One day at the dump Alex Crawford saw a leg protruding from a pile of garbage.
He has seen a lot of strange things during his career. This was something new. But he did not call the cops. He reached over and hauled the leg out of the trash. Then he asked the sheepish guy standing nearby, on crutches, a fair question.
"Sir, how did you manage to lose your artificial leg?''
"Well, my wife accidentally threw out my leg,'' the man said.
Okay. A good enough answer from a man who had recovered his expensive prosthetic from the stinking garbage at the dump.
"We can't make these stories up,'' Alex Crawford tells people.
• • •
People lose artificial legs. They lose diamond rings, wads of cash, items of inestimable sentimental value. They throw stuff into the trash by accident. The stuff ends up at the edge of town at the Pinellas County Department of Solid Waste Operations. If those people are lucky Alex Crawford might be able to help.
Crawford's official position at the half-billion-dollar facility is "senior compliance inspector.'' He helps keep the place running safely and smoothly. His other responsibility carries no title. But if his bosses wanted, they could call it "recovery facilitator.''
People throw away valuable stuff by accident. It happens all over the country, all over Florida, throughout Tampa Bay. Maybe the unfortunate citizen fails to notice the loss for a couple days. Then, tough luck. In Pinellas, the missing item most likely has gone up in smoke at the county incinerator.
But sometimes a careless citizen discovers the accident in time. He calls his city's sanitation department. The sanitation department radios the truck that collected the garbage in that neighborhood. In Pinellas, the truck driver radios the county Solid Waste Department and says, "I'm on the way.'' Somebody calls Alex Crawford.
The garbage truck is diverted to a place at the 700-acre facility known as the "hot pad'' to await the sheepish homeowner. When he or she arrives, the truck that picked up the trash spills its treasure on the hot pad.
The homeowner dresses in a disposable gown provided by Alex Crawford. He pulls on provided rubber gloves. If he is squeamish, he is given a mask to block the bad smells. If he's gut-wrenching squeamish, Crawford offers him a pinch of Vicks VapoRub. Crawford got in the habit of carrying the greasy, smell-killing stuff when he was in his former job as a cop and had to attend autopsies.
Crawford is always happy to provide a shovel. He says, "Go for it, sir,'' and the citizen goes for it. If the citizen is lucky he finds the missing item. Whether he does or not, he pays a $100 fee for the privilege of rooting through the trash.
Some people who have recovered a treasure smile sheepishly and leave. Some do their best Saturday Night Fever John Travolta.
• • •
A dancer showed up last Christmas.
He and his wife had enjoyed a stone crab dinner at home, he explained. Afterward they'd tossed the bag of the broken shells in the bin. In the morning, the garbage truck had arrived first thing. Then the homeowners discovered their loss.
"You're paying us $100 to look for a bag of crab shells?" Crawford asked.
The guy and his wife — she was wearing a nice dress and heels — pulled on their gowns. Desperately they began rooting through the vile garbage.
Suddenly, joy on his face, the guy encountered a familiar-looking garbage bag. Standing in the stench, he tore at it with all his might.
Instantly he began dancing like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris.
He had found his false teeth. They had been accidentally swept into the garbage after the stone-crab bacchanalia.
"I paid $400 for this bridge,'' the man declared. "So I pay you a $100 fee. It's still cheaper than buying new teeth.''
Municipalities across the country have such programs. They don't keep them secret, exactly. But they don't tout them either because they don't want to be in the lost-and-found business. They keep track of incidents but don't record names in order to protect the identities of the dumb or careless.
In Pinellas, Alex Crawford gets to meet a garbage truck at the hot pad about a dozen times a year. Usually, everybody ends up happy.
"We have almost a 99 percent success rate,'' he says. "The key is calling your municipality as soon as you realize you've thrown something important away by accident.''
He's a burly, moustached guy of 62. Born in Scotland, he still speaks with a trace of brogue. He has worked for solid waste for 13 years. His previous career was investigating child abuse cases for the police in Toronto. "A much harder job than this,'' he says.
The police work helped him develop a nose for things that smell fishy.
"One day we meet this guy at the hot pad. He says he's looking for his wife's lost jewelry. Worth about $5,000. I can tell he doesn't want to get his hands dirty. But we look for a while. He finally says, 'I don't think we'll find it.' Says to me, 'Can you give me a form for my insurance company?' ''
After the man left, Crawford called the police to share his suspicions. A few days later he learned that his customer had been arrested for insurance fraud. The missing jewels had been hidden under the refrigerator all the time.
• • •
Phone rings. A woman has misplaced $57,000 in payroll checks. Soon she is dancing on the pile of garbage like Cyd Charisse.
Phone rings. Diamond ring. Another happy ending.
Phone rings. Lost keys to a factory. Eureka!
Phone rings. Gold-plated scissors. High fives all around.
Phone rings. An old couple. He's 92. She's 89. They accidentally tossed their presents on Christmas Day. It's now the middle of January. They leave without their presents.
Phone rings. At the hot pad, a young woman wrings her hands and weeps. She has suffered her second terrible loss in a matter of days.
Yesterday, she buried her husband.
In the confusion at home after the funeral, the housekeeper accidentally threw out a special videotape.
Her husband made the recording only days before his death. It was a gift for their little boy. One day the boy would look at the tape and have a sense of what his dad was like.
"She was too distraught to look through the garbage. But this one was important. We had lots of people out there looking. It was heart-wrenching to be there. Suddenly, one of our guys bends down. He comes up with the tape.
"It was an amazing moment. Everybody had lumps in their throat. Lots of people who work here, you know, they're rough people. Rough around the edges. Bad language and stuff.
"She went around and hugged each and every one of us. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.