Monday, February 19, 2007

Trash Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

The French Quarter is finally being cleaned the way New Orleanians have been begging for years. And for that we can thank the guys who actually pick-up the trash.

The light-blue garbage can was full, but Cornelius Washington twirled it across the pavement like a 70-pound ballerina. From his gloves, the can danced to the back of a garbage truck at the edge of Canal Street, where Washington's younger colleague "T," Torreyon Davis, waited.

Davis reached out with one hand, flipped the can into the air upside down and tapped it against the truck, spilling its contents into the truck's big metal jaws. Then he flicked the empty can back to Washington.

The performance earned hoots from a group of college kids standing nearby, draped in flashing beads. "Did you see those garbage men?" said one, punching his friend on the arm. Washington raised a gloved hand in acknowledgment, then ran alongside the moving truck and hopped on.

Washington, who has ridden garbage trucks in New Orleans for 15 years, said that those kids must have lived a deprived childhood, one that didn't include garbage workers hefting cans across the street. Over the past few decades, many cities have moved to automated garbage collection, using trucks with metal arms that reach out to grab plastic trash bins. In those places, there's no need for hoppers, the guys who ride the back of the truck.

Other cities may still hire hoppers, but to Washington they seem lackluster. "They got a textbook thing," Washington said. "They stop the truck. They step off the truck. They pick up the can. They dump it. Then they put the can back down in that one spot."

But in New Orleans, where street crews have always prided themselves on their choreography, a new city garbage contractor is earning plaudits for its work. The best place to view these shows and the result of them is the French Quarter, where SDT Waste and Debris Service crews have been collecting garbage twice a day, seven days a week, since Jan. 1.

Almost overnight, French Quarter residents -- historically, not an easy bunch to please -- began raving about the tidiness of the Quarter. To some, however, SDT's first big test is Mardi Gras. Can they handle streets crammed with drunks, huge piles of garbage and sidewalks scattered with parade detritus? Will their work suffer?

Perhaps the people of SDT Waste and Debris Service can go down to Tulane and Broad to show the DA how to clean up the streets.

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