re-orientalizing the garbage man
it's hard to believe that it was 4 years ago that i spent the summer picking up trash for the cambridge park department. (that's pronounced "pahk depahtment," fyi.) back in '01, i spent 9 weeks as a temp doing all sorts of odd jobs, most of which consisted of some type of waste management. i spent the majority of my time riding on the back of a big orange dump truck (like the one pictured here--actually, the one pictured here).
working for the park department, i was spared the horrors of what some co-workers called "household rubbish." unlike the often vile stuff people put in front of their homes each week, the barrels i emptied into the maw of the truck were filled with relatively innocuous materials--mainly empty beer cans and little bags of dogshit.
having spent the preceding months mainly in my head, i enjoyed the sheer physicality of the work. it was an odd sort of delight to learn how many tons of trash i had lifted each week when we went to weigh it and dump it. you benchin' 250? shit, i'm pulling 2.5 tons a week, dude. i've never been in better shape, before or since.
as i settled into my body, i also settled into my old accent, easily dropping my r's in the company of my co-workers. it was more subconscious than conscious, though i must confess that i tacitly hid my higher education from my fellows. not that i was ashamed of it, but 'harvard' connotes all kinds of things in cambridge (as elsewhere)--not all positive--and i thought it was more important, and somehow more true, to represent myself as the cambridge native that i am, the publicly-schooled kid with working class roots and an authentic accent to prove it. (of course, an accent that i lost, more or less deliberately, shortly after moving my things into harvard yard.)
wayne&wax, "waste management 1: job description"
although i thought of (and still think of) harvard as an exceedingly conservative place--despite pockets of progressivism and even radicalism--it seemed that most city-workers thought of the place as the bastion of liberalism. when i decided to dye my hair orange, it was mainly inspired by a desire to match the brilliant orange color of the trucks, a familiar hue that i had found charming and distinctive all my life. sounds kinda, um, queer, doesn't it? well, it seemed that way to the guys in the park department, too.
i remember walking from the truck to the shed one day shortly after going orange. as i approached a group of foremen and laborers, one of the foreman said to me,
"what are you funny or something?"
"not that kind of funny," i shot back.
back to other connotations, though. around the same time i ran into my uncle, a longtime cambridge cop, who was with his partner, filling their car at the city pumps. glimpsing the orange hair for the first time he turned to his partner and said,
"see what hahvid did to him?"
whattaya kiddin' me, dude?
it was a funny connection to make--and not one that i would have made myself. for one thing, i had never dyed my hair before that spring and this was long after i left harvard. and again, i didn't associate any such unorthodox behavior with harvard. oddly enough, a co-worker had a similar impression. when i asked the driver of the truck on which i was working what he thought the other guys thought about the hair, he said,
"they probly think you're some kinda hahvid radical."
"heh"--i half-smiled, uncomfortably, wondering whether i should tell him the truth.
wayne&wax, "waste management 2: job security"
i decided not to, though. in fact, the only co-worker i confided in was a guy from st.lucia with whom i worked for a couple weeks wacking weeds. and only then because he asked me one day, in a straightforward way, about my education. i had never lied about it. i had simply left it out of the conversation. he suspected as much (as, most likely, did many of my co-workers.) he just shrugged and continued to regale me with tales about his various girlfriends and the group of st.lucian guys plotting to kill him. before i finished my stint as a temp, he gave me CD-Rs of bob marley and peter tosh albums (and this is before i turned jamaicanist), though he himself was more partial to cyndi lauper.
it was weird to feel as if i could no longer claim the working class status that made my socialist leanings seem more in line with who i was. although i had no more money than any of my fellows--many of whom were living check to check--i couldn't shake the feeling that i had a certain kind of capital that set me apart. despite my open antagonism toward elites, there was no denying that i had transcended the class status of my birth largely through my ivy league education. there was no way to erase that, though. no turning back. not that i was complaining or anything. nor was i out to romanticize all that there is about working class life--not by any means. but the tension produced an odd feeling of alienation in me. i could talk the talk and walk the walk, but then, at other times, i'd find myself wondering how to navigate certain situations in which i thought my co-workers, despite many of them being "good guys," were acting--let's just say it--pretty ignant.
being the young gramscian that i was, though, i always sought to struggle with my fellows at the level of common sense--to speak in language that they would understand and thus to challenge them to think outside their often narrow boxes. i knew that laying a silver-tongued diss on them would never be persuasive. a snowball of an argument? fugedaboutit. big words would you get nowhere here, buddy. whattayu? some kinda wiseass? and, yes, this in a realm of discourse where smahten up! constitutes a serious smackdown. of course, it's not in reference to intellectual smarts. indeed, the phrase is often accompanied by something along the lines of, don't you have any common sense?
wayne&wax, "dahk-skinned portuguese mahkie"
i found myself most frequently tested in instances dealing with sexuality and race, of course, though religion and politics (qua politics) were tough too.
perhaps more than anything else--more than picking up trash, mowing grass, cutting down trees, or painting lines on fields--city workers spend their time ogling women. i'd say a good 60-70% of our time was spent driving around looking at female pedestrians. now, being a red-blooded male myself, i can't say that i absolutely condemn the practice. sure, i avoid objectification as much as the next feminist dude, but i can't help looking. and in the company of enthusiastic, macho-macho men, there's no avoiding participating, even if only through tacit complicity.
sometimes the collective people-watching would lead to some interesting conversations. riding through central square one day, one of my co-workers exclaimed,
"look at all these beautiful women! i don't understand how anyone could ever choose to be gay."
