Forty years ago, I spent two summers working as a ramp attendant at the Bangor International Airport, servicing charter airlines ducking the more expensive landing and clearance fees of Logan and JFK. In those pre-9/11 days, a ramp rat was a sweet gig for a high school kid in Eastern Maine—you’d cruise around with access all areas badges, scout European exchange students (“Get a visual on 16H…”), loot the galley of the Laker Skytrain/Capitol Air/World Air whatever for mini-bottles and occasionally put in some legit work for the princely wage of $3.75/hour.
I had a gift for the lav truck—I was the only guy who could attach the hose to the belly of a forty-year-old DC-8 properly—and given the real and frightening prospect of a pressurized line spraying blue sewage around the tarmac, I was locked into the slot. It wasn’t glamorous work, but if you listened for the solid click and survived a few nervous seconds when you sprung the valve, you could watch the rest of the crew hump bags from the comfort of the truck’s airconditioned cab for the rest of your shift. I was Cousin Eddie with a skill set and the ramp crew was happy to work under the security of my watch.
A year later, when I started college, I was assigned to dorm crew as part of my work study program. It was hard introduction to the caste system of private college—cleaning classmates’ bathrooms for better wages but more indignity. Again, showing an aptitude for lavatories, I was promoted to the trash detail—a godsend for my freshman ego. I could complete the job under the cover of morning darkness with few awkward interactions with more affluent classmates. You can learn a lot about people by what and how they discard what they no longer want, and to this day I can still tell you which dorm rooms had the best parties and least regard for the planet.
Now as I’m spending Christmas Eve scooping litter, hauling trash and attending to creatures onsite, it occurs to me that dealing with crap has been an ongoing career theme. I’m not ashamed to admit that I get therapeutic satisfaction from clearing a litter tray or chucking bags into the dumpsters, and as in college, you can learn a lot from creatures on what they leave behind. The practical mastery of the craft dates to lessons learned on the tarmac—Rule #1: Do NOT get it on you—but the judgmental assessment—“Toby needs more pumpkin in his diet!”—was all college. 2020 may have put a beatdown on our net worth, but we’re still rich with knowledge!