The Garbage Man


I was stumbling down St Peter or maybe Toulouse Street between Bourbon and Royal on a hot, sweaty, drunken New Orleans summer night when a car pulled up beside me and flashed a case of cassette tapes they were selling for a dollar each. The Cramps¬†Bad Music For Bad People¬†was right there calling my name. My roommate would later chastise me for buying stolen stuff, which in my youthful naivety never crossed my mind. I mean, I was in the city, a wild ass city where it seems anything goes. I was trying to find my bearings of how things worked in such an exotic locale and drive by cassette sales seemed no less out of the ordinary than walk up booze stands. I played the hell out of that double bootlegged compilation tape, Cramps vernacular making it’s way in to my everyday speech. I thought I was the Garbage Man looking for a New Kind of Kick.
Later I was back in Las Cruces due to the unsustainable nature of whatever chaotic living situation I was trying to pull off in Louisiana, Texas or Tennessee. After goofing off for a spell, I put in an application at a Man Power temp agency to get down to the business of saving some money to leave again. My only prospect was working for Waste Management, the independent rural garbage collection company. I got up at the crack of dawn and made my way to the WM headquarters off South Main Street by the railroad tracks. A couple of guys were there, a dispatcher and the driver I’d be riding with. They were staring at a busted open trash bag on the concrete floor. “You like rice hombre?” the driver asked, kicking the bag off to the side to reveal thousands of maggots squirming on the wet floor.
We filled up water jugs with powdered gatorade and took off on our route. They had enlisted temp help because the automated single operator truck was down. It would be my job to ride on the back of the truck, hopping down to pull the trash bins to the hydraulic lift where I’d hook them up and dump them over. The driver would never leave the cab. It was kind of fun but very tiring in the summer heat. Our route was the Mesilla Park area and several times we stopped at houses of old classmates. Homes just a few years earlier I had been in for birthday gatherings as a child and keg parties in high school. At the home of one particularly affluent and somewhat snotty family the trash bin was full of generic Albertson’s Grocery Store brand plastic liquor bottles. I cracked up at the image of the grand professor funneling his empty Chivas and Don Julio bottles full of the bottom shelf rot gut.
A couple hours in to the day I was back in the passenger seat of cab riding to the public landfill. We were headed east on University Ave, headed towards the Organ Mountains when my partner rolled down the window and began cat calling a group of college students. “Hey mamacita!” I shrunk in my seat from embarrassment as I recognized one of the girls as the older sister of a kid I knew from school. My partner turned toward me, “orale cabron, you don’t like chicks or what?” He got on the radio to let the dispatcher know what a disappointment I was. “Pinche guero, ain’t no garbageman….”
At the landfill waiting for our turn to dump the truck my partner put on one of the heavy duty canvas protective gloves we were issued and pulled a discarded light bulb from the heap. “Can you do this homes?” he challenged, squeezing the bulb to a shatter in his palm. My head filled with the conflict I had been dogged with since adolescence. In my heart I was sensitive, an artist with special power of empathy and observation. The guitar was my passion and though I didn’t play with the deft technical expertise of a jazzman or the bold acrobatics of a heavy metal shredder, my hands did glide across the fretboard coaxing a pleasant tone I was proud of from my blues based simplicity. Half my instincts balked at endangering my precious hand in such a pointless test of courage. That said I was also full of macho bravado. In my years of manual labor I was quick to take on the toughest tasks of any job. I drank and caroused all night then sprung to life in the morning, shaking off my hangovers under the hundred degree sun. I earned respect, or at least my pulled my weight, at every job I’d had, though I was mocked and alienated for reading John Steinbeck and Nelson Algren in my car at lunch. I knew my refusal to harass women on the street had me marked as weak and if I was going to hang as a garbage man I had to take the hazing challenge. I grabbed a bulb and shattered it without blinking.
After that my partner and I were cool. We hit the various outlying neighborhoods around Las Cruces. On the east mesa towards the mountain we picked up trash from the endless rows of trailer houses where every other yard was home to a vicious attack dog. One particular Rottweiler would lay still on the back porch watching the truck roll down the alley waiting to spring forth at a full sprint as I reached for the bin crashing in to the chain link with such velocity I feared each week would be the one where the fence came down. Heart racing I hopped on the back of the truck and rode on to the next adventure. One day west of town in the foothills by Picacho Peak we got the truck stuck in a sandbar and burned up the transmission. The next day we took a commercial truck out, borrowing a small dumpster which I had to manually lift the bins over the edge to dump which made for my hardest and only certifiably hellish day. In short time the original single operator truck was back in action, I was laid off and my pocket was full of enough money to move on. I had no lust to find another job in the sanitation biz but I did enjoy holding court with my friends telling the tales of having the longest day and the dirtiest job.
I heard a Velvet Underground cover by the Beat Farmers the other day that took me back to my youthful days in the hot farm valley working manual labor and drinking all night listening to the New York Dolls, Stooges and Ramones. My buddies and I would form bands, practicing in the storage sheds or garages, unselfconsciously knocking around songs by our heroes in our own style. I cut this version of the Stooges “No Fun” in 2014 at Patrick Herzfeld’s studio west of Austin. Patrick played drums and Ron McRae played bass. The legendary Warner Hodges of Jason and The Scorchers fame played lead guitar. The groove of the song came from me playing it solo on my acoustic guitar and morphed in to an almost Tony Joe White feel. The video is a slide show I made on my phone.