The air blowing into the open window was warm enough to warn of the heat to come but not yet unpleasant. The wipers smeared their way back and forth across the greasy windshield, trying to erase the light drizzle that had begun to fall. The homeless were already busy making their way through the late summer fog, eyes wild and blazing. A group of three staggered like the undead toward the Belvedere 7-Eleven that was behind my old house on Pine. It was almost six o’clock — when they started selling booze again. We rolled our small convoy urgently past them and got it on further downtown, supercans rattling around in the steel cage that formed the bed of the stake body truck, the bags inside the cans whipping recklessly in the wind.
This was supposed to be my weekend with the kids but, since my supervisor had asked us to come in and I’d only just started this job, I talked the ex into keeping them for me. Since we’d been together all week, I rode with Karl, one of the tenured City of Richmond guys. I managed to get out of him that we were delivering the supercans to Kanawha Plaza for that night’s Center Stage event. The plaza was an open wound of concrete nestled in the heart of our city’s spare cluster of high-rises, spread out over blocks like the rough floor of a canyon. There was no other traffic to worry us so we stopped sideways in the middle of Canal Street and mounted the curb. As we rolled under the pin oaks ringing the plaza, the sky opened above us — clouds gathered and quick and low — the sun a pale orb that had yet to burn away the morning fog. This is a hard, windswept place I thought to myself.
The stage had been set up with a swoop of canvas stretched over it like skin. I noticed sleeping bodies everywhere — under trees and in the concrete nooks of the pea-gravel wall that edged the perimeter. The arc of canopy over the stage sheltered perhaps fifty or more. Karl nodded at a secondary line of oaks and said, “Back me up over to them trees.” I hopped out into the rain, pulling my damp gloves on, and waved him on back. I hated the blaring beep, beep, beep of the back-up signal. Although every bit summer, there was a chill damp hung in the fog. Most of the men under blankets along the wall were already sitting upright, awake and watching us. Eyes peered out, unfocused and staring from every nook. They held with no malice, but it was unsettling nonetheless; if they even saw us at all. Unintentionally, I met the gaze of one or two and thought to myself, ‘These people are lost.’ I tried not to stare back and guided the truck into place. I could feel the rain collecting in my eyebrows. This park had become an encampment.
I’d never seen so many gathered in one place before, maybe in New York, but never here. Maybe it was because I had been getting up so early, or that the job sent us all over it, but lately the City felt like it was occupied by a ghost army. I strode up to the back of the truck and opened the catch; the rusted slab of diamond plate steel that served as the tail gate fell open violently, yanking the chains taut that held it. Finding the toggle switch just under the bed, I lowered it with a hiss of hydraulic release, hating the harsh noise as it broke the silence. The two other trucks pulled up about twenty yards away; the crew unloaded putting on hats and gloves, looking a little unsettled by the populace surrounding us. Karl stood on the gate and I flipped the toggle on, raising him up with an engine whine. He looked around like a hawk on a perch, and chewed the plastic of an extinguished Dutch Master protruding past his salt-and-pepper beard. About halfway up he told me to hold, then stepped into the back and slid the first three cans down. I rolled them off and slung them behind me. The other guys dragged them away. In this way I was able to keep up with him perfectly; matching him can for can, as he slid them down. Each boomed with a heavy plastic sound, empty and clean. We established a perfect rhythm. While the guys at the other truck were in no hurry, standing around and bulshitting, Karl and I got ours unloaded in half the time. Finished, I went over to help out with the other load while Karl got on the walkie-talkie. I hoped that would be it for the day and that we could go home after this. As he strode off into the pissing rain I kept an eye on his proximity to the camp. I told myself I had no reason to be nervous for the man, but it didn’t help.
The other temps and I struggled a while, the five of us getting in each other’s way before eventually settling into our own rhythm, moving fluidly together, whether it was intentional or not. You’d think there would be some kind of connection between us but there was none. One guy started complaining about the lack of communication. He bitched all the time and I couldn’t remember his name anyway so I ignored him. His bad attitude would get him gone in a week anyway.
