Rocks drift to the surface of a field, endlessly. Murder will out. Tires break through the skin of a good old-fashioned garbage dump. Bizarre tidbits of history float up from oblivion in the obituaries.
By this mechanism, we recently learned that in the more exacting times before we removed unfeeling harshness and unreasonable standards from the landscape of everyday life it was possible to get your 15 minutes of fame by exceptional performance qualifying as a garbage collector. In June 1940, Bill McCabe,
lifted an 80-pound dumbbell in each hand and hoisted a 120-pound trash can to a 4-foot-6-inch ledge. He lay on his back and lifted a 60-pound barbell placed behind his head. He broad-jumped 8 feet 6 inches after a 7-yard run, dashed an added 10 yards and jumped a 3-foot hurdle.
Continuing a 10-yard run over and around obstacles, he ran another 10 yards on a straightaway and climbed an 8-foot fence. Beyond the fence, he vaulted 4 feet 6 inches and then ran 5 yards to the finish line. The time for the entire run was 10.8 seconds. After a 15-minute rest, he ran 120 yards with a 50-pound dumbbell in each hand in 25 seconds.
And thus he achieved a perfect score on the qualifying test to become a New York city garbage collector—locally known as a san man—as well as the enviable status of “perfect specimen,” at least according to his New York times obituary.
Of all the details of the test, I particularly like the 8-foot fence. Did the Sanitation Department envision its troops stealing into fortified backyards to liberate the garbage that wayward householders meant to reserve for their pigs and chickens? Were the sanitation stalwarts meant for feats of great athleticism or was this just an effort to boost the cachet of an unappealing profession. Or quite possibly the Sanitation Department got overzealous in the face of 68000 applicants for 2000 positions.
Bill McCabe anyhow was on to bigger and better things before his first year was out. He may have been the world’s one garbage man to wring fame out of his profession, but clearly it was not his dream job.