Summer garbage pickup
is stinkin’ hell
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Mamadou Sacko, left, and Barry Williams collect trash along Charles Street in the Tacony section of Philadelphia.
The People Paper takes a deep (dumpster) dive into a super tough city job.
Wendy Ruderman / Daily News Staff Writer, 215-854-5924
Tuesday, August 11, 2015

ASK A CITY trashman or woman what's the nastiest part of the job or the worst thing that's ever happened, and the answer is not easy.

Because there's just so much, especially in the summer:

The asphalt is hot enough to melt the soles of work boots. The stink can churn an iron stomach. The maggots are celebrating their new life. The bees treat you like a pin cushion. The open-air drug dealers stop you and say, "Hold up, don't dump that can."

And yes, it's summertime and indeed the livin' is easy — for raccoons, opossums, rats and mice. Then there are the random and rare seasonal sanitation hazards, like getting jabbed in the leg by a shark fin or bitten by a spider that triggers a severe allergic reaction.

"The worst thing? Ummm, quite a few things," pondered recently retired trashman Adrian Brown before launching into a worst-of-the-worst list.

The job of sanitation laborer, starting salary of $30,060 a year, is definitely among the most noxious, hazardous and underappreciated jobs in the city. The Daily News can say this with some authority because a reporter spent a few hours doing the job during last month's heat wave.

By 9:30 a.m. on July 29, with a forecast 100-degree heat index, the temperature had already reached 87. The garbage route began at 7:30 a.m. with a three-man crew in the city's Tacony neighborhood. The reporter showed up ready to work, wearing long gray khakis, tightly tucked into pink snow boots, an X-large T-shirt and kid-sized snow gloves, substituted for heavy-duty sanitation gear.

The hardest part, at least for someone with zero upper-body strength, was hurling smelly, heavy garbage bags into the hopper, or back of the truck, without getting splattered with warm "trash juice."

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

It was difficult, too, to avoid what's called "hugging the bag," or wrapping both arms around the bag, then balancing the bulky bag on one knee before palming it, two-handed, into the hopper.

"The trick is to try not to hug the trash," explained Lauren Jones, who started in sanitation in 2005 and never thought she'd last after her first day. "When I started, my partner would say, 'Lauren, don't hug the trash. Stop hugging the trash.' They try to teach you little techniques so it doesn't get all over you. It's hard. You're trying to stay clean but the trash is heavy. Over the years, you get muscles."

A sanitation worker lifts about 18,000 pounds of garbage a day, the city estimates.

A thousand maggots

At 65, Robert Ruff is the city Streets Department's oldest trashman. He started at age 54 working on the "complaint truck," which responds to 3-1-1 calls from residents. The complaints crew picks up left-behind garbage and the occasional dead animal, mostly birds.

Three years ago, Ruff had open-heart surgery, a triple bypass. Nowadays, he typically works a recycling route, where the refuse is lighter, or he changes liners on the city's BigBelly trash cans.

"They call me 'The Champ.' I'm the oldest guy out there," Ruff said.

Asked how he got the nickname, Ruff said, "When I was in the Army, I used to box. The workers will say, 'Hey, old man,' and I'll say, 'I'll knock you out,' and they started calling me 'The Champ,' even though I can't beat nobody up. I'm like a senior citizen."

What does he dislike about the job during summer? Everything.

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
In the heat of summer, "wild rice" or maggots come out with the trash.

"It's 95 degrees out there. It's the heat and the flies and the maggots. You dump a can and there will be like a thousand maggots in the can and sometimes you dump a can and they'll get on you and you have to brush yourself off," Ruff said.

Back on the Tacony trash route, Mamadou Sacko worked one side of a narrow street, while his partner, Barry Williams, took the other. Sacko's face and neck bloomed tributaries of sweat. He picked up a large trash can and shook the entire contents into the hopper. Several black plastic bags tumbled out, followed by a mound of what looked like spaghetti, if it hadn't been moving. A closer look revealed a squirming tangle of maggots.

A sanitation worker once famously referred to maggots as "wild rice," grossing out then-Mayor Wilson Goode.

It was July 1986. Goode paid a visit to a dump site to lend a hand and a handshake. A relief foreman named Alan Lit cautioned Goode, who donned a protective mask, coveralls and work gloves, to be mindful of the "wild rice."

