Collecting Garbage, Memories On Chicago's Streets In his memoir, Garbio, author Larry VanderLeest recalls his time hanging off the side of a garbage truck and dealing with other people's unwanted refuse as a worker in the Dutch-dominated sanitation industry of 1960s Chicago.

Collecting Garbage, Memories On Chicago's Streets

Collecting Garbage, Memories On Chicago's Streets

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Garbio tells the story of a group of garbagemen in 1960s Chicago. The nickname for the mostly Dutch-immigrant men who worked the trucks is a portmanteau of "garbage" and "mafioso," as the garbage collection industry was at the time jokingly referred to as the Dutch Mafia. Paul Stoub hide caption

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Paul Stoub

Garbio tells the story of a group of garbagemen in 1960s Chicago. The nickname for the mostly Dutch-immigrant men who worked the trucks is a portmanteau of "garbage" and "mafioso," as the garbage collection industry was at the time jokingly referred to as the Dutch Mafia.

Paul Stoub

Even the Garden of Eden had trash. As Larry VanderLeest points out in his memoir, Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked It Up, our trash has always been a daily part of life, but we don't often think of the people who transport if off our curbs.

"Probably from the moment when Adam and Eve were finished eating their apple and wondered what to do with the core, we have wrestled with what to do with our refuse," writes VanderLeest.

The author, who worked on garbage trucks in Chicago in the 1960s, told Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that the term "garbio" was a somewhat derogatory name for the Dutch immigrants who mostly controlled the garbage collection industry at the time. The word is a portmanteau of "garbage" and the slang term "mafioso," since the Dutch were jokingly referred to as the Dutch Mafia of the garbage industry.

'Garbio' by Larry VanderLeest
Garbio: Stories of Chicago, its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked It Up
By Larry VanderLeest
Paperback, 156 pages
Schuler Books and Music: Chapbook Press
List Price: $16.95
Read An Excerpt

But as VanderLeest explains, the Dutch immigrants who began to collect trash in the early 1900s in Chicago did so because their primary skills — growing food and flowers, and driving a horse and wagon to deliver those goods — turned into an unexpected entrepreneurial venture.

"Some of these immigrants found that they could actually make more money — a better living — by forgetting about bringing the flowers and the food into Chicago, [and instead] hauling the garbage out of the city," he says.

When VanderLeest worked as a garbage collector, he was amazed by the things he was asked to haul off to a landfill, like tons of food kept in warehouses for perhaps a day too long. He says he'd like people to remember that someone must actually pick up their garbage — so their hands can come into dangerous contact with broken glass, nails or other sharp objects.

VanderLeest worked as a school principal later in life, and though many politicians lament the fact that "our teachers aren't paid as much as garbage workers," he explains the distinctive frustrations that go along with the daily work of collecting garbage that do not plague educators.

"As we travel the downtown streets, with me hanging on the side of the truck or straddling the stew-filled hopper, it was a contest of knowing when to jump to avoid the next wave," he writes. "Turning corners or coming to quick stops caused swells of a foul-smelling concoction to pour onto the ground and splash passing cars or pedestrians. As self-respecting garbagemen, we were embarrassed by the white caps in the hopper. Any police officer seeing our truck applying a load of goulash to the streets would nail us for sure."

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Excerpt: 'Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked It Up'

Garbio, by Larry Vanderleest
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

First Lesson

June 1966

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.

Illustrations by Paul Stoub
Paul Stoub

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.

Illustrations by Paul Stoub
Paul Stoub

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.