I am somewhat of a germaphobe.
Ok—somewhat is an understatement.
At night, I Lysol all the door handles and bleach the remote controls and light switches.
When my professor challenged us to write an immersion essay to take ourselves out of our comfort zone and explore a new world, I knew what I had to do. I would shadow a garbage man for a day.
Luckily for me, when I called the Fort Myers Sanitation Department, they wanted nothing more than to help me understand their profession.
“We’re so glad someone gets to see our side, especially a student journalist,” said Joe Hodges, Supervisor of the Department. Hodges asked me when I could go, and if I preferred a man or a woman to drive with.
I chose a woman.
I felt like I had more questions for a woman in this profession. What’s it like being a lady in a male-driven field? Would she be feminine? Does her job ever gross her out?
The night before I went on a ride along with a garbage woman, I was really anxious. I had serious concerns like, “Will I be safe?” and “Will any creepy guys try to hit on me?” to trivial concerns like, “What should I wear?” and “What happens if I have to pee during our route?”
I decided to wear my least favorite t-shirt, a pair of beat up shorts, and some old gym shoes. But when I got to the facility, which was sort of like a trailer the size of a small house, Hodges gave me a fluorescent yellow shirt to wear, some sunglasses, a hat with the crest of Fort Myers (I didn’t even know Fort Myers had a crest), and a pair of gloves. I wanted to bring my hand sanitizer, but my pride overtook my fear of germs. I didn’t want to look that prissy in front of my coworkers on my first day. When Joe told me where the bathroom was to change my shirt, I walked in to find a clean toilet, a clean sink, and Febreezed air. Ahhhhh. Who would have thought it would have been so…sterile? I guess they don’t call it the Sanitation Department for nothing.
As I waited for the garbage lady—or sanitation engineer as I learned they are called—a lot of Joe’s coworkers came out to say hello to me. They told me that Veronica, the lady I would be driving with, was on recycling. So, to my luck, it wouldn’t be that smelly.
“She’ll take you through her regular route picking up recycling. Oh and make sure she takes you to the incinerator,” said Jeff, another coworker.
His lips curled up in a smile with saying the word “incinerator.” He looked at the couple other guys in the room and they all giggled.
I guess I didn’t get the joke.
What was the incinerator? It sounded like a scary ride at an amusement park that takes an unflattering picture of you at the biggest drop.
But, that couldn’t be it. So, I asked Jeff what it was.
“It’s where they burn all of Lee County’s trash. The smell is horrible to say the least. My first day on the job, I couldn’t handle it, “ said Jeff, “but by the end of it I could eat a sandwich in there. You just get used to it.”
As a big blue truck came barreling through the yard, everyone turned to look out the window. Veronica had arrived.
She hopped out of the truck with an athletic grace and came to give me a firm handshake.
She had a long black braid going down her back, hoop earrings, faded tattoos on her legs, and looked to be about 40. She wore cargo shorts and the same fluorescent shirt that I had. Like true girls—we matched.
“First, I want to apologize—this isn’t my usual truck. Princess broke down and is in the shop,” said Veronica. Princess was more than just a truck to Veronica. She said she treats it like her baby.
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was wondering if she would be some type of she-man, and she named her truck Princess. I felt ignorant that I had assumed she wouldn’t be feminine. Our first stop was a ritzy neighborhood in Fort Myers. There were many white-haired people walking tiny dogs.
Nowadays, the trucks are automated, so the only times I had to get out were when something didn’t make it in, or if the homeowners put the cans in the wrong spots.
I looked at Veronica and said, “Ya know—this isn’t so bad.”
I didn’t even miss my hand sanitizer at this point. But, Veronica told me that where we were had “clean garbage,” and where we were about to go had “dirty garbage.”
I always thought garbage was garbage.
But as we drove into another neighborhood, I saw what Veronica was talking about. She made a sour face when we drove through the neighborhood. I could tell it made her a little uncomfortable. Where we were first was oozing with class. When we pulled into the new neighborhood, Veronica looked at me and said, “Welcome to the ‘hood.” She chuckled as the words came out of her mouth. She said you won’t find anyone coming up to the truck just to say hello like at the last neighborhood.
I felt unsafe for a moment. But, this neighborhood wasn’t only swarming with maggots, but cop cars too.
“I usually don’t wear my gloves in the ‘clean garbage’ neighborhood…but here, I won’t pick up anything with my bare hands,” said Veronica with the same sour face.
However, she never lost her sense of pride in the job. She always gently nestled the can adjacent to the driveway so cars could still pull in. She told me that she respects her employers so much, that she would never want to make them look bad by throwing the cans around. She told me that the department is like a family. She said she’s never had more understanding employers.
When her one of her five was children were born, he came out premature and with a breathing problem. Her work family gathered around her. But, something else also took her attention. The nurses and doctors who spent tireless hours caring for her infant to wellness inspired her to go back to school and get her nursing degree.
As she eagerly told me about her career switch, the monotony of her present career was quite loud. We drove 10 feet. Stopped. hooked up the can. The arms lifted the can. The truck jiggled the trash out. Can plopped down. Repeat.
After that, we left the neighborhood and dropped off the recycling at the dump. Then it was time to go to the incinerator, which we really didn’t need to do, but Veronica wanted me to see it. She said that it wouldn’t be a full day’s work if we hadn’t.
As we pulled up, the smell became like a noose around the truck. It smelled like dirty diapers, backed up toilets, spoiled milk, and rotten Indian food. And that doesn’t do it justice.
Let’s just say this is no place you’d want to spend a lot of time at.
But Veronica wanted to show me around. I stepped out of the truck, made a sour face, and put my shirt over my nose and mouth. Some other workers looked at me. I practically had
“I’m new here” written on my forehead. Veronica was so eager to point out the different kinds of garbage trucks and their capabilities. I knew I didn’t look interested, even though I was trying to be polite. Let’s face it—you can only look so interested with half your face covered by your t-shirt and your eyes watering from the stench.
The floor was covered with a brown sludge that slipped underfoot, reminding me of the feeling when you step in dog poop.
Veronica called me over to see something on the other side of the truck, and the next moment of my life went by in slow motion.
I moved too quickly across the sludge and began to slip. My footing was wrong; my body was off balance. Panic overtook me. If I fall in the sludge, I will die.
I moved my hands away from my body. If I went down—I’d go down on my elbows—I didn’t have my hand sanitizer to save me.
The gods of garbage pardoned my soul that day, and I was somehow able to regain my footing. And thankfully, no one saw my almost spill.
Finally Veronica and I got back into the truck. She popped a Now and Later candy into her mouth—without washing her hands as she continued talking about how the incinerator isn’t “that bad.” As I watched her, I wished that my now was my later, when the smell of the incinerator would be out of my nostrils.
As Veronica drove me back to the department, she talked about her life. I told me that she had been driving trucks for a decade, gave me a few tips to save money on my electric bill, and was stressing out about a big test she had coming up like I was.
And she did it all without carrying hand sanitizer around.
I guess one woman’s treasure really could be another woman’s trash.