I pause to wait for my granddaughter, Onyx, who has stopped several yards behind me in our alley. She’s momentarily spellbound. She's watching the behemoth sanitation truck extend mantis-like arms and clench a dumpster, hoist it to insatiable jaws, and then with great crushing and grinding, devour its contents.
With a run and a little skip, Onyx catches stride with my much longer legs. Then slips her hand into mine. Those slender fingers, like warm satin, wrap around my cool sand-paper skin.
At nine, Onyx is still content to leave our hands entwined, even adding a bit of a swing. I say “still” because the older grandchildren have fingers that are newly beginning to slide from their Gramzie’s grasp after a few moments. To claim their independence.
Sensing this inevitable evolution in my role in their young lives, my fingers know to savor these clasps. With a bit of a squeeze, I let my granddaughter know that I’m listening.
“So, Gramzie,” Onyx begins again, peering up at me. “How come you always wave at the people who drive garbage trucks?” Her quizzical eyes search mine. “Annnnnnnnd…”
Those soft fingers in my hand grow unexpectedly tense. Wary that this questioning is somehow out of line. Onyx blurts out, “Gramzie, why do you always shout ‘thank you!’ to those guys?”
I feel instantly tongue-tied. Paralyzed with self-consciousness.
Am I at that age in life where I seem ridiculous to my family? Even to the grandkids? Silly old Gramzie with her quirky ways?
Yet I’m also touched by Onyx’s candor. By her willingness to ask me something that bewilders her.
“Well…” I pause, remembering.
I had been nine—the same age as Onyx is now—when I was sternly summoned out into the hallway to be chastised by our entire fourth grade’s favorite teacher. This was an unheard-of situation for me to be in; one that left my classmates’ jaws dangling open. Thirty-five pairs of wide eyes stared as I obediently rose to follow our teacher.
Hovering over me in that hallway, Mrs. Carlin waggled her finger just inches from my face, her perfectly penciled-in eyebrows furled darkly. “Don’t you DARE do that again!” she whispered vehemently.
Unsure what I had done, I stood stiffly, watching as those eyebrows arched dangerously high. So, too, did my teacher’s voice. “Arnaldo has no business being Class Representative,” she fumed, loudly enough now that the vast corridor of green metal lockers seemed to reverberate with echoed fury.
My crime, I now grasped, was voting for the new boy to lead us every morning in the Pledge of Allegiance. I had cast my ballot for Arnoldo, the first Hispanic student to attend Myra Bradwell School, a bastion of exceptional public education for the primarily working-class children of Irish Catholic families to the east, and middle-class Jewish families to the west of its premises. Arnoldo—a recent immigrant to Chicago’s South Side who spoke with heavily accented English—was evidently unfit to represent us.
I didn’t flinch or get teary-eyed with Mrs. Carlin in my face. Although I was a kid who was terrified of being late to school. Mortified at the mere idea of not doing well on tests. Afraid of doing anything “wrong”. Yet staring into my teacher’s rage-filled eyes, I knew I had done nothing wrong.
Onyx is waiting, her head cocked with anticipation.
And I remember who I am. There’s no foolish old lady here. I know the answer to her question.
“Honey, I greet them because they do a very important job. If they didn’t come every week and remove huge mounds of garbage from all these houses and apartment buildings, can you imagine what it would be like?”
“Pretty stinky!” Onyx shouts with gleeful horror. She’s lived in rural areas where folks hauled their own trash. And, having smelled a tiny town’s dump, my granddaughter knows her multiplication well enough to imagine the stultifying stench of a big city’s.
“Yep, horrifically stinky. There are way too many residents here to have everyone take their own garbage to a dump. We depend on these guys. And on the hottest or coldest of days, these men and women are out here working for us. But people doing this kind of work often end up feeling invisible.”
“Not seen?” Onyx’s inquisitive face crinkles into an adorable question mark. “How come?”
I turn to Onyx. “Not valued. That’s another way of being unseen. You’ve heard about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right?”
“Of course. The Civil Rights leader.”
“Exactly. Well, the week he was murdered, he traveled to Memphis to protest alongside the sanitation workers. Because, in 1968, when Gramzie was your age, there were no safety standards to protect them. They had to ride hanging onto the backs of trucks. And several of the workers got caught in the equipment accidently and were crushed.”
“Crushed?” Onyx stops abruptly and glares at me. “That’s so gross, Gramzie.”
“Mm-hmm. It sure is.”
Looping an arm around those indignant shoulders, we resume walking. “The workers were treated just like the stuff from the bins they hauled. Disposable. Not seen as men and women, but worthless as…”
“As garbage.” Onyx practically shouts, nodding emphatically at the analogy.
“Yep. So, I want these people to know that I see them. That I value them. And I’m so grateful for the work they do for us. Does this answer your question?”
Onyx’s hand clenches mine tightly. Seeds of mettle clasped between our fingers.
CATHERINE BOEBEL GROTENHUIS is an educator and community organizer. She worked at Women's Advocates, ran a community center for rural senior citizens, facilitated a team of new immigrant and indigenous youth at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and volunteered with RECLAIM for LGBTQ+ youth. Her writing is published in Saint Paul Almanac #13 A Path to Each Other.