Monday, April 26, 2010

Trifecta. A world record?

Back in ancient days when 49er worked for a living, in one particular period of time he was driving a front-load garbage truck [somewhat similar to this] five nights a week on a midnight until done shift in a central California city. A private firm held the city's solid waste collection contract, and in turn the firm "contracted" with 49er to run their "commercial" [OK, front-load bins] route while the rest of the company - and the city itself, pretty much slept.

Btw, for those with an opinion for or against "privatization" of municipal functions 49er did in five days and about 50 hours a week, including personal nap time, exactly what three city employees had normally done in six days and at least 140 hours a week - including 20 or more hours of time and a half overtime. But that's not important.

It's not that interesting but at the time 49er's truck was of the style that picked up a loaded bin with two front forks, then the arms holding the forks raised the bin up and over the cab, and finally the forks pivoted and dumped the by then upside-down bin's contents into a huge hopper, where a giant packing "blade" could push the trash rearwards, compacting it against the rear door and whatever else had been loaded earlier. The truck was a new type that could pack while moving, thus saving time in transit by clearing the hopper for the next load. And because this was a solo night route the truck had custom work-area mirrors, special overhead work lights and a public access radiophone in addition to it's company two-way radio.

To avoid ruining resident's sleep patterns, for the first few hours each night [or morning, to be exact] the route was limited to downtown and shopping center commercial districts [thus the name for the route], and agricultural packing shed and industrial park areas. All of which were thought not to be in proximity to residential areas.

One particular week-night at about 3 AM 49er began a fresh run - having just dumped the prior load in a landfill - by emptying a string of bins in an alley serving major downtown businesses. The loads consisted mostly of loose boxes, lightly folded cardboard flats and balls of plastic wrappings. Pretty light and loosely packed stuff. At about the sixth bin, located at the rear of a furniture store, something unusual happened. After tipping the bin, righting it and beginning a pack cycle - and at the same time lowering the arms holding a now-empty bin - 49er caught a glimpse in a mirror of something out of place near the right arm. Whatever it was, was moving!

Everything froze! Instantly he stopped packing and arm lowering to check. Was relieved to find it was merely a large sheet of loose plastic being blown around by engine exhaust. Whew! He began lowering the arms again when suddenly what appeared to be a shoe and lower pant leg came into view, obviously attached to a human being, seemingly reaching down from overhead probing for the fork arm. Everything froze again!

OK, need to explain something else. Sometimes homeless persons sleep in bins. Why, you ask? Why not. Sheets of cardboard afford protection from wind and bagged office trash can ofttimes be formed into "pillows" or "mattresses". Loose plastic can make everything water and weather-tight. Snug as a bug, etc. When the firm took over the city's collection task it had inherited one known location where one individual, night after night during his infrequent unincarcerated periods, made his home. 49er's solution to this hazard was to routinely dump this particular bin after daylight, and after a pre-dump safety check. Just to be sure.

Now 49er jumped out of the cab but could not spy anything amiss in a quick walk-around. His first thought was homeless guy had picked a new location, but that fellow usually made noises and moved around when the truck approached, and right now everything was still and quiet - except for the idling truck engine and 49er's beating heart.

Even with special work-lights there was limited visibility in the darkened alley. His quick solution was to carefullly move the truck as-is to a well-lit nearby service station and have the police and ambulance respond to a potential "industrial" accident. A few seconds later the truck pulled in under huge overhead lights at the station as two officers arrived. He explained the situation and everyone prepared for a disaster.

Everything was still quiet overhead, in the platform above the cab. The police called out but nobody responded. One cop began climbing the front access "ladder" to the over-the-cab platform and suddenly stopped and called out again. "Freeze"! "Show me your hands"! The then cop switched to giving instructions in Spanish. A sheepish-looking individual slowly stood up on the platform, hands tentatively reaching for the sky. He was drunk! And he wasn't homeless guy. He was merely a borracho field worker. And too drunk to safely climb down the access ladder by himself, so a second cop scrambled up and the two of them handed the tipsy but uninjured passenger down to two other freshly arrived officers standing on the ground. Relief and laughter all around. No blood and guts. Guy is arrested for public intoxication and put into the back of a squad car. Case over. Ambulance canceled.

Exchange of information, shooting of the breeze for a minute or two, first cop had already climbed back down, second was checking out the blade operation because this truck was new and had caused quite a stir among city staff by working the pants off three former city trucks. Suddenly cop #2 calls out, "Come out of there." Then switches to Spanish. More commands. Cop #1 goes back up the ladder. Both reach down into the top of the full hopper and pull another field worker up,
out and onto the platform. This one even sleepier and more borracho than his friend.

The hand-down process is repeated and passenger #2 is also checked over, found to be uninjured, arrested and put into another squad car. More laughter and relief. Bit that bullet, too. And a double! Two in one bin. Never had that happen before. Wow, call the newspaper. Good human interest story material there. Things were settling down, getting serious, but something was nagging 49er. The first cop car leaves for the jail. The second and third are preparing to follow. Wait a minute!

Suddenly dawns on 49er the second guy was wearing pea green dungarees, just like one member of a group of three field workers seen earlier, shortly after midnight, staggering up the alley behind one of the city's Mexican bars and cantinas. What if this was the same group and there was a third body still up in the hopper?

This time 49er climbed topside, followed by two officers, and began pulling flat sheets of cardboard out of the hopper. Three flats later a portion of a human leg appeared, and the situation reverted once more to tragedy. By this time the flats were too far down in the hopper to be reached from above, so one officer carefully jumped into a far corner of the hopper and slowly began pulling additional flats away in an attempt to find other parts of the body that went with the leg. And he did. Find other parts, that is.

Slowly, agonizingly slowly, as cardboard was pulled away the officer uncovered the rest of the clothed body - still attached to the leg! The body was sound asleep. Passed out. Borrracho in the extremis. But apparently not bloodied or traumatized. Wonder of wonders; tres amigos in a dumped bin and none injured. Unbelievable.

Number three was finally passed down to ground and poured into a squad car. On further reflection 49er made a command decision and had one officer follow him to the landfill where the remainder of the short, uncompacted load was unceremoniously dumped and spread out on the ground where it could be gone through tooth and toenail to ensure there were no other bodies or parts lying around. And none were. Case closed.

The question arises, could this be a world record? Three people dumped from one bin, all uninjured? 49er doesn't know, but several veteran officers from a central California city still recall the night they responded to one of the weirdest and frightening calls on record - a possible injured person squashed or mangled in a trash truck, and everything turned out well - hilarious in the retelling, perhaps, but well. As for the tres amigos, upon release the following morning none seemed to recall just how it was they came to be arrested. In vino veritas? Not this time.

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