Friday, March 15, 2013

The Garbage Man

Young people here in Philly will have no idea what this post is about.  For all most people know, you did one of two things with your garbage: dumped it into the garbage disposal attached to your sink, or put it out with the trash.  Well, before the days of the In-Sink-Erator, there was a much different way of ridding ourselves of the table refuse from your kitchen.  Before a plumber attached that appliance that we now take for granted, we would put our garbage in the alley in galvanized metal garbage pails - a shortened version of the metal trash can - for the garbage man to pick up twice weekly.

Those men weren't employed by the City of Philadelphia like the men who pick up your trash and recyclables on a weekly basis.  They came from farms in New Jersey, where the farmers raised pigs.  That same garbage we would rid ourselves of went to feed those porkers, which means if you ate well, they ate somewhat well.   Pigs aren't too discriminatory, so even if you ate junk, they fared pretty well.  Given the average person's diet in the 1960s and early 1970s with more home-cooked meals was much healthier than it is today with the frozen, processed food that hits most American tables, I'd say both we and the swine ate better.  Maybe it is no accident that the farmers don't send the trucks out to pick up our refuse anymore.  Much of what we eat today isn't fit for human consumption, let alone pigs.

I'd say the city trash haulers had it much better than the garbage men.  Probably the biggest hazard for the trash men is lifting a bag or box that is too heavy, causing them to blow a disk in their back.  Now I'm not saying that an injury like that is a small thing.  Ask anyone who has had to deal with pain like that - myself included - and you'll find that someone suffering such an injury rues the day that they incurred it.  Plus, the city guys are union members, so they have a guaranteed pay and benefits, and working conditions that are protected.  The garbage men didn't have it so good.  Each time they came, they had to wheel a large plastic trash can down the alleyway on a hand truck, dumping what was left in the can and having to get a whiff of the odors that came with the putrified orange peels, apple cores, and bones with bits of meat left on them.  To add to that stench, summertime brought an even nastier thing for them to have to deal with: maggots.  You see, when those cans are left to bake in the hot summer sun, especially if the lid is left ajar, flies swarm the garbage and lay their eggs.  The larvae?  Yep, maggots.  Those poor guys didn't have a choice, they had to handle the mess, garbage, maggots, whatever.

Two things probably put an end to the garbage men.  The first is the aforementioned garbage disposal.  I remember a story in the Philadelphia Daily News a number of years back that told of the work of the city sewer worker.  In that item, the reporter noted that in the nicer areas of the city where there were more disposals, there were more rats in the sewers.  They were drawn to the garbage that was flushed into the sewer system.  I would guess, and it's only a guess, that the second thing that caused their demise is that there are less independently-owned farms than there used to be. I can't see farms owned by corporations sending out truck and men like we used to see in our youth.  Who knows?  With more government regulations (some maybe good, some not), feeling pigs table scraps may not be an option today.

In the final years of garbage pickup, most cans had to be put out on the sidewalk instead of the back alleys.  Because more homes were broken into through the alleys, more neighbors banded together to pool their resources and place gates at the ends of the alleys.  What could you do, assign a neighbor to open the gates each week for the pickups?  No one would want to deal with that.  But there were far-fewer cans on the sidewalks because there were more disposals being added each year.  And so, by the mid-1970s, the garbage men disappeared from the streets and alleys of South Philadelphia, and I would think the rest of the city too.  Maybe it is not much of a thing to remember, certainly not a fond memory.  But it is a part of our history long-gone.

... Freezing your garbage until pickup day so you had less of a chance of having maggots craw out of your can and all over your sidewalk.  Some still freeze the garbage you can't send down the disposal such as bones.

...  Your mother complaining or maybe even cursing as she washed down those nasty creatures with Ajax ammonia and water.   Of course if they stayed there long enough, they'd turn into flies and fly away.  No one dared take a chance on that.  Who'd want to take the gamble between hoping they'd disappear or wondering if the new flies would leave more eggs behind?  Some things are better left to the imagination.  Or maybe not.


Anonymous said...

Wow that brought back a lot of memories. Growing up in Philly many years ago. I remember my mom bringing out the garbage in those metal cans. I also remember the milk guy leaving bottles of milk that would actually freeze in the winter. And also when it snowed my friends and I would walk to school and take our good old time getting there because we would stop for hot chocolate along the way and the nuns would be waiting for us. We would just tell them the trolley was not running and that is why we were so late to school. I could not believe how far we walked to Little Flower. Also memories of the Horn and Hardart Restaurant, Melrose Diner, Pats Steaks etc. Yes they certainly were the good ole days. Long gone are the days of sitting on the porch chatting with all the neighbors and waiting for the Good Humor man. I really am enjoying your blog.

Brian said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad people are finding the blog, and that you're enjoying it. I really haven't promoted it much. I just started to blog on things I remembered from years past that are now gone. It's nice to see some have been searching for memories like these.

Mary Pablate said...
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Mayfair Magee said...

I always assumed that garbage pick-up was a City service financed by 1960s taxpayers. Are you certain that pig-farmers picked up the ENTIRE City's garbage (as opposed to a handful of neighborhoods)? My memories from 50 years ago are sometimes foggy, but I feel as though heavy garbage-only trucks (akin to the City trash trucks) picked-up our garbage in Mayfair/NE Philly. Were the farmers licensed, scheduled, and routed by the City? Were fees exchanged?

Brian said...

Hi Maggie,

I picked up the information on the garbage pickups from many an older neighbor here in South Philly. Being it came from a number of folks, I am under the assumption that this info is correct. However, just because someone tells you something, doesn't mean it's true. I do know that the trucks were dark green, and had the name of a certain farm on the door, and they did have a license number on them. Such things aren't a bid deal to kids, so I didn't pick up too much on those details. I can't say the pig farmers picked up the entire city. But I would assume that as far as their scheduling and routing went, someone had to work it out, and I would think that this could have all been done by the city. I can't imagine that they would set their own schedules themselves. They did come by twice a week, but please don't ask which days. Too many years have passed to remember those details.

Thanks for your interest,