Goode paused and asked, "What's that?"

"The maggots," Lit replied.

Goode stopped in his tracks, smiled, took off his gloves and walked away.

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
A Daily News reporter gagged more than once during trash pickup.

A Daily News reporter could relate after gagging more than once at the sight of maggots during the ride-along. Sacko and Williams exchanged knowing smiles.

"You OK?" asked Sacko, 42, who's been on the job for 15 years.

This was another unfun part of the job: Trying to keep down breakfast.

“You carry the smell with you like luggage.”
Lawrence Heim

Charles Carrington, president of Local 427, the union that represents the city's 1,200-sanitation workers, had offered this advice to a reporter the day before the ride-along: "Remember, you are not out there for a smelling contest. You've got to remember that everything is marinaded because it's hot out. You don't want to smell everything."

OK, but how, exactly, is that avoided?

"The smell is the smell. You fight with it," said Sacko.

Lawrence Heim, the crew's truck driver, noted flatly, "You carry the smell with you like luggage."

It can take a new employee anywhere from one to two months to adjust to the job's physical demands and olfactory onslaught, particularly in summer, according to Antione Little, Local 427's business manager.

For some workers, however, the adjustment period is much, much longer. Sometimes never.

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Lauren Jones puked every day for the first four years on the job.

"This was not my ideal job. I have a very weak stomach," Jones said. "I absolutely puked every day for the first four years that I was on the job. The first day I thought I was going to quit. My mom was like, 'How are you going to do this job when you can't even change your kids' Pampers without gagging?' "

“My mom was like, ‘How are you going to do this job when you can't even change your kids’ Pampers without gagging?’ ”
Lauren Jones

Workers learn not to stand directly behind the truck as the garbage is compressed because something foul (or sharp) can shoot out.

Some residents turn their noses up as sanitation workers come through, and Jones said she thinks, "This is y'all trash we're picking up." Specific houses on certain routes are notorious among workers, like the homes with buckets of feces and two-liter soda bottles filled with urine left out on the curb.

"You would be surprised how many houses in one day that that will happen," said Jones, who worked routes in the city's Frankford and Logan sections for about seven years. "Maybe they don't have running water, at least I hope that's the reason."

Every can tells a story

Workers say they can tell a lot about people by their trash. For instance, they can often deduce whether residents keep a neat home or a messy one, if they are remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, how much alcohol they drink each week and what type, whether they have kids and generally how old. Every garbage bin tells a story.

Heim, 44, the driver on the Tacony route, said he used to "throw trash" in Kensington. He recalled a house with trash cans infested with roaches in warmer months.

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Barry Williams carries trash from curb to truck along Higbee Street.

"I'd pick up the can and all the roaches would run back toward the house." Heim conjured an insect rodeo, "I was like, 'C'mon, get. Get!' "

Trash men and women are surprisingly squeamish. Each has a pet peeve. Summertime creatures, whether rodents with two beady eyes or spiders with eight, often top the freak-out list.

"I'm terrified of rats," Heim said.

"I hate roaches," Williams added quickly.

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Robert Ruff, 65, is the city Streets Department's oldest trashman.

"I'm afraid of mice. I see one mouse and I'm gone," said Carrington, the union president, as he slapped his palms together and slid them apart. "And I don't like rats. I was at the dump late one night and I saw all these rats. I had tears in my eyes. I couldn't move. I was shaking."

Carrington, 47, said he always changed his clothes and scrubbed his arms and face with wet wipes after a shift.

"My wife would tell me, 'You're the most prissy trashman I ever knew,' " Carrington said.

Ruff recalled a summer when a rottweiler flew out of a yard in Germantown and chased him. Ruff said he jumped into the hopper so the dog couldn't get him.

But opossums, raccoons and skunks instill more fear.

"Raccoons, they be growling, like dogs," Ruff said. "They'll attack you."

Heim said when it comes to determining whether a raccoon or opossum is rabid, he follows this guideline: "Out at night, they all right. Out in the day, run away."

"Raccoons, they be growling, like dogs," said Robert Ruff, the city Streets Department's oldest trashman. "They'll attack you."

