Monday, August 20, 2007

1000 memories: doing the bins

In the summer of 1989 I was back at home from Hull, looking for work. The only job the temp agency could find for me was doing the bins in Wolverhampton. I cycled the ten miles or so to get to work by 8am. After clocking in and a cup of sweet tea with the men, I was assigned a truck. With three other blokes, we trawled around the unlovely suburbs of Wolverhampton. Some of the estates had received the new wheelie bins, which were easy to load – you simply slotted the bin onto a lift mechanism, which quickly sprung the bin up and tipped its contents into the back of the truck. On other estates, the old wide bins with corrugated sides were still in use. You had to lift the bin by its side handle onto your shoulder, and then tip it over. The done thing was to do two at once, with a bin on either shoulder. Sometimes these bins were overflowing, and some of the rubbish fell onto the overalls. It was well that the smell of the rubbish disappeared as your nose grew accustomed to the odour.

The 11am tea break was heavenly – already after two or three hours of continuous walking and lifting behind the grunting chewing truck, the body had started to tire. We’d sit in the cabin and sip more sugary tea from flasks and eat digestives. It was at these times I started to get to know my fellow workers. One of the men was a pigeon fancier; another was a horses man, dreaming of the bookies. They all talked in a thick Wolverhampton accent – similar to the Brummie accent but flatter, more chipped, less sing-songy. I found myself walking with one of the men quite frequently – his name was Jeff. He was an inspiration: a real nature lover. He noticed all the different plants and shrubs in people’s gardens, admiring the butterflies around a buddleah. He’d also be careful to store the scrap metal – from old bikes, poles and the like – on a shelf underneath the side of the truck. The men would sell it off at the end of the shift to a scrap dealer – an incentivised form of recycling the bosses probably turned a helpful blind eye to.

After three weeks, I had grown used to the job, and enjoyed it – learning to understand people’s lives by the shit they dumped. Sometimes, tipping the old bins, the most disgusting gunk would fall onto our overalls – rancid meat infested with maggots, sanitary towels, condoms. It’s funny how these things stopped being shocking or offensive after a while. There was colour, there was movement and there was all of humanity in the crap.

When my contract ended, I was sorry to leave. It was one stage in the way of learning an almost too simple truth: its not the job you do, it’s the way that you do it. Even lifting bins can lead to inner peace and happiness.


Nonesuch 1:42 pm  

well said. i couldnt agree more.

Anonymous,  2:48 pm  

Beg to differ Nonesuch... Really awful things are remembered fondly by memoirists. J's skillful storyteling has made shovelling shit romantic, hell even i wish i was cycling to work, hanging out with these "blokes", philophisizing and admiring nature. The memory is beautiful... However, if J still a bin man in yorkshire or wherever, bet the shit would smell pretty darn bad. However because he has moved on and up, he can remember it fondly and poetically. i did love the piece tho, but am a little too cynical to believe the inner piece and happiness came from heavy lifting, and really nasty work. It came from the friendships with the men and as contradictory as this sounds the relatively and i'm sure comparatively carefree time in his life, when he could afford to take a job like this.

Jeremy 5:53 pm  

c'etait un peu cynique, n'est-ce-pas monsieur anonymous?

In fact, there are lots of testimonies of people suffering much worse hardship for many years than lifting bins into a dumper truck. Read Happiness by Ricard to see the serenity of various Tibetan Buddhist monks who underwent torture at the hands of the Chinese for many years, and came through the experience with no hint of trauma.

If I were forced to do the bins for the rest of my life, I would simply deepen my relationship with Buddhism to find the inner peace to live through it..

obinna izeogu 8:54 pm  

na you go fit do am!!

anonymaus,  8:09 am  

Jeremy, I admire your sentiment. I can't say I'd see things that way, jobs one doesn't like - have to be "got through", until you can get to where you want to be ie making the best of a bad situation.

Nigerians like to look down on farmers, even though they like eating fresh farm produce. So to raise something like this (a bin man), will not move the people there.

One's status is not tied to your profession, a person is more than their job! But in a society like Nigeria, status, prestige and money are everything. You will be swimming against the tide of passive acceptance. Nothing wrong with that, but don't expect such an idea to spread. The inherent snobbery of society will ensure that it doesn't.

Anonymous,  7:14 pm  

J, remember doing a stint as a road sweeper during a summer vacation. It wasn't that romantic to be honest - as a temporary sweeper, I was bottom of the rung among sweepers and got the crapiest routes. Petty hierarchies and working class aristocracies all round. Fair enough though - I only did it for couple weeks.

More interesting were public reactions - generally a weird kind of spatial acknowledgment of my existence (i.e. people didn't try to walk through me) but that was about it. People throwing litter into my cart rarely acknowledged me. Of course, those making the point of throwing litter on floor next to the cart were making different kind of acknowledgment.

Anyway - it paid a few bills and confirmed in my mind how little attention people pay to their environments in the city. Also, how much litter smokers cause.

My brother worked on the bins for quite a while and enjoyed that.

Saul (I can't log into my account for some reason - hence the 'anon')

TRAE 10:22 am  

nice! it's a pity such menial jobs are not readily available (attractive enough) for job sekers over here.

PS: never knew you were one for manual labour. ange-butter :).

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