When this week's headlines started trumpeting the brutally hot days we've been experiencing, I was transported back to an earlier era in my working life — back to my days in the summer of 1966 as a $1.80-an-hour "sanitation engineer," or trash man, traversing the streets of my hometown, Haverford Township.
Specifically, I recalled three days in early July – July 2, 3 and 4 – when the temperature on the streets of Havertown reached or exceeded 100 degrees. On July 3, the thermometer topped out at 104 degrees, the second-highest temperature ever recorded in the Philadelphia area. On the treeless streets of Paddock Farms, a neighborhood abutting the old Swell bubble gum factory and the lumberyard that became one of our region's most infamous Superfund sites, I can say with certainty that the temperatures were even higher as my colleagues and I lifted two battered metal cans at a time and dumped the malodorous contents into the hopper.
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The days were long; the work, arduous and sweaty, punctuated by a 10-minute coffee break in the morning and lunch at Joe's Bar, not far from the Manoa Shopping Center, where the calories packed on by the cheesesteaks and milkshakes could be worked off by the end of a sweltering afternoon's work.
We were just college kids, most of us having completed our freshman year, whose parents had the friendships with the Haverford Township commissioners needed to secure us these coveted summer jobs. Once you were out on the streets, however, you quickly learned that the job of clearing the neighborhood streets was grueling work.
What endures about that far off summer — 52 years ago — is not so much the heat but the life lessons learned on the streets of Haverford Township:
I learned about the life stories of some of my colleagues — men like Tom Sydnor (known to one and all as T.T.), Bobby Gaskins, a gentle giant, and others — who worked the streets as their full-time job. They were men of dignity, intelligence and sage observations about life.
I also learned that walking the streets of the township and lifting those cans in 100-plus-degree heat was a guaranteed method of shedding the pounds that I'd added during my misspent freshman year at Trinity College, where my commitment to studies was often diluted by the attraction of beer, pizza, and late-night revelry. On that first week in July, I lost 15 pounds and many more in the weeks that followed.
Most important, I learned about the kindness and the thoughtfulness of strangers: How some neighbors awaited our arrival with an ice-cold pitcher of water or lemonade and provided some welcome relief from our regimen. To this day, thanks to my labors on the streets of the township, whenever service people enter my home, I always offer them a cold drink — whether they're staying a few minutes or hours. Clearly, I won't be returning to the streets, but when I think of the many jobs I've held, that summer in Haverford Township ranks among the best.