You Think It's Effing Hot Outside? Just Try Picking Up Downtown Garbage All Day Long.
Photos by Anna Merlan
By the end of the day, the sanitation workers who pick up after downtown and South Dallas will have started and stopped their truck around 500 times, pausing each time to heave gray plastic bins of stinking, dripping trash in the compactor. It's 109 degrees outside, but to the "throwers," the guys who stand on the back and dump the garbage, it feels more like 115, courtesy the exhaust pipe directing scalding air against their legs.
"This is the worst time of the year for this," says Nayland Jones, 37, the driver.
There are three guys on this run, properly called the "CBD Route": Nayland; Derek Hunt, 24; and Billy Boone, 38, both throwers. The three have been working together seven days a week, seven hours a day since January because the department is chronically understaffed. They think maybe they'll get another driver sometime soon, Nayland says. "Hopefully next year."
"Does it pay good?" he scoffs from the driver's seat, a minute later. "No." That's why people keep quitting, he says. In the last four years, he's taken a pay cut, from $17.95 to $16.55 an hour. Derek and Billy have it much worse: They're temps making minimum wage, $7.25 an hour.
"All you can do is pay the bills," Derek says, recalling last summer's fight over getting sanitation workers a living wage. "Barely."
Derek Hunt, one of the trash throwers on the downtown-South Dallas route
The men are cruising down the street toward South Dallas, where they start their run before cutting into downtown and back out again. They'll do that twice over the course of the shift. They finish inspecting the truck before heading out, running down a 20-item checklist that takes a good half an hour to complete -- belts, tires, lights, leaks, cleanliness in the cab.
"You married? Kids? Boyfriend?" Nayland and Derek quiz Unfair Park as we head down Robert B. Cullum. "What's wrong with you?" They bust up laughing before admitting they don't have wives or girlfriends either. "I work all the time," says Nayland. (A minute later, he declines to have his picture taken: "I got a privacy issue," he says by way of explanation).
Nayland wears a blue city of Dallas-issued short-sleeve collared shirt, while Billy and Derek are clad in the same thick work gloves, "All Temps" yellow safety vests and hard hats. Billy also keeps one ear-bud in his ear and a lit cigarette perpetually in his mouth; he fishes out a green pack, and the first one is gone before the first can is thrown. As the men start throwing, each new gray bin has some kind of unpleasant surprise: a huge thick cloud of dust that rises from one bin and blows into their eyes and down their throats, another that's ripe with dog shit and loose trash.
"We see somethin' like that every day, all day long," says Derek. "Dead cats, all kinds of stuff." (Billy's quieter, less inclined to talk, except to occasionally give directions preventing a reporter from imminent death or certain grossness: "Don't stand just behind the truck like that, the can might flip off and get on you" or, "Mind that ant pile you're standing in.")
Who throws away a perfectly good boot?
Forty-five minutes into the shift, they've already stopped the truck more than 30 times to collect trash, and the smell is starting to creep forward into the cab with Nayland, clawing its way through the air vents. It's a funk so thick and powerful it's almost got a color and a texture, a pervading aroma of the dog crap, mixed with one part old folks home, two parts rotting food and a healthy whiff of something that recalls decaying feet. Heat's terrible, Nayland says, but rain is almost as bad, because the chances of getting splashed with a liquid version of whatever's in the bins go up exponentially.
Nayland's been at this the longest, more than 16 years, as a thrower first, then a driver. "I get in and out of the truck too, though," he says. "I miss stayin' in shape like they do." Plus, he adds, "I don't like being up here by myself. I like to get out and talk to them. If you wasn't here, I'd get out and help them."
At the end of every work day, he goes home to his neighborhood in North Dallas and peels off his clothes and shoes, sticking them in a bag by the front door before he goes in. "There's lot of germs," he says. Before this, he had gigs meatpacking, welding and at the post office. Garbage is worse than meat, by far. "There, at least you're in the freezer all day."
Passing a yard in South Dallas, Nayland spots a group of people sitting beneath a tree, drinking bottles of beer, empties all around them. The group stares hard at the garbage truck. As they pull away from the curb, one lady follows after them, yelling something that's hard to make out. Another solemnly flips everyone off without changing her expression. "At least you get to see the 'hood a little bit," says Nayland, dryly.
As the truck passes down historic South Boulevard, the houses get a lot nicer. Recycling bins appear. The streets empty of people. Billy bends over and does a quick round of stretching, touching his toes 10 times without effort. Sweat gushes from beneath Derek and Billy's helmets, like they've got extra water bottles stashed up there. "They're good workers," Nayland says. After so many days together, they've got their routine smooth, right down to the sign language: When Derek or Billy flap their hands together, forefinger touching the thumb, Nayland knows to flip the switch and crush the trash down.
"I'm sick of this heat," Nayland says. Derek nods in agreement as he hops back into the cab, where he'll sit until they make their way downtown. He laughs, remembering the woman yelling in the yard. "She called us motherfuckers!" he says, not too concerned. It's certainly not the weirdest thing that's ever happened to them."We get called all kinds of names," he says. "Sometimes they'll flash us and curse at us at the same time. It's like they flirtin' with ya and mad at ya at the same time."
Near The Bridge, homeless people sometimes put bricks or full water jugs in the garbage cans, the men say, to try to discourage the workers from picking up the bins. "They eat out of the trash," Nayland explains. "They feel like we're messing with their food."
But whether it's heat, dog shit or pissed-off trashcan owners, Nayland says, they have to just keep on. "We don't pay no attention," he says. "Just let 'em talk and keep rollin'."