You can learn important lessons in the most unlikely of places. For me, that place was the back of a garbage truck.
Aldo had been working for the Valley Stream Sanitation department for several years. And he was proud of that fact. The kind of proud usually reserved for the parents of valedictorians and the awarding of military citations.
And yet, here he was, regardless of the weather, hanging from the back of a garbage truck. From the way he beamed as he did his job, you would have thought he knew the secret of life.
I was 22. My biggest concern in those days was having enough money for a full tank of gas. Somehow, I ended up getting a job as a garbage man. And while it certainly didn’t have the cache of working in the food court at the mall, the sanitation department offered one big perk: regardless of how long it took to finish your route, you were always paid for eight hours. That meant that as soon as I was done tossing lawn clippings and the assorted detritus of early 1980’s suburban life into the truck, I could head back to the still warm confines of my bed. But then one day I was paired up with Aldo.
There isn’t much else to do while hanging from the back of a garbage truck, so conversation was inevitable. And it was during my first conversation with Aldo that I learned something important. I just didn’t know it at the time. When I told Aldo that I couldn’t wait to go back to bed, he said to me in broken English “why you so a lazy?” I told him that I woke up every morning at 6:30 and did my job. What more should I be doing?
He then told me that after he finished the route, he went to his “real job:” he worked in a local supermarket as a stock boy. Aldo had to be in his mid-to-late 30’s, and here he was, working as a stock boy. My initial reaction was one of sympathy. Poor guy, first he gets to dump garbage a few hours a day, and then he has to break his back lugging boxes of tuna and canned vegetables. I’m sure the word “loser” must have entered my still youthful mind at the time. But there he was. Smiling. And then I realized that I had sympathy for a man who neither asked for, nor required any.
Aldo knew something that I would only learn as I got older, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald captured more succinctly, and communicated more elegantly than I ever could: “work is dignity.”
Funny. We were always amazed at what people would throw away. Thankfully, Aldo showed me that it’s even more amazing what some people will give away.
And this I truly believe.
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