Funny how you can always tell when somebody's laughing behind your back. Jodie hadn't really heard anything, maybe a whisper, but when she turned around, the girls in the back row of the class were looking at her, trying to hide smiles and giggles. She looked back at her teacher. Mr Swales was talking about what people do all day. He also wanted to find out what his students wanted to be when they grew up. He called on Billy Mitzer first.
"My daddy works in a bank," Billy Mitzer said. "I guess I want to work in a bank too. There's lots of money in the bank."
"My parents have a grocery store," Emmy DiSalvo said. "Papa's behind the counter and Mama keeps the cash register. But I want to be an airline pilot."
Jodie liked it when Mr Swales asked them questions like this. He was about to call on Jodie when the girls in the back row burst out laughing.
Shirley Danes yelled, "Jodie's Daddy is a garbageman! Pee-yoo!"
Everybody in the class laughed out loud. Everybody except Jodie, that is. She felt her face turn bright red. She looked around the whole classroom. Everyone was laughing. Some kids were even holding their noses.
Jodie looked at Mr Swales. He was angry. He almost never raised his voice, but now he did.
"Silence! I want everybody quiet this instant."
The laughter stopped immediately. The sound of cars and people going by out on the street came through the windows. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," Mr Swales said. "Being a garbageman...I mean, er, uhm...a Sanitation Engineer, is a difficult and enormously useful job. We should all be grateful to Mr. Harris. Where would we be without him? Up to our ears in garbage, that's where. How would you like that?"
"Pee-yoo!" somebody said. A few kids started laughing again.
"It's not funny," Mr. Swales went on. "Garbage is a serious matter. I think you all owe Jodie an apology. And after that, you're all going to write Jodie's father, Mr Harris, a nice letter to tell him how much you appreciate what he does for all of us. In other words, keeping our city clean."
Moans and groans. Everyone said "Sorry, Jodie" but Jodie could tell they didn't really mean it. She also knew nobody wanted to write her father a letter. She wished Mr Swales wouldn't make them do it. Her face was burning red and she felt like crying. Mr Swales came to her desk and patted her shoulder. "Let's go out in the hall while everyone's writing those letters so we can have a private talk."
Jodie started crying out in the hall. She didn't want to cry in front of everybody, but she couldn't hold back any more. Mr Swales was tall. He knelt and gave her his handkerchief to blow her nose. "I'm sorry this happened," he said. "But remember, hard work done well is something to be proud of. There's nothing wrong with being a garb...a sanitation engineer, absolutely not."
Jodie's father came to walk her home from school as usual. She didn't run up to him the way she always did. When they were up in their apartment, Jodie went to her little room and cried for a good long time before she did her homework. Her father must've heard her.
He came into her room. "What happened, Jodie? Why are you so sad?"
Jodie didn't want to tell him at first. She was embarrassed and didn't want to hurt her father's feelings. Her father sat on the bed, put his hand on her shoulder. "It's OK, sweetie. You can tell me. You can tell me everything, you know. But you don't have to tell me your secrets, if you don't want to. Is this a secret?"
"It's not a secret. The other kids laughed at me because you're a garbageman. They said your job was dirty and you smelled bad. They said I smelled bad too."
Jodie looked at her father. He didn't seem angry, hurt or sad. His big white teeth gleamed under his walrus moustache. "Well then," he said. "I guess those kids just don't know how much fun it is to be a garbageman."
For some reason, that made Jodie start crying again. Her father hugged her tight. "Tell me honestly, Jodie…do I smell bad?"
Jodie sniffed. "You smell good, like laundry soap."
"Come on, Jodie. You can tell your old garbageman Daddy he stinks."
Jodie smiled too. "I mean it. You smell nice. You always smell nice."
"Your friends at school were right, though. Being a garbageman is a dirty job. Garbage is…filthy. Every day I see stuff so disgusting it'd make your head spin. And man, does it ever stink! But then me and the guys I work with come along, grab the slimy, stinking garbage and throw it in the truck. The truck's a big green monster who growls and gulps nasty garbage. Then everything's nice and clean, the way we like it. And when I get home, I take a long hot shower so I'm clean as the day I was born. I like my job, Jodie. And I like the people I work with, too."
Jodie's mother yelled dinner was ready.
"Tell you what, Jodie. Tomorrow's Saturday, but as you know, sometimes I work on Saturdays. Go to bed extra-early tonight and tomorrow you'll come to work with me. I want you to see what your garbageman daddy does."
Jodie was of two minds as she fell asleep. She was excited her father was going to take her to work, but wasn't sure she wanted to see or touch disgusting, stinking garbage.
Next thing she knew her father opened her window to let morning air into her room. It was still dark outside. Her father picked her up out of bed. "Look Jodie," he whispered. "Most people don't get to see this."
Off in the dark distance, Jodie saw clouds slightly pink underneath. City lights shimmered. The horizon line beyond the river glowed blue and green. Jodie pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt and was ready to go.
"We'll get breakfast on the way to work," her father said.
