The True Story of Noe Valley's Garbage Collectors
By Rayne Reynolds Wolfe
I catch up with Noe Valley's Sunset Scavenger crew at 6 a.m. one icy morning at Castro and 24th streets. Already an hour into his shift, route supervisor Mike Bell is ankle deep in sushi scraps, spilled from an overturned can in front of Hamano Sushi.
"It's usually drunks," he explains, pulling off one thick glove to shake hands amicably. "Drunks kick the cans over, and we gotta pick 'em up. It's just part of the job." As he speaks, Bell expertly hooks a can to the "tipper," the device that flips the can up into the mouth of the truck.
With 18 years on the job -- the past three in Noe Valley -- Bell is a refuse collector (today's term for "garbage man") who understands the trashiest needs of the neighborhood's residents. And as one of 400 employee/owners of Sunset Scavenger, he is dedicated to keeping his customers happy.
"I have to work hard. I work with my name on my shirt," he says.
A volunteer minister with his church, Bell sets a righteous pace for co-workers Joyce Hume and Gary Morganti as the trio performs an intricate ballet of rubbish removal. They move down 24th Street, turn right on Noe, turn right on Jersey, and then head back up Jersey to Castro, completing the circle of that block. Sticking to one side of the street, they go round and round, block after block, moving east along 24th Street toward Dolores.
They are well aware that in warm beds all around them people are trying to enjoy those last few minutes of sleep, so the crew moves silently, using hand signals instead of words. All eyes are on Bell, who is coach, choreographer, and drum major rolled into one. A tilt of his head tells Morganti it's time to move the truck up. A pointed finger reminds Hume to secure a lid. They take turns opening alleyway doors, lifting cans, engaging the crusher, and sidestepping recycling bins.
And they run while they work. (Okay, they can leave early if they finish early.) But still, they go really fast. Maybe that's why kids like them so much.
"Little kids get so excited to see us -- firemen and garbage men. Kids always wave and smile," says Bell, chuckling.
Besides wowing the tykes, the garbage collectors do other cool things. They banter with bums. They scare off car stereo thieves. They roust raccoons. Coolest of all, they take away the stuff you held out on a tennis racket to dump into your trash can -- the Chinese takeout with green and black mold two inches high, the vacuum dust bag you emptied after flea-bombing your house, the cat barf hidden inside a ball of two dozen damp paper towels.
And they come rain or shine. Sunset Scavenger hasn't missed a single day of operation in 75 years of service.
Of course, the job is not always a bed of roses. There are a few thorns, like needles, glass, and rodents.
Bell says the rare exposed needle is the crew's most feared encounter -- hence the big leather gauntlet-style gloves. Next on the list is slivers of glass. The bars along 24th Street -- the Rovers, the Dubliner, the Rat and Raven -- are pretty conscientious about packing their cans and bins, says the crew. Unfortunately, a lot of broken beer bottles can hit the streets between 2 and 5 a.m.
The worst days of the year are "Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, in that order," says Bell. He's not too fond of Halloween either, because of the rotting pumpkins.
Do customers ever want things back?
"Oh, all the time," the crew says in unison. People accidentally throw away their paychecks, jewelry, keys, even the cash they've stashed in that December 1941 issue of Life magazine.
(Bell, Hume, and Morganti note that if you can catch the truck while it's still on your block, they will pull out as much as they can from the crusher. They have even gone so far as to dump out an entire load on the platform and let people comb through it with rakes.)
But how do they deal with the stench?
"You disconnect your nose -- you have to," says Hume, a 10-year veteran of Sunset Scavenger. "It's funny, though. When you go on vacation and come back -- whew! -- you have to disconnect it all over again." Hume's dog, Daisy, on the other hand, just loves the smells. "When I come home, I can't get her off me!"
Hume is one of a growing number of women who ride the city's garbage trucks. A popular helper, she rotates among crews, or as they say down at the dump, she does the "merry-go-round."
"People ask for her, she's that good," says operations manager Paul Giusti, who joins us as we walk into Happy Donuts for a coffee break.
It's 7:30 a.m., and Gary Morganti gets his coffee "to go." It's his turn to drive to the dump and empty the truck.
Meanwhile, Giusti -- who's worked for the company for 19 years -- explains the tricks of the trade. Success on the job requires physical strength, cooperation, and motivation. As teamsters with Local 350, the Sunset Scavenger crews bid on different neighborhoods, with the cushier routes, like Noe Valley, going to those with the most skill and seniority.
