I remember Flip Wilson talking about his uncle getting a job on a garbage truck. It paid $25 a week, and all he could eat. Driving behind a garbage truck is pretty awful stuff. It only takes one stop to understand that there is always garbage truck juice dripping from it. That means when the truck is moving, the wind is atomizing that juice and you can never be sure where it’s going. Driving behind one on a motorcycle is even worse.
These are the rational thoughts of an adult.
The memories of a child are an entirely different affair. In the summer of 1968, my siblings and I were moved to the city of Savannah. It was a far cry from the rural area we had grown up in. There were drunks on the streets and crime on every corner. In the world we had grown up in, one did not ride in cabs, use umbrellas, and knew everyone who lived as far as a young child could wander in a day.
Trash was walked into the woods and dumped in a large pile, usually near where the old outhouses stood. The outhouses had only recently been abandoned in our corner of the world. Many adventures, injuries and a few treasures were found playing near, or on, old abandoned trash piles. Old cars were not traded in, but were driven as far into the woods as possible' wherever they stopped is where they died. Many became playground equipment for children, while some, still drivable, were used to drive through the woods until they finally gave up. A toy such as this required no lights and even brakes were optional. These old cars taught many how to drive.
In Savannah, the world changed for us in many ways, most bad. My family lived in Port Wentworth and actually lived in the projects. This was a time before I knew what projects were. The houses were long rows of small brick shanties attached together, streets ran along in front of them, but between them on their backs, ran long dirt alleys. My memories include those alleys always being filled with mud holes filled with water. They were like rivers flowing for blocks and were a source of constant entertainment.
Garbage trucks parted those waters at least a couple times a week and the smell or juice that they dropped into the rivers of mosquito-producing stagnant water matter little. In fact, their smell was only slightly worse than the fetid air already thick around the waters. It lasted only seconds, then the truck moved on.
I can remember the two old black gentlemen, who rode on the back of that truck, like it was yesterday. They wore black coveralls, which had started life, gray. Neither had teeth, or at least not enough to notice them as teeth. Both smiled continuously and laughed heartily. They hardly spoke anything resembling the English language and smelled worse than the truck.
None of this mattered to the kids who lived in the projects. These guys were Sanitation Santas. They would spend the week collecting abandoned toys and store them in side compartments on the truck. As the truck moved slowly through the projects they would pick up the garbage, all the while distributing smiles and toys to the children following them along, desperate for any good thing they could get. The truck was only slightly less exciting, but much worse smelling than the ice cream truck which cruised the same mud hole every day with its calliope of colorful music.
Not all of those kids could buy ice cream, but all of them got a toy. It was many years before I truly understood what the dozens of kids without ice creams were thinking while they watched the few who had them, eat them.
I have talked about the teachers and relatives who touch so many and left lifelong impressions without being aware of how much they changed those around them.
How about Katharine? She was an old, black nanny we had when I was young. Sure, we were white, but our lives were only separated by a thread, which consisted of a little money and a lot of color. She was the best cook and the sweetest person I’ve ever known. I think of her daily. She taught me much more valuable lessons than the gaggle of good ole boys who tried to keep me mired in a belief system left over from the Stone Age.
These two old unassuming garbage collectors influenced several generations of children, possibly providing the only joy they received while young. Did they understand their importance; did they have any clue what prominent examples of kindness they were?
Maybe not, but I wish to believe that this was the first secret God whispered to them when they looked into his face for the first time.