Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked It Up
By Larry VanderLeest
Paperback, 156 pages
Schuler Books: Chapbook Press
List Price: $16.95
The warm summer night was alive with the mating hum of the cicadas as their vibrating wings brought their feverish pitch higher, higher, higher, and followed by a sudden drop. This unseen but ever-present undulating sound seemed to represent the mood of the city as a kind of constant pulse, ebbing and falling and always throbbing. Though the hot sun was mercifully long gone, the temperature still hovered at 72°, and the insects in the maples, oaks, and elms seemed to verify that activity in Chicago, if not human, at least insect, continues through the night. It was close to midnight on a Sunday evening in June 1966; and aside from the cicadas, most of the residents of suburban Berwyn were asleep, resting for the busy week ahead. Except for me.
Sitting on a lawn chair in the front yard of my parents' house and waiting to be picked up so that I could begin my work on a garbage truck for the first time, I was excited, nervous, and very wet behind the ears. Here I was, seventeen years of age, just graduated from high school, needing money to begin my college education. This was to be my first real job, I considered, working full-time five days a week. Working on a garbage truck did not seem at all unusual. In fact, I assumed it was the thing to do. I was of Dutch extraction and that is what many young men in my clan did.
For vague reasons, of which I was rather ignorant at the time, the rubbish removal business in Chicago had become the domain of a small enclave of immigrants from the Netherlands. If you worked on the "truck" that was almost a mark of distinction. I did not fully learn the cultural and sociological forces that led to this phenomenon until years later.
I was aware that three of my uncles owned scavenger businesses, as did many men in the church that our family attended. The same could be said for the other Reformed churches in the area, most of which were in the southern and western suburbs. Several of my friends' fathers either worked for or owned garbage-trucking businesses. It was an understood thing.
And although every teenage boy knew that working on the truck was going to be a hard, dirty experience, it was not undesirable. The allure of the job had been much discussed among us boys. Some knew all the facts, the leaders of the businesses, the names and types of trucks used, and who owned what routes. Moreover, we could see for ourselves the rewards that some of the young men before us had acquired by working garbage on weekends or during the summer. I vividly recall John Teune, who, upon reaching his sixteenth birthday, was awarded a brand spanking new Oldsmobile Starfire, complete with a V8 engine, earned by, as the story went around school, his many days working on the truck.
Yes, I thought to myself, with the siren of cicada wings all around me, I was now to be doing a man's job. No more McDonalds making shakes for a few hours a day, no more working on an occasional basis for a friend's father at his place of business, or for a few weeks in the summer at my uncle's mobile home park. This was a real job, and as proof, I was to be paid $5.60 an hour. In 1966, this was real money. The tranquility of the night was gradually invaded by the sound of an approaching car. Bob Van Otten, my ride and coworker, was here.
The first company to hire me was Van Otten Disposal and a perfect example of the ethnic and neighborhood tie that allowed a young man like me to get into that line of work. The Van Otten Disposal Company was a small mom and pop operation. The family itself though was large, even by that generation's standards, with eight boys and three girls. The Van Otten clan lived a few blocks from my house, and one of the stalwart sons was always a fixture in the neighborhood. As little boys, we played ball, rode bikes, and hung out. When it was time for me to get broken in, Mr. John Van Otten was neighborly enough to oblige.
Though John, the father of the tribe, would still drive on occasion, sons four and five, Jake and Bob, were running the routes at this time. Three older brothers had already done their turn with Dad, and gone on to other companies and other bosses.
We had been out on the streets for three hours, and I was on a steep learning curve. Bob, the younger of the brothers and two years older than I, was driving. In my naiveté, I thought I knew the city, but the streets and neighborhoods in which we wandered turned into a maze of roads and buildings of which I had no clue.
The mechanics of the job—how to roll rather than drag a barrel, how to dump the trash out and not let the can go into the truck with it, knowing when to get out of the cab and when not to, where to go at each stop, and how to run the packing blade—were keeping me on my toes and my eyes wide open. I so wanted to do well to please my new coworker.
By 2 a.m. we had worked our way to an area of Madison Street a few blocks away from the Kennedy Expressway, directly west of downtown. In the 1960s, this part of the city was the "skid row," an aging industrial section of small businesses, whose workers fled at the close of day to their homes in the better parts of the city and suburbs. Virtually every structure in this ten-block stretch was in decrepit condition. All the buildings were barricaded, with bars and gates covering every window and doorway, many abandoned and others giving that appearance. This all gave evidence of a very unsavory neighborhood.
Though I thought the streets presented a sleazy appearance, I found the alleys even worse. Bits of paper, rags, cans, bottles, and broken pallets lay clustered about. As our truck roared through the narrow passageways, its lights shining the way, an occasional rat scurried along the side, looking for a hole to dodge into. The loading docks, filled with cans and drums of trash, dark, smelling of urine, completed the ominous picture of a zone of death or dying.
As the workers abandoned this area when the sun went down, the undesirables seem to come out of the woodwork. They were the homeless, the drunks, the mentally ill, the doped-out, and the prostitutes who frequented this community at this hour of the night.
I felt at once intimidated and exhilarated by my new surroundings. Three hours previously my environment had been that of a middle class suburb. Now I was in one of the seedier areas of the city and wondering what lay ahead.