Service with a Smile

            The old saying goes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but George Mendes has taken the concept far beyond the potential usefulness of another person’s discarded item.

            Scheduled to retire on January 6 from his full-time job as a trash collector in Mattapoisett, Mendes has turned his life’s work into a collection of friendships that will last a lifetime.

            “He’s a wonderful man, he’s been wonderful to me,” said customer Judy Anthony, noting Mendes’ extra effort to go beyond the limitations of the new, drive-by pickup routine.

            Mendes’ secret to success is simple and old-fashioned.

            “You want to be treated like they want to be treated. If you treat them with kindness, they return the favor and do the same for you,” he said. “That’s why I like Mattapoisett, because those people, they don’t look at you in a different way if you’re a garbage man. They treat me with respect. That’s why I do things that I do.”

            Born in Hyannis and raised in New Bedford, Mendes grew up on both sides of the Tri-Towns. He learned his manners from his parents. He learned the trash-collection business from his cousins running the Tobey Trash Company on Cape Cod.

            In recent years, the waste-management industry has become dominated by trucks with robotic arms that spare the driver from deboarding and spare the company the expense of the hired hands who ride on the back and jump down to grab trash barrels.

            “We used to do Mattapoisett by hand (with a) rear-end-loader truck. I’d rather do that than drive this because then you can communicