It was 6:30 in the morning on a Tuesday and cold. From the parking lot of Charleston’s Public Works, I could see the highway, as well as the well-lit jackpot signs for the Mega Millions lottery and the Powerball.
As usual, brief visions of how I’d squander $80 million passed before my eyes. I am firmly convinced I could burn through that kind of money inside of a year. It’s just that no one has ever tested me.
From where I stood, I could see vehicles passing by, but I couldn’t hear them over the throaty hum of the heavy trucks warming their engines.
I wondered where the day would take me. I wasn’t sure. In the last week, what I’d planned to do had changed a couple of times — and could change again, for all I knew.
This was beyond my control. What I could control was my alarm clock and making sure I was dressed, ready and on the lot by 6:30 in the morning.
Blame Netflix, again
Like a lot of people, over the winter I discovered “tidying expert” Marie Kondo.
Kondo wrote “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” a book I’d have pointedly ignored, if not for a slow, winter night and nothing much else to watch on Netflix.
Inexplicably, they’d given Marie Kondo a show about helping people unclutter their homes, which I’d watched.
I didn’t make it through the entire series, but a lot of what the tiny, Japanese woman had to say made sense to me. Then I read her book and began throwing stuff out.
I got rid of clothes I couldn’t wear, I gave away books I’d held onto for years but had never read. Honestly, how many books on organic gardening did I really need?
I went through my kitchen cabinets, took stock of my vast and impressive collection of re-purposed Chinese takeout containers and marveled at how much stuff I still had.
Bags and boxes were either dropped off in the sketchy looking wasteland behind my local Goodwill or they went to the curb.
All of this throwing away made me wonder where it all went.
Getting to know the city the Bill Lynch way
I’ve lived in Kanawha County for more than 15 years now and have never been to the landfill. I’d largely taken it for granted that the trash would eventually get picked up — provided the neighborhood dogs didn’t band together again to loot the garbage.
Months ago, I reached out to MacKenzie Spencer with the city of Charleston. I knew MacKenzie from the Clay Center, where she’d helped me track down information for incoming shows.
She’d been part of Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin’s new administration, so I contacted her about riding around on a garbage truck.
Instead, MacKenzie came back with a counter offer about the city’s Public Works department. I could still just pick up trash, if I wanted, but wouldn’t I maybe be interested in patching potholes and sweeping streets, too?
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I can’t count the number of people I know who routinely complain about Charleston’s whack-a-mole streets or the street sweepers.
On Facebook, a former co-worker who lives in the East End has gone on little rants about how much he hates having to move his car to let the street sweeper pass at its appointed time.
If he doesn’t move his car, he gets ticketed. It drives him crazy.
I can’t blame him. Nobody is happy about the parking in Charleston, but outside of everyone transitioning from SUVs to roller skates, I don’t see how we fix the problem.
Maybe if I did this, somebody would tell me why we need to sweep the streets in the first place, I thought.
Gloves, safety glasses and gumption
Finding where to start with this particular project took some effort. Public Works is a big operation, and just injecting me into a work crew took a little time to figure out.
I wanted to do trash pickup, but Public Works Director Brent Webster suggested I could start with paving and potholes. At some point, he said I could ride along with one of the pump trucks that are used to clean out clogged catch basins.
I wasn’t entirely sure what a catch basin was, but I figured it had to do with water.
I told him, “Sure. As much as we can fit in.”
I ended up getting sent out with Marshall Lewis and Daniel Goff, a chipper crew.
Every day (or just about), the two of them are sent out to clear piles of branches around the city. They pick up the discarded tree limbs and shove them through a commercial wood chipper, which they tote around behind their truck.
There are three chipper crews in Charleston.
“It’s hard and dangerous work,” Larry Thompson, the chipper crew leader, told me. “It’s not easy, and if you’re not paying attention, you can get hurt.”
The job required safety goggles, ear plugs, a sturdy pair of gloves and a reflective vest.
However, the gloves weren’t much protection against rusty nails or hypodermic needles, both of which have occasionally turned up in the wood piles city residents put out for the chipper crews.
Reflective vests are also slim protection against reckless drivers — and accidents happen.
Daniel held up his left hand. The bottom two joints of his pointer finger were missing, pinched off by the tailgate of a city truck. He showed me his other hand. Another finger had been mashed flat, he said, while operating a chipper.
“You have to push the branch in just right,” he said.
Sometimes a branch or log will kick up. If you’re not mindful, it can slam your hand against the roof of the machine.
It’s even possible, though unlikely, that you could fall in and be turned into hamburger by the rotating wheel and chopping blades.
The chipper is loaded with safety features, but Brent had me sign a form absolving the city of most responsibility in the event that I did something indescribably stupid, like if I jumped into the mouth of the machine to fetch a tennis ball.
Doing the job and learning useful tips
I rode along with Marshall and Daniel to South Hills, where we spent about an hour feeding the remains of a couple of cedar trees into the chipper.
Marshall and David had already been to the site the day before, and while the homeowner had left the chopped-up tree in one vast pile, they said it was a better-than-average job.
“You want everybody to stack the limbs, butt-end first and neatly, separating them from the logs,” Daniel said.
“But at least they didn’t try to sneak in a bunch of other stuff,” Marshall added.
Property owners have a bad habit of tossing in whatever else they want to be rid of — like metal pipes and trash.
“People will even tie things together,” Marshall said, shaking his head.
I jumped in with feeding the machine, which was strangely soothing, like stoking a fire. Logs and branches went in one end and came out as beige, sweet smelling confetti on the other end.
All of the chipped wood went into the back of their truck.
We filled the thing up and then drove over to the city’s mulching site in North Charleston, where a guy was moving piles of steaming, shredded wood with a bulldozer.
Nobody offered to let me climb up and drive.
After we’d dumped our cargo, we drove back to South Hills and finished loading the rest of the wood pile into the chipper.
Daniel and Marshall were good company. They talked about going to church, Daniel’s kids and how they wished there was more in Charleston to get people to stay.
They liked their jobs — said they felt fortunate to be working — but wished there was more money.
They were baffled and confounded by people who randomly gave them grief.
“You’re out working, you stop someplace to pick up a soda or go to the bathroom,” Daniel said. “Then somebody comes up to tell you that you ought to be working, that your job should be eliminated.”
He shook his head. People just don’t see them, he said. They don’t know what they do or why.
On the job, I tried to pull my weight. All the CrossFit I’ve been doing had to be good for something, I figured. I followed Daniel and Marshall’s lead — and the two of them only had to pull me away from the chipper once.
“You don’t want to stand like that with one of those forked branches,” Daniel told me. “You could get jerked into the machine.”
“Or at least, you could end up getting horsewhipped by the branch,” Marshall told me.