Few look up from their steering wheels when Laurel Henderson drives by. All they see is a 32-foot garbage truck that they have to get around.
"We are like a background thing to a lot of people," Henderson said. "A lot of people don't ever realize that if it wasn't for garbage truck drivers, it'd be a mess out there."
They don't know that Henderson, the only woman hauling garbage in Largo and one of few in the county, is the best front loader in the state. No one in Florida can wheel 12 tons of garbage through the tightest pathways as well as Henderson. And no one is better at operating a truck's claws to lift Dumpsters over the truck's front end.
She proved that much during a competition earlier this month. Henderson and three other Largo garbage truck drivers walked away from the annual Truck Road-e-o in Orange County with first place finishes in four different categories.
Henderson, Brian Nutting, Lindley Feezel and Lenny Perri will go in July to the international competition in Charlotte, N.C. James Marks placed second in a fifth category of the competition sponsored by the Solid Waste Association of North America Florida Sunshine Chapter. About 50 garbage truckers from around the state participated.
In the five years that Largo has competed, garbage drivers have brought back a number of honors. But never four first-place finishes out of only five garbage truck categories.
"The guys had a hard will of wanting to go over there and represent Largo really well," said supervisor Mike Gold. Some drivers practiced on Saturdays, riding through an obstacle course that Gold set up at the Public Works Complex.
For Henderson, who has been a garbage trucker for 12 years, the competition meant more than a trophy. She had something to prove. Henderson won the front loader garbage truck competition last year, as well. But after accepting the title, a male competitor told her, "This is a man's job, and I'm going to beat you next year."
That man placed sixth this year. All he could do was apologize and shake Henderson's hand.
In her yellow uniform shirt, black sunglasses and a pair of Long Haul brand jeans, Henderson listens to Green Eyed Lady on the radio. She's alert, glancing periodically at eight mirrors and a video camera that show different views around her rig. She brakes for a motorcyclist dangerously sneaking by her on the right side.
On her way to the county landfill, Henderson waves to other garbage truckers from St. Petersburg and Clearwater, then weighs in her load at 12.04 tons. On a good day, she would stop off for some lasagna or meatloaf at the Rally Food Store/Chevron gas station on 49th Street. "They've got some of the best food around," she says, "especially for a gas station."
But today, the tea in her jug will suffice.
The Road-e-o was a cinch for Henderson, whose job it is to get in and out of Largo's tight spots. Unlike other garbage truckers whose routes are divided by region, Henderson's job is to pick up trash throughout the city that no one else wants to tackle. "I get the ones in the cubbyholes and in the alleys," she said.
Her partner, Walter Nattiel, helps by moving stray trash out of Henderson's way and directing her out of a tight fit.
Being a female garbage trucker at 36 is a goal fulfilled for Henderson, who has wanted to drive trucks since she was little girl. And the profession is a family affair. Henderson's husband, John, is also a garbage trucker for Largo.
Her mother, Leslie Starns, was proud as Largo city officials honored Henderson and the other drivers recently for their performance at the Road-e-o. Henderson said she often hears her mother say, "That's my daughter, the garbage truck driver."