By Kelly Sullivan
Starting his morning five days a week at 4:15 is not a problem for garbage man Russell Bergstrom. He is “20 years Military” and at age 59 still appears as strong as the day he left the service. Bergstrom is about 5’5”, and built like an impenetrable stone wall. His hair is graying blond, and he has a strong handshake and respectful smile for anyone who will give them in return.
He has two tattoos easily visible since the “style” at the Bellingham Sanitary Service Company, or SSC, seems to be to rip off the sleeves of their neon yellow work shirts. The shirt is a part of Russell’s uniform, in addition to a pair of old jeans and work boots. The tattoo on his right arm is that of a smoking bulldog reminiscent of his days in the Marine Corp. “Once A Marine, all ways a Marine,” he says. He got it in 1971 at Jimmy’s tattoo parlor in Hong Kong. The other on his left bicep is an American flag with the name Tita signed above and Allan, Adrian and Abram below– his wife and three sons.
Bergstrom normally does the route himself. This is not a problem for a man who can lift with ease the huge green bins, the “TotersTM” us mere mortals grunt and groan about dragging the 10 feet up our driveways. Today he has some help from Andy Lord, a fellow garbage man. Lord is a “floater” which means he doesn’t have his own route yet.
Bergstrom received his own route after seven years as a floater. “It was the highlight of my career,” he said.
Bergstrom’s truck is number 53, parked in the back of the lot. He remembers the first time he saw his truck it resembled a “burnt marshmallow.” Over the years it has received a new paint job, new engine and new transmission.
“It’s like a new truck,” he said. “It’s like my own.” He has the utmost respect for his truck, and treats it well. You need a good truck to be a good, safe driver, which is very important to Bergstrom.
Bergstrom’s route starts leaving the company lot on Holly and F Street. He turns right and drives up Holly towards downtown before going behind Rocket Doughnuts. Then he drives up to the museum and behind in the alley where the residential houses are. His route is only residential housing, as other trucks come by afterward for the commercial and business district. Bergstrom drives a “rear load truck,” the one used for residential routes. It is one of four different kinds the company owns and sends out every day to collect Bellingham’s massive amounts of garbage.
After a few houses downtown he then speeds up Magnolia and takes a left, right into the Super Supplement’s parking lot. Bergstrom has been a garbage man for 13 years now, which is easy to see as he handles the mammoth truck in the small alleyways with an experts ease.
“Tight alleys are just part of the job,” he said.
For the record Bergstrom prefers to be called a garbage man. “It’s the old title,” he said. “I still call supper, supper,” he added half jokingly.
Bergstrom and Lord are only two of the many garbage men that serve Bellingham. Their small roles however, keep the city functioning. Their obvious skills, and passion for the job ensure the streets are kept clean and daily life can move forward smoothly for us.
Bergstrom said he has found over the years there’s no stigma that comes with the title of garbage man, just old connotations and impressions. He recalls the past garbage men “with the beer bellies, smoking, drinking, a cigarette hanging out of their mouth.”
“That’s not me,” he said. “I believe a garbage man doesn’t have to look like garbage.” This is one of his ’50 tips’: holding the garbage away from you while you work keeps you looking clean.
Bergstrom received a degree in sociology from Western about 30 years ago. He found that even back in 1976, the position of garbage man had moved upwards in the eyes of society.
“With more pay, one earns more prestige,” said Bergstrom. While “shoe shine boy” in his opinion is at the bottom of the list of powerful jobs, Bergstrom earns $23.35 an hour, and says his position is no longer one step above the shoe shiners like it used to be. Working at Sanitary Service Company requires that Bergstrom and Lord are in the Teamsters Union.
“I’m a union man,” Bergstrom said. “I believe in unions.” This ensures that they receive at least eight hours pay five days a week. They work from about 6:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon when they dump their load off at the “burners”, the transfer stations on Slater Road where they used to incinerate the garbage. Today it’s loaded onto trucks or train cars for a trip to a distant landfill.
As they turn down the first alley, Lord who is bolstered onto the back of the truck by his own strength, grins and exaggerates wiping his brow indicating how quick Bergstrom is on the job. He rolls quickly down the alleys of Franklin/ Ellis, Franklin/ Grant and Grant/ Humbolt. At every stop between every two houses, Lord hops off the back of the truck and sets up the garbage cans while Bergstrom jumps out of the driver’s seat and comes over to help. The two work like a well oiled machine.
Bergstrom explains another of the “50 tips” a garbage man needs to learn to be good at his job. One example of this is the way the floater sets up the driver for a quick and efficient stop- and- go. If there is one garbage can on each side of the alley Lord first goes to the one farthest from him, on the driver’s side, and pulls it up to the “toter dumper”. These are the two big claws on the back of the truck that pick up, and hoist the garbage cans into the “hopper”, the big bin on the truck that crushes, and stores the garbage for the day’s run. Lord then runs over and pulls the one on his side up to the dumper and together the two place the toters on the claws. They then return the emptied trash bins to where they sat, almost as if they had never been touched.
Another tip is when there are two bins on one side of the alley. Lord would first set up Bergstrom by taking the bin farthest from the truck and places it in front of the driver’s toter dumper before then going back and setting up his own.
“It’s not rocket science, but it makes things go smooth,” Bergstrom said.
Further down the alley he waved and shouted a friendly ‘Hello’ to a customer awake at the hour before the suns comes up.
“We have some very nice customers,” he said, recalling that a few days earlier he’d received an entire cake from one of his customers. Once Bergstrom received a $100 bill from a woman on Chuckanut around the Holidays.
On the other end of the spectrum Bergstrom also recalls some particularly gross stories he’s had during his career. Back when he was a floater he was assigned to the routes northwest of Bellingham. He found in that particular area, for some reason most people wouldn’t use garbage bags, but threw their garbage right into the bins. During the summer, especially with the once-a-month pickups, the smells could be quite overwhelming, he said.
Russell Bergstrom has easily dispelled the old notion of the garbage man. He never once alluded to disliking his job and he clearly enjoys his work and is proud to say he is a garbage man.