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Sumner collects things for a living
City of Manteca Solid Waste Division worker Robert Sumner and his route truck Manteca s newest hybrid garbage truck. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Throwing garbage cans into the back of a truck was actually a step towards a more leisurely workday when Robert Sumner joined the City of Manteca’s solid waste division 15 years ago.

At the time the former Navy radioman was working for an outfit in Stockton that stocked and shipped drywall and roofing materials to jobsites throughout the area. That meant backbreaking manual labor with actual daydreams of one day ending up on a 450-house route through a town he grew up prowling the streets of.

Eventually he got the call. After three days of on-the-job training, Sumner was turned loose to handle his route on his own – back when individual citizens supplied their own garbage cans. He would spend his days throwing them up over the side of the truck by hand

He saw the rolling out of Toters. He’s seen the incorporation of automatic arms. He drives a hybrid truck that gets a jumpstart from a hydraulic pumping system that gets charged every time the vehicle hits its brakes.

And throughout it all, Sumner has looked forward to coming to work. It’s the camaraderie and the bonds built with his coworkers – those early morning breeze-shooting sessions over coffee and the playful jabbering back-and-forth when football season rolls around.

Sumner was there when the whole department came together to wish one of their own off to Iraq (he himself spent some time in the Persian Gulf when in the Navy), and he’s been there for the retirement parties and the birthday cakes and the good-byes to those who move on to bigger and better things.

“I think it’s the people that really make the job what it is. It’s the customers that come out every week when you come by to say hello – the little kids that have to run outside to see the garbage truck when it comes by,” Sumner said of what he enjoys about his job. “Getting the chance to see that is really, really neat.

“It’s kind of like a family down here too. Once you’re here you typically don’t leave.”

Next week, trash collectors – or refuse drivers, or the old-fashioned “garbage men” that probably evokes negative connotations – will be honored across the country when people actually stop to think about that banana peel that they toss into the trash and the men that make sure it ends up somewhere other than their kitchen or the big bin outside of their building.

Most probably don’t even know that June 17 has any kind of a recognition attachment to it at all. And it’s not like Sumner is going to get a day off when there are neighborhoods that need to be serviced (he’s now up to hitting nearly 950 a day – more than double what he used to pull when he started thanks to a half-and-half split between garbage and recycling or yard waste).

Just don’t expect to hear him complain. Unless you leave your Toter too close to your car. That just messes up the flow of things.

“I’ll stop and write up a tag to let somebody know, and take a picture,” Sumner said, scrolling through his iPhone to show one offender that left his garbage toter right up against the front of his vehicle. “I can’t get that with the arm without tearing the bumper off, and nobody wants that. So I’ve got to get out and move it.

“We’ve been on this system for a while now, so people should be used to it by now. That’s really my only pet peeve.”

The rest of the job is just taking care of business. What does he do when somebody leaves an extra bag next to the toter? If space isn’t an issue and it isn’t a regular thing, he’ll usually just toss it in. When one pops up the next week he’ll leave it because goodwill only goes so far when you’ve got restrictions and policies that need to be followed.

And it’s podcasts that help get him through the day – bible study sessions or biblical sermons or even some good old fashioned rock-and-roll that break up the monotony of a route that can start to seem all too familiar when you’ve seen it every single week for months on end.

But he works in the town that he’s lived in his entire life. And at Sumner’s age – with a family of his own – that’s a very good thing.

“I grew up here – born and raised. I remember it was just a small agricultural town, and have seen it grow into what it is now,” he said. “But even today the people are really friendly and it still has that small town feel. At least that what it feels like to me.

“I like that.”