The rhythms of a sanitation truck crew

Mamadou Sacko (above), flicks debris off his shirt that splattered on him while emptying a trash can. At right, driver Lawrence Heim makes sure he knows where Barry Williams is as he walks behind the truck. The crew generally fills the truck twice before the end of the workday.
Mamadou Sacko (above), flicks debris off his shirt that splattered on him while emptying a trash can. At right, driver Lawrence Heim makes sure he knows where Barry Williams is as he walks behind the truck. The crew generally fills the truck twice before the end of the workday.
Posted: September 02, 2014

Mamadou Sacko and Barry Williams spend their work days enveloped in a malodorous fog. If it is even mildly warm out, they are trailed by a light constellation of flies.

During an eight-hour shift, they will pick up and dump 20 tons of refuse - from aging love seats to sacks of unrecognizable slop - the typical haul for a crew of Philadelphia sanitation workers, positions commonly known as trash collectors.

"Best job I've ever had," both men will tell you.

"I don't know, I just really enjoy it," said Sacko, 41, who prefers the work to the nine years he spent as an overnight manager of a gas station. "Sure it is hard, but going to school can be hard. It is all your mind-set."

With that, he turned and grabbed two bulging black plastic bags leaking something rancid and swung them into the back of the compactor. One hundred pounds down, 39,900 to go.

With the recent announcement that the city, after five years, had finally reached a tentative contract agreement with its blue-collar union, District Council 33, it seemed appropriate to spend a bit of time with some of the city's hardest-working, yet most unsung, employees.

Aside from police and firefighters, the 1,100 men and women who daily gather Philadelphians' castoffs are most visible, yet largely anonymous. They do the most backbreaking duties in the worst of weather for anywhere from $16.32 to $18.38 an hour, or less than $800 a week.

"Whether it is 100 degrees or five degrees, they are out there picking up trash," said Deputy Street Commissioner Donald Carlton. "If it is pouring rain, they are out there picking up trash. It is a tough, tiring, thankless job. Yet they come to work day in and day out, and, for the most part, do their job with a smile."

That certainly was the case with Sacko, Williams, and their driver, Lawrence Heim, on Thursday, when they tackled the first of two runs in the Northeast.

The work is pretty straightforward. Each crew has a driver and two trash collectors. They zigzag up and down a grid of blocks until their truck is filled, take a run to the city dump, and then head back for a second load. On average, a crew might serve 800 to 1000 homes in a day.

On Thursday, Heim, Sacko, and Williams started at Bustleton Avenue and Tyson Street before running the narrow driveways behind the blocks of rowhouses in the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood.

It was a perfect day to collect trash - clear skies, mid-70s.

Williams, 46, a muscular man who plays softball on the weekends, limbered up with some stretches. "It is good exercise," Williams said of what lay ahead. "It helps me build batting power."

Sacko just pulled on his gray-and-blue work gloves, and they were off. Trailing the slowly moving truck, they quickly established a casual rhythm - bend, lift, sling; bend, lift, sling.

To someone who has more than once struggled to get a full trash can to the corner, it all looked too easy. Particularly when Sacko would toss a nearly full can to Williams, who would catch it in midair before dumping it into the hopper.

Both men professed the work was not that demanding. Only the gathering beads of sweat on Williams' shaved head suggested otherwise.

"You get used to it," said Williams, who is married and the father of eight children.  

Au contraire, said Joe Donatelli, their route crew chief.

"It is the hardest work in the city," said Donatelli, 27, who worked the detail for two years before moving to management. "My first six months, I didn't think I would be able to make it. I'd get off at 3 and be asleep by 3:30. These guys are athletes."

So it seemed, as they showed little sign of slowing over the next two hours, despite the weight and unpleasant nature of much of what they handled.

Just how unpleasant could be gauged by the smell.

It was subtle at first, the stale scent of day-old garbage clinging to the empty truck. But as the day warmed and the truck filled, the odor ripened, with earthy hints of soiled diapers, spoiled milk, rancid cheese, and the reek of a teenage boy's unwashed socks.

Even with a tailwind, the stink seeped into clothes and hair and seemed to cling to the skin.

"My wife can't stand the smell," said Heim, 43. "Sometimes when I get home, I'll play with her and try to give her a hug."

"You get used to it," Sacko shrugged, repeating the mantra used by Williams.

And on they went, street by street, block by block, Williams to the left, Sacko to the right - bend, lift, sling; bend, lift, sling. The monotony was broken occasionally when a bag would burst or a can tipped and noxious waste spilled onto the street or sprayed the men.

Unperturbed and professional, the pair would stop to clean the mess up. More than once, they walked up to the back of a home to collect trash that had not been left out on the street.

"They forgot," Williams said. "This is our regular route. We try to do what's right."

As they worked, the neighborhood slowly came to life. Homeowners raced belated cans to the corner for collection or waited to collect those being emptied. They politely offered thanks as the crew moved through.

At one point, a teenage boy ran out with a sagging plastic bag of garbage. Squeamishly setting it down, he instinctively wiped his hand across the back of his cargo shorts.

The professionals did not seem to notice.


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