After a minute Karl came back and said, “Clay, you’re with me. We’re going back to the yard and pick up #57; got an ASAP ticket we gotta get up.” I groaned but came on. Work was work. We sat in the idling cab for a minute while he put on a pair of reading glasses to fill out the paperwork for the job. The skin of my boots, still damp from a week of periodic rain, had picked up whatever residual moisture was left in the gravel of the yard that morning but my socks were still clean and dry so it wasn’t too bad. I’d consigned myself to having wet gloves for the day, but tossed them on the dash to let the defrost work on them. This immediately created a greenhouse smear on the glass but Karl, if he noticed, said nothing. More of the sleepers were up and watching us, looking dazed or stoned or insane — or all three. I fixated on one who was huddled under a ratty blue tarp, worn pale blue enough so that it laid flat and frayed along the edges. Even in the wind there was no discernable movement from the shape beneath it and I wondered if the man had passed away in the night. My eyes strained to pick up some movement of breathing. I wondered if the man turned out to indeed be dead, would I care or not? This became a pleasant game to meditate on for however much time it took Karl to finish his paperwork. I decided that when the people who kept calling came and took what was left to me, and my time came to go living out of doors, I’d head for the river. This place was far too crowded.
The lady who called to offer me this job said all I needed were steel-toe boots, a hernia exam and a clean piss test. A week later I brought these items to a windowless cinderblock room at the end of a long City building off the Boulevard that I’d been driving past for no less than twenty years. It took a minute, but I managed to adjust to the fact that I was the only white guy in a room of a hundred men. Some of the youngbloods looked to be coming straight from the street hustle; others appeared to be old drug addicts shuffling over the slab floor with ruined boots, teeth missing, filthy safety vests hanging loosely from their frames. I noticed no one in the room was overweight. My hands were shaking and sweaty. I steadied my breathing as best I could. Prayer was something I’d latched onto in the last year, out of desperation more than anything else. I tried to form something simple in my mind, a quiet place to settle my thoughts, but all I could come up with were questions. How did I wind up here? What exactly was I supposed to learn?
One of the ladies who had interviewed me strode through the heavy door with an air of complete composure and fired up an overhead projector in the middle of the room. She was short, with an efficient early fifties brand of no-nonsense school teacher attractiveness. I couldn’t remember her name but she seemed adept at ignoring the barely inaudible murmurs behind her back regarding firm calves descending from a skirt that was just this shy of being inappropriately short. The projector warmed to reveal various departments within ours. She started calling names with the bruskness of a drill sergeant as she listed them in their assigned departments on the transparency. Mine fell under “Bulk and Brush” a subcategory of “Solid Waste” as near as I could figure. The selection process seemed totally random. It didn’t dawn on me until later that I was to be working on some sort of trash truck. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I hadn’t had construction related work in a couple months and steady carpentry work had evaporated more than a year ago. It was a job and I would take it. With the news reporting 20% unemployment in housing, it seemed as though my trade had died.
We headed back to the yard and got #57, the battered boom truck I’d been riding in all week. It was nearly the length of a tractor-trailer but the bed was a massive steel shoebox, opened at the top and fixed to the frame. There was a twice segmented crane, the boom, which ran over the length of the box like a great yellow spine. The business end was literally a set of steel jaws that, when travelling, clamped the back doors shut. There was a chair with a pair of black-knobbed levers that ran the whole assembly mounted over the cab. The operator got to it by climbing a set of bright orange steps going up one of the two angled stabilizer feet that were mounted between the cab and bed. Turns out “Bulk and Brush” was responsible for picking up large piles of trash or plant matter that citizens had put out. Stuff that would have overwhelmed the trash trucks, our cousins of the same department. There were five trucks in our fleet, plus the stake body for smaller stuff. Like most of the vehicles I’d seen so far, the majority were battered, with substantial body damage and rust creeping over nearly every surface.
