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Decking the Hauls : Holidays: Post-Christmas trash is a colorful blend of crumpled wrapping paper and discarded merchandise. It means a lot of extra work for sanitation employees, and to some there's a message in it all.

December 27, 1991|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Thursday, Christmas went out with the trash.

Along the winding streets in the hills of Silver Lake, bulging bags of crumpled wrapping paper, foam peanuts and torn cellophane lined the sidewalk. Boxes that once held microwave ovens, electronic keyboards, train sets, juice extractors and Mickey Mouse waffle irons lay flattened on the ground.

By the time Genaro Perez and George Hierro called it a day behind the wheel of Los Angeles municipal garbage truck No. 703, they had even stumbled across ornaments, wreaths, fruitcakes, stockings and a cassette tape by Ray Charles called "The Spirit of Christmas."

"See how throw-away the whole thing is?" said Perez, 46, shaking his head. "You wait all year for this and the next day it's gone. So plastic."

Having survived the year's busiest shopping day and the year's busiest mailing day, now comes the Super Bowl of trash. A garbage collector who picks up an average of 10 tons a day, say sanitation officials, can expect an extra 3,000 pounds of holiday refuse daily until the first week of January.

On Perez's and Hierro's route, some families for whom one garbage can usually suffices had more than a dozen bags on the curb. Almost every street had evidence of heavy beer drinking and take-out pizza consumption. Where the sidewalks were bare, the duo figured, the residents were still recovering from their holiday excesses.

"They're either people who haven't cleaned up yet," Perez said, "or they're hung over and they can't clean up yet."

Neither man was particularly thrilled about coming to work at 5:30 a.m. the day after Christmas, but there are benefits to picking up trash this time of the year. Bottles of liquor, homemade cookies and small gifts of cash are frequently offered to garbage men, who gladly accept them despite what they say is an official ban on soliciting tips.

It is also a good season for "hopper-shopping"--salvaging valuable items from the trash. Although city sanitation officials frown on their employees rummaging through refuse, garbage men say they constantly come across working VCRs, fine jewelry, stylish clothing and all kinds of appliances that were thrown out for lack of a tiny screw or drop of oil.

"Usually at Christmastime you'll see something really nice," said Hierro, 52, who on Thursday spotted a box of new batteries, an electric hair clipper, a binocular case and an Etch-A-Sketch. "I don't know why people throw away such good stuff."

Hierro, a quiet man clad in official-issue green slacks and a yellow hard hat, is a former welder who began collecting trash eight years ago when his factory job was eliminated. He is the loader, the one who clings to the running board and dumps garbage into the truck's hydraulic maw.

Perez, who wears blue jeans because he can't stand the feel of the city's polyester pants, is the talker. A former United Parcel Service driver, he has been behind the wheel of a garbage truck for five years, deftly maneuvering the green diesel-powered machine down narrow streets and steep hills.

"This job is physical, it's dirty and it's not glamorous," said Perez, who likes to think of himself as a "sanitation engineer." "But I take pride in the fact that I'm doing something for society. I'm doing something for Joe Public."

His years on the trash route have also turned him into something of an environmental philosopher, leading him to ponder what he sees as a wasteful society whose excesses have polluted the planet.

He takes night courses in solid waste management, has a National Geographic collection dating back to 1950 and, in his tote bag, carries a paperback copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

"If this job doesn't make you a little environmentally aware, you're head is dead," Perez said. "Society as a whole is of the Me Generation, the Now Generation--never mind the secondary consequences. They don't see it, but I see it on a firsthand basis every day."

The day after Christmas, there was no way to miss it. A fuzzy red stocking with the name "Steve" was in the trash. So were two sets of ornamental bulbs; some shiny gold, the others covered with blue ribbon.

Lifting the lid of one garbage can revealed a complete string of colored Christmas lights. Another can produced a long strand of gold Christmas tree beads. And in one bag, there was a beautiful evergreen wreath, the scent of fir still fresh.

"Hmmm. You can still smell it," said Perez, as he hoisted the wreath over his truck's rear warning light and continued on with his rounds.

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