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Gathering garbage is no dirty work

This room _ a friendly, neat place with coffee perking in the rear, a group of neatly dressed men sitting around tables and standing behind them, talking seriously and jokingly, getting the day's instructions _ this place was not in Miss Wilson's geography book. Mr. Stephens didn't count on it in his math book either.

In fact, none of the teachers who used to scare teetering youngsters into studying by conjuring the specter of them growing up to be garbage collectors could have envisioned this room or these men. If they had, they would have thought of a different specter, one that was a bit more frightening.

But this room in the 2700 block of 20th Avenue N is the place they warned about. This is the room where, after they've showered and shaved, garbage collectors begin their jobs _ jobs that don't actually require them to handle garbage.

The room is a pleasant place, except for the too-cheery woman on the television in front of the room doing morning aerobics, and the darkness outside, reminders that it is too early to be at work.

Mercifully, the sound is turned down on Miss Fitness. But the darkness will linger a couple of hours longer.

Soon it will be 6 a.m.

Joseph Lasseter and his co-workers are anxious to get started. They want to be on the streets by six. The earlier they make their rounds, the earlier they get to go home. The length of Lasseter's work day is determined by how long it takes Frank Dennis and him to make their round of restaurants, office buildings and shops, emptying 135 large trash bins.

But that isn't the only reason they want to hit the streets early. Traffic is the most quiet now and the chances of accidents are reduced.

Still, with safety precautions and measures taken to be as unobtrusive as they can with a 22-ton truck, Lasseter's job is a lot like raising taxes: Everybody knows it has to be done, but you don't make friends by doing it.

People occasionally get peeved when Lasseter's truck _ beeping to warn anything behind to stand clear and shaking its steel frame like a giant wet dog to clear each trash bin's contents _ becomes their unwanted alarm clock.

"That's why we have timed stops," Lasseter said. "We can't hit some of the (residential buildings) before 7 o'clock."

But complaints are rare, he said.

The job is something other than might be expected. Miss Wilson and Mr. Stephens probably had students thinking garbage collectors waded through trash in the back of their trucks all day. In St. Petersburg, though, the process is largely mechanized, with a forklift on the trucks lifting the bins and dumping the trash into the trucks.

Sitting in the deep driver's seat of the $110,000, state-of-the-art truck, Lasseter, 51, is self-assured and appears content. The job requires precision. Lasseter likes that.

He squeezes the boulder of a truck through the city's alleys and carts away about 40 tons of its garbage a day. He has been with the city's Sanitation Department nearly 20 years, since he arrived here in 1971 from Millen, Ga.

He can retire in seven years, but that will be a tough move for Lasseter, who has been operating heavy equipment since he was 14 and went to work for the Union Bag Company.

Lasseter is one of about 20 drivers in the commercial collection division. Each has a ground guide who jumps out of the truck to pick up any trash that falls from the trash bin as it's being emptied and to direct the driver in backing from tight spots or into traffic.

Lasseter runs into a lot of tight spots and traffic. He works downtown. "I like working the downtown area, seeing a lot of people and dealing with the traffic down there," he said, but the challenge of it seems to be the real reason.

Another of the guides' duties becomes more important around holiday season. "You have to let the ground guide check behind the Dumpsters," Lasseter said. "Sometimes we run into people sleeping in them, sometimes they sleep behind them. It gets worse around holidays."

Lasseter's guide is Frank Dennis, 30, who has been on the job eight months. He is learning how to be a driver as he rides with Lasseter.

Operating the trucks seems simple enough: a forklift on the truck's front is guided into sleeves on the side of the trash bin. Two joysticks on the console are used to lift the bin over the cab of the truck and flip and shake it to empty it. Then the trash bin is gently set back in place. Buttons next to the joysticks activate the hydraulic compacter.

Twice a day, when the truck is loaded to between 17 and 24 tons, Lasseter drives to the resource recycling center, called the incinerator by some drivers.

Lasseter's boss, Benjamin Shirley, who heads the division, said a good driver can dispose of a trash receptacle in about 16 seconds. Shirley is proud of his drivers. "I would take these guys and put them against anyone in the world," he said.

Lasseter said it takes some people a long time to master the techniques; some never do.

"It's a tedious job, but it's just something you have to get used to," he said. He compared it to school, where some people do well in some subjects, not so well in others. "There's always one skill you do better than the rest. I was always good with heavy equipment," Lasseter said. "You can't train everybody to do this."

Although Lasseter gets up at 5 a.m., the task-oriented job allows him to spend more time at home with his family and working in his yard. Three of the five children he and his wife, Betty, have are still at home, he said.

By noon, the truck bounces one last time and Lasseter sets a trash bin back in place behind a hangar at the Coast Guard station. One more trip to the incinerator, then it's home _ to light equipment, like lawn mowers and garden shears.

It has been a day that would surprise Miss Wilson.

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