We were into our 7th hour on a 14 hour work day in November 1994 when it happened. Jimmy O’ Brian was driving the garbage rig that day. I was standing on the back left corner, on one by two foot metal platform, with my right arm hooked through a metal handle that was welded to the side of the tuck. I then locked my left arm over my right. In most cases you hold the handle with your bare hands, but it was a cold winter day, and it hurt just have your hands out of your pockets. I rubbed my face into my left arm. It was so numb it felt like it was going fall off.
As we came down out of the Los Gatos Mountains, I could hear the air breaks popping, like a Co2 canister being punctured. The engine was roaring in low gear, and the whole truck was shaking from its decompression, as the exhaust covers went tat, tat, tat. At these moments, I could feel the engine’s vibration going right through my body, the same way you can feel the bass and drums at a rock concert vibrate in you. The only song I had in my head then was by the Doors:
Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm
The rain started falling so hard then, I could not see the end of the rig. When the rain slowed to almost a stop, Jimmy O’ Brain rolled the window down and gave me the thumbs up sign. Then he closed the window. I was alone again.
We went around a corner, and the rain came back so hard I could feel it bouncing off my head, right through my baseball cap, as if they were BBs’. There was water inside me, I thought and water out side me.
When the rain became a drizzle, I would focus on the yellow leaves of the Sycamores, Birches and Ginkgo Bilobas. Then the bright reds and oranges of the Liquid Ambers, that were like flash bulbs of color to me. Then I would focus on the shiny green leaves of the oak trees, till the 60 foot high Eucalyptus trees caught my eye - with their turquoise green leaves and their yellow, red trunks, fleshly washed and glistening. Sometimes I could not see them, but I could smell their thick heavy sent in the air.
When we were high up in the mountains, the whole road became like a small river. When I looked beneath me, from my perch, I could see the winter leaves gliding over the black asphalt. When we had stopped to get the garbage cans, the water ran up the back my legs. The leaves stuck all over my rain suit. I looked like an art project I had done in kindergarten.
I took a deep breath as we moved along: the smell of the rain, the earth and my sweat mixed. For another moment I could forget what was in the hopper – the place where we threw the garbage. In winter I called it the ‘Devils Bathtub.’ It was filled with black grayish water that had pieces of meat, used tampons, condoms, rags, toilet paper, diapers, animal shit, maggots and things I could only guess at floating in it. It smelled like a dog who had just eaten shit had suddenly jumped up and licked your face. I had to curl my toes and hold my breath.
When we came to a halt at mountain Highway 9 - the sky suddenly cracked open - and four beams of light shot out through it. I was looking at the light through the mist of my breath as cars sped by throwing water on me. Everyone is in a rush, even in winter, in California. We were too. We were understaffed. That forced us into working twelve to fourteen hours a day for five months.
We were moving out into traffic when suddenly the truck’s back wheel, under me, hit a pothole the size of car tire laid flat. The rig bottomed out. I barely held on as bright yellow sparks flew out from under me, some bouncing on the ground. I felt like I had just jumped off a six foot high backyard fence. My left knee started to tremble. I had a torn meniscus in it, and my right shoulder felt like it was on fire, but that is how it was then: every one had injuries. It was a mark of your status to be on your third hernia, groin pull, torn tendon or torn cartilage.
O’ Brian kept inching the rig forward forcing his way further out into the traffic, so he could make a left turn heading west up the Highway. I watched from my perch on the back of the truck as the cars sped down the road - only slowing at the last moment- obviously frustrated at O’ Brain’s move. Yet even though I was looking right at them, they never made eye contact with me. No one really does when you’re a garbage man- you’re invisible - a thing like the shit in the hopper or the trash can.
We cut through the traffic, ran a half mile up mountain Highway 9, made a right turn, and stopped at a set of cans. I jumped off the back of the rig and pulled on a four inch long hydraulic lever that’s on the back of the truck by the hopper. It lowered what we called a totter.
A totter is a green plastic four foot high and three by three foot wide garbage can on wheels. If it is done right, you can empty the trash of five regular garbage cans in it.
O’ Brain pulled a totter out from a carrying cage that was under the driver’s side of truck, “Leap frog,” he yelled out, then walked down the street in long, fast strides pushing his totter. He was hard to keep up with. His 6 5’ and 220 pound frame gave him the advantage of both speed and strength.
I wheeled my totter in the opposite direction and emptied three cans into my totter, but I was struggling. When the rains come, the garbage gets heavy. It adds to the workday in ways only the pain in your back can measure.
I shot a glance up the street. O’ Brain was already on his forth can. I ran with my totter up to the back of the truck. Then I slammed the lip of the tooter onto the one by one foot square metal bracket that the tooter was designed to fit on. I pulled on the handle, and the hydraulic bracket lifted the tooter upwards, and then flipped it backwards- smashing the mouth of the tooter into the bottom of the hopper. The grayish black water splattered everywhere as the garbage hit it. Some times the water got onto my lips. It tasted like I licked asphalt.
