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Jan. 23, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Waste is a terrible thing to mind, reporter learns

Corey Levitan spends a weekday morning as a garbageman in the northwest part of the valley, challenging both his physical endurance and germophobia.
Photos by Clint Karlsen.

Bins not manufactured by Toter, Inc. don't fit on the garbage truck's automatic hoister. They must be heaved by hand.

Garbage vet Jerry "Tank" Neal, left, shows Levitan how to operate rear-loader No. 1199 at the Republic Services plant before their 6:30 a.m. route.

Sanitation engineers who ride outside the trucks are called "pitchers."

Cat urine after marinating in a litter box for two months. That's my best estimation of the grey juice dripping from the green plastic container in my gloved hands.

I've sampled rank smells before, but this exceeds the threshold of nostril tolerance. It's worse than a Phish concert.


"Hit it harder!" screams Joe Thurman, senior trainer for Republic Services. The revolting contents of my overturned mobile toter are oozing into the back of the garbage truck when they should be plopping. The ooze speckles my new uniform.

"You're tapping it like a ketchup bottle," Thurman says. "You need to slam it!"

A dry heave hits as the contents evacuate.

No one will enjoy reading this more than parents, by the way. Throughout my childhood, they couldn't get me to take out the garbage once. Nothing worked -- not bribing, pleading or threatening the safety of my "Planet of the Apes" dolls.

Now I'm taking the garbage out 50 times in one morning. Eager to show me what a day as a sanitation engineer is like, Republic -- the private company handling all of Las Vegas' trash -- has assigned me to empty every receptacle in the neighborhood of Shady Pines Way and Durango Drive. Thurman is under orders not to lift a finger to help.

I'm the pitcher on this two-man team, which means I ride outside the truck. The driver is 20-year garbage vet Jerry "Tank" Neal, 43.

"We got other little bitty guys like you," Tank said during the half-hour ride north to our route at 6:30 a.m. "The biggest muscle you have to have is heart."

Unfortunately, my heart proves useless in my attempt to budge one of the first bins we come upon. Las Vegans toss out 4,265,523 tons of garbage each year, and it feels like most of it is between my buckling arms right now.

"Bend your knees," Thurman says as I lift the wheel-less bin with my back. "You're gonna hurt yourself!"

In his side-view mirror, I can see Tank -- who very much wants to get home at a reasonable hour -- begin to withdraw his endorsement of this experiment.

Here's how pitching is supposed to work: The truck stops. You hop off. You roll the toters over from the curb. You attach one at a time to a metal bar at the rear of the truck. You flip a lever and the toter lifts up and into the hopper. Flip the lever back and the empty toter returns to the ground.

Here's how it works for me: More than half of the toters are not manufactured by Toter, Inc. Therefore, their lips jut out too far to affix to the bar. They must be heaved up, old school. To demonstrate, Thurman twirls a full toter like a pepper shaker in the hands of a Benihana chef, dipping it with his fingertips into the hopper.

Thurman, by the way, is a 67-year-old man.

Another quarter of the garbage isn't binned at all. Against company rules, it awaits collection in bags. Thurman shows me how to handle these, too.

"Your turn," he says after gracefully working his sidearm.

As I gather the contents of the Hefty I ruptured up off the street, I notice something strange about the Ford pickup waiting to pass us: It's not waiting to pass us at all. It's following us.

And the two strangers inside are laughing.

Only after working for a year, for about $20 an hour, is a pitcher considered for the promotion to driver. Drivers earn more, tote only a fraction of the garbage and get to sit in an air-conditioned cabin during the Las Vegas summers.

But most pitchers don't last that year.

"We used to have UNLV guys that played on the football team," Tank said. "They would come out for summer jobs and wouldn't last an hour."

Not only is garbage disgusting, it's frequently hazardous. In the summer, many Las Vegans place pool acid in their toters. Muriatic mist emanating from crushed bags has temporarily blinded a couple of Republic employees, necessitating emergency trips to the company clinic.

A dead body even greeted one garbageman I interviewed.

"And I can do that one better," said the employee, who didn't want to be named. "I saw a live body in my hopper once. He was three sheets to the wind, whooping and hollering. He probably fell asleep in a Dumpster."

Miraculously, the blade hadn't crushed him.

"He was probably in one of the last loads," the worker explained.

Tank careens up to the next house at three times the 10 mph speed limit posted on the side of our vehicle, trying to regain the time I lost. Among the garbage here, I spot something abnormally desirable: an apparently new 10-piece Emerilware cooking set.

"Don't even think about it," Thurman says, explaining that Republic forbids employees from taking garbage home.

"It's because of identity theft," he explains. "Our customers need to be assured that we're not going through what they throw out."

Emeril is unfortunately destined for a pit at Republic headquarters on Cheyenne Avenue. From there he'll travel 20 miles north to a landfill called Apex. This is also where your Velveeta wrapper will sit until the sun becomes a red giant and consumes the earth. (The cheese remnants will remain.)

For the record, it wasn't just laziness that prevented me from taking out the trash as a kid. I suffer from lifelong germophobia. I won't grab the men's room handle without a paper towel, use a fork that falls from napkin to table, or even share a wine glass with Carmen Electra (because that last one comes up all the time).

"You'll get over it," Tank said earlier.

Perhaps he was right, because the grey juice has almost made me forget that poorly sealed bag of dog poop and the stereo box of vomit.

"You usually see a lot more vomit after a weekend," Thurman said.

After completing each street, a small wave of satisfaction accompanies the large wave of nausea. But it only lasts until the next corner is turned at 30 mph, revealing another 20 improperly packed puke bins. Like stretchers on "M*A*S*H," they never stop coming.

By 8 a.m., my arms and legs join my back in lodging serious complaints along my spinal cord. There's a limp in my tote. And I stink so badly, my shower will actually smell after I use it.

The two laughing strangers dismount the Ford pickup tailing us.

"You had enough yet?" asks the driver, who reveals himself as Republic operations manager Chris Detwiler. His passenger is Edward Shelby, 19, Tank's regular pitcher. They've been following me like a hawk follows prey after pecking holes in its eyes -- knowing that it's only a matter of time before I drop.

"I had you at 45 minutes," Detwiler says. He's lost the company pool. I've already lasted an hour and, now that I now know I'm being bet against, I announce my intention to continue.

Tank is unhappy with my resolve.

"If he doesn't take over," Tank says, motioning toward Shelby, "we're gonna be here until tomorrow."

Tank is also unfamiliar with the strength of my resolve. I last another 10 minutes before raising my white, vomit-spattered flag.

Tank and Shelby, shaking their heads, tear off into the morning as I enter the Ford pickup for the trip back home.

"Now you know what it's like," Thurman says, "to work an eighth of a garbageman's day."




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