What do old sofas, televisions, toilets and roller skates have in common? These once cherished objects have fallen out of favor to become curbside castoffs, waiting to be picked up by Solid Waste Management employees.
Every heavy trash load tells a story, and the men and women who collect heavy trash have more than a few tales to tell.
After only two years with the city, trailer truck driver Lester “Tweety” Taylor is seldom surprised at what people throw away. From almost new bicycles and appliances to newborn kittens in boxes and snakes slithering from stacks of tires, Taylor has seen it all.
The workday starts before dawn at 6:30 a.m. Before setting out on the route, the drivers complete a detailed safety and maintenance checklist that includes tires, air pressure, fluids, lights, windshield wipers and more. They congregate in teams for the “tailgate meeting” to discuss safety concerns and receive route assignments for the day.
Taylor, who was raised on a farm, prefers to rise early and arrive at the truck yard with time to spare for his inspections. A sticker on the truck door reads, “This equipment pays your salary. Take care of it.” And Taylor obliges.
Though he could be considered a rookie among solid waste drivers, at 57 years old he has spent more hours and miles behind the wheel of a big rig than most of his colleagues. A former “tanker yanker,” or oil tanker driver, Taylor said driving a garbage truck is preferable to life on the road.
“This job is gravy compared to working the farm or long-haul driving,” Taylor said. “I have no complaints. I like the regular hours, the good benefits, and the people I work with are a joy to be around.”
On the route, heavy trash collectors often work in trios — two trailer truck drivers and one rear-steer cherry-picker operator. The cherry picker scoops refuse into the trailer trucks until they are full. After the first truck leaves for the depository, the other truck is on site to keep the operation going. On Dec. 13, Taylor teamed up with driver Delton O’Veal and operator Leslie Porter.
Taylor gets out of his truck at nearly every stop to arrange the trash for the cherry picker. He gave high praise for Porter’s cherry picker precision.
“I try to move the trash so we don’t damage grass, light poles or mailboxes, but I don’t have to do much for Porter. He’s like a surgeon with the cherry picker,” Taylor said. “It’s important for drivers to get out of the truck and see the trash up close. One time we picked up a box from a curb and a cat dashed out of the box. We looked inside and there was a litter of brand new kittens that could have been killed.”
Another time, a resident was convinced her cat was in the truck, so O’Veal had to climb on top of the trash heap to search for the cat. The search came up empty, so it likely ran away, O’Veal said.
In general, collecting heavy trash isn’t as malodorous as collecting household garbage, until the driver has to empty his load at the depository or “dump.”
“It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it,” Taylor said. “I’m used to it. But I won’t lie: the odor (at the dump) can get loud. That odor is so loud it will talk to you.”
Drivers have to be alert and observant because the neighborhood can present challenges, including low-hanging tree limbs and electrical wires, parked cars, children running into the street, unleashed dogs, and “scavengers,” the people who sort through loads for finds.
Taylor has also seen his share of impatient motorists and irate residents.
“People are always in a hurry to get nowhere fast. Sometimes citizens get angry that we are blocking the road, but we are just trying to do our job safely,” Taylor said after a car drove over the curb and on the sidewalk to get around the crew. “They will honk, call you every name in the book and show you that certain finger.”
You can learn a great deal about a neighborhood just by what homeowners throw away. In neighborhoods with aging residents, curbs sport decrepit high chairs, toys and twin mattresses, Taylor said. It’s evident when people are moving in or moving on, doing spring cleaning, and even when a resident has died. This time of year, it’s in with the new and out with the old. Houstonians who shopped holiday sales set out their old TVs and furniture.
It’s all part of a job in which Taylor takes great pride.
“I feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and I know what we do is an important part of keeping the city clean,” he said. “Without us, what would Houston look like?”