"Chicagoans" is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Jaime Queroz, commercial garbage man.
"The hardest part of the day is probably waking up. My morning starts at 2:30 AM. There's an alarm that goes off. I wait another five minutes, and then I have another alarm that goes off. From there, I assemble my sandwiches. Because I've been through a heart attack, I have to bring my own food, bananas and apples or something, so I'm not poisoning myself the way I used to.
"I leave my house at 3 AM, and from 3 to 3:15 in the morning the only problem I have is trying to dodge the people who've been out all night. I punch in at 3:30, and then we have a big discussion of safety. The garbage industry is one of the top ten most dangerous jobs there is. Most of the danger is other people—bikers and cars and people who are rushing to go to work or something.
"Then I get out to my route. The difference between a city garbage man and a private garbage man is, the city garbage man has a driver and one or two helpers, and I don't. I drive, I get to my stop, I get out, I push the Dumpster toward the truck, I do my thing.
"There are so many things that can go wrong, and they do go wrong. Sometimes the Dumpster wheels get frozen in the ice or snow, and they're hard to maneuver. And then the mechanics of the garbage truck weren't manufactured for this type of weather, so the brake lines freeze. Last winter? To tell anybody exactly how that affected me physically, mentally—it would do no good unless you were actually there.
"I work anywhere from 56 to 58 hours a week, and there's usually about 90 to 100 stops a day. Some companies have 150, 160 stops a day. Anybody who's been in this industry for a while has knee, elbow, or shoulder problems. That just comes with the job.
"Sometimes I see a purse in a Dumpster and say, 'That doesn't look right,' and sure enough, I'll look into it and find a phone or a wallet and know somebody's been robbed. If I find a phone, I'll call whoever they last called, and I'll do my duty to return it.
"In my 22 years of experience, there's been three or four times where there's been a smell so bad that I thought, I don't want no part of that. You're better off not knowing.
"Rats are no longer the biggest issue. The biggest issue nowadays are the squirrels. The squirrels have become the monsters of the garbage. They're not frightened. I don't know how much attention you pay to your garbage can, but if you ever see a hole in it, it's mainly because of a squirrel, which has the power and the tenacity to dig right through plastic. I don't know if you've ever been startled by a squirrel when you're going to throw out garbage, but that's the biggest problem right now. I've had 'em jump off my chest, jump off my hands. It's the most scariest thing."