I realized that working with Karl reminded me of working with my father growing up. Maybe it was his tendency not to talk very much, to go as hard as he possibly could when he worked. Maybe it was the diesel fumes and the roar of the truck, hydraulic fluid smelling like the bar oil of a chainsaw, but I found myself vividly remembering barreling over the hills of northwest Georgia in a beat down Chevy at eleven years old and bringing home three cords worth of firewood in a weekend, the front tires of the truck barely touching the ground. As we rode across the ravine of Shockoe valley into the ruined Queen Anne landscape of Barton Heights, I realized I loved the man like any one of the other dozen surrogate fathers who ever taught me a craft or skill. We worked well together, something we’d figured out in the first two days, so at this point there wasn’t much need for talk. I’d started feeling comfortable, like maybe I belonged here; so of course, this would be the last time I ever rode with the man on a regular basis.
We crossed Six Points, the heart of Highland Park, a spider web of streets intersecting at the biggest Baptist church in the neighborhood. We hung a left and dove down into the cut as the Richmond-Henrico turnpike curved and twisted into Shockoe valley — all trees and hills, with a creek at the bottom that any other time of the year would have been dry rock bed. I told Karl back in Tennessee this would have been known as a “holler”. Years ago this part of the City had terrified me, especially the raw loneliness of a stretch of empty woods that efficiently dissected the area like a wound. I would get drunk for courage and drive through it late at night, marveling at the whole forgotten community I had no knowledge of. Naturally the prostitutes and corner dealers would harangue me, but that was all part of the thrill. We hung left at an empty tree-lined crossroads and started climbing again, past acres of open fields and mist covered meadows, a curiosity here in the middle of the hood. I asked Karl about it; he remarked they had been ratty old apartments that had fallen into disrepair and eventually demolished by the City, which now owned the land. We crested the hill, paused at another intersection, as if the truck were holding its breath, and then entered an alley behind two decrepit bungalows, one with pink trim and the other with blue. The pink one had plywood over the windows, like hands covering its eyes.
I don’t know how we had missed the pile as we were coming up from the street. A mountain of trash, taller than I was by at least a half a man, stretched the long length of the alley. Beds, mattresses, couches, chairs, lay tumbled here and there with garbage bags filling the gaps in between. We pulled into the mouth of the alley and paused staring at the swarming clouds of flies. I was silent but Karl let out with a “God DAMN.”
“You got a low wire there looks like,” I said. We were already tight against one side of the near Bungalow.
“Hop out and eyeball me, will you?” he asked.
I hopped down into soft mud, years worth of truck tires having cut a foot-tall ridge into what little yard the bungalow spared between itself and the gravel track. The fog had almost lifted from the morning but that meant of course the coolness would be gone too. I pulled my gloves on, the fabric still damp against my hands and waved him under a communication wire as I backed down ahead of the truck, thumbing him right. The whole area was thick with the reek of filth. After almost two weeks on this job, I thought I’d gotten used to being around raw trash all day, but this was the largest pile I’d seen yet. The smell was a hammer fist in the air. I mounted the step on the driver side and hung on the frame of the side mirror. Karl rolled down the window and leaned way out, frowning all down the way. He shoved a Dutch Master in his teeth and chewed the beige filter for a minute before lighting up.
“Well it’s a good damn thing I came out here with an empty truck. This is every bit of five tons right here, he said.
All of a sudden I really wanted to go home and see my kids. “You think we’ll be able to get it all in one load?” I asked.
He pushed his hat back on his head and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know, buddy. We’ll just start at this end and work our way down. We’ll do what we can with it.”
The pile started next door, shouldered against the neighbor’s carriage house. The big doors were stove-in, lilting heavy and loose from shattered iron wheels that had run off their tracks overhead. Fresh trash spilled into the dim opening onto older trash. Karl mounted the truck, took a seat in the chair, set the stabilizers and raised the great boom. Starting just below the seat, it was jointed like an elbow with hoses and pipes running along the back end. The massive yellow claw hung from a great wrist of a differential wrapped in hoses. The knuckle and everything else had been built from three-quarter steel plate. Up close the thing was terrifying, even when stationary, every surface scarred and pitted from a lifetime of conflict, a patina of scarred yellow and black paint, rent metal that had been pushed several different ways out of true, everything covered in mud and rust and black hydraulic grime. The thick texture covering the assemblage made it hard to figure out how the individual parts went together. It was the definition of monstrous; it was like being infantry accompanying a lumbering old machine of war.
