EARLY ON A weekday morning the Midway Center parking lot seems a strange version of itself, slow and damp and only half covered with cars. A cone of trash spins in a small whirlwind over in the corner by Office Max. Come late afternoon the lot will throb with speed and belligerence. One thousand parking spaces will empty and fill with streaming cars. It is the job of Rick and Eddie to keep the big lot clean.
Rick looks out across the pavement, squinting under the brim of his Colorado Rockies cap, and waits a long silent moment before pointing. "You see that sweeper?"--it's a small truck but a big vacuum cleaner--"We run that sweeper over the lots three or four times a day, on weekends more often. But you go through and an hour later there's the crap blowing around again." Rick, in his late 30s, sports sun wrinkles around the rims of his eyes. He says he can accurately predict where trash will gather on any given day based on observing morning wind patterns.
Rick's been working at Midway Center for six years, Eddie six months. Rick has the most to say (after first obtaining permission from the New York headquarters of Westbrook Development, the company he works for) and he tells about personal-injury scams, panhandlers, shoplifters, a woman pounding on her kid in the parking lot, the "yuppie do-gooders" clicking their tongues about gum on the sidewalks, and "regulars," like the Pillow Lady, who wears three pillows atop her head tied down with a scarf to protect her from falling airplanes. "I don't got a book," Rick declares. "I got several."
Then there's the trash. "Most of the trash comes from right here," Eddie puts in. "People just toss it out their windows, or throw it down as they walk along. And if you see them and say something, it's always, 'Fuck you, you can't tell me what to do.'" Big and sturdy, Eddie looks only a couple years removed from a high-school linebacker. But that doesn't seem to help much on the job. "Even little kids, 8, 10 years old, it's 'Fuck you, man.'" He looks surprised. "We have 13 trash barrels spread around the lot, but they don't get used much."
"Except when people bring their trash from home," says Rick.
"Oh yeah," laughs Eddie.
"Get this." Rick starts a story. "I kept seeing this old couple around back here every couple days, putting big garbage bags in one of the dumpsters. Finally I go out and tell them they've got to stop. The old guy says to me, 'Oh, well, my neighbor said it was okay.' And then he tells me his neighbor's name, if you can believe it. So I called that guy and he says, 'I've been doing it for years, what's the big deal?' I told him they were private dumpsters, not open to the general public, but he just said, 'I've been doing it for years,' like I'm supposed to say, 'Oh, well then go right ahead.'" He laughs. "That guy didn't stop, either, not until he started finding his trash on his front steps in the morning. I've done that a bunch of times. I just open the bag, find a piece of mail, and then deliver the trash to its rightful owner. That usually takes care of the problem.
"Those dumpsters attract big stuff too," he adds. "Lots of couches, sometimes an engine. And people come change their oil right in the lot, just pull the plug and let the oil drain on the ground. They'll drive off, leaving the filter and oil cans there in a pile. What are you gonna do?
"These people just do not care. Here's one I like to tell: Once, when McDonald's was still on the corner where Payless is, this family comes out with a bag of food and they start across the parking lot. Dad unwraps a hamburger, balls up the wrapper, throws it down. Mom does the same, then the three kids too. Next thing, there go the french-fry bags. Pretty soon here come the Coke cups. All the while I'm walking behind them, picking up this stuff. Finally, the guy looks around and gets all pissed off. 'Whatta you doing?' he says, and I say, 'Just cleaning up after the pigs.'"
Rick pauses to greet two elderly women walking by arm in arm. He says hello, gestures with an empty paper cup he's holding, says it's good to see them. They smile and wave, pass on. "See them? I've got seven sets of twins, old ladies that come in all the time. I talk to them, see how they're doing. We get a lot of nice people here, too." The old ladies, the families who use the State Fair park-and-ride program, the groups who use the lot as a staging ground for neighborhood cleanups--these are all nice people.
As for the rest, "there's no use worrying about it or getting angry," Eddie says. "It took me a while to learn that. At first I'd see somebody throw a beer bottle out a window and I'd be pissed. Or, you know, some guy would puke on the sidewalk, and I'd be, 'Gross, it fucking stinks.' But now, it's just sweep up the glass, get some buckets of water and slosh off the puke. You know it's gonna keep happening, so you just take care of it and move on to the next thing."
"Here's the deal," says Rick. "We're just pushing people and trash in and out of the lot, up and down University. This is where we're at and that's who comes here." He shrugs his shoulders, laughs, and shifts his gaze back to the blacktop.