The Story of the Time I Worked a Hard Day in My Life

I grew up in a middle class family in the south of England and I’ve often felt a certain tension when meeting someone from the north of England, particularly if it was traditionally an industrial area; beyond an instinctive dislike of the poshness of my accent, there’s a begrudging suspicion, unsaid, perhaps – at least until a couple of pints have been swallowed and the accusation is at last delivered:
I bet you never did a hard day’s work in your life!
And my answer is always the same: A hard day’s work, I have done, I protest indignantly and then tell them about the time I decided to become a bin man – a garbage man in international English.
I was 19, fresh back from my first journey to India and faced with the alarming discovery that most people worked for a living. I was familiar with the concept of work, having read about the spiritual benefits of it in the Bhagavad Gita, but as yet I hadn’t ever done any. Then I read in some beatnik book about a trash collector who went through the town with his little cart, picking up rubbish and making it more beautiful, one piece at a time. He created more beauty in one lifetime than most artists, the author declared.
So I signed up to work on the bins and turned up promptly at 4am the next morning at the refuse office but instead of the little zen-like cart and brush I expected to be equipped with, I was told to go and jump on the garbage truck about to depart on aisle 8. I climbed in on the back seat and got to know my two co-workers, Lofty and Ed. Lofty had been working on the bins for 18 years and Ed for 25.
‘So, are you a virgin?’ they asked.
‘No!’ I told them defiantly. I actually was but didn’t see why I should have to admit it to them.
‘First day on the bins, is it?’
‘Yes, actually, I-‘
‘And he says he’s not a virgin!’ they roared in a kind of laughter I’d never heard that time of the morning.
We were soon on the street and the system was explained to me: you had t run down the garden paths of the suburb we were servicing and empty the bins into a kind of yellow plastic skip we carried on our shoulders. For some reason it contained about a bin and a half of rubbish so you had to pour carefully. Then you hoisted the skip on your shoulder, ran to the back of the moving truck (Ed simultaneously drove and emptied bins) and dumped it all in.
Thing was, it was a bit heavy for me and every time I tried to hoist it onto my shoulder bits of rubbish tipped out and down the collar of my overalls; cold baked beans and tea bags, onion rinds and cat food. So I ended up carrying the skip back to the truck clutched to my chest.
‘Like an old woman carrying her shopping!’ Lofty observed pitifully.
Soon the sun came up and I saw the first ever dawn of my life that I’d awoken early for and I stood there on the crest of the hill looking out at all the sleeping houses of the town. Here I was, earning my crust by the sweat of my brow before everyone else had had their first cup of tea of the day!
Half an hour later, Ed found me leaning against the side of the truck and observed me with a critical eye.
‘You aren’t going to make it, are you, son?’
They phoned the office to send a car to pick me up and for the rest of the extremely long day I was made helper to an old guy who spent as much time talking about Allied successes in the second world war as he did in scooping trash out of storm drains. At least with my history ‘A’level I could contribute something there.
I had the longest shower of my life when I got home. And by the time I’d had some dinner, I realised I would need to go to bed in an hour if I was to wake up again the next day for work. I decided to quit there and then. It just took too much time out of your day.

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