The machines were running smoothly today. (For any readers who don’t know where I work, please refer to the blog entry before last, the one entitled “Green Star Rising.”) Wet conditions have a tendency to jam the belts. When the system goes down, the bosses usually send us downstairs to do cleanup work until it gets running again. We would all prefer to be working the lines as usual. Cleanup involves finding work to do even when there’s sometimes no work to be done, and various passing superiors will give you conflicting orders, and you’re not sure which ones to obey. You pretty much obey the orders of whichever superior is watching.
Anyway, today all sorts of stuff came down the chute. I saw a rubber snake go by (fortunately, I could tell at a glance that it was rubber). There were lots of clothes: shirts, pants, shoes, boots, hats . . . An unfurled umbrella twirled along my side of the belt, so I grabbed it and closed it before stuffing it into my trash bin. A spool of wire bounced from the inflow, with the wire’s end snagged somewhere above. The spool wasn’t close enough for either Blue or me to get hold of, so it danced and spun at the mouth of the chute, hopping and hopping as the wire unwound, presumably wrapping around and around the spindle above. When all the wire was gone, the spool rolled over to me, and I put it to rest. I’m sure someone at some point will have to unwrap all that wire from the machinery.
Today was the first day I felt that I needed a hardhat. At least twice, objects of substantial weight bounced off my head — probably pieces of glass. And there were many smaller pings. A new guy working behind us, farther down the belt, said something hit him on the head even at that distance. Blue says as the weather heats up, the trash is looser and bouncier, so we can expect a lot more of this in the days to come.
Generally, you can hear objects before you see them. When there’s an ominous boom or crash on the belt, Blue and I duck our heads and turn away, especially if the impact is followed by shattering. Then we look back to see what has emerged. Sometimes it’s unidentifiable machinery. Sometimes it’s broken furniture, a heavy can, a bottle, or a metal pipe. Today I encountered the floor mat from a car.
I saw my third Greenstar rat today. This one looked bigger and heavier than the first two, and was in less hurry to get away. Some of the guys on another line were talking about a rat that scurried down their conveyor belt! They said it headed right for one of the men, and his eyes got as big as his hardhat! Maybe I should get myself some little stickers and put one on my hat each time I sight a rat . . .
But anyway, the incident I really wanted to write about occurred toward the end of the day. The man working behind me fished from the trash an American flag. Amazingly, it looked pristine, the colors vibrant. (Most of the trash is grimy.) The guy who found it was amazed, wondering what to do with it. (I understood his feeling — the other day, a Native American dreamcatcher rolled into my hand, and I didn’t like the symbolism of throwing it away, so I placed it on the “shelf” behind me — a horizontal steel girder against the wall where we put things that may prove useful.)
Well, Blue asked for it, and very earnestly told me, “Get that flag for me.” The guy who found it said, “It’s only got thirteen stars.” Blue said, “I don’t care.” So the first guy brought it to me, and I handed it across the belt to Blue, being very careful not to let any part of the flag touch the dirty conveyor belt. Blue was equally careful.
To fully appreciate the story, you’d have to see the solemnity with which we did it. All hooting and yelling over the noise stopped, and the others stood quietly and watched. I also know from an earlier conversation with Blue that he will take care of that flag and find a way to display it with honor. It may sound corny to you, but as I reflect on the day, it was one of those American moments when what’s being done transcends the time and the setting. Here we were, three guys of three different ethnic backgrounds, laboring among the refuse of a major city. In a place where men joke, horse around, and speak in the coarsest language, we worked together very seriously — almost ceremonially — to keep our country’s flag from going down the garbage chute. I wish you could have seen it.
It was a good day at work.