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.
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Collecting Garbage, Memories On Chicago's Streets

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Collecting Garbage, Memories On Chicago's Streets

Collecting Garbage, Memories On Chicago's Streets

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Sanitation workers, who used to be called garbage men before there were many women who worked on sanitation crews, do a tough and necessary job that few people see. They arrive in the morning, make a lot of noise in the back of the building - often while it's still dark - haul off what other people have thrown out, then pull up to the next building. How many times have you heard a politician lament: Our teachers aren't paid as much as garbage workers. I wonder how many teachers would ever like to work on a garbage truck.

Larry VanderLeest is a former Chicago garbage worker. He now owns a bed and breakfast on Whidbey Island in Washington State - who's written a memoir of his time on a sanitation truck. It's called "Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked it Up." Larry VanderLeest joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. LARRY VANDERLEEST (Former Chicago Garbage Worker, Author, "Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked it Up"): Good morning, Scott. I'm very pleased to be here.

SIMON: You have a wonderful beginning of the book when you say 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 the refuse. I guess that is where it all begins, isn't it? Even the Garden of Eden had trash.

Ms. VANDERLEEST: I suppose. I think trash, garbage, refuse, whatever you want to call it, will be with us for as long as we're here on the planet. So, it's part of nature, part of us.

SIMON: And help us understand that title, "Garbio."

Ms. VANDERLEEST: "Garbio" is, as best we can determine, we believe it was a derogatory term - somewhat derogatory term - leveled at the Dutch immigrants in the early 1900s, late 1800s in the Chicago area. The Dutch having come over, many of them really had only two characteristics, strengths if you will, as immigrants coming into our country.

They knew how to grow flowers or food, which they'd grow on their farms, and they also knew how to handle a horse and wagon. So, many of the early immigrants, they would grow their crops. As years progressed, 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, rather than hauling the garbage out of the city.

SIMON: Yeah. You started out in commercial garbage work before getting into residential, and bring us back to those days in the 1960s. Were you astonished by what people sometimes threw away?

Ms. VANDERLEEST: Oh, I was always amazed by the waste that came from our society. One time, just one example, was government warehouses where food was being kept in a refrigeration device and someone maybe left them one day too long or a few temperatures too warm and we would be told to haul away tons and tons of food straight to the landfill.

SIMON: And I want to alert our listeners to the fact that - I mean, they might be having breakfast - but let me ask you very carefully to tell us in your day, garbage trucks would stop to relieve themselves.

Ms. VANDERLEEST: Yes, yes. Scott, should I read a portion from the book?

SIMON: Yeah, sure, why not? And we should explain we mean the trucks themselves would stop. This is when you were hauling a lot of stuff from restaurants.

Ms. VANDERLEEST: Exactly, exactly.

(Reading) 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 in knowing when to jump or to avoid the next wave. 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 garbage men, we were embarrassed by the white caps in the hopper. And police officer seeing our truck applying a coat of goulash to the streets would nail us for sure. Even fellow scavengers were bemused by our sloppy trails. But what to do?

SIMON: I have to stop you - pick it up in just a moment - but I love that phrase, I love that phrase: applying a coat of goulash to the streets. Now, feel free to pick it up, Mr. VanderLeest.

Ms. VANDERLEEST: OK. (Reading) During the summer when I worked for the NON(ph), we stopped to let our truck take a pee at least twice weekly. As the vehicle began dripping its load of Randolph or Adams Streets, we knew it was time to empty the hold. Jake would make sure the rig was positioned right over a sewer opening. There, pretending our truck had some kind of mechanical troubles, we would stand by the back of the truck discussing philosophy while we let the rig empty its bladder.

SIMON: I'm presuming that wouldn't be permitted nowadays, right, with environmental...

Ms. VANDERLEEST: I don't think it was permitted then.

SIMON: Are there are some things that you think garbage collectors would like people to know when we're laying out our garbage?

Ms. VANDERLEEST: Be cognizant of the dangers that you put in your trash. If you have broken a glass, broken mirrors, nails sticking out of boards, think of the person who is picking that can up. Think of the person as he is emptying that into the truck. Maybe sometimes it will stick and he has to reach his arm in and be aware that just because you have safely put it into your can, your trash, probably there is another person who has to handle it along the way.

SIMON: Larry VanderLeest - his book, "Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage and the Dutchmen Who Picked it Up." It's illustrated by Paul Stoub. Thanks so much.

Ms. VANDERLEEST: Thank you.

SIMON: And you can find more on our website about the work of Chicago garbage men at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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