My life as… a street cleaner

Collecting waste and sweeping the roads for a better Saigon

Mr. Quang spends most of his working life in the gutter. Another part involves delving into plastic bags and buckets left along sidewalks or leaned against trees, looking for recyclables to separate and sell at a later time. The rest of the time he’s pounding the pavements, pausing occasionally to shovel up the unsavory deposits left by stray dogs, the homeless and people who carelessly throw garbage anywhere they like.

He is a foot soldier among the small army employed by the government to clean up after 9 million citizens who call Ho Chi Minh City home. Under an orange hardhat, his weather-beaten, 45-year-old features are regularly animated by an expression not unlike the smiling expression often associated with Vietnamese people.

Every day he pushes around a giant square bin on four wheels with several large plastic bags hanging on all four sides. One bag he has filled already, that’ll be deposited at strategic points to be picked up and driven to the depot. Another bag is what might be called work in progress. A glance inside reveals a predictable mix of used plastic cups, bags, straws and bottles. The bag nearest to him harbors bags yet to be filled and something called “the sharps bag.” Another unsavory deposit, symptomatic of the society we live in, is the used needle. Unluckily, there are many along his way. Mr. Quang’s route is within the Pham Ngu Lao ward, a lively and busy part of the city that is never 100 percent clean. Its late-night bars, cafes, hotels and crowdedness make it a desirable area for backpackers, young locals, delinquents, hawkers and drug addicts.

“If I find one, I have to pick it up with that,” he says, pointing to his meter-long picker, a device with metallic tweezers at one end and hand controls at the other that must be difficult to manipulate while wearing protective gloves. The picker is one of several implements attached to the barrow, including at least two brooms, a shovel and rubber boots for the rainy season.

His uncharacteristic lapse into curmudgeonly—if understandable—complaint soon lifts and he’s beaming happily as he pushes his barrow down Bui Vien’s bustling street, waving right and left. Everybody seems to know him, from police officers, xe oms to shopkeepers bringing out their daily trash bags as he comes by. Only visiting strangers occasionally treat him with disrespect. “One of them threw something at me, shouting ‘Here, scum; eat that,'” he recalls. “It turned out to be a half-eaten fruit. He shot off before I could get him.”

That must have been quite upsetting. “I just picked it up and moved on,” he shrugs and says. “What does upset me is dogs being allowed to foul the pavement. Last week I had a call from a local school to ask if I’d clean up before the kids came out. Don’t know what kind of dog it was, but it must have been a big one.”

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Mr. Quang is usually allowed a 10-minute break around this time, 9am, having started work two hours ago. “For all that, I really like this job. It keeps you fit and healthy.” Healthy? It seems an unlikely word to use when you’re uncomfortably close to the contents of dogs’ bowels and human stomachs. What he means is that he likes being out in the open air. Always has done, ever since school days. He has no qualification and lives with his mom in a modest one-storey house in District 9. It’s a good miles away, but he takes the bus to work.

His break is up and sets to work with the broad broom, sweeping up all the way along the double yellow lines as far as an illegally parked car. Into the bin goes a handful of cigarette butt and plastic wraps, along with a number of fallen leaves and flowers. “If I didn’t do what I do, this place would look a mess,” he mumbles. As if to prove his point, a kid throws an empty Styrofoam container onto the street from his motorbike. “And it’s not as though there aren’t any bins.” He knows his value to this community and many of them know it too. The street cleaner can walk with his head held high, even when bent over a barrow with his feet in the gutter.


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