October 12, 2008

Oakland Garbageman Refuses to Let Dirty Job Soil His Spirits

By Dave Newhouse

At 5:50 a.m. Tuesday, under a pitch-black sky, David Kasheta began his garbage-collecting run through the Fruitvale District, with most of Oakland still asleep.

"I've seen hookers out here, and people selling drugs," he said above the loud, grinding noise of his 18.8-ton truck.

Hookers, drug dealers at 5:50 a.m.? He nodded affirmatively.

Suddenly, my idea of tagging along on the route of a garbageman made even more sense.

Kasheta, 45, has been with Waste Management of Alameda County five years. An Oakland native who now lives in Union City, he took the job for "better hours and better pay."

Better hours mean getting up at 4 a.m. and getting home by 1:30 p.m. Well, at least there's no commute traffic. He has a 12-minute drive either way.

In between, the garbage collector is a man on the move -- continuously.

"You're hopping in and out of the truck 400, 500 times a day," Kasheta said as he drove up Fruitvale Avenue through the Dimond District.

Are customers friendly or antagonistic? A mixture of both.

"A few get irate," he said. "A lot of times you're blocking traffic and they get upset with you. And I'm picking up their stuff! This guy in East Oakland sucker-punched me."

What did you do then?

"I bled," he said.

I've always wondered one thing about garbagemen: Are they embarrassed by what they do? If a pretty girl in a bar asks a garbageman what he does for a living or new-found friends inquire about his occupation, what does he say?

''I'm a garbageman," Kasheta said. "Actually in America, it's not so bad, because it's a good job. Most people say, 'That's hard work, thanks for doing it.' Because most people don't want to do it; it's a dirty, nasty job sometimes."

The hardest part of the job for Kasheta, who is Lithuanian, isn't all that running around or even the rancid smells. It's those bothersome ants.

"They're the worst," he said. "You get ants on your body from carrying stuff. You get them in your ears, your hair."

After ants, kitty litter that isn't bagged is the second hardest part, unless it's unbagged barbecue ash. On one hot summer day, Kasheta got barbecue ash all over his sweaty body.

"I looked like Casper the ghost," he said.

Still, he's willing to go the extra mile. He carries receptacles to and from the backyards of people's homes. And they appreciate it, leaving him gifts or money on garbage cans at Christmastime. However, sometimes the gifts are stolen before he gets there.

Carelessly, people throw money away in their garbage. Kasheta kept 10 two-dollar bills he found discarded in a drawer. He's also collected home tools.

"Want a Barbra Streisand Christmas album?" he asked after spotting it in the garbage. I passed.

He can't be sure of what he'll find on his route, which changes daily, Monday through Friday. He bumped into his girlfriend from Skyline High School, who is married with three children.

Kasheta lives with his second wife, a UC Berkeley graduate who is deaf. He has two children, 19 and 5, one from each marriage.

He became a garbageman at the right time, after the plastic receptacles -- dark red for normal garbage, green for yardwork -- replaced the heavy galvanized steel canisters that needed to be pulled up out of the ground, and must have damaged numerous garbagemen's backs.

"But there are certain times you're going to get hurt," said Kasheta. "Jumping in and out of the truck, your knees, hips, shoulders, back and ankles feel it. It helps to be physically fit."

He rides his bike, runs, swims and plays golf to keep fit. Garbagemen, as a rule, look fit.

Kasheta drove down such streets Tuesday as Lyman, Tiffin and Clemens. Customers waved to him. He waved back. A couple and their two children greeted him from their front steps.

"They're there every week," he said.

He wears earplugs to combat the engine noise and gloves to handle the garbage cans. He doesn't touch the gray receptacles that contain recycled products; that's another company's responsibility. But he picks up donated food for the Alameda County Food Bank.

Despite driving such a cumbersome truck, which weighs 25.5 tons after all the garbage is collected and compacted, Kasheta has been in only a few accidents. But once, while guiding the two front-end loaders, or "buckets," overhead to dump their garbage into the "hopper," he didn't see the looping telephone wires and cut them in two.

"There was a lady on the phone at the time," he said. "I could see her through the window. You should have seen the look on her face."

Oops, there went Christmas.

Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Metro page. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208- 6466 or e-mail [email protected]

Originally published by Dave Newhouse, Oakland Tribune.

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