What My Garbage Collector has Taught me about Work

Right before Christmas I ran into our garbage collector. He was working hard right up to Christmas Day, so we shared some light jokes and I thanked him for his service to our family and neighborhood. He lit up like a Christmas tree and started bragging on his job.

I do not lie. The man who collects other people's trash for a living began bragging about this work he gets to do.

While I was holding a cooking dish to make Christmas dinner, he told about how much pride he takes in taking care for his truck. Once a week he gets to work early to wash it, Armor-All the insides, vacuum the seats and floors, and buff out his hub caps. Not because he has to (it's not company policy), but because he wants to care for what he's been entrusted. I don't even do that kind of work on my own cars, much less a dump truck. But he does. He told me he wants to be excellent in the work he does. He went on to gush about how he cares about his customers (his words) and he wants their neighborhood to look nice and cared for. He said he gets a part to play in that by cleaning up our trash and taking it away to a place we'll never know about. 

He handles the care of his truck with such professionalism and excellence that the owner of Waste Management noticed and gave him a $500 bonus (out of his own wallet!) for Christmas. Funny enough, the owner asked him if $300 was a good bonus to help him feel appreciated for his service that year and for taking care of the truck. Our garbage collector talked him up $200!! He said, "well, I've kept my truck clean all year!" So he got a couple hundred more dollars. I love it. He stuck up for his hard work and saw the value he brings to the company.

Earlier, last year the owner of Waste Management offered to buy him a new truck. He had an older model and was due for an upgrade. He declined. He told the owner that he didn't need a new truck. His was fine. It worked fine and accomplished the job. He was content with what he had, even when offered something more, better.

That conversation with him lasted about 10 minutes in the alley of our place. I was so inspired. Fast forward...

Yesterday I ran into him again as I was headed out for a meeting, complete with a bag of trash in hand. I turned the corner to see MOUNDS of trash overflowing the dumpsters and overtaking the defined trash bins. My eyes met his and together our eyes rolled and bugged out. We shook our heads in unison. SO.MUCH.TRASH!!!! "So much for a holiday weekend," I said to him.

We commiserated together for a few seconds about how much trash the Memorial Day weekend produced for restaurants and homes. He told me that he was up at 3am, at work by 4am to get started on his route, and at 1pm he wasn't even halfway done with his route for the day! Wow. He'd already worked a 9 hour day and he wasn't even halfway done. He wasn't complaining. He was just telling it like it was.

Again, I thanked him for his service. Again, he beamed and said, "it's my pleasure, ma'am." I believe he really meant that it was his pleasure to pick up my trash. That's a man with some character. Could you say that? I don't think I could.

What if we all had that attitude about our work? What if we saw our work - no matter how inglorious, unappreciated, dirty, or difficult - with that same attitude of our garbage collector. What if we treated our customers with the same respect and dignity, even when we get trashed upon (literally in his case)? What if we got to work early to take care of the tools we'd been given for our job, not because they'd be reviewed in our annual evaluation, but because it was the right thing to do and because we took pride in caring for them?

Most of the time he has a smile on his face and a lightness to his step. He collects smelly, messy, disgusting garbage all day every day. That's his job and he takes pride in it. He has another perspective on it. I see trash. He sees service.

Our garbage collector has taught me a lot about having a different perspective on work. Even when it seems dirty or meaningless or messy, there can be another approach. There can be another way. And even when you're just picking up crap, it can still be important work because of the people you encounter and the greater value behind the work itself. 

I don't know the faith story of our garbage collector, but he's taught me more about this verse than a lot of pastors...

Servants, do what you’re told by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work.
— Colossians 3:23 (The Message)

May your work today be for the right reasons, to honor the right One, giving dignity and respect to those you meet. May your work be excellent, not shoddy. May you do your best as everything you do is unto the Lord.


April L. Diaz

April has been a visionary activist her entire life. She has made it her mission to lead high performing teams and develop leaders in the margins of society while caring for our bodies, mind, and spirit. Secretly, she’s a mix of a total girly girl and a tomboy, and is still crazy about her high school sweetheart, Brian. Together, they co-parent 3 fabulous kiddos and live in Orange County, CA.