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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Garbage Collectors

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By Elland Road Partners*

There are more than 116,000 garbage collectors in the United States, which sounds like a lot until you consider the staggering volume of trash Americans toss out every year: 250 million tons (and growing). And yet, these intrepid men and women are shrouded in mystery. Maybe that's because we only think of them when running to the curb in our undies at 6 a.m. or when stuck behind a truck on our way to Costco.

Well, let ignorance go the way of open-air incinerators. To help clear the mystery surrounding the only people who—unlike mom—will keep cleaning up after you for the rest of your life, we interviewed dozens of garbage collectors around the country about their work, motivation, and, yes, that smell. Here's what we learned:

1. It's OK to call us garbage men.

Politically correct terms are "sanitation engineer" and “waste management professional,” but if you ask the men and women who actually do the work there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a description that’s less euphemistic. Veteran "engineer" Scott Fultz, of Portland, Oregon, speaks for most of his peers when he says that the classic moniker is still the best. “Just call me the garbage man," he implores. "I’m the guy that picks up your sewage. I’m the guy driving the big green truck." Trash collector, trash hauler and, across the pond, “bin men” are also acceptable. (So is their actual name.)

2. Or garbage women.

About 99% of U.S. garbage collectors are men, but that still means that more than 1,000 women are out there hauling trash. And all the garbage women we interviewed say they encounter real surprise when they share their vocational choice. Not that such reactions deter them. "I wear it like a badge of honor," says veteran Memphis collector Kim Hardeman. "I’m a garbage woman, and I love it. I’m outdoors all day. And I don’t have to worry about the garbage can talking back to me." And while female collectors may not match their male counterparts when it comes to strength in numbers, they often have a stronger stomach. Says Baltimore garbage woman Kristen Anderson, "If you could see these grown men going crazy when things get gross…"

3. These are not jobs for the faint-hearted.

Trash collecting routinely shows up on lists of the most dangerous jobs in America, with roughly 30 fatalities per 100,000 workers annually. (Logging, the most dangerous profession, averages nearly 60 deaths per 100,000.) Small wonder: Every aspect of a trash collector's job has the capacity to injure. From heavy lifting to man-eating gears to glass and needles hidden in black garbage bags, disaster is never far away. “The toughest job is the position on the back,” says Dallas trash collector Jimmy Johnson. “Mostly because you’re jumping on and off the truck.”

But the most common accident is sadly preventable: collectors getting hit by cars. "It’s a very dangerous job," says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. "A lot of us get hurt. A driver is flying around a curve and doesn’t see the garbage man—or the truck—and ..." Part of the solution might just be a change in attitude. "Some people do not see you," says Joe Udice, a trash collector in the suburbs of New York City. "It’s a mentality: The garbage truck is there, but it’s not really there. Everyone is in a rush. Everyone’s the most important person."

4. These are also not jobs for the faint-nosed.

It may be the No. 1 reason more people don't get into garbage collection as a career: that unholy odor, impossible to parse but instantly recognizable. "It all combines into one sour swill," explains Udice. But after a while, you just stop noticing. "On the way home I might pick up a friend and he’ll be like, 'Joe, you stink!' And I can’t even notice it." Odor is only one part of an overall gross-out factor that quickly and brutally weeds out the weaklings from the rest of the herd. Minneapolis garbage man Al Gruidl says, "Our running joke—after we dump the garbage from the truck and it’s just water and maggots sloshing around—is to see if you can say, 'Mmmm, looks like great soup!'” Not everyone can. “One summer, a new guy was standing there just puking his guts out. We always have fun with the new guys."

5. This is not your father’s garbage man’s truck.

For many sewage picker-uppers, the days of lifting overstuffed cans by hand are over. “In Phoenix, all the trash collectors are drivers,” says Valley of the Sun veteran Tim Femrite. “Everything’s automated. We call it curbside pickup, where we drive up next to the bins, pick them up and dump them in. So it’s just me in the truck. It could get lonely for some people, but I like it. It’s my office.”

