Every once in awhile, Randy Boettcher gets fresh tomatoes as a tasty thank-you from a satisfied customer.
He and John Callahan, officially known as solid waste collectors, are two of Yakima’s 14 garbage truck drivers — out working while many of their customers are still waking up with their morning coffee.
The drivers pick up about 5,200 bins each day, weaving in and out of alleys and side streets, doing their best to avoid cars parked on some of Yakima’s narrowest streets.
City garbage collectors, a profession that can’t be outsourced, earn about $40,000 a year on average nationwide. Washington is one of the highest-paying states at $46,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Every Thursday morning, Boettcher starts out on that day’s route, which includes a long stretch of Willow Street west of 16th Avenue — a route he’s had for at least a dozen years.
He greets everyone he sees with a big smile. His philosophy is to always stay positive because complaining about anything, even the heat, isn’t an option.
“If you hear me start complaining, just say ‘Randy, stop being negative,’ ” he said.
On a recent day, he said he was happy to have a reporter in the truck with him, as it gave him someone to talk to.
“I usually just have to listen to the radio or talk to myself,” he said.
Boettcher started as a garbage truck driver before budget cuts and a switch to automated trucks left him going solo on routes. Now, mechanical arms pick up and dump trash.
The newer trucks also look more like the inside of a spaceship or a video game than old-school trucks, with dozens of switches and knobs that let the driver pick up the garbage bins, dump the trash or, thankfully, turn on the air conditioning.
Drivers use a joystick with colored buttons to move the arm, latch onto the bin, dump it and set it down.
“It’s something you get better at with time,” Callahan said. “I’m pretty good in my own truck, but it takes a little while to get used to a different truck.”
The city’s trucks pick up about 134 tons of garbage each day before heading to the Terrace Heights Landfill.
The landfill, one of Boettcher’s favorite places to take his morning coffee, is situated on a ridge overlooking most of the Upper Yakima Valley, not to mention Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.
“This is the best view in Yakima. Sometimes, when it gets really snowy, part of Mount Adams looks like a running horse,” Boettcher said. “Sometimes I call my wife when I’m up here and I just say, ‘You can’t believe the view.’ ”
Despite the hours alone in the truck, Boettcher shows his social nature with the friends he’s made on his route.
Every Thursday, he gets two cans of soda as thanks from a family whose garbage bin he moves back to the house after emptying it.
He also gets a bag of goodies and sometimes fresh tomatoes from the family’s neighbor.
He gets tamales and other treats from another family he visits on Friday.
“Sometimes people get frustrated with the cost or because we didn’t pick up their can because they put it out too late, but they separate that from their driver,” Boettcher said. “They call in sometimes and get upset about the rates, but they want to do whatever they can to thank us.”