I ran to the driver’s side of the truck, threw the totter into the carrying gage, and jumped into the driver’s seat. I jammed the truck into gear, sped down the street, and stopped with the tail end of the truck by a set of garbage cans where O’ Brain was waiting for me. I got out and pulled my totter out from under the driver’s side of the truck and ran forward down the street. Behind me, O’ Brain was empting his totter, so he could empty the cans near the truck.
I was in a pinch for time. There were always more cans ahead of the truck then behind it. That made it harder to get to your cans and empty them into your tooter before the guy working from behind the rig was finished. It all had to be down in synch. So I had to run fast, but in this way we changed off from being at the back to front of the truck: or doing what was called ‘Leap Frog.’
At other times, we went down the street picking up cans only on the right side of the road. So I had to stand on the one by two foot metal platform, holding on to the metal handle, with my bare hands, till the rig came to a halt. I would then jump off and empty the individual cans in to the hopper, then leap back onto the metal platform, grabbing the metal handle, and scream out, “Let’s go!”
We had finished a long street this way, when the wind starting blowing in gust - snapping tree limbs off - and tossing emptied trash cans down the street. The rain came back in thick sheets. The wind was pushing it right, left and upwards. I saw a bolt of lightening arch across the sky. The thunder behind it shook my bones. I emptied my cans and got back onto the truck, just as another bolt of lightening shot out across the dark clouds. I was waiting for the thunder as Heraclite’s words shot out through my mind:
..it always was, and is, and shall be, an ever-living fire,
in measures being kindled
and in measure going out
The streets were all becoming right side throws. O’Brian pulled the truck over and stopped at a set of cans. I got out and emptied the cans into the hopper. Then I jumped on the back platform while pulling down on a five foot long metal bar that ran down from the top of the truck and curved like elbow by the hopper. It ran the hydraulics for the blade.
The blade is a five inch thick, six by eight foot, square piece of metal that is bent at about a 30 degree angle just blow the middle. It reaches out from inside the truck right to the very end of the hopper. It than scoops the trash out and compacts it into the truck’s haul. “Let’s go,” I yelled out, still working the blade with my left arm while holding onto the metal handle with my right. O’ Brain hit the gas and we took off heading for the next street.
The road suddenly went downward into a big dip. I could see three cans setting in a small natural field - right at the bottom of the dip. The wind had near stopped, but the rain was bouncing shin high off the street. The sky was opening and closing: light and darkness merging.
It was a dangerous place to park. We would normally have come back for them with tooters if we weren’t behind schedule.
I tried to lift the first can. It would not budge. Now there was a rule back then, when men actually lifted the trash, that if you could not get the can off the ground to your knees it was too heavy. I got my feet under the can again, took a deep breath, and lifted it to my shins and dropped it. “Fuck that,” I said out loud. I kicked the can. It didn’t budge. It had to be a solid 140 pounds. I grabbed the other can, struggled with it, and threw it on the edge of the hopper and kneed the back of the can till all the crap came out. I got my feet under the last can and pulled it up; it was half full. I lifted it up to my right shoulder and slammed the edge of the can onto the lip of the hopper empting in it one shot and spun back towards the open field.
Bam! I fell on my ass, as I felt the impact of a car that had smashed up against the back of the rig. It missed me by a foot. I could see the front window still cracking, then the radiator blew and steam was shooting into the air. I got to my feet at the same time I heard screaming. It was a high scream. I recognized as a child’s - most likely a young girl’s.
I ran to the car and pulled on the passenger’s door handle. The door was stuck. I put my back into it; it opened. A pair of bloodied hands and arms reached up for me. I grabbed them and looked at her face. I couldn’t see it. There was blood dripping off her chin. There was blood poring out of her mouth and nose. It was gushing out of her forehead. I picked her up; she was only about 60 pounds. I carried her to the field that we had stopped by.
The rain suddenly stopped. There was a big break in the sky, and the sun came down and hit the field. I put the girl down on the yellow grass: pulled off my rain jacket, my winter jacket and all my shirts. I laid my rain jacket on the ground and rolled her on to it. I put my winter jacket over her. She started yelling and sobbing, “I want my momma; I want my momma.”
I looked up; O’ Brain was staring in a trance. “Jesus Christ man, call it in,” I shouted. He ran back to the truck. I put her head between my legs. She was starting to shake all over. I wrapped one of my thick shirts carefully around her neck. She started to choke. I reached my fingers into her mouth and scoped out a tooth. With my last shirt, I wiped the blood out of her eyes. They were blue, like the sky just above the sea mid-day in summer.
A thunder clap shook the air. It started to rain again. I could feel the rain drops needling my skin, and I could smell her blood mixing with the sour winter grass, the fresh rain and the musty, rich smell of the earth. “I am cold,” she said. “I am cold. I want my mommy.”
“Ill get you, your mommy darling,” I said rapping her neck closer to stabilizer it.
“I called the yard; they called the police,” O’ Brain said.
“Where the hell is the driver?”