The garbage trucks depot wasn't far away. The place really didn't smell too good. Jodie wrinkled her nose.
"Don't worry, kid. You'll get used to it. In five minutes you won't smell a thing. Your nose is smart enough to know when to turn itself off."
Men and women were at work in the depot even though it was so early in the morning. Everybody was yelling and the truck engines were loud, but they seemed to be having a good time. Garbagemen and garbagewomen came over to say hello to Jodie. They said her father was a nice guy.
Big Al was Jodie's daddy's partner. He drove the truck. Big Al, as his name implied, was big. He had an unlit cigar in the side of his mouth, didn't say much.
Jodie's father handed her a thick pair of gloves.
"We're going to ride in back today, Jodie. The thing to remember is…hold on tight. Big Al will go slow, but you have to hang on until he stops. If you're scared, tell me. Then I'll drive instead and you can ride up front with me."
Jodie said, "I'm not scared," but she was, just a little.
Jodie held on tight. She held on so tight she almost didn't notice the smell of sour, rotten oranges, lemons, banana peels and coffee grounds coming from the back of the garbage truck. They rode nearly twenty blocks before the first stop. Jodie watched cars, people and trees shoot by. She looked up at buildings and early morning blue sky.
Big Al stopped the truck. Jodie and her Daddy jumped off. On the curb was a big pile of plastic bags full to bursting with foul, reeking garbage, metal garbage cans with the lids barely on. "I'll get the big stuff, Jodie. You get the little plastic bags and throw them in the truck hard as you can. I mean really throw them."
Jodie's Daddy was strong. He picked up garbage bags that looked like they weighed 500 pounds and tossed them into the garbage truck like nothing. He hoisted garbage cans, shook and slammed them against the back of the truck until they were empty. She heard bottles crash, tin cans crunch. The garbage truck took and gobbled garbage. Pretty soon no more garbage was left. Jodie helped put the garbage cans back where they belonged, then she and her Daddy grabbed the iron rails on the back of the truck and they took off again.
Big Al drove slowly, as promised, but as soon as Jodie and her Daddy hit the ground everything went fast.
At one stop, Jodie's dad held up a sagging gray garbage bag. "Hey Jodie, feel this. It's totally gross."
Jodie gave the bag a squeeze. Something inside was oh-so-squishy. "Ew! Feels like overcooked spaghetti! Lots and lots of overcooked spaghetti. What is it, Daddy?"
"Ah…we'll never know, will we? All part of the mystery of garbage, honey." He threw the garbage bag into the truck and the truck snaffled it down, whatever it was.
Picking up garbage and throwing it in the truck was fun, but also hard work. Jodie's arms got tired. That's when her Daddy said, "Time for lunch." Big Al honked the horn and headed for the diner.
"Wash your hands extra carefully, Jodie," her Daddy said.
Jodie had a cheeseburger and a vanilla milkshake. She thought it was fun to eat lunch at ten o' clock in the morning.
Big Al and Jodie's Dad had coffee and then it was time to get back to work. Jodie couldn't believe how much dirty, filthy garbage fit in the truck. Finally it was full.
"Time to hit the dump," Jodie's yelled.
Big Al honked the horn again. Off they went. The dump was way out of town. Big Al drove faster. Jodie held on tight. She was excited to see the world race by, the road whizzing along under her feet.
The garbage dump was huge. You could smell it from a mile away. They drove through a gate in a big chain-link fence. Jodie wondered why there was a fence. Who steals garbage?
Seagulls flew all over the dump. They screamed, cawed and fought, in the air and on the ground. They found stuff to eat at the garbage dump. The fence couldn't keep them away.
Jodie and her Daddy got off and watched Big Al drive the truck to the top of the garbage heap.
Big Al got out, took the cigar butt out of his mouth and yelled, "Hey Jodie! C'mon up here! How'd you like to dump garbage today?"
Jodie got to sit in the driver's seat. Big Al showed her which buttons to push. The back of the truck rose until the garbage spilled out. Jodie pulled the cord to honk the horn. Seagulls flew away screaming.
When the truck was empty, Big Al took over. He and Jodie drove down the garbage heap again. Jodie and her Dad rode in the front with him on the way back to town. Jodie was tired but happy.
"Now comes the best part of the job, Jodie. While almost everyone else is still working, I get to go home, clean myself up, give your mother a big kiss…and then I get to come pick you up at school every ding-dong day. That's mainly why I like being a garbageman so much."
Jodie gave her dirty, smelly garbageman daddy a big kiss. She said, "When I grow up, I want to be a garbageman too. Just like you and Big Al."
Jodie's Daddy said, "There's plenty of time to decide, Jodie. We can talk about it later."
Big Al took the cigar out of his mouth. "You're a nice little girl, Jodie. I wish I had a daughter like you." When they got back to the depot, Jodie gave him a kiss too.
Whenever someone asks Jodie what her Daddy does for a living, she says, "He's a garbageman!" And if they say "Ew!" she says, "Everybody makes garbage, but my Daddy takes it all away."