A few years ago, as I was riding Amtrak back to New York after visiting my family up in Massachusetts, Fofo and the solids truck popped into my head in such an urgent way that I went for my pad and pen and began scribbling notes.
I was eighteen, heading to college the coming September, and that was my second summer working for the City of Waltham’s Department of Public Works. There would be one more after it, a stint digging graves, riding mowers and pruning trees in the city-run Mount Feake Cemetery off Prospect Street. Those jobs for the DPW were desired by me and my friends in that they paid well by our modest standards and were difficult to get; I recall only fourteen being available each summer. My good fortune to have one, if you want to look at it that way, and I still do, came by way of an older cousin on the City Council.
I suppose the solids truck was a step up from the year before when I was on rubbish detail, and in fact I liked it a lot better. Rubbish was smelly, rotting, maggot-infested, and often poorly contained, whereas solids comprised the heavier objects the rubbish trucks didn’t take. These included broken-down refrigerators and old toilets and tables and unneeded pieces of pipe and torn couches and broken water heaters and anything else you can think of that might be found in and around a home; a rusted barbeque from a backyard or a beat-up workbench from a basement.
While the cemetery would turn out to be a relatively cushy gig in comparison, the summer on solids remains my favorite. I liked Fofo and I liked riding around town on the back of the navy-gray truck with heavy metal sides and an open back. I liked waking up early and walking the mile or so from the West End and meeting up with the other men at the garage on Lexington Street with the styrofoam cup of milky coffee I bought each morning at the deli across the street. I liked the giant effort it took to pick up and discard the city’s large, expendable items eight hours a day five days a week, and along with that I liked going home muscle-sore with the accomplishment of having done a lot of hard work. I’d pay serious money to be in the shape I was in in those days, at my peak of health and strength and endurance, I guess. I might have weighed a hundred-thirty-five pounds but it was a rippling one-thirty-five that by itself could drag an oven from the curb to the street without much of a struggle and then grab a hold of one side and with Fofo on the other lift it up and slide it onto the back of the flatbed.
Of course, I might be giving myself too much credit in that strenuous process. Fofo had been an all-league linebacker at Waltham High School when my father was there and he was still a big, strong man with large arms and a barrel-sized chest. Even in his early fifties he remained a powerful presence in his green Dickies uniform. We got to know each other quite well those few months. Fofo was a man of a certain type I was comfortable being around, Italian, old school and matter-of-fact. He was like my father in a lot of ways. Like him, he was athletic and loved sports. Like him, he went overseas to fight in The Big War and had been injured. Also like him, he’d come back from that to settle in the only city he’d ever live in and start a family and hook on to something that would provide for them and him. Public Works jobs in those days were secure, benefits rich and reasonably rewarding for blue collar labor.
A city of fifty thousand produces a lot of garbage to heft and pack and it took many rubbish trucks to do that, maybe eight, I’m not sure, it might have been ten. But only one truck was dedicated to solids and Fofo and I and the driver, a wiry man in his thirties whose name I’m struggling to recall, were responsible for picking all of it up. After twenty years of that Fofo knew Waltham’s streets as well as anyone. He knew every house and building. He seemed to know everyone at every stop, and well enough to have a few words with that inferred the conversation was a continuation of something that had started up a week or weeks earlier, maybe even years earlier.
When Fofo wasn’t chatting up the citizenry he’d entertain me with a few fragments about something we came up to, something he felt I, a future college student, would be interested in: over there a man named Charles Metz may have produced the first motorcycle in America for the Waltham Manufacturing Company; the original buildings of Brandies University, including the strange Usen Castle, were originally a medical school (and where, at a younger age, my friends and I went to a biology lab in one of them to see the stillborn babies preserved in giant jars); the oval track at Bicycle Park once had been the fastest dirt track in the country where world records were set (and that I see, after a few minutes of research, were reported in the next day’s The New York Times).
I admit those ramblings had pretty much zero appeal to me. I was more interested in the bars and restaurants and convenience stores we stopped at to see if there might be something for us to heft and take to the dump, and if there was, depending on what was there, five or six dollars or even a whopping ten spot would be exchanged for our services, money we’d split three ways. That was something the rubbish guys also did even if they weren’t supposed to; commercial businesses were expected to hire private companies to remove their trash and solids. If I thought anything about it, it seemed little more than a well-deserved perk for the strenuous, sweaty work we were doing.
That I wasn’t able to spend summer vacations backpacking or traveling never really bothered me. I never knew anyone who did that. And seeing the way things are now, in 2016, I suppose I was fortunate to have had something to do in the summers between school years that gave me a weekly paycheck for those months off. In a time of unpaid “interns” getting “work experience” doing menial tasks in sterile cubicles for highly profitable companies, I’ll take the solids truck any time, any year. Though I feel it’s safe to say Public Works jobs that let students earn money and save for college are likely gone forever. Where a kid from a lower income household could find out, as I did, what it was like to get up early and go to work and be responsible for something, even something as unglamorous but important to the quality of life of a city as picking up battered pieces of furniture and burying the dead and filling potholes (which I did on a few afternoons). All that money’s dried up, gone missing into other programs and pockets, and I find it ludicrous that solid, if you’ll excuse the bad pun, citizens like Fofo are now reviled for making a livable salary with basic benefits they have no choice but to watch get cut little by little until the point will come when they’ll be no better off than the teenager taking their order for a burger.
That was another time, of course. A better time? Probably not. But all the men I knew in those days, my father, uncles, the fathers of my friends, were like Fofo, and if cutting them off from a decent living is supposed to make us a better, more solvent society I don’t see how. Someone has to do that work, after all, and they need to be paid something more than what the children they may still be supporting are able to make.