"i don't think it works that way," i said, and there ensued a rather long conversation, ending with a not too contentious discussion of evolution.
not all pahk depahtment workers were so able to discuss such matters, though.
"god made adam and eve--not adam and steve!" a curmudgeonly co-worker barked at me one day.
"you can't believe everything you read," i replied.
"you can't say that about the bible! that makes you an athiest! or a communist!"
"um," i said.
wayne&wax, "waste management 3: same shit, different day"
not every instance resulted in truck-confined conversation, though. sometimes the ogling crossed the line into (verbal) harassment, and that's where i would draw the line, or at least attempt to.
the most egregious examples that i witnessed, including the one that gave me the best shot at someone's common sense all summer, were uttered by the driver of the garbage truck i worked on for several weeks. as partners for some time, we got to know each other fairly well. enough to have the kind of rapport that allows two grown men to timidly sing a karaoke duet to the unplugged version of stone temple pilots' "plush." (and, believe me, that's no small bond.) he was a cambridge native himself. and a port-a-gee [that's a hard 'g'] at that, as my father--a port-a-gee himself--would say. (east cambridge, a longtime site of portuguese immigration, has had the strange fortune of remaining a portuguese place, as brazilians have slowly replaced the folks from the old world.) sharing some sort of ethnic/national ancestry gave us some affinity and gave me just the license i would need to test his sense of difference.
the driver, let's call him mike, had a bad habit (or two). he would frequently yell--or more frequently, moan--out the window at some woman walking down the street. the moan was rather funny, as it sounded rather un-macho and almost vulnerable in a bizarre way. definitely not a sexy sound, at any rate. not sure what he was going for with that one. worst of all though, was that in the case that the woman was perceptibly (or imaginably) east asian, the moan or yell would be accompanied by such colorful phrases as "oriental slut!"
most often, he would just sing "konitchiwa" from the driver's-seat window of our big orange truck--the one with "THE cambridge department of public WORKS" emblazoned on the side. public works, indeed.
i attempted at first to undermine his blanket stereotypes by mentioning that not all east asian women would necessarily understand japanese. i told him that he might try "ni hao ma" from time to time since only japanese women would understand "konitchiwa." he asked me a few times to remind him how to say it, but in the end he clearly missed the point.
a short time later, though, i scored a decisive victory, though i can't say i know whether it has had any lasting effect on dude's consciousness and/or actions in the world.
we were driving through harvard square, right where garden street crosses mass ave and pedestrians abound. an attractive young asian woman walked past our truck as she crossed the street. when we passed her, my co-worker let loose his trademark moan followed by the phrase, "exotic whore!"
he yelled it loud enough for her to hear. i was disgusted. embarrassed. angry.
"do you think that's what they said about your portuguese grandmother?" i asked him.
he turned to me and grinned. it was the kind of smile that said, i'm not going to hit you for seemingly insulting my grandmother because, y'know, you really fucking got me on that one. i felt that i had proven my point and communicated it in his terms (and, let's face it, in mine too). i could have tried to snowball him by quoting edward said and talking about the legacies of colonialism, the politics of representation, the social construction of race, the racialization of gender, etc., etc.
but then i would have sounded like "some hahvid radical" and he would have dismissed my protest with ease.
i am talking about "re-orientalizing the garbage man" because i found back in the summer of '01 that the most effective way to undermine what i found to be retrograde, rearguard, and often unexamined ideas about sameness and difference was to remind my fellows that their perspective and their identity was not as stable and centered as they thought it was. i couldn't let them off the hook. sure, as (inherently emasculated?) public laborers they were exercising a relative degree of power, which may be understandable, but that doesn't absolve them. the irish, and portuguese, may have become white, but we--and that's all of us--have a collective responsibility to make sure that they do not stay so. (just as the opposite of whiteness is not blackness but, as adam mansbach might say, the dismantling of white privilege, the opposite of "stay black" is, if you will, "don't stay white.") and the answer is not that we need to become irish and portuguese again. we need to get past ethnocentrism and nationalism altogether. as fanon writes in wretched of the earth:
if nationalism...is not made enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words into humanism, it leads up a blind alley. (p.165)
ah, but this is highfalutin talk for a garbage man. let's keep it plain and simple. i'm not that kind of funny. but trust me, dude: give me an opening, and i'll crack your ass up.
wayne&wax, "waste management 0: wayne&wax recycles"
now that's what i call waste management