Talking trash A day in the life of an Incinerator Authority employee

“I’m not a garbage man. I’m a heavy equipment operator,” says veteran Jersey City Incinerator Authority (JCIA) employee Gilberto Camacho, climbing aboard his truck for a day’s work. “We’re the top guns in the city.”

A reporter recently spent the day with Camacho as he transferred waste for the state’s second largest city. The Jersey City Incinerator Authority is responsible for the maintenance of all of the city’s roads and lots, picking up illegal dumping, removing snow on the streets during the winter, operating the street cleaners and assisting firefighters and police with safety issues. They pick up bulk garbage and illegally dumped waste, but not regular household trash. The latter duty goes to the Waste Management Co., a private company next door to the JCIA that recently got a city contract.

A lifelong Jersey City resident in his late 30s, the charismatic Camacho lives on Cator Avenue and walks to work every morning at the JCIA’s headquarters on 501 Rt. 440.

He lives with his wife and two daughters in a two-family home, where he rents the apartment upstairs to a tenant. During the week, he leaves his house at around 7:30 a.m. to be at work by 8 a.m.

At the JCIA headquarters, or the transfer station, as it is commonly referred to by the staff, all the overnight drivers and crew workers arrive with their trucks after their morning pickups to dump their disposals of waste that was either illegally left on the city’s streets or comes from large garbage containers on certain blocks in the city.

Camacho’s job is to take the large “roll-off” containers filled with waste and hook them up, one at a time, to the back of the brand new Volvo autocar model truck assigned to him. They call the containers “roll-off” because unlike a garbage truck, the containers are lifted by a complex hydraulic system to empty its contents. Being a “roll-off” driver is a prestigious position at the JCIA. And throughout his tenure, Camacho has earned accolades for his driving excellence. He has gone more than five years without getting into an accident, which has won him a commemorative jacket and several monetary incentives from the JCIA.

“I take it easy when I’m on the highway,” he says, smiling. “Nobody bothers me and I don’t get in people’s way.”

After clocking in, Camacho interacts with his colleagues and supervisor. After several minutes, he hops inside his truck and makes his first trip of the day to Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Inc., a privately owned waste disposal site in Newark. At that location, more than three dozen garbage and “roll-off” trucks drive through the site like giant slow elephants at a circus. The drivers wait inside their trucks, on line to be weighed. During the wait, Camacho gets out of his truck and quickly removes the cover of the “roll off” container. Before he drives, the state law mandates him to put a cover on the container he is carrying every time so none of its contents fly onto the roads. The state has made littering on public roads illegal, with monetary penalties for those convicted. When the trucks arrive at the weighing area they are positioned on a specific spot on the ground that measures their weight. From there, the drivers proceed to enter a large and very impressive barn-like area where “type 10” or household waste is disposed. The traffic inside the barn is quite dangerous. Three to four trucks dump their garbage simultaneously and many times trucks come close to hitting each other. Camacho has never seen an accident at the site, but he has heard from other drivers about times when garbage trucks collided and stopped operations for several hours.

An employee at the site wears a bright orange jacket and has a helmet with two flashlights. His job is to attempt to direct traffic and keep order inside the barn. Only a crazy man would do that job, says Camacho.

“It gets crazy. You have so many people trying to get out of here quickly so they can go back to their routes,” he says. “Besides, the smell is horrible.”

The JCIA does not have a time constraint like private garbage contractors – who, by law, are scheduled to pick up garbage in front of people’s homes for only a few morning hours during the week. The JCIA picks up waste dumped illegally. They either receive complaints from residents about illegal dumping or they have inspectors who drive around the city checking for dirty areas. If the inspectors see a spot on a public road or lot that needs to be cleaned, they call the transfer station to send a crew to come and clean it up. If there is an obvious amount of garbage in front or on the yard of someone’s home, the JCIA inspectors issue a warning to the homeowner and give them 10 days to clean their property. If the property is not cleaned after such time, a crew from the JCIA will come to the home and pick up their trash, eventually billing the homeowner for their services, according to Camacho.

“We mean business, man. You have to keep your house nice and clean so we don’t catch you,” he says.

After the drop-off in Newark

After dumping his truck’s contents inside the barn, Camacho has to come around to another line of trucks and wait to be weighed again. After his truck is weighed, an employee at the site gives him a ticket with a price. On this occasion, Camacho has about 11,000 pounds of waste, which comes out to roughly several hundred dollars. The JCIA has an account with the Newark site, so they pay them later.

“I get the ticket and bring it back to my manager and he takes care of it,” he says.

While driving away from the waste site, he comments on the garbage he just saw. “You would be surprised at what some people throw out,” he says. “I saw a brand new basketball in there. A lot of people throw out really nice stuff.”

Even though he sometimes sees items that look new, Camacho never takes them because he is unsure how dirty they might be.

Camacho has noticed through his travels of disposing garbage that waste transferring is big business. In addition to city and state trucks disposing their garbage, many private contractors from the tri-state area come to the Newark site and spend thousands of dollars to dump their wastes.

“These people must make a fortune transferring this stuff,” he says.

The staff at the Newark location transfers their garbage to landfills in Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to Camacho.

Those in Jersey City who choose not to spend the money to dump their contents at the waste site legally, find isolated roads to dispose of it – waste the JCIA eventually has to pick up.

“They dump their stuff without paying on the streets, so we have to come and find it, pick it up and the city is left with the tab,” he says.

The drive back on the highway is slow and relaxed. Camacho listens to Latin music on the radio and talks about the city’s politics. He is comfortable in the truck and admits he feels safer driving the large vehicle than he does a car. He keeps about a half dozen pine tree air fresheners inside the truck to combat the unpleasant smell that creeps in from time to time.

