By T.W. Burger
Bobby W. had serious holes in his ability to think things through; lived in a household where he had to keep his cash rolled up in his underpants so family members wouldn’t steal it, and had a really hard, smelly job.
He was also one of the happiest human beings that I’ve ever known.
Long ago and far away I ran a crew of men who picked up residential trash in Athens for the Mr. Trash sanitation company. We all did, though my job, in addition to running the day-to-day stuff, was to run around in the company pickup truck and retrieve trash that the guys had missed.
It happened fairly often. Part of my job in every morning was to pick from among them the most sober to act as drivers. They were a lively bunch and at least one threatened to kill me, but all-in-all I enjoyed working with them. Only one or two could read, letters or numbers, and it was fascinating how much they could remember because they couldn’t cheat and write things down.
Some were very smart, or at least cunning, and some not so much, but most of them had a lot of heart.
Chief among them was Bobby.
For one thing, Bobby really got the job. Unlike some of my guys, he accepted the fact that the job was hard work, the material we handled stank, and some of the customers were less than respectful to any of us, including me. Also, he got that it didn’t pay all that well, partly because there was no responsibility other than to complete a simple task in as little time as possible, i.e., before it was time to start the next day’s route.
Also, the owner was a wealthy guy who drove a Mercedes and knew absolutely nothing about hard physical work or the people who do it. He was one of those morons who truly believed in the nobility of hard physical labor. People who believe that have never actually done much of it.
The guys once convinced one of their number to ask him for a raise, since I had told them that I had no say in the matter, which was the truth. The representative went to the big boss on one of his fortunately rare visits to our home base and approached him as he leaned on his Mercedes sedan smoking a cigarette and looking over his ragtag fleet of garbage trucks and motley sanitary engineers.
Robert said he’d like to talk about a raise for everybody. Bossman said he understood, but that at the moment he was a little undercapitalized. Then he got into his half acre of automobile and tooled off.
Robert came up to me and asked me what exactly “undercapitalized” meant.
“It’s a two-dollar way of saying that he doesn’t have the money,” I said.
Robert looked at the retreating Mercedes.
“Sheeeeeeeeit.” He said, softly but with great feeling.
“Exactly,” I said. “But we should be sympathetic, because we’re all undercapitalized, too.”
We all laughed our butts off and went to work. It’s what blue collar people do; shrug off the bullshit and get back to work.
Bobby laughed about every 10 minutes or so, just out of sheer exuberance.
Bobby was about 6 foot tall and couldn’t have weighed more than 120 or 130, and he moved as though he had ropes instead of bones and joints, with an easy fluidity that seemed not to be bothered by a rubber tub on his shoulder filled with 50 pounds or more of fly-swarmed garbage.
He would laugh at the weight, chuckle when he could dump it into the truck’s hungry hopper, and run off to the next house beaming. Some of the guys opined that Bobby “just ain’t right,” but I thought he just took everything as it came and let it slide right off. I don’t think I ever saw him angry.
Every Friday, all the trucks gathered behind a particular convenience store and I’d load everybody into my truck, and headed off for an all-you-can-eat place that had what I’ve always thought was the world’s very best fried chicken. It was Dutch treat, but a great morale booster.
We never had trouble getting a table, because nobody wanted to sit near 14 overheated garbage men.
Every week it was a gustatory circus. I never ate as much as the guys did; of course, they burned calories like nobody’s business, so it was to be expected. Food always put them in a great frame of mind. Being pragmatists, they always filled their pants pockets with extra chicken as we left. I don’t think the owners ever made any money on us.
So, one day we’re leaving the cafeteria, basking in the sun, brimming with fried chicken, biscuits and greens. Bobby was on my right and a half step behind. Ahead were two young girls wearing stretch jeans of which everything they had to give had been demanded. It was a little like watching two dogs fighting under a bed sheet. Or, as an old country saying has it, each had quite a swing on her back porch.
We all went quiet with reverence. Say what you will about blue-collar workers, we are dead-on when we are in the presence of God’s good works.
I could feel the glow from Bobby’s brilliant white smile coming from behind me. The sun paled in comparison.
“MMMMM-MMMM-MMMM,” he said in his surprisingly rich baritone. “Look what the Good Lord done put down HEAH!”
There was not a trace of prurience in his voice; only the purest of joy in living, in what life IS, in the glory of the spring day and all it offered, all that spring days have ever meant.
The two girls turned, beaming sunny smiles of their own, and all of us burst out laughing, slapping one another on the shoulders.
We all piled into my truck, chatting and laughing. The girls got into their car and drove off, horn honking, hands waving.
I don’t think our customers had ever seen a happier crew trotting through their neighborhoods before, trailing their aerial circuses of flies.
As for Bobby, he smiled and hummed happy little gospel songs the rest of the day.
For that matter, so did I.
I hope Bobby’s still out there, and he hasn’t lost that inner core of joy. If I could, I’d go sit at his feet, and ask him to teach me some more.
T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.
He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”