled. It was hard work, a grown man’s work. There was much laughter and fun at my expense, Love grinned in the side mirror.
They were men. I was a seventeen-year old boy. The laughter challenged me. I wanted to be accepted into their world.
For lunch we stopped at a service station, and the men bought sodas and pulled their homemade lunches from inside of the truck. Again not prepared, without any money, I sat alone and pretended not to be hungry. Ricky volunteered and bought me a soda. Stumpy loaned me money for a bag of chips. We all sat there like grown men, enjoying a quick lunch before finishing our day. Love, the white driver, ate with us, which was rare in those days.
By the end of the day I’d gotten the hang of it. “Two, College Boy,” Stumpy would shout. That was my cue. Stumpy had given me the name, “College Boy,” when at lunch, I had made my intentions known that I was headed to college in a year, a place neither of them had been. Stumpy and I glided to the cans in tandem, pirouetted like dancers, grabbing the cans and let the garbage fly into the truck. It was almost beautiful, poetry in motion. By now, I was smiling.
When we were done, Love pointed the truck in the direction of the city dump. Naturally, I got the job of sloshing into the muck of stinky, filthy garbage and guiding Love backward before he dumped the day’s garbage. We were done.
We headed for the lot.
Love pushed the truck along at about 50 miles an hour. It was agreed they would let me off within a half mile of my house to save me the two-mile walking distance. The time came for me to get off, but Love didn’t stop the truck. He slowed some, but we were still moving along at a pretty good clip.
“Come on College Boy, jump,” Ricky called out. It was my last challenge of the day. Would I jump from the rolling truck like they did, the pros? Love smiled in his side mirror. “Let’s go college boy,” they urged. “We want to get home.” Love slowed a little more for me. I hit the ground running, gliding into a stride like I had been a garbage man all my life.
“See you tomorrow,” I yelled as the truck roared off to the lot. “Thank you.”