Birds and Man at City Dump | Mark Lindsay

The only way to get to New York was to drive past the dump. We knew this as kids as we rode along Route 46 in New Jersey. The dump was in Pine Brook and you could smell it about two miles before you got there. “Ew, Pine Brook!” we'd screech, holding our noses. Back then they would burn the garbage right there in the open air. The mingling of acrid smoke and rotting garbage created an odor like no other. Although we pretended to hate the smell of the Pine Brook dump, we secretly anticipated it—looking forward to the peculiar odor added a little drama to the otherwise boring ride. Ever since then I've always loved garbage dumps.

So, when my friend asked me to make a dump run with her, I eagerly drove my truck down to meet her. Having a truck means being asked to participate in dump runs and I don't mind it a bit. I plugged my iPod into the truck's stereo. I then hummed my way down the San Francisco Peninsula, changing the words to a few songs along the way. “Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, I'm going to the dump!”

Dumps, like everything else in life, have changed a lot in 45 years. For starters, they don't burn the garbage anymore. And now the dumps are all spiffy and regulated—there are guys in hazmat suits at the front gate who greet you with clipboards. They ask for ID to make sure you aren't some foreigner dumping exotic trash in their local dump. There are lots of new rules, they only want clean, domestic, trash. And yes, the smell is gone. Today's dump smells like…nothing! This is good for the neighbors (I'd always felt badly for the citizens of Pine Brook) and the environment, but if I'm going to drive sixty miles to a dump I expect some sensory overload.

While the dump failed to deliver in the PEEEE-YEWWWW department, it had plenty of action. The active part of the dump had a about a thousand seagulls swirling around the freshly-dumped trash. The gulls were swirling, diving, roosting, and terribly over-stimulated—like a thousand kindergarten kids after a sugar binge. Overseeing the chaos were three, humorless dump employees in hardhats. One of the hardhat guys was driving an earth mover back and forth over the garbage. This stirred it all up and made it even more attractive to the birds.

Dumping our garbage took about two minutes to accomplish but I had to stay and photograph the bird frenzy. I howled with delight as the birds dove and soared around me. I got lost in the excitement and could have stayed for hours. I clicked away, following the birds and earth mover and pickup trucks as they came and went. Garbage and birds, garbage and birds!

“Hey buddy, ya gotta move your truck! I need to plow over that garbage!”

I looked up and saw the hardhat, earth-mover guy yelling at me out of his tinted-glass cab.

“All right, all right!” I said as I shrugged and waved my arm at him in a Jersey-guy kind of way.

“Goddamn it!” I said to my friend after we got back into my truck. “That guy was a grump. We weren't hurting anyone and I was having fun.” I tried to park the truck out of the way and to get more photos but the moment was lost. The birds and fresh garbage were now far off and I was in a bad mood. We drove off, hungry for lunch. A trip to the dump burns calories and since dumps don't stink anymore, our appetite was keen.

On the way to the restaurant I realized that I felt like a kid again. A good dump run will do that for you. I thought about the old days when dumps smelled and smoldered and were mountainous, steamy, piles of refuse. Back then the guys didn't wear hardhats and hazmat suits and they didn't kick you out of the dump after five minutes. You were pretty much welcome to watch—and smell—the garbage for the entire day.