“He’s in the car; he alright he had his seat belt on.”
“Give me your jacket Jimmy.” He took it off, and I put around her trembling body.
I bent my head over her, and put my ear next to her mouth. She was whispering now, “I want my momma. I want my momma.” A gust of wind hit us. I could feel my skin pull tight over my muscles.
Across the street, hanging on the limb of Ailanthus tree, a wind chime was playing. The sky opened up again. The rain stopped and a rainbow appeared. The wind became a breeze. The sky kept widening, and the sun light came down bright and hot on us. With in a minute, steam came rising slowly off the bare earth in the field. I could still hear the wind chimes playing. It was like the music was orchestrating, nature and speaking to me - through me.
In the distance, I could hear sirens coming. I held the girl tight and looked back into her eyes they were jerking fast from left to right. She started kicking her feet.
“Get a hold of her feet Jimmy,” I called out. He grabbed them and looked at me. His face was pale white. His eyes wide open.
I stared back into her eyes. They were still going from left to right but slower. I held onto her. A light mist started to fall. I peered into her pupils. They came to a wrest staring right at the wind chimes.
All around me, the steam was rising off the earth. I held the girl’s face in my hands. I could still hear the wind chimes playing.
Above me, I could see a cobalt blue break in the sky. Three crows flew across it, their black wings and bodies boldly in contrast to the blueness. That is when the fire truck showed up. They came running over. I tried get up but my knees were numb. One of the firemen grabbed me under my arms and pulled me out of the way. In minutes she was put into an ambulance and gone. I was listing to its siren disappear into the distance. I started to shiver.
The sky became dark again, as I listened to the wind chimes. I felt the girl’s blood dry on my arms and stomach. I looked into the dark green of the mountains from which we had come. Someone was yelling, but I felt like they were a hundred yards away.
“Wake your fucking stupid ass up! Do you think this is a holiday?! Fuck, get your clothes on!” It was then that my bosses face came into focuses. I could see his flabby cheeks quivering around his big mouth. I looked at him in his narrow black eyes. I didn’t feel anything from them; they were dead eyes, as dead as the water in the hopper. “This day has just begun. Let’s move it!” He yelled out again.
He threw my blood stained clothing at me and went over to talk to a cop. I put on my cloths and looked at O’ Brain. “Come on man, let’s get the fuck out here,” he said. “Fuck him he is a dick!”
I got into the cab of the rig and O’ Brain hit the gas. We drove in silence towards Los Gatos, and came to a back street just behind the downtown area. We sat there with the truck’s engine on - the heater cooking us. I was watching the wind blow the rain from one side of the street to the other. I looked at the blood on my jacket and scraped at the dried blood on my hands.
“Is she dead Andrew?” Jimmy said.
“I don’t know Jimmy.”
“Fuck don’t say that man.”
I looked at him and said it again, “I don’t know Jimmy.”
He started rubbing a gold charm around his neck. “Do think well we be forgiven?”
“I am not sure.”
“I feel sick to my stomach,” Jimmy said. “I am going to get something to drink.” He got out of the cab. I watched him walk off in the side mirror, his long strides moving him up the street. He stopped abruptly - put his arm around his head - and leaned into Pepper tree.
I sat in the cab. I could feel my chest filling with sorrow, guilt, shame, and a pain that felt like a hole was being bored into the center of me.
Outside, I could see the storm bending trees, and shit flying in the air. The wind was howling around the truck. The rain was pounding on the windows. My chest started to feel real warm. I felt tense all over.
What had we become as men? I thought. We were animals; they looked at us as animals. I had become an agent of the machine. We parked stupidly because the company was behind – simply understaffed. “For fucking garbage!” I said out loud. I was nothing, just a number on time card – a Jew with his number.
I turned the truck’s engine off, and got out of the cab, and walked off in the opposite direction of O’ Brain. The rain was coming down so hard it was hard to keep my eyes open. My chest was burning. It felt as if what was in my chest wanted to come out in my eyes. I bit my right index finger and held it back.
I came to a four way corner and stopped. I didn’t know where to go. I pulled my sleeves up. The girl’s blood was dried onto the hairs of my forearms. I knelt by a gutter. The rain water was rushing down it carrying yellow, orange and red leaves. I put my hands palms down into it. The water rushed up them, right to my chest. I could feel that feeling coming to my eyes again. Could we be forgiven for what happened? I thought – Most likely, but for what we had become as men - probably not.
Below me, the turbulent water ran. Could it be as the Greeks said? That the words of the spirit are never spoken in words but spoken in signs: in nature and in events only?
Was not the weather speaking to me? If not the weather then was it not the events? If I would have stood one more second behind that truck, I would have been smashed to death. Ten seconds later, we would have been gone and no accident would have happened. Now her life and mine would be forever mixed - if she lived. Our memories would be like the leaves in the rushing water. I grabbed a handful of them out of the gutter and squeezed them in my hands. “Dear God forgive us,” I whispered. It was just then that I heard wind chimes playing, and I understood the meaning of the unspoken word.