Helen St. Pierre likes to talk trash. Recycling, to be specific. She's one of the few female drivers for Waste Management Inc., covering the trash company's North Attleborough route.
That means hustling: picking up glass, paper, cardboard, and aluminum for about 12,000 homes during a 10-hour shift. She drives a 60,000-pound, automated side loader, picking up containers from the curb, dumping refuse into the hopper, then replacing them, lids neatly closed. Maneuvering through crowded residential routes with parked cars, darting kids, and pets, and other obstacles means that St. Pierre needs to always be on her game.
"When I'm on there collecting, I need to be invisible but leave a visible result." St. Pierre spoke with Boston Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about being a ground-level worker in public health.
"My office has 10 wheels and runs all day with a moving view. Most people think the fact that I'm a garbage woman is kind of cool; my truck doesn't know whether I'm a male or female. But there are a few individuals who have scoffed at me, like an older woman who saw me get out of the cab. She looked me up and down and said, 'Whatever would make you want to do that?'
"I don't need to do any heavy physical labor but there's a lot of mental energy required: knowing where to place the truck with a strong hydraulic arm that extends 10 feet. . . . It's designed to pick a 96-gallon tote that can weigh up to 250 pounds when completely full.
"My head is always moving, making sure that the area is safe and there's no power lines or tree branches. I need 100 percent focus because I do over two houses a minute; an average day is 135, 140 houses in one hour.
"During busy holiday seasons, I also need to go to the recycling facility to empty the truck, then come back to complete the route. The carts are often full of cardboard because everyone is shopping online; during summer, when the kids are home, there's a 20 percent increase in content.
"Another part that makes the job so dynamic is the weather; wind is the biggest challenge. It can blow the carts over and send recycling everywhere, and I need to pick it up. Snow is a whole other ballgame; just try to turn that hot rod around at the end of a cul-de-sac when there's snowbanks.
"Most people take garbage and recycling removal for granted but there are a few people who appreciate our work. I have little kids who watch for me and like to see me lift the container up, nice and slow; then I place it as far into the driveway as I can reach, beep the horn, and wave. It's a little show for them."
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.