Even in places where the sanitation department and citizenry are less in-tune, today’s trucks are often high-tech wonders equipped with motion-activated cameras (for avoiding unseen hazards) and onboard tablets that help drivers track houses that have missed collection. "I’ve had a customer that I need to go back for because they didn’t have their stuff out in the morning," says Fultz, the Portland collector. "I can get that info in real time, whip right back around the corner, get it picked up and not have to worry about the phone calls." Trash haulers can also flag residents for particularly poor garbage etiquette, like overfilling cans. (“We call it ‘snow-coning,’” says Femrite.) You know who you are—and they do, too.

6. Your trash is our treasure.

You know that flat screen you dumped because it was last year's model? Or that bike your child begged for and never rode? You might have thought those were destined for the compactor, but garbage folk often find new homes for the unloved but usable goods we toss. "A lot of people throw out vacuum cleaners that are really just clogged," Udice explains. Those get a good cleaning and are put to use again. Lamps get fixed and recycled. Old TVs are taken back to headquarters, tested and then installed somewhere else. Just because you don’t have use for it doesn’t mean someone else won’t.

7. Your trash is our titillation.

Most trashcans are filled with the humdrum detritus of day-to-day living: spoiled food, broken appliances, waxen Q-tips, and threadbare underpants. But every so often— a.k.a. pretty much every day—there’s a titillating surprise for the guys and gals who dispose of your rubbish. "Pornography," says Udice. “A lot of pornography.” And while some may be shocked that anyone still buys X-rated magazines and videos, Udice is mostly amazed at the volume. "Never just a couple of magazines,” he says. “It’s always like someone just threw out their trove."

8. Your trash is you!

Minnesotan Gruidl recalls, "At the facility where we dump our garbage, one of the trucks, a front-end loader that picks up private dumpsters, was getting ready to offload. Somebody must have jumped in the dumpster that night to stay warm. They dumped it, and there he was down in the pit. The entire operation stopped. The guy was rolling around in there."

9. It’s the bag, stupid.

The next time you're shopping for trash bags, take a moment to consider all the stakeholders. Cheap bags are cheap for a reason, and when they fail it’s your garbage collector who will pay the price. "Guys throw bags into the truck and the garbage busts right out of the bag,” says Terrell Thompson, a trash collector in Kansas City, Missouri. “If they’ve been cleaning out the yard where their dog was, well…" And Thompson wants you to know that it’s not just about the quality of the bag. “On a hot day,” he explains, “bag material will thin.” In other words, people: Don't be afraid to double-bag it in the summer.

10. It’s a jungle out there.

"We run into animals all the time," says Gruidl. And not just raccoons. "Squirrels have a way of chewing through the lids and getting in and out of the garbage,” he says. “So when you dump it into the hopper, the squirrels fly out and scare the living daylights out of you." Kristen Anderson, a Baltimore garbage woman, had a slightly closer encounter: "I opened a can, and I felt something go up my arm. The guy I was working with jumped back and yelled, 'Did you see that?!' It was a rat, and it ran right up my arm. I didn’t notice till it jumped off. I was glad. I might have quit my job right there."

11. We hate autumn.

Summer, with its bag-thinning and trash-ripening heat, isn't easy on garbage folk. And winter's snow banks are certainly a pain (even if the smell lessens). But the real nightmare season? When the leaves start falling. "Memphis in the fall," says veteran Bluff City collector Kim Hardeman, "The piles—oh my goodness, it’s overwhelming.”

12. We’re generally pretty flexible.

In San Francisco, where Mario Montoya has spent 27 years hauling trash, the Public Works Department "does it all." That not only means emptying cans, but also cleaning out illegal waste dumps and cleaning up after car accidents and fires—even scrubbing down biological waste on the street. And yes, the job can get frustrating, but for Montoya and many of his peers there’s a pervasive sense of pride in their work. "We all grew up in this city," he says, "and we’re proud of that. My dad used to say, 'Whatever you do, whether you’re flipping burgers or flipping dollars, take pride in what you do.' I think that’s very important, especially in this job."