Karl began with a moldering couch, angled against the pile, that had one pair of broken feet jabbing straight into the air and white garbage bags spilling out of the seat. I came in behind him, grabbed loose cushions and flung them up over the side, then kicked the half-open bags back together. They were the cheapest generic bags you could get and burst open just by getting their feelings hurt. After a minute, it seemed the more he loaded, the more the mess was spread around and the bigger it got. In between grabs I staggered along the narrow track between the pile and the truck, boots slipping nearly out from under me in the mud, and looking periodically underneath the bed, I finally found a pitchfork shoved deep into the frame. Yanking it free by the prongs, I proceeded to push shit around, attempting to consolidate the spillage behind him. Karl was a fast mover with the boom so most of my job was to stay the fuck out of the way. In the week before, he had told me a couple times how easily the thing could kill me. I knew it and didn’t care.
“You can’t point me at work at expect me to stand there and not do nothing,” I said to him. He laughed and shook his head but he got it.
I found that if I went smooth and easy with the toss, I could launch a bag over the sidewalls without it erupting. Of the loose stuff, I speared what I could and raked it into a pile he could grab. A suitcase broke open spewing shoes into the mud. Ladies heels and men’s Sunday church-going shoes. The boom dipped again and again, very close to me. We got our groove going; I stopped having to look over my shoulder. Great clusters of flies exploded whenever anything large was moved.
We edged on down the pile, pulling up the stabilizers and rolling every few feet until we came up next to a break in the tangled wall of privet which formed an opening into the backyard of what I figured was the house all of this had belonged to. An old foursquare, covered in beige and brown vinyl siding with a half-ass little deck tacked onto it like a wart. A dangerous set of stairs wound up the side to a door on the second floor. The pile spilled back on itself into the yard. A three-legged table barely stood, wobbling like a drunk, oak stain streaked white with mildew, clothes draped over it. Even though I tried not to pay attention, I started noticing children’s things. Books and clothes punctuated with dirty diapers. Church clothes, a girl’s burgundy velvet dress trimmed with white lace around the neck and wrists. It occurred to me that this was an eviction — my first. This wasn’t merely the material of my new trade, these had been someone’s belongings. I went wading into it, thigh deep.
Family pictures going back at least two generations lay faded and sepia in the mud among burst packages of fetid meat and spoiled condiments. I tried my best not to examine the proud expressions of black families standing out front of houses, smiling next to new cars, everybody in suits and dresses. A heavy oak desk shattered into a multiverse of useless items; a drawer’s worth of pens and colored pencils and crayons. I tried to ignore a huge green stuffed frog that beamed his muddy smile at me from across the way. Bills upon bills exploded from the thin bags like sores opening, stacks of pink envelopes; termination of service warnings, shut off notices, attempts to collect debts. We struck a vein that was rife with old booze; bottles both empty or otherwise. Whiskey and tampons, beer and spaghetti noodles. Forty ounces, six-pack boxes. A television. A collapsed box of fashion magazines catering to young black women. More and more clothes, almost all children’s. I was participating in the death of a family. It very well could have been my own. Leather-bound school books named Ratcliffe Elementary, Henderson and Martin Luther King Jr. tumbled headlong into the mud. Karl grabbed at it all and whatever spilled out I shoved back together with the pitchfork again and again. It was hard work, remnants of a small life that kept slipping through the claw fingers of the boom and I was having a hard time not crying.
I kept at it, even as I could feel my heart breaking; I had no idea what else to do. It felt like raking up at the end of the world. The claw fingers dug into the gravel with each grab churning the mud and trash. I rolled a plywood dog house into play and slimy, black and wet it collapsed in the metal fist. Karl held it there for a minute as I stuffed items with my filthy gloves into whatever vacancies were left between the ribs of the frame. As we got through it, I noticed he occasionally nudged me with the knuckle, the deadly steel weight almost comforting as I waded on through. At one point I lost him, the boom I mean, and looking back over my shoulder, saw it descending over me, open and yellow and rusted like the talon of a humongous bird of prey. The hand of God come for me. I felt at once both terrified and amazed. I realized this was exactly what I had been brought out here to see.