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LeDuff: Sanitation men know the real Detroit


There is perhaps only one professional who knows as much about the goings on in a major municipal center as the beat cop. 

This unheralded and little-noticed stranger knows your luncheon and drinking habits. He knows where you've been sleeping. He knows when you're awake.

He is the city sanitation man. And he is wholly different from his suburban counterpart who knows your intimate details as he spends the day auguring your tea leaves and discarded pantyhose, piecing together your private life by way of the public disposal of your detritus.

The city sanitation man, for his part, is more of the macro-economist, one who by virtue of his route and labors is able to divine the financial headwinds of society by the simple measurement of the volume in the municipal trash bins and the length of discarded cigarette butts.

The longer the butts, the trashman theory holds, the better the fiscal times. And vice versa. Nowadays, the cigarettes that litter the city of Detroit are uniformly smoked down to the last, and thus economic turbulence may be predicted. That and the empty glass liquor bottles that have been replaced by their cheaper cousins of the plastic 1-ounce variety.

I hitched a ride with a two-man Detroit sanitation crew last week as the city was preparing for its annual Christmas tree lighting. The men worked their route along the highways and byways of downtown and Midtown, emptying a thousand trash cans, as well as collecting the stray mattress and discarded tires that are more prevalent it seemed than fire plugs.

City officials forbade the men from sharing their observations and philosophies with the general public and gave them no permission to speak to the press. They did anyway, and so their names shall not be given for the official record.

Suffice it to say they are two men with strong backs and wiry whiskers who begin their work day in dark morning hours when the drunks are returning home and commuters begin arriving with steaming mugs of coffee in hand.

Their work is honorable enough and pays $21 an hour, enough to feed children, step-children, women, ex-women and the slot machines. Nevertheless, the contents of every bag pulled is given a quick inspection for the odd $20 bill mistakenly tossed by the inebriated tailgater or nightclub habitué.

What these men see along their route lately is a slight but perceptible desperation enveloping the city. People have not returned since the COVID-19 pandemic. Gone is their garbage and so too the rodents. The numbers provided by downtown business boosters confirm their observations. What is mostly left in the early mornings are the destitute and deranged.

Recently, they found a dead man near a trash receptacle along Michigan Avenue. There he lay and no one bothered to check on him. The morning was brisk and there was no steam pouring from his nostrils. The metaphor of an unwanted man sleeping the eternal sleep near a garbage can was not lost upon the sanitation men.

This summer, they found a 9 millimeter pistol in the trash bin, a sign of creeping violence in the city.

And yet there are many things to celebrate this holiday season: a vibrant downtown with the women in the windows getting their hair dyed young, the Christmas shoppers at the eye-glass boutique or the high-end diners whiling away the afternoon over nice bottles of Bordeaux. All seem blithely unaware of the sanitation men, who are clearing the way for Santa's arrival this Thursday as part of the 96th annual Thanksgiving Day parade.

And every bag gets the inspection with the hopes that St. Nick or the nightclub goer has left a small bundle of appreciation inside.

Charlie LeDuff is a columnist for The Detroit News and host of "The No BS News Hour." His column appears on Wednesdays.