Chicago garbage haulers have appeared in a number of books by Calvin alumni, most notably in the fiction of Peter De Vries ’31—who can forget the image of garbagemen singing the Doxology while their truck disappears over a refuse mountain in The Blood of the Lamb?—and the meticulous history of “sanitation engineers” in Dutch Chicago by Robert Swierenga ’57.
Until now, however, little was written about the day-to-day experiences on the truck: the backbreaking work, the dangerous machinery, the unusual encounters in the back alleys of downtown Chicago.
Larry VanderLeest ’70 is a retired middle school teacher and administrator who now runs a bed-and-breakfast on Whidbey Island in northern Washington state with his wife, Kathy (Hoksbergen’70). He experienced the unique world of the “garbios” and believed some of these stories must be told.
“It was interesting to me that most people were oblivious to the fact that the Chicago Dutch had a corner on the garbage-hauling market,” he said. “It was kind of like in The Godfather, where everything was in the network—family connections were critical to getting in, and you had to know people or have cousins and relatives in the business.”
VanderLeest was like many Calvin College male students in the Dutch Reformed communities of Chicago, eager to get into “the business,” make a respectable amount of money per hour and pay for their educations, which he did every summer (and other school breaks), starting before college began through graduation. After teaching in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington, VanderLeest returned to teach in the Chicago area and once again signed up for “the truck” and had garbage routes in the city.
“The rhythm of going from the classroom to driving a garbage truck helped me as a teacher,” VanderLeest said. “I had one foot in the real world on a regular basis. And I’ve always maintained a deep appreciation for people in the business trades.”
Garbio traces VanderLeest’s own days in the business, including a harrowing witness of a fight, shooting and death on his very first night on the job at the age of 17.
He purposely worked for 11 different companies, eager to see diverse parts of the Chicagoland area and to experience different approaches to the work.
“I was able to get into places that few people ever see,” he said. “I was under the Merchandise Mart and a variety of skyscrapers. You see the incredible infrastructure of a great city.”
VanderLeest recounts these excursions in Garbio and paints portraits of the men who breathed in the sights and sounds of the streets of Chicago every day on the job.
There are also entertaining and touching interviews with seniors who reminisce about their days in the business, voices and stories VanderLeest wanted to capture before these pioneers are gone.
Illustrator Paul Stoub ’71 also grew up in the Chicago area and watched garbios from a distance until VanderLeest asked him to illustrate the book. Stoub, who also designs Spark, went on a tour with VanderLeest of the bowels of Chicago and the world of garbage haulers in order to illustrate Garbio. According to Stoub, VanderLeest asked him to do the drawings, saying, “Paul, when I thought of someone who could draw rats and garbage, I thought of you.”
Nowadays, VanderLeest is his own garbage hauler, bringing the bed-and-breakfast’s refuse to a transfer station on the island.“
We bought an old place on Whidbey Island and spent four years bringing it back to life,” he said. That place is called The Bluff. One of the rentable portions of that house is called the Cicero Room, a tip of the cap to a Chicago suburb that is in the center of Garbio’s action.
“Writing the book was a kind of therapy for me,” said VanderLeest. “I miss certain aspects of Chicago, and I think I was able to re-create some of the experiences of my youth and a piece of Chicago Dutch culture.”