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Collecting Garbage, Memories On Chicago's Streets

Even the Garden of Eden had trash. As Larry VanderLeest points out in his memoir, Garbio: Stories of Chicago, Its Garbage, and the Dutchmen Who Picked It Up, our trash has always been a daily part of life, but we don't often think of the people who transport if off our curbs.

"Probably from the moment when Adam and Eve were finished eating their apple and wondered what to do with the core, we have wrestled with what to do with our refuse," writes VanderLeest.

The author, who worked on garbage trucks in Chicago in the 1960s, told Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that the term "garbio" was a somewhat derogatory name for the Dutch immigrants who mostly controlled the garbage collection industry at the time. The word is a portmanteau of "garbage" and the slang term "mafioso," since the Dutch were jokingly referred to as the Dutch Mafia of the garbage industry.

But as VanderLeest explains, the Dutch immigrants who began to collect trash in the early 1900s in Chicago did so because their primary skills — growing food and flowers, and driving a horse and wagon to deliver those goods — turned into an unexpected entrepreneurial venture.

"Some of these immigrants found that they could actually make more money — a better living — by forgetting about bringing the flowers and the food into Chicago, [and instead] hauling the garbage out of the city," he says.

When VanderLeest worked as a garbage collector, he was amazed by the things he was asked to haul off to a landfill, like tons of food kept in warehouses for perhaps a day too long. He says he'd like people to remember that someone must actually pick up their garbage — so their hands can come into dangerous contact with broken glass, nails or other sharp objects.

VanderLeest worked as a school principal later in life, and though many politicians lament the fact that "our teachers aren't paid as much as garbage workers," he explains the distinctive frustrations that go along with the daily work of collecting garbage that do not plague educators.

"As we travel the downtown streets, with me hanging on the side of the truck or straddling the stew-filled hopper, it was a contest of knowing when to jump to avoid the next wave," he writes. "Turning corners or coming to quick stops caused swells of a foul-smelling concoction to pour onto the ground and splash passing cars or pedestrians. As self-respecting garbagemen, we were embarrassed by the white caps in the hopper. Any police officer seeing our truck applying a load of goulash to the streets would nail us for sure."

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NPR Staff