Many workers are third- or even fourth-generation employees. They learned everything they know from working with their dads. Morganti, for example, is a second-generation employee. His mom works in the office. Giusti's dad drove a truck, and three of his four brothers are also at Sunset.
There's only one slight problem with this family tradition.
"Nobody lets you forget," Giusti says. "If your dad didn't set a brake on a truck and it rolled into a house, 20 years later some guy will bring it up, like it was your fault, like it's a family trait."
Losing a truck on a hill is everyone's biggest nightmare. It's not only embarrassing, it can prove lethal. Lesser crimes include locking the keys in the truck, bumping a fender, or simply missing the tip and spilling trash onto the street.
But stoicism runs deep at Sunset Scavenger. When Giusti was 10 years old and riding along with his dad's crew, he found a dead body in an alleyway.
"Hey, Dad," he whispered urgently, "I think that man's dead."
"So?" said his dad. "Is he bothering you?"
Not every garbage collector has found a dead body, but they've all got dog or raccoon stories. Possum tales are plentiful, too. "If you see a thing that looks like a large mutant rat, that's a possum," says Hume. According to the crew, the city is crawling with them.
"The funny thing about possums is that they won't move," notes Bell. "If you try to push them along, they just roll up. You have to leave them alone. When they think it's safe, they'll walk off real slow."
Bell says he has yet to see a rat in Noe Valley. Then he adds, "Okay, a live rat." (He came across a dead rat the week before on 24th Street.)
Asked about superstitions on the job, he says, "I don't know if this is a superstition, but on a day when it's sprinkling a little but not raining, if you take off your yellow slicker, it will rain. We make one guy keep a slicker on -- so it won't rain."
It was drizzling one pre-dawn morning when one of Giusti's brothers came upon a Hispanic woman standing in the middle of the street, yelling for help. Between his Italian and her Spanish, he figured out that the woman was a nanny who had put her young charge in his highchair and then stepped outside to grab the morning newspaper. When the door blew shut, locking her out, she panicked. There was no one but the baby in the house.
Giusti calmed her down and ran to the truck for his keys. (Yes, our garbage collectors have keys to many alleyways. The keys are not marked, however, and they learn their order by fingering them one by one as they work. They know, for example, that your key is two keys after the Schlage key, just before the bent Master key that has to be jiggled in your next-door neighbor's door.)
Correct key in hand, Giusti unlocked the alley door, went up the back stairs two at a time, hoisted himself onto a drainpipe, pried open the kitchen window, and climbed in. The baby watched from his highchair, hypnotized at the sight of a man breaking into his house.
"My brother always said that kid had the funniest look on his face!"
By the time Giusti's brother came out the front door, a crowd of neighbors had gathered, and they gave him a round of applause.
As the clock strikes 8:00, the crew gulps their coffee a little quicker. Gary Morganti is due back soon.
"Remember when barkeepers used to open up for us and give us free drinks?" Giusti nudges Bell. "When I first started, a co-worker took me into a bar and said, `What'll it be, Paul?' and I said, `Hmmm, I don't know, a Coke?'"
"You'll have to do better than that," the co-worker solemnly informed him.
Long gone are the days of free drinks and working with a buzz-on. Now collectors are tested for drugs and alcohol, just like airline pilots. And woe to any collector trying to fend off a hangover. Hume shakes her head, "Don't ever confess to a hangover." You'll definitely be ordered to handle the most putrid restaurant spills and stir up the bin when the trash gets jammed.
When an employee retires, they get a gold watch and a mini-garbage can mint-ed by the company that manufactures the big rolling cans. "Most of the guys use them as wine coolers," Giusti says with a laugh.
Too soon, the huge shadow of truck 48A falls across the formica table at Happy Donuts, and Morganti calls to the gang to drink up and jump back on board. Time to do the whirling dervish along Elizabeth, back up toward Diamond.
Surprisingly, there is no dragging of feet. Despite the smells, the weather, the hills -- not to mention the 4.8 pounds per person of trash they cart off every day -- the garbage collectors like their work and take pride in serving the community.
So the next time you have to carry something out of your place on a tennis racket, at least volley it into a plastic bag for Mike, Joyce, and Gary. In fact, put the lid on your can nice and tight, and turn the handle toward the street.
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