Hop

The irrepressible Hop guides the trash truck home at the end of another day.

As a summer job, it wasn’t bad.  Working for my hometown’s small parks and recreation department gave me a steady 40 hours a week with weekends off.  Although it was for minimum wage ($3.35 an hour at the time), the full-time seasonal position allowed me to earn enough money for the textbooks and miscellaneous expenses of a further three quarters of undergraduate study.  Furthermore, one’s employment there made the prospect of being re-hired the following season likely, and so it was that my college experience was interspersed with a trio of summers spent keeping the parks beautiful.

The colorful characters I met there could have populated a lowbrow sitcom.  Each day began and ended in a dingy office area within the maintenance garage, where assignments were given out in the morning and the same four regulars concluded each afternoon with a few rounds of euchre.  Many of them had been working for the parks department for years, and the atmosphere was very casual and wisecracking.  On my first day there, another “temp” and I were assigned to the most casual and wisecracking of them all, a small and rotund man who went by the nickname of Hop.

Hop’s regular duty was to run the department’s trash truck, which was dispatched to empty the plentiful green barrels that dotted each of our city’s parks and playgrounds.  In the summer, he was given a pair of seasonal workers to accomplish this, which meant that he spent most of his working day bouncing along the springy bench seat of the truck cab.  I was a little nervous that first morning, sandwiched as I was between Hop and a beefy returning seasonal named Doug.  Not much was said as we rattled and creaked toward our first destination, and I hoped I would be able to do my job well.  When at last we pulled into the parking lot of a hamburger joint on the other side of town, I was confused.  What were we doing here?

“Breakfast time!” announced Hop gleefully, and the three of us trundled out of the cab for coffee and donuts.  And here I was worried about keeping my job.  Welcome to Parks and Recreation.

Working with Hop would turn out to be one of my favorite assignments, although the actual labor wasn’t too desirable.  Doug and I would hop onto the back of the truck whenever we reached a park entrance, holding onto a handle and perched on little running boards as we traveled from can to can.  Our hands protected with heavy work gloves, we would roll each rusted metal can toward the back of the truck and hoist it along the lip of the hopper to empty its contents.  I soon got used to the sickeningly sweet smell of picnic trash that had stewed in the summer heat for days.  Many times we had live maggots wriggling in the toxic soup that would slosh around the bottom of the bin until we periodically operated the compactor.  On the rare occasions that we emptied trash at an active playground, the kids thought Doug and I had the coolest jobs on earth.

I enjoyed working on the trash truck only because it put me in the eccentric company of Hop and his infamously crude sense of humor.  He was an unapologetic man who had obviously long ago stopped caring what anyone thought of him.  The rumor that I would eventually hear was that Hop had once been one of the most industrious employees in all of Parks and Recreation, but when he was overlooked for a promotion he felt he deserved, his demeanor changed.  Apparently he had been sticking it to the man ever since, doing precisely what was asked of him and nothing more.  It must have been cathartic for him, because far from being a bitter soul, Hop was as jovial and carefree as a lazy boy whiling away idle summer days.

“Ohhhh….we ripped and we snorted and we shat on the floor, wiped our asses on the knob of the door!” sang Hop lustily to the tune of Turkey in the Straw.  Attempting to shift into third gear, he struggled for a moment as the cab vibrated with a terrific crunching noise from the transmission.  Hop was undeterred.  “Ground me a pound!”  he grinned, and the hulking trash truck lurched forward.  Decelerating at a four-way stop, he looked both ways before asking rhetorically, “Anybody comin’?”  Doug and I learned to wait a beat for the punchline.  “Anybody breathin’ hard?”

In the overwhelmingly male parks department, vulgarity was as commonplace as it is wherever juvenile men are allowed to speak freely.  But whereas less creative minds were known to pepper their speech with mere profanities, Hop eschewed such reflexive utterances in favor of more artistic fare.  For example, if an attractive woman (or nearly any woman, for that matter) used the crosswalk as we waited at a stop, Hop might appreciatively refer to her undulating brassiere as an “over-the-shoulder boulder holder.”  And like any great actor, the performance was much more than words.  Hop delivered his crude remarks with such gusto and relish that he was nothing less than endearing.  It either made him happy or was a byproduct of his existing happiness;  either way, you couldn’t help but be happy with him.

Hop’s imperturbability extended to all aspects of his work.  Nothing seemed to faze him.  At one routine stop I opened the padlock that secured a trash can to a tree and was startled to discover a pair of wide eyes staring at me from the depths of the container.  I called to Hop for assistance, and he dismounted from the cab to see what was wrong.  “Nothin’ but a possum,” he observed, but when he tilted the trash can onto its side, the animal refused to leave its shelter.  I watched in astonishment as Hop got on his knees and reached into the can, emerging with a large and frightened opossum that had its tail coiled firmly around Hop’s forearm.  The terrified marsupial was momentarily motionless, then it abruptly untethered itself and ran into the woods.  Hop treated the strange encounter with such aplomb that he made pulling a wild animal out of a trash can seem like nothing more than an everyday annoyance, like retying one’s shoes.  He brushed some debris from his pants, smiled, and got back into the cab.

Hop was also an engaging storyteller, though his tales tended to be as bawdy as his humor.  He told me about a childhood incident in which he and a friend were out exploring in the woods when nature called.  His friend found it necessary to produce a bowel movement, and consequently the absence of available toilet paper became an issue.  This was remedied by the application of some nearby leaves, which were later identified as poison ivy.  Snorts and chuckles interrupted Hop’s speech as he recalled his friend spending the rest of that summer on his stomach, humiliated by the attention of his mother to his most basic needs.

Not long after my last summer with the parks department (and perhaps a decade before Hop’s death), I ran into Hop in the concourse of a shopping mall.  Contrary to all appearances while on the job, there were things about which Hop did care, and among them was wildlife conservation.  He was manning a booth devoted to the cause, and when I approached him, he admitted sheepishly that he could not recall my name.  He had worked with many seasonal temps over the years.  I introduced my fiancee, whom Hop received with such genteel politeness that she could scarcely believe my tales of his vulgar comments.  We said goodbye to Hop and sauntered onward.

“Really,” I explained, “it’s the same Hop.”

“He seemed normal to me.”

“Well, sure.”  We strolled along as I mulled over this truth.  “I guess if you really want to know him, you have to be one of the guys.”