Main Street in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., cut downhill, stopped only by the Hudson River. On one side was a dock awaiting a barge full of coal, and on the other side was the town dump. It is here that our story begins and ends.
Joey Morgan was the Garbage Man. I have capitalized it because it was a title, like prince or duke.
"I could have been somebody important," Joey would explain as he hefted our garbage cans onto the truck. He'd relax after each heft, pat his ample belly, and reminisce, "I was the smartest kid in school."
From what the neighbors reported, this was true. His peers had thought he would become a professor or maybe a lawyer.
Then came the 1929 stock market crash, and Joey had to leave school.
After a while, he married Muriel Ashton, whose dad owned the furniture store on Main Street. Joey managed the store for a while, but there wasn't much demand for new sofas or even a kitchen stool in those times. The store went bankrupt. Joey got a job as a garbage man.
"Yes," Joey would repeat as he prepared to drive on. "I could have been somebody." Then he'd add with a chuckle, "but I am somebody. I'm the garbage man of Dobbs Ferry-on-the-Hudson."
He was intimately acquainted with the contents of people's trash cans. He picked out trinkets from the debris: a broken bracelet or a battered jewelry box, but better than that, magazines, books, and furniture. He shared these treasures with the town. Some days were like off-season Christmas.
"Hey, Mayzette!" he called one day, "How would you like this ring? It belonged to Mrs. Sherman up on Maple Street. She got it from Marie Antoinette just before the queen was beheaded. It's a little bent, but otherwise it's as good as new."
I was only eight years old and didn't know about Marie Antoinette. But I learned something about her, didn't I?
The ring was a cherished possession until I asked Mrs. Sherman about it one day.
"He's a character, our garbage man," she chuckled. "If you want to believe him, go right ahead."
Once Joey returned a bric-a-brac shelf to the owner with the explanation, "If you hold on to this, you can get a good price someday. You have yourself an antique there."
He was probably right. He had an uncanny amount of knowledge about many things. He loved to read. My dad would find him at the library researching American history. Sometimes their discussions over interpretation ended at our house around the kitchen table. I could hear the solemn talk and the laughter.
Diane Drew lived in one of the expensive homes on the hill for the escapees of New York City. She studied at the Art Students League. She discarded her old sketches, and of course Joey collected them. He brought them to my father for his critique. "She's improving," my dad would say. Glad you're keeping them. Who knows, she might be famous one day."
The prince of garbage had to be home by 5:30 p.m. each day. As soon as he slammed the front door of his apartment, his dreamland among other people's trash disappeared. His crown and his title vanished. But when his wife's widowed sister moved in, Joey made a decision. He decided to build a castle on a corner of the dump with a view of the Palisades. He knew that in the winter he would have to move back to the apartment.
We heard hammering, sawing, and cheerful whistling as boards became the walls and roof. Broken chairs and tables were mended, and from somewhere there appeared a worn sofa. Finally, to decorate the walls, he unrolled Diane's sketches. Then he was ready for a house warming. A tablecloth with a stubborn stain, a few dishes, a pot and frying pan, and a threadbare quilt were donated. And for the (men-only) party, dutiful wives contributed casseroles.
One Sunday afternoon in July, when heat beat down on the residents of the Hudson Valley, we were roused from our torpor by a tinkling sound of an off-key piano and a voice singing lustily. The garbage truck driven by Max, Joey's best buddy, was moving slowly down Main Street. Instead of a day's supply of debris, the truck carried an upright piano. And there in regal splendor was Joey, banging the keys. The tune was reminiscent of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." I do not remember where he acquired the piano. But it added to our life, provided you were not particular about the quality of the music.
Now he busied himself again, building a music room around the piano.
Years slid by, the Depression slowly passed, and somewhere in that time so did Joey.
But what Joey did for our town was to dramatize the world of garbage with laughter and joy. He reminded us that you could sift through the debris of the Depression and find a tarnished, slightly bent treasure named hope.