This post's title is deliberately a la 19th century popular literature to suggest the antiquity of the subject matter. I'll be discussing trash collecting 1950s style as it was in Upper Darby Township, PA. I do this, I suppose, for a few reasons. First, I want to clarify what "trash" meant in that place in those days. Second, and the main body of the post, is the manner and personnel (the hierarchy) involved in the collection. And, perhaps as a kind of assessment, finally a comment on how we think of "waste removal" these days and the difference it has made in how we view our place in our culture.
I got this summer job on the trash collection detail in my home township quite luckily, believe it or not. I was in high school, needed the cash and the physical nature of the job was good conditioning for football. Somehow a connection was made (probably my father). But never mind that. Let's talk (and clarify) "trash." The easiest way to explain that is to tell what it wasn't—"garbage." Two very distinct, if-you-mix-garbage-in-your-trash-we-trash-your-can terms. Garbage was what today we call biodegradable waste, which in those days was mostly kitchen waste. The garbage was kept in a small can and was collected at the curb by the garbage truck on a different day. And, rather than being taken somewhere to biodegrade, the trucks traveled across the Franklin bridge to various hog farms in southern NJ where the garbage became hog slop. I suppose it was a kind of biodegrading. In any case, it kept the garbage off my feet as I stood in the bay. Incidentally, you would definitely not have any grass clippings in your trash either. The smell of week-old, wet grass clippings that have been mouldering in a closed can will stay in your nostrils all day, and your can would suffer crushing consequences. The reasons for these distinctions are in the manner of the collection.
In those days, back-end loaders (which are ubiquitous today) were just beginning to appear. In our group only the most favored personnel got to work on them. Those of us newcomers and less-favored drones worked on the kickup trucks. These utility behemoths were 10 feet high, top of bay to road surface. The bays were about 16'x10' and each held whole neighborhoods of trash. When empty, where the "catcher stood," a gate near the front swung down. The catcher grabbed or caught (as the bay filled with trash) bags and cans of trash thrown to him by the "kickup" guy on the road. As the load increased in depth (or height), the gate was closed, and the actual kickin' up began.
Kickin' up involves a continuous motion, beginning with tilting the container on its edge, tucking the foot under and kicking the leg up as high as possible to grab the can underneath and on top. That's what most of us newcomers did as we walked along. As the load reached the upper edge of the bay, in order to maximize the load, the catcher would stack bags of trash to increase the load size. Incidentally, the the weight of a curb-side container could easily reach 50 or 60 pounds, and some people used 50 gallon drums as trash containers. We did not like those people. Chief honcho in this truck hierarchy was the driver, who earned his position by virtue of time served, fealty to the job and an innate sense of when the load was ready for the dump (along with a sense of being hungry and thirsty).
This procedure seems perfunctory, to say the least, I'm sure. But the catcher, the guy standing knee deep in the public's leavings (allow your imaginations to run wild on "leavings"), needed a keen eye and quick reflexes. And the kickup guy needed to be certain to shout out the nature and weight of what was being kicked up (he needed, for example to remember to check the contents of the can or bag either to leave it at the curb or to let the catcher know what was coming his way...especially regarding weight). As the truck moved to a new location the catcher would dig through the leavings looking for exchangeable metals, jewelry and—especially!—gold dentures (yes they do get tossed). These exchangeables were tucked carefully in a spot near the driver's cab. When the driver got to the dump, he checked in at the exchange (it wasn't actually called that, but that's what it was, like a pawn shop), and collected whatever the stuff was worth. The entire crew benefitted from the haul, according to the hierarchy: The guys in the street got the least, then the catchers, and finally the driver...not unlike the shares distribution on a whaling ship.
The procedure was exhausting, but I've always felt it was one of the most satisfying jobs I've ever had (being young, healthy and in good physical shape at the time). Get to the headquarters—"the yard"—at 6:30, wait for the yard boss to distribute the crews for the first loads (the crews shifted trucks usually after each run to the dump, as loaded trucks left, empty trucks arrived, etc.). The money was fair, and the extra cash from the exchanges always felt good and was a good motivator. A person was wise to keep his conversation to a minimum, unless the driver felt like chatting. I liked it because it was simple: Do the work and get compensated. I can't say that about all the jobs I had over the years.
If you got this far you're probably struggling to figure a reason for this casual history. On the surface what you've read through is not ground breaking information. But beyond the surface, perhaps there is a pathetic discovery. Garbage collection as I experienced it involved a communal awareness, aboard the trucks and among the crews, and also within the community being serviced. Everyone had a sense of being a part of a procedure, and everyone had a sense that the procedure was more than the removal of waste; it was the collection of leavings. Was this conscious? I doubt it—especially for some of the full timers in the crew. But when I think back on the conversations and the commentary among the crew about the neighborhoods and the personally directed cursing when they found garbage or grass clippings in the leavings, I have this feeling that the job was something more than a mechanical removing. When you stood knee-deep in the leavings you got to know the neighborhoods in ways that the mechanized procedures of today can't.
I'm not sure that we have experienced progress with waste removal. Something very human is missing without the kickup guy and the catcher and the driver. It was much more than a mechanical arm swinging down to grab a container. It was called a crew for a reason