Their jobs stink, but not the perks

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

With the mercury outside making a mad dash toward triple digits, the five G-men trudged into their combination lunchroom, locker room and antiques shop.

Cheviot's G-force includes, clockwise from top right: Gary Nelson, Bob Sandmann, Tom Sandmann, Mike Callahan and Brent Craig.
(Tony Jones photo)
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Overhead, a wall-mounted fan made enough noise to shout down a prop plane. Set on "high," the fan's blades were causing quite a stir. They had lowered the inside temperature to a brisk 92 degrees.

As the five men tried their best to cool off, they wisecracked about the morning they had just spent tossing trash into Cheviot's garbage trucks.

They compared notes on how to tell when the truck smells "ripe." Their verdict: Passersby in cars hold their noses.

They kidded each other about how to avoid lifting a heavy can: Pretend your shoe is untied.

All the while they kept glancing at the clock. They were waiting for a pizza to arrive, and I was waiting for a "Lunch with Cliff" to begin so I could find out what keeps these guys on the job.

"Once you get past the smell," cracked driver Bob Sandmann, "you've got it licked."

Over pizza, cokes and jokes, I soon learned that this kind of work took more than just making sure you could put mind over garbage. No matter how much their job stinks or how rotten things get, these men like their jobs.

They don't love their work. But they do enjoy what they do for a living.

"We like outside work," Bob said.

"And we have fun with it," he added. "That's why we call each other G-men."

"Kinda has a macho, gangster sound to it," joked his brother, Tom. "Sounds a heck of a lot better than "Garbage Men.' "

The Sandmann brothers drive the city's garbage trucks. Backs drenched in sweat from every place their body touched their truck cab's seat, they idly paced around the room and wiggled their limbs like a batter shaking off the aftereffects of being hit by a foul tip.

By contrast, Brent Craig, Mark Beneman and Mike Callahan, the throwers responsible for emptying garbage cans into the trucks' hoppers, sat motionless in rickety metal folding chairs.

Frowning in thought, Brent pored over the Enquirer's crossword puzzle, a well-thumbed dictionary at his elbow. Dashing down the answer to a three-letter word for Conway or Curry, he told me "doing the crossword before lunch relaxes me. It gets my mind working." Much of the G-men's midday meal was spent swapping combat stories, old and new. Tom remembered the smelliest pickup in his 17-year career, a fully loaded freezer that had died one summer and smelled like something had died in it.

This reminded Mark of one of the job's fringe benefits.

"We get all we can eat," he joked.

"You just have to scrape it off," Mike added.

"And watch out for "moving rice,' " Tom warned.

"Moving rice" is G-man shorthand for maggots.

"I hate those things," Brent said. The mere mention of the infant insects made him cringe and start itching his arms. He stood up and walked to the room's antiques department, what the crew calls its junk table.

"You never know what people are going to throw away," Brent said. He pushed aside a like-new pair of pliers and a sheet of bubble pack to reveal four framed prints, three portraits of Jesus -- "one from 1942" -- and a modernistic vision of "The Last Supper."

Brent is a pack rat. "My wife has about had it with me bringing stuff home."

So, he has to watch what he picks up along the route. He couldn't resist one piece of art.

"It was a van Gogh," he said. "For all I know about art, it could be an original -- it has his signature -- or it could be a Xerox copy. "Either way, it sure looks good."

Lunch hour about over, the crew cleaned the table and tossed the empty cups, pizza boxes and paper plates into the back of the garbage trucks.

As the crew turned to go, the G-men turned serious.

"I'm sure lots of people wonder why we do this kind of work," Bob began. "I tried office work. But I couldn't stand sitting behind a desk."

"When I work inside," Tom said, "I feel all cooped up."

"Outside work," Mark said "is the best. No matter what the weather. You see the seasons change. You hear the birds. You meet people."

Brent, the crossword puzzle worker, struggled to come up with an answer that fit. Frowning as he did when he worked his lunch time crossword, he wracked his brain. Finally, the G-man came up with a four-letter word for the feeling that everyone wants from their job.

His kind of work, he said, makes him feel "free."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.