While Ruff and Heim said they'll leave a can with an animal in it, other workers said they'll employ a technique that's not exactly warm and fuzzy.

"They'll grab the can and dump everything in. The trash and the opossum and you crush him to death," said Antione Little, 41, the union's business manager. "I've killed a couple of opossums and raccoons. You have to."

Jones recalled a long-ago summer when her partner got sprayed by a skunk in Logan. "He smelled worse than the trash," she said.

Adrian Brown, who retired about a year ago after 32 years as a trashman, said he got used to people switching seats as he rode SEPTA to his South Philly home after work.

"You get on the bus and people be like, 'Oh, ummm, oooohh,' while I just sit there and act like I don't know what they are talking about," Brown chuckled.

It's one thing to take the smell home, but a few workers have carried home bedbugs — yet another reason that hugging the trash, especially a mattress, is a bad idea.

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

"They jump on your clothes," Carrington said. "We've had quite a few members carry bedbugs home and it costs $3,000 or $4,000 to clean the whole house."

The Streets Department has a relatively new policy of paying for the cleanup, he added.

Sanitation workers are quick to give colleagues a nickname when something bad happens on the job, Ruff noted.

"We got one guy, we call him 'Spiderman' because a spider bit him one summer and his arm just swelled up," Ruff said.

Another guy, Ruff said, has to carry an EpiPen, or epinephrine shot, during the summer because he's allergic to bee stings. "We get stung by bees all the time," Ruff said.

And occasionally, hypodermic needles. Discarded needles and syringes that poke through plastic bags are more of an all-season hazard, although workers can be more vulnerable in warm weather when they wear T-shirts.

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Mamadou Sacko prepares to clear trash from sidewalk along Higbee Street.

Carrington said he got stuck with a needle while picking up trash in the Northeast.

"I went to grab the bag and I felt a pinch and I started bleeding and I opened the bag and it was full of needles," Carrington said. "I banged on the door of the house to ask if anyone was diabetic or HIV or anything but no one answered the door."

“I went to grab the bag and I felt a pinch and I started bleeding and I opened the bag and it was full of needles.”
Charles Carrington, president of Local 427

Doctors treated Carrington as if he were exposed to HIV as a precaution. He took medicine for six months. A clinic counselor instructed him to call his wife and explain that they could not engage in unprotected sex.

"I was like, 'I'm not telling my wife that. You tell her that,' " Carrington recalled.

Another warm-weather menace? Drug dealers. Heim said it wasn't uncommon when he picked up trash around Kensington and Allegheny avenues, a hotbed of vices, for dealers to hide their stash in the trash, or toss it when the cops rolled up. Dealers would stop the truck and root through the hopper if Heim had already dumped the bag.

"They'd say, 'Hold up. Hold up.' They grab it out and walk away and you don't say anything. You don't see anything. That's how you survive," Heim said.

Jones said encounters with dealers happen more often than one would think. It's best to just step aside, she said.

"Some of them have guns. Some of them want to fight you or worse if you don't let them proceed in letting them get what they want to get to," Jones said.

Carrington agreed. "You got the drug dealers out there, they'll usually tell you, like, 'Yo, don't touch that. Yo, my man, don't dump that metal can.' And we won't service it. We're not like, 'Why? Why don't you want us to take it?' We're like, 'No problem.' Our job is to service that street and to get out of the area."

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Blazing sun shines down on a garbage truck as Philadelphia Santitation Department workers make their rounds.

Every once in a while, there's a summer incident that's so strange, it becomes sanitation lore. Workers still talk about the time Jesse Dubois got stabbed with a shark fin in the mid-1990s. It happened on a side street, near Roosevelt Boulevard in the Northeast.

"I pulled a bag and I didn't know the fin was inside the bag, sticking out," Dubois said in an interview last week. "When I lifted the bag, it went into my leg. It stabbed me. Like a stab. I was in pain. I pulled it out of my leg."

Dubois, 58, who no longer works for the Streets Department, said his coworkers threw him in the truck and drove to Northeastern Hospital, where doctors gave him a tetanus shot and drained fluid out of the wound. The shark species and the origin of the fin remain a mystery.

"Maybe someone went out fishing," Dubois said. "I still have the scar."