WESTLAND, Mass. It’s Sunday night, and three women are sitting at a bartop table at the Coach ‘n Squire, the local faux-colonial watering hole in this western suburb of Boston. A man from an adjacent table approaches and asks if he can use an unoccupied bar stool, and Alison Woiwode places her hand on the seat to indicate that it’s saved.
“Sorry, we’re waiting for our friend,” Woiwode says with a smile. “She’s got some serious dishing to do.”
The man nods and moves on, and the three women burst into greetings when they see Chloe Swurz, a recent divorcee who made her tentative first step onto the over-50 dating scene last night.
After sincere if slightly excessive alcohol-enhanced hugs and kisses are exchanged all around, Swurz sits down to a pre-ordered glass of Chardonnay and is bombarded with questions.
“Everybody check your bottle–somebody’s got mine.”
“So? What was he like?” asks Ann Fortran, heiress to the computer program language fortune.
“Well,” Swurz says, blushing noticeably, “he was very sweet.”
“That’s good,” Norma Ellison says. “You said he worked in tech?”
“Sorta,” Swurz says, and her air changes from open and friendly to abashed.
“What company?” Woiwode.
“You probably haven’t heard of it,” Swurz says.
“I know most of them,” Fortran says before taking a sip of her pinot grigio. “Try me.”
“It’s uh, I forget,” Swurz replies.
“So what does he do?” Ellison asks, genuinely curious but nonetheless painting her friend into an uncomfortable conversational corner.
“He’s . . . he’s,” Swurz begins, but her voice fades and she begins to sob, quietly at first, but then loud enough so that heads with ears containing hearing aids turn.
“I’m sorry,” Ellison says, as she pats her friend on the back. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”
“He’s . . . an eSanitation Engineer,” Swurz finally succeeds in blurting out.
“A . . . what?” Fortran asks.
“You know those little garbage icons on your computer screen?”
“We’ve got 20,000 gallons of confessional poetry coming down the sluice.”
“Yes?” Swurz’s friends say in unison.
“Well, all that e-crap has to go somewhere, and Larry–that’s his name–he’s an engineer at the Middlesex County eWaste Disposal Facility.”
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Fortran says in tone not quite drained of the haughty air her inherited wealth gives her. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
“If he works for the County that means he’ll retire early with a good pension,” Woiwode says.
“And they get lots of holidays,” Ellison chimes in.
“Thanks, that’s all very nice, but you’re just being kind,” Swurz says as she dabs at tears with a tissue. “My first time out, and I end up with a guy who gets his hands dirty all day handling pictures of Bigfoot and UFOs and Kardashians and web searches for heavily-sequined baton twirlers.”
A dying art.
Swurz’s disdain for an “unclean” profession is the latest manifestation of a long-standing prejudice that is found around the world, with sanitation workers confined to formal lower castes in India and Asia, and informal cultural boundaries standing in their way in Europe and the Americas. The stereotype persists even though the refuse handled by the newest generation of garbage men is intellectual, rather than physical.
“Your stereotype of a garbage man as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners is passe,” says labor sociologist Hyman Kreutzer of New York’s Social Science Institute. “Those guys had to wear gloves to prevent cuts from cans and bottles, your new high-tech sanitation worker has to wear special oxy-acetylene goggles to block poisonous rays from selfies of chicks in their bathrooms.”
After a few glasses of wine Swurz is feeling better, although not yet resigned to a second date with “Larry,” whose educational credentials include bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer sanitation engineering. “I’m gonna aim higher,” she says, having been bucked up by her girlfriends’ encouragement. “Maybe an emailman.”