13. And sometimes we’re very flexible.

Joe Udice has a story for you. “There’s a lot of nice areas in Westchester," he says. "You wouldn’t think sanitation workers would really hook up on route because they smell, but there’s this wealthy divorcee who kept joking with one guy on a three-man crew. So eventually he says to one of the other guys, ‘Do you think you could cover my route for like a half hour?” And the other guy is like, ‘Are you kidding?’ And the first guy says, ‘I’m gonna try.’ He hit the lottery with that one. The guy has skills.”

14. These are not jobs of last resort.

"As a kid I always wanted to be a garbage man,” says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. “I used to live in the projects, and the garbage men had to come to the back of the house, grab the cans and pull them all the way around the house. I liked helping them. This guy, he was probably about 18 years old. He worked on the garbage truck. His name was Lester. And I followed that garbage truck everywhere it went. So that’s one of the things that inspired me. I always wanted to do it.”

Elland Road Partners is a content collaborative founded by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine. Kevin J. Ryan and Deanna Cioppa contributed to this story.

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11 Single Facts About Bridget Jones’s Diary
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While it's not officially a holiday movie, so much of the action in Bridget Jones's Diary happens around the most wonderful time of the year that the rom-com has become essential wintertime viewing for many movie fans. Based on Helen Fielding’s novel of the same name, it tells the story of a very single, and hopelessly romantic, working professional named Bridget (Renée Zellweger) who is determined to improve her love life. Enter two strapping gentlemen (Colin Firth and Hugh Grant) to vie for her heart. Get to know more about the timeless dramedy that’s been delighting audiences since 2001. Just as it is.

1. THE SOURCE NOVEL CAME ABOUT FROM AN ANONYMOUS COLUMN ABOUT SINGLE LIFE.

In the foreword of Bridget Jones’s Diary, author Helen Fielding wrote about how she came to conjure up the story: “The Independent asked me to write a column, as myself, about single life in London. Much as I needed the money, the idea of writing about myself in that way seemed hopelessly embarrassing and revealing. I offered to write an anonymous column instead, using an exaggerated, comic, fictional character. I assumed no one would read it, and it would be dropped after six weeks for being too silly.”

2. SEVERAL CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON PEOPLE IN HELEN FIELDING’S LIFE.


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These include Jude (Tracey MacLeod) and Shazzer (Sharon Maguire, also the film’s director). In a column for the Evening Standard, MacLeod described how she didn’t even realize she inspired part of her best friend’s story until Fielding’s book launch party. “At the launch party for the first Bridget book, I was cornered by a smug married friend, ‘So ... what's it like being Jude?’ she asked,” MacLeod writes. “I was outraged. Of course I wasn't Jude, with her self-help books and horrible boyfriend. My boyfriend wasn't anything like Vile Richard ... But as more people began to believe that Jude and Shazzer were thinly-veiled portraits of myself and Sharon, I secretly got to like the idea.”

3. TONI COLLETTE DECLINED THE LEAD, AND KATE WINSLET WAS CONSIDERED FOR IT.

Before Zellweger stole the show, Aussie Toni Collette and Brit Kate Winslet were up for the part. According to AMC, “Toni Collette declined the role because she was on Broadway starring in The Wild Party at the time, and Kate Winslet was considered but the producers decided she was too young.”

4. HUGH GRANT ONLY SIGNED ON WHEN RICHARD CURTIS WAS ANNOUNCED AS THE WRITER. 


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“The only reason [I was a hard sell] was because I didn't feel they had the script quite right for a long time,” Firth told Cinema.com. “And I kept saying, ‘It's not working. Just get Richard Curtis to come in and help rewrite it.’ Eventually they did, and as soon as Richard came on board, I signed on the dotted line. So that's all it was.”

5. RENÉE ZELLWEGER GAINED 17 POUNDS FOR THE PART.

Zellweger’s weight gain for the role had the media abuzz for a while. According to The Guardian, “In order to play the eponymous heroine in the film adaptation of Fielding's bestseller, the actress gained 17 pounds, consulting a dietitian and endocrinologist who devised a regime of three full meals a day, multiple snacks, and no exercise.”

