Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
So far in my life as a Baby Boomer, I’ve had three “careers” so to speak:
1. Daily newspaper reporter covering crime and politics (sometimes both in the same story) for 12 years in the 70s and 80s in Northern California.
2. City of San Diego sanitation driver. That’s the official job title, but we’re called garbage-truck drivers, collectors, sanitation engineers, and an occasional obscenity by immature people who are upset over something not our fault.
3. Union president for AFSCME Local 127 representing city blue-collar workers, including the Sanitation Drivers. Sometimes referred to in our daily newspaper as “powerful labor leader,” or “heavy fat cat” — both are not true. The unions don’t run the city (we took a pay cut) and I only weigh 110 pounds on a good day.
Of course there is my most important and satisfying position — mother of two children. No salary schedule for motherhood under labor laws (yet).
Of the three paid jobs, sanitation driver has been the most strenuous, biggest learning experience; most underestimated, but very rewarding.
Majoring in English Lit at UCSD really wasn’t too helpful when it came to running a garbage route
So why do it?
In 1995 at the age of 45, I wanted to do something completely different — something outdoors not at a desk, physically challenging. Something no-nonsense that everyone agreed had to be done everyday or else. A job that was traditionally “man’s work” just to see if I could do it. And I wanted to stop going to the gym.
I wasn’t very good at it at first. My own vehicle was a two-door Saab. I had no idea how to drive a large truck, let alone how to dump one. I graduated near the bottom of the city’s “Refuse Collection Academy” where we were trained to use our mirrors and constantly drive backwards down skinny, curvy alleys.
It scared the hell out of me the first time I had to do it. But some of the burliest drivers took me under their wings and helped me out. Despite their tough image, they are the most helpful and respectful group of workers you would ever want to meet.
Routes are done at a quick pace, maneuvering through continuous hazards: children and pets running across your path, overhanging tree limbs, low hanging power lines, garage overhangs, illegally parked cars.
Only inches of clearance in some cases. That’s why San Diego sanitation drivers win so many awards. A big city like San Diego with its old alleys and streets are a breeding ground for premier drivers.
Taking out the city’s trash everyday is the best workout I’ve ever had, but it is nothing like going to the gym. I didn’t think it would be too hard on me since I was already a veteran weightlifter and runner. Wrong! The garbage truck is not the gym. It is real hard work.
We don’t “lift” the cans the way you would a barbell. We swing them from the curb with one flowing movement, hoist and dump them into the “hopper,” expertly slide them back and grab the next can. As fast as possible, then hop on the step at the back of the truck and move onto the next stop and repeat thousands of times a day. More like a type of cardio-discus-throwing with a little funky ballet movement in steel-toed boots.
For a woman — even a weightlifter like me — it’s really rough on the forearms and hands. I couldn’t swing the cans at first. More like barely get them off the ground and to the back of the truck. For the first three months, I had so many blisters I had to bandage my fingers everyday. I was glad when callouses finally developed.
On the two-person “manual” truck my partner and I averaged 15 to 20 tons per day, not including the weight of the containers. That’s lifting seven to10 tons per person everyday. Definitely more than my Bally’s gym workout. The good news: I could eat whatever I wanted and no problem sleeping at night.
This was all before automation arrived. Automation ushered in new problems, the most obvious being we all had to start driving on the right-hand side of the truck, as if we were in England. More about that later.
Top 3 Worst Aspects:
1.Lack of respect. Most of us aren’t college educated, so some people like to look down on us as ignorant or unaccomplished. Getting the trash (and greenery and recycling) off the streets everyday and quickly and safely is quite an accomplishment. Try it and see.
2. Taken for granted and feeling invisible. People will pull out of their driveway right in front of you, as you’re taking their garbage, and will act as if you are not there.
3. The pay. About 20 bucks an hour, depending on your experience, doesn’t compensate for the job’s hazards, difficulty and importance to public health and safety, especially in such an expensive city.
Top 3 Best Aspects: 1. Not taking your work home with you. Knowing at the end of the day, the trash is off the streets.
2. The citizens who say thank you. Every week one lady in the Barrio would hand us warm handmade tortillas over the fence in the alley behind her house. Another resident wrote on a Christmas card that I saved: “To our Sanitation Technician. Thank you for helping to take care of us and our big city all year long.” Little kids will run out to the sidewalk to waive to the trash truck.
3. Diversity of our workforce has taught me all kinds of good ways to approach life.