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Career Day

Stretch, stay alert, and avoid raccoons

A career as a garbage collector is as mentally taxing as it is physically dangerous.

By Tracy Staedter

Travis Staedter collects garbage from commercial buildings in downtown Milwaukee. He is the author’s brother.

Does your job smell?
Not always. Summer is worse. In the winter, stuff freezes. It’s not that bad. You get used to it.

What’s a typical day like?
At five to five, you can punch in. We go to a meeting room and go over safety. If somebody had an incident, they bring it up. Then we do some stretching. You’re getting in and out of the truck so much, and you’re pushing dumpsters. They weigh 200 to 300 pounds. If you’re not limber, you could torque something.

What’s an incident?
Let’s say the bumper or the arms of the truck hit a building, that’s an incident. Tearing down a wire while dumping, or a fire escape. Backing up and hitting the overhang of a garage. Pushing a container and having it roll away from you and hit a car. Eating and driving. Talking on the phone and driving. Smoking.

People think you sit in a truck and pull levers. They have no idea what kind of labor is involved. Or the mental part, either.

How would anyone know?
Cameras. Three for maneuvering and one drive cam. It’s mounted in the center of the windshield. A fisheye. It sees everything on the road and in the cab. So, let’s say you’re driving and eating a sandwich and one of the tires hits a pot hole. The G-force activates the camera. It downloads, I believe, 12 seconds of information. An email goes right to the supervisors. They review it. They’ll say, yup, he was eating, or it was a near miss.

What’s a near miss?
A good thing. I had a police officer cut in front me once. He went from my left and cut across in front of my truck in the pouring rain. With hardly any visibility. I broke and swerved and probably missed him by a foot. I got props for that.

What if you have an incident?
You get a write-up. You’re allowed four write-ups in a year. That’s from the date of the occurrence. If you get four, you’re done.

The job of garbage collector is the fifth most fatal civilian occupation. Why is it so dangerous?
Lots of outside factors. Moving violations by other people. Vehicles will hit you. They cut in front of you, not realizing what kind of danger they pose on themselves or anyone else.

What is the stereotype of your job?
People think you’re a dumbass because you’re dealing with garbage. They think you sit in a truck and pull levers. They have no idea what kind of labor is involved. Or the mental part, either.

What’s the mental part?
You have to be on the defense constantly. Remembering your route. It mixes up constantly, from weather or schedules or breakdowns or construction. Knowing the directions and where to go. Not losing your focus from the redundancy of it.

What’s the strangest thing you ever found in the trash?
There were two raccoons in a can. There was a chair, and I stuck it in the can, and they both climbed out and ran away.

If you see something in the trash you need, can you take it?
There’s no scavenging. Period.

What’s the most common trash?
Tons of Keurig coffeemakers. I can’t even tell you how many of those things I throw out. Vacuum cleaners. Restaurant food waste. Plastic bags from the grocery store. They should get rid of those.

Does any day stand out?
A guy came up to me, he goes, “I know everybody’s got problems, but I’m starving.” I had smoked a pork loin the day before. I gave it to him and he said thanks. That was my lunch. I went around the block to get another can. I saw him the next block over. He was jumping up and down, waving at me like he was loving it. He should. I smoked it for like four hours.

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Tracy Staedter is a writer based in Milwaukee.

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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