“I keep the truck clean. In this thing nobody bothers you and you’re high enough so you can see everybody on the road,” he says. “Just because I transfer waste doesn’t mean I have to look bad while doing it.”

When Camacho arrives at the transfer station he notices he has some time to relax before his next pick up.

“We do a great job keeping the city clean,” says the JCIA’s newest director, Oren K. Dabney. “Our mission is to ensure and preserve a beautiful clean image of the city.” Dabney used to do Camacho’s job before his series of promotions.

Dabney is not the only one with a new position. Assistant director for the Division of Building and Grounds in Hudson County, James P. King, became JCIA’s newest chairman two months ago. He attends meetings and communicates with the authority’s directors to ensure that the more than 100 employees that work at the JCIA focus on the betterment and beautification of the city.

“At the Authority, we have to make sure Jersey City is kept looking clean,” King says.

Next to the JCIA are the city’s Public Works Department headquarters and the garage for the Jersey City police department. The employees from the different agencies seldom talk to each other during the day, Camacho says.

Visiting the police

After several minutes of talking with his co-workers at the transfer station about the day’s events, Camacho gets an order from his supervisor to go by the New Jersey State Police base on Caven Point Avenue and pick up a container of “type 13” or solid waste garbage. Solid waste includes desks, metal bars, fences and chairs, but not food or perishables.

At the front gate of the base, a State Police trooper in his car gets out and asks Camacho for his credentials. He briefly interviews Camacho and asks him why he had showed up to the base.

“I’m here to pick up a container,” Camacho says to the officer.

The trooper looks at Camacho’s identification card and after a couple of seconds, he returns it.

“OK, go ahead and hurry back,” the trooper says.

While driving to the location of the container, Camacho says, “Security has increased here ever since the Sept. 11 attacks. I understand why they do it.”

Immediately following the World Trade Center attacks, Camacho and two other JCIA employees had volunteered their efforts and went to Ground Zero in New York City. They were there for three days picking up debris and transporting waste from the World Trade Center to a landfill in Staten Island, N.Y.

“It was really difficult for me to stand there and pick up all that stuff. It was a dramatic experience,” he says.

“The place looked like an atomic bomb hit it. It was very, very sad.” On Sept. 10, Camacho had been in Brooklyn with his wife visiting family. He remembers driving by the Twin Towers that eventually collapsed the next day.

“It was so weird because we were right there the day before,” he says.

Lifelong resident

Camacho was born and raised in the downtown section of Jersey City. He has two sisters, and his mother and grandmother still live in the city. His brother died several years ago, something Camacho does not like to talk about.

“It was tough losing him. He was a good friend,” he says.

As a teenager, Camacho attended Ferris High School on Colgate Street, but eventually dropped out because he says he became involved with a group of kids who enjoyed skipping school. As a dropout he found a job at a paper factory in Hudson County, but he says the job was torture.

“We had to work in poor conditions and we made no money,” he says.

Eventually, through a contact in City Hall, he was able to land an interview at the JCIA for a job, and soon he was hired. He started with the “hang gang,” the group of guys who show up at the transfer station at 6 a.m. for the morning pickups. Then he was promoted to equipment operator, and eventually he moved up to heavy equipment operator, where he is today.

For almost 13 years, Camacho has devoted himself to the JCIA. He says he has been able to make lasting friends. But every day, he dreams of the day he retires.

“In 12 years I can retire,” he says. “When I do, I want to move to Florida with my family and relax. Just sit on the beach and relax.”

But before he retires, he has managerial aspirations. Camacho wants to be a supervisor in the near future. He emphasizes the seniority and experience he has attained over the years.

“I’ve been here a long time and I can train people,” he says.

Disposing of the new container

To dispose the container from the State Police base, Camacho travels to a landfill in North Arlington that is run by the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, a state agency.

There the trucks follow the same procedure as they did at the waste site in Newark. They wait on long lines to be weighed. The trucks then drive up a big hill at the landfill and eventually dump their contents at the top. The landfill is for solid waste materials only because several years ago, town residents nearby complained about the smell, Camacho says.

As he smiles, Camacho talks about the day a couple of years ago when he came to the landfill and a crew from the popular adult entertainment magazine Playboy was having a photo shoot with a model.

“It was great. We all stopped and watched,” he says. “I always thought, Why in the world would you take pictures of a girl here? She was beautiful, though.”

From the top of the landfill, occasional rodents can be seen running around on the ground, but also from a distance, the Empire State Building is visible.

“You used to be able to see the Towers from here; that’s how big they were,” he says.

By 3 p.m. Camacho knows is time to head back to headquarters. Upon his arrival, several employees throw a football in the parking lot, waiting to clock out for the day. Some of them leave at 4 p.m., others at 5 p.m. Working at the station is not easy, Camacho says. Many people want to be a part of the JCIA because it pays well after several years. A tenured employee with a clean record can make anywhere from $14 to $17 an hour. There are random drug tests and strict performance evaluations imposed by management, only to ensure the quality of employees on staff, Dabney says.

Outside of work, Camacho works part-time on the weekends as a food delivery driver for several hospitals in Hoboken and Jersey City. In addition, he keeps busy with his hobby of making wooden domino tables for friends and clients. Camacho charges more than $100 for a table, but it all depends on their size and design.

“I’m good at the tables. If people order them, I’ll do them,” he says, smiling. “They’re hard to do, but I enjoy myself.”

At 4 p.m., Camacho clocks out, says good-bye to Dabney, his supervisor, and several of his colleagues. It’s cold outside, so he puts on his gloves and a long scarf, and walks home.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group