6. ZELLWEGER WORKED AT PICADOR FOR THREE WEEKS.

Zellweger went full Method for her iconic role, and became a temporary employee of the Picador publishing house. “We came up with a plan: she would be Bridget Cavendish, Bridget for obvious reasons and Cavendish as she was to be passed off as the sister of Jonathan Cavendish, a friend of one of our company chairmen,” Picador publicist Camilla Elworthy told The Guardian. “That last bit at least is true, and no one was to know that Jonathan Cavendish was one of the film's producers.”

7. ZELLWEGER KEPT A PHOTO OF JIM CARREY ON HER DESK.


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While working at Picador, Zellweger kept a picture of Jim Carrey on her desk—which made her alter ego Bridget Cavendish seem like some sort of obsessed fan. “Under the name Bridget Cavendish, she answered phones, served coffee, and made photocopies—without being recognized by any of her co-workers, who offered career advice and wondered privately why she kept a photo of Jim Carrey (her then-boyfriend) on her desk,” noted Hollywood.com.

8. ZELLWEGER INVITED HER BOSS AT PICADOR TO BE AN EXTRA ON SET.

In Camilla Elworthy’s write-up for The Guardian, she noted how she became a part of the production. “Renée sent me a thank you letter and gift after she'd gone and I have seen her a few times since then," Elworthy wrote. "She invited me on to the film set one day. She informed me that I had to stick around and be an extra and made sure that I was put somewhere that I would be seen ... As a result, half my head can be seen for half a nano-second in the launch party scene.”

9. THE EPIC FIGHT SCENE BETWEEN GRANT AND COLIN FIRTH WASN’T CHOREOGRAPHED.

You can thank the two actors for the hilarity of the iconic scene. In a Vulture article about the greatest fight scenes in movie history, writer Denise Martin recalled the improvised spar, writing, “No stunt coordinators. No elaborate choreography. Just a perfectly realized wimp brawl between two upper-middle-class Englishmen coming to awkward fisticuffs in front of a Greek restaurant.”

10. FIELDING ASKED FRIEND SALMAN RUSHDIE TO CAMEO IN THE FILM.

Recalling how he came to be part of the film, famed novelist Salman Rushdie told Texas Monthly, “Helen Fielding, the author of the book, is an old pal of mine, and she asked if I’d come along and make a fool of myself, and I said, ‘Why not?’”

11. GRANT DIDN’T HEAR ZELLWEGER SPEAK IN HER AMERICAN ACCENT UNTIL THE FILM’S WRAP PARTY.

Zellweger was so engrossed with Bridget Jones that one of her leading love interests didn’t meet the real actress until the end of the shoot. “Not once did she stop speaking with that accent, until the wrap party,” Grant told Cinema.com, “when suddenly this weird ... Texan appeared. I wanted to call security, I didn't know who the f*ck she was!”

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15 Surprising Facts About Scarface
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Say hello to our little list. Here are a few facts to break out at your next screening of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s gangsters-and-cocaine classic, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1983.

1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST SCARFACE.

Brian De Palma's Scarface is a loose remake of the 1932 movie of the same name, which is also about the rise and fall of an American immigrant gangster. The producer of the 1983 version, Martin Bregman, saw the original on late night TV and thought the idea could be modernized—though it still pays respect to the original film. De Palma's flick is dedicated to the original film’s director, Howard Hawks, and screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

2. IT COULD HAVE BEEN A SIDNEY LUMET FILM.

At one point in the film's production, Sidney Lumet—the socially conscious director of such classics as Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men—was brought on as its director. "Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what's happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman," Pacino told Empire Magazine. "He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly."

3. OLIVER STONE WASN'T INTERESTED IN WRITING THE SCRIPT, UNTIL LUMET GOT INVOLVED.


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Producer Bregman offered relative newcomer Oliver Stone a chance to overhaul the screenplay, but Stone—who was still reeling from the box office disappointment of his film, The Hand—wasn't interested. "I didn’t like the original movie that much," Stone told Creative Screenwriting. "It didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [was that] Al had seen the '30s version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece."

But when Bregman contacted Stone again about the project later, his opinion changed. "Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal," Stone said. "Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea."

4. UNFORTUNATELY, ACCORDING TO STONE, LUMET HATED HIS SCRIPT.

While the chance to work with Lumet was part of what lured Stone to the project, it was his script that ultimately led to the director's departure from the film. According to Stone: "Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al."

