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City sanitation workers retire after making countless stops

BRADENTON

Waymon Bowden Sr. didn’t think he’d be a garbageman very long for the City of Bradenton.

Neither did Felton Miller.

“I thought I’d move onto something better,” said the 65-year-old native of McDonald, Ga.

But something happened along the way.

It’s called life.

“You got a family, you got children,” said Bowden, a 61-year-old Manatee County native. “Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.” He did it for 34 years.

Miller for 41.

Then there’s Willie “Pop” Brown, who did it for 19.5 years after joining the department at age 45.

“This was ‘last call,’” said the 65-year-old Fort Myers native. “When you get into the late 40s, it’s hard to find a job. But everything worked out to God’s plan.”

All three have just retired from the city’s solid waste department.

That’s almost 95 years of hard work, carrying off other folks’ garbage.

“Countless cans, countless stops,” Bowden said.

“They’re from a bygone era, what’s left of the work force that had to do it the old-fashioned way: actual manual labor,” said Brian Henry, the department superintendent. “They blazed the trails for the younger guys.”

When Bowden and Miller started out, they’d be in three-man crews, two of whom had to each take a 65-gallon barrel. They’d load it with trash from garbage cans stored behind a house, then carry it to an open bed truck.

Today it’s a one-man operation. The driver toggles a joy stick in the cab, activating a mechanical arm that grabs a 95-gallon automated cart, dumps it and sets it back down.

“They’re sitting in the truck, enjoying the fruit of our labor,” Bowden said, laughing. “There were times I couldn’t lift that barrel off the ground.”

“One took four guys,” Miller said.

Yet they kept at it.

Hitting the road at 5:30 a.m. to collect garbage.

Heat and humidity. Cold snaps. Rain.

“Summertime was the toughest,” Miller said. “Stuff seems to be heavy and it smells worse because of the heat.”

Ah, yes.

The smells.

Bowden said it was mind over matter.

“This is the way it smells -- you going to quit? Or work?” he said. “A lot of people said they couldn’t see how you do it. But after you work a while, you can get immune to anything if you do it long enough.

“Sometimes, though, the odor on your clothes was so bad you couldn’t put them in the washer. You had to get rid of them.”

None had a specific retirement year in mind.

After all those years of hoisting and heaving garbage cans, they just knew it was time.

“When you’re young you don’t think about it, but it’ll catch you down the line,” Bowden said. “Your body starts talking to you -- Whoa! Whoooaaa!”

Yardwork may beckon. Housework, too.

Yet now there’s plenty of time to do whatever they please.

“People say we’ll get bored. Bored?” Bowden said. “You got to be out of your mind. We worked hard all our lives. It’s time to enjoy life.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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