I was on a pay phone in the Isle of Man calling home when they broke the news. The plan was to ask for a temporary cash injection to help me until I could find a job. We had arrived by ferry a week earlier hoping to spend the summer enjoying the parties, the sun and the booze, but the reality was disrupting our plans. We had just missed, locals told my friends and I, the biggest weekend on the island’s tourist calendar – the TT motorcycle races – and the chances of finding a temporary job were now drastically reduced. Our bundle of crunchy sterling banknotes was almost entirely gone from cigarettes and drinks, so a job offer should have been good news. Not that one though.
An official letter had arrived from the Athlone Urban District Council offering me a 12-week summer assignment in its engineering department. I had made the request months earlier, even before the Isle of Man trip was mentioned, but got no response. Now, however, receiving the news made it much more difficult to stay away. On the call, the case for accepting the job was carefully presented and the strongest arguments I had for staying (expanding my horizons, possibly losing my virginity, etc.) seemed fairy-tale and superficial in comparison. With a heavy heart, I surrendered to the logic of “cutting my laundry” and agreed to go home.
Three days later, my new boss was showing me around the Athlone town hall offices. Jim enthusiastically embraced the city’s engineering profession, which seemed more suited to a Renaissance painter. He gave me a donkey jacket, hi-vis vest and steel toe boots like I was in Karate Kid – all the preparation for the important job he had in mind for me. A batch of shiny new trash cans had been delivered to the municipal depot, and every household in town was to receive one. My job? To travel in the delivery vehicle and note the six-digit number on the cover and the address each bin went to. It wasn’t a struggle to hide my excitement.
Dreaming about drinking
Prior to 1995, Athlone’s garbage had been collected in black garbage bags, which the trash men threw over their arms to the back of the truck that would take them to the landfill. In the mini-talk Jim gave me, he said that these new “wheelie bins” were the first step towards a more hygienic diet. They would be safer and more hygienic for workers and the environment. I nodded at those sensible words, but inside I dreamed of taking photos at a seaside bar in Douglas.
For the following week, under the scorching sun, I sat in the cab of a flatbed truck stacked with 10 black high density polyethylene wheeled bins as it made its way through every nook and cranny of the city. ‘Athlone. For the company, I had two city councilors doing all the heavy lifting, and The Outhere Brothers on the radio. The truck was so adjusted for the streets, it created something of a spectacle. Passers-by stopped to watch us make a sharp turn without scratching the side of the truck against a wall. Word of the delivery spread. Soon, when we arrived in a housing estate, residents were coming to meet us. The children looked at our cargo to see what misuse they could use the items for.
This had the effect of making my job more difficult, as I was already struggling to record all the details in my notebook before the trash cans were taken away from us. It didn’t bother me. It supported me that people felt a sense of opportunity around what we did, even though I didn’t. (Amazon delivery people will recoil in horror at the thought of doing this kind of task without a QR or barcode, but that was 1995 and it would take almost 20 years before I had a smartphone in my hand. .)
More and more, the feeling of drudgery left me. I got over my initial nerves and learned to easily get in and out of the vehicle. I have become fluent in the geography of my hometown in the way that only comes from my time in the area of delivering things. And there was a kind of Zen immediacy going out of my head “wishing to be somewhere else” and rooting me where I was.
Somewhere in the middle of the week, things got lost. I was about to knock on a door when a man in a white waistcoat tore my fist in the air. I did not have the opportunity to say Jim’s sentence: “Hello, I am from the council, this is your trash”.
“Never!” the man roared. “You can take your trash back because I won’t have it.” He was looking for someone in authority to talk to, but there was only me. “These trash cans are a disgrace,” he said, pointing a finger at my face. “You should be ashamed.” The man’s fury astonished me. There was nothing in the instructions to deal with this, so I stepped back from the script and said, “Oh, well, I’m sorry about that,” and gave it to someone else.
When I told Jim, he knew right away who this man was. Angry Man was someone who had long fought the arrival of wheelie bins in Athlone. Knowing the controversy that would arise if he had been the only one accompanying the vehicle, Jim sent me instead to soak up the man’s rage.
It makes me laugh that my 18-year-old ignorance has been deployed in such a smart way to improve the environment in our city. Jim made me a reluctant Greta Thunberg. Thankfully, whatever improvements to the wheelie bins in Athlone’s environment have always happened despite me not being the most enthusiastic climate activist.
At the end of the week, I accepted a reverse charge call from the Isle of Man. I braced myself to hear about the pleasure spent without me. It couldn’t have been worse. The girls had all found jobs in a fish factory and were leaving that evening with their first paycheck. I laughed at their complaints that it was very difficult to get rid of the fishy smell at the end of the day. Yes, painful to miss but not that much. A lot can happen in a week.