All the StoryCorps segments on National Public Radio are special, but in early September I heard one that I’m still thinking about.
For non-NPR listeners, StoryCorps records and collects conversations between two people who are important to each other: a son asking his mother about her childhood, an immigrant telling his friend about coming to America, or a couple reminiscing about when they met. StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants. One of the largest oral history projects of its kind, each conversation is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Each week, one of the conversations is played on Morning Edition. On September 3rd, the conversation between Eddie Nieves and Angelo Bruno, sanitation workers in NYC was broadcast. Eddie and Angelo were partners for 10 years – clearing more than 14 tons of garbage from the city streets each day – until Angelo retired at the age of 60 after more than 30 years on the job.
In this conversation, Angelo recollected his first days on the job:
“When I first came on the job, there was one old timer … I remember Gordy Flow his name was. One day, he stopped the truck. He tells me, ‘Angelo, you look down this block first. See all the sidewalks are all crowded up with garbage?’ So I think nothing of it. My father always told me to respect my elders. I get to the end of the block, and he stops me again. ‘Get out of the truck, look back. Nice and clean right? People could walk on the sidewalk. Guys can make deliveries. Be proud of yourself.’”
It seems that Angelo followed Gordy’s advice and was proud of his work removing the trash from city streets. He also found pleasure in how “everybody would just come out just to talk to you.” People along their route in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood would greet him and his partner, offering them coffee or breakfast. Nuns on their route would kiss them. Some of the younger guys would ask why they merited such attentions, and Angelo had a simple response: “It’s just a little good morning, have a nice weekend. Hey, you look great today!” Not to mention, carrying baby carriages down some steps or holding a baby when a parent went to get her car.
And over 30 years later, when people along the route found out he was retiring, they came up and said, “You’re crazy. What am I going to do when you leave?” He cried, they cried, and as Angelo said, he never thought his last day would be so emotional. And now he confesses: “I miss it terribly. I’m like the little kid looking out the window now when I hear the truck. I think I could have done another 31 years.”
This story reminded me of the older crowd I hang around with and how often our conversations these days turn to the subject of retirement. Many of my friends in government jobs — State and local — have seen their retirement eligibility dates come and go, deciding to stay a bit longer. They enjoy the work they do and feel they are still making a difference, in support of the various functions that keep the trash picked up, the streets safe, and government solvent.
For that reason, Angelo’s is a cautionary tale . . . do we want to be like little kids looking out the window when hearing the truck, wishing we were still on the job? It’s a leap into the unknown.
Of course, all of us would like to sleep a little later, travel a bit more, and get some closets cleaned up. But there are accounts I’ve heard of former co-workers who looked around after many extra hours of sleep-in time, a few trips, and spiffy closets who look up and say, “now what?” They miss the satisfaction in a job well done – like Angelo’s clean sidewalk – and it’s hard to replicate it unless you find similar replacement endeavors.
That fear may be counter-balanced as state employees become the target of major budget cutting as the powers-that-be deal with a budget shortfall estimated anywhere from $10 to $20 billion. Agencies will be forced to cut budgets, since the idea of raising new revenue is verboten in Texas. The only taxes that might possibly pass legislative scrutiny would be on some unhealthy or loathsome activity that could qualify as a vice, and thereby be justified. Maybe all-you-can-eat buffets?
Those teetering on the retirement fence may find their job satisfaction oozing away at the prospect of work furloughs – doing as much as you were doing in fewer days for less money – and finding increasing restrictions on training, janitorial services (we are now required to empty our own trash), and office supplies as the tried and true are deemed too costly. And it goes without saying that no one has any illusions about future raises. While potential retirees might be at the top of their earning capacities, our co-workers in the younger generations aren’t going to be happy campers full of esprit de corps! After all, they want to start families and have houses, just like us.
Gloom and doom aside, it’s still nice to feel a source of pride in making a difference – with all our years of experience and expertise – until we make that hard decision to empty our desks. I hope we will be missed when that day comes. And while I’m thinking of it, it might also be nice if we got kissed by nuns every once in a while!