5. STONE HAD FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER.

In order to create the most accurate picture possible, Stone spent time in Florida and the Caribbean interviewing people on both sides of the law for research. "It got hairy," Stone admitted of the research process. "It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie."

Unfortunately, while penning the screenplay, Stone was also dealing with his own cocaine habit, which gave him an insight into what the drug can do to users. Stone actually tried to kick his habit by leaving the country to complete the script so he could be far away from his access to the drug.

"I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me," he said. "I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally f***ing cold sober."

6. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN'T WANT TO AUDITION MICHELLE PFEIFFER.


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De Palma was hesitant to audition the relatively untested Pfeiffer because at the time she was best known for the box office bomb Grease 2. Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Kelly McGillis, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver were all considered for the role of Elvira, but Bregman pushed for Pfeiffer to audition and she got the part.

7. YES, THERE IS A LOT OF SWEARING.

According to the Family Media Guide, which monitors profanity, sexual content, and violence in movies, Scarface features 207 uses of the “F” word, which works out to about 1.21 F-bombs per minute. In 2014, Martin Scorsese more than doubled that with a record-setting 506 F-bombs thrown in The Wolf of Wall Street.

8. TONY MONTANA WAS NAMED FOR A FOOTBALL STAR.

Stone, who was a San Francisco 49ers fan, named the character of Tony Montana after Joe Montana, his favorite football player.

9. TONY IS ONLY REFERRED TO AS "SCARFACE" ONCE, AND IT'S IN SPANISH.

Hector, the Colombian gangster who threatens Tony with the chainsaw, refers to Tony as “cara cicatriz,” meaning “scar face” in Spanish.

That chainsaw scene, by the way, was based on a real incident. To research the movie, Stone embedded himself with Miami law enforcement and based the infamous chainsaw sequence on a gangland story he heard from the Miami-Dade County police.

10. VERY LITTLE OF THE FILM WAS ACTUALLY SHOT IN MIAMI.

The film was originally going to be shot entirely on location in Miami, but protests by the local Cuban-American community forced the movie to leave Miami two weeks into production. Besides footage from those two weeks, the rest of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Barbara.

11. ALL THAT "COCAINE" LED TO PROBLEMS WITH PACINO'S NASAL PASSAGES.

Though there has long been a myth that Pacino snorted real cocaine on camera for Scarface, the "cocaine" used in the movie was supposedly powdered milk (even if De Palma has never officially stated what the crew used as a drug stand-in). But just because it wasn't real doesn't mean that it didn't create problems for Pacino's nasal passages. "For years after, I have had things up in there," Pacino said in 2015. "I don't know what happened to my nose, but it's changed."

12. PACINO'S NOSE WASN'T HIS ONLY BODY PART TO SUFFER DAMAGE.

Still of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 'Scarface' (1983)
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In the film's very bloody conclusion, Montana famously asks the assailants who've invaded his home to "say hello to my little friend," which happens to be a very large gun. That gun took a beating from all the blanks it had to fire, so much so that Pacino ended up burning his hand on its barrel. "My hand stuck to that sucker," he said. Ultimately, the actor—and his bandaged hands—had to sit out some of the action in the last few weeks of production.

13. STEVEN SPIELBERG DIRECTED A SINGLE SHOT.

De Palma and Spielberg had been friends since the two began making studio movies in the mid-1970s, and they made a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Spielberg was on hand for one of the days of shooting the Colombians’ initial attack on Tony Montana’s house at the end of the movie, so De Palma let Spielberg direct the low-angle shot where the attackers first enter the house.

14. SOME COOL TECHNOLOGY WENT INTO THE GUN MUZZLE FLASHES.

In order to heighten the severity of the gunfire, De Palma and the special effects coordinators created a mechanism to synchronize the gunfire with the open shutter on the movie camera to show the huge muzzle flash coming from the guns in the final shootout.

15. SADDAM HUSSEIN WAS A FAN OF THE FILM.

The trust fund the former Iraqi dictator set up to launder money was called “Montana Management,” a nod to the company Tony uses to launder money in the movie.

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