Life lessons from a “garbage sex symbol”

by | February 13, 2012

One of my greatest heroes is Revolutionary War general, first American President, and Founding Father George Washington.

But right up with him is garbage man Cornelius Washington.

Dubbing him the “wizard of trash cans,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune published this tribute for him when he died in 2008:

Washington’s street choreography of playful twirling and tossing often prompted applause.

With a full trash can in each arm, he would “pop” both cans upside-down into the truck’s metal jaws, then set them back on the curb without losing his stride.

From seemingly impossible distances, he would toss dozens of bags and boxes rapid-fire, landing them all in the back of the truck without dropping a scrap of paper.

“Cornelius was amazing. He could do things that I didn’t think that people could do with garbage,” said Dorothy Taylor, who has driven New Orleans garbage trucks for 18 years.

She added, “He would take one route and do it by himself. He was like two men in one. No machine could beat him. No man could beat him. If he was tired, you’d never know it.

“He was like a garbage sex symbol.”

…Washington said hoppers in other cities seemed lackluster.

“It’s too textbook,” he said. “They stop the truck. They step off the truck. They pick up the can. They dump it. Then they put the can back down in that one spot.”

No comparison with New Orleans, where hoppers like him had nearly perfected the art of trash pickup, he said.

“If they was to put a garbage man in the Guinness World Book of Records, I would be in there,” he said.

His boasting wasn’t based on showmanship alone.

Washington knew where each handicapped and elderly neighbor lived and taught younger hoppers to return cans right to their doors.

He also told them to work together with other hoppers on big stacks of refuse and to warn the truck driver about street closings, children, drunks and careless bicyclists.

“Every driver wanted Cornelius on his truck,” Taylor said. “There will never be another like him.”

I once had neighbors whose 11-year-old son was passionate about garbage collecting. Every time I saw him he talked to me about garbage.

Strangely, my neighbors were embarrassed by their son’s passion.

I was puzzled by their embarrassment; garbage collecting and disposal is a profound service for humanity.

I’d be proud and honored if my son turned out like Cornelius Washington.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep the streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'”

In honor of Cornelius Washington, pause and watch this video and say, “Here lived a great garbage man who did his work well”:

Cornelius Washington may not hold a world record, but he holds the light of excellence up to the world.

He may not be mentioned in history textbooks, but my children will know he’s a hero.

(For tools to live a life of excellence, click here to download my free toolkit now.)


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