Papa says, ‘The whole world is a garbage can,’ ” William, my 4-year-old son, tells me. My dad says that to him facetiously while teaching him not to litter. It’s working: We have to stop William from running to pick up castoff surgical masks we see on our weekly walks through the forest preserve, and he cries if we forget to let him throw out the container from his daily yogurt snack. Papa is proud, because to him littering is one of the most disrespectful things a person can do.

That’s because my dad was a garbage man in his central Illinois hometown for seven summers, starting after he graduated from high school in 1967 and continuing until he left for good to get his MFA in Virginia in 1974. Much of the job was what you’d expect: hard, gross, dangerous. But it paid well, so it was also coveted.

The best routes were in business districts filled with shops like liquor stores, which threw out little more than folded cardboard boxes. Clean, dry, a snap to lift — easy-peasy, as far as garbage goes. But commercial areas could go a bad way, too, if there was a chicken-forward restaurant that filled its dumpster with entrails or a veterinary office that loaded its cans with dead patients, no more dignified a burial than a grocery store discarding trays of expired meat. Unsurprisingly, one of the few rules of a job rife with unthinkably toxic splash back was: “Never open your mouth.” 

You could start to make up stories about the people who lived along the route, based on the contents of their garbage can: the lawyer who always threw out a bunch of empty liquor bottles, the housewife who always threw out a bunch of empty liquor bottles, and even then-senator Everett Dirksen, who threw out an unremarkable number of empty liquor bottles and nothing else of note. Senate minority leaders: They’re just like us!


One of the most frequently retold stories in our family lore is about the woman who trotted out a pile of fur coats for my dad to bring home. He and my mom were living in his parents’ attic, so an armload of free furs then seemed no less miraculous than the present-day vindication of Britney Spears. A few days later, they came home to find the windows of the house blackened with … something that moved. Inside, they discovered that ­thousands — ­thousands — of flies had hatched from the coats. That was the last time my dad ever brought anything home from work. 

Once he left for grad school, my dad never went back to the garbage truck. He got a job as a professor in the art department at a small college outside Cleveland, teaching ceramics. It would be tidy to say he never looked back, but it wouldn’t quite be true. As a full-time faculty member in 1976, he earned $10,000 a year — $4,000 less than he did hauling trash.