Riding Shotgun: My Day with a Garbage Man

By Andrea Davis on August 9, 2018

By Lydia Granger

I grew up with garbage men as my heroes. I’d always wave at the drivers and then shrink down in the backseat when Mom would start “honking hello.” Granger Brown was my favorite color, and I was taught how to properly place our carts for easy pick-up. September 15 forever marks Captain Curby’s birthday, and we leave Christmas cards out every year for the garbage men. Despite growing up “talking trash” and working summer jobs at Granger on and off since age 14, going into last week I had an unrealized dream and limited insight into what our drivers really do.

Last Tuesday, I jumped up into the cab of RJ’s automated side load (ASL) truck at 6:30 a.m., complete with safety glasses, a baseball cap, a neon yellow vest and my work boots. After the daily truck inspection, he fired up the engine and threw a bottle of hand sanitizer on the dash. Six cameras turned on throughout the vehicle, and we instantly had a 360-degree view of the truck, including inside the trash hopper. As I sat behind the left steering wheel, I looked at RJ twice before remembering he drives behind the right wheel. There are two sets of pedals, brakes and steering wheels in an ASL truck, although ASL drivers typically do their routes alone. It felt unnatural to sit in the typical driver’s seat but not drive, and he told me I wouldn’t be the first trainee to step on the brake when I shouldn’t. I crossed my feet. We both pulled the horn before heading out on his morning route, and I felt like we were leading a parade as we bounced above the other cars down Lake Lansing Road.

Staples for any garbage man or woman: hand sanitizer and tasty treats from a customer

ASL trucks have a joystick that is used to control a mechanical arm to pick up carts and empty them into the truck’s hopper. RJ used the  joystick like a natural extension of his arm, and along the route he shared stories from his nine-year professional driving career at Granger. I’m convinced he’s collected enough odd experiences to write at least two books. To some, he’s simply the man who makes their trash disappear; to many, he’s a dependable, friendly face who shows up once a week, rain or shine. Long-time customers waited out by their carts to update RJ about their kids, their home improvement project or the week’s weather forecast, and friendly walkers wished us a good morning. Kids cheered as we passed the playground and honked, and we exchanged nods with fellow drivers. I felt like I was tagging along on a celebrity tour as we received cold water bottles, a few firm handshakes, homemade cookies and a big plate of brownies set out on a cart.

After observing RJ neatly empty 600 carts throughout the morning, he offered me a try at the joystick. It looked simple enough, but let’s just say there would have been trash confetti sprinkling the yard if he hadn’t already dumped the cart. That was my first and last attempt for the day.

By 11:30 a.m. we were back at the working face of Granger’s Wood Street Landfill, dumping our 34-yard load. A minute later, after the load hit the ground, the 123,000-pound compactor smashed the trash flat and unrecognizable. Drivers exchanged silent hellos—and I received a few confused looks—as the dirt road to the cell buzzed with morning drop-offs.

The trash compactor flattening trash at Wood Street Landfill

Behind the office I hopped down off the truck and watched RJ leave for the last 300+ stops of his day, heading out to make the world a cleaner place. While I simply watched him run the show that morning, I felt an odd sense of satisfaction. A childhood dream of mine came true, and I’ll never see the company the same way. And I hope the next time you see a garbage man rolling through your neighborhood, you throw him a wave. I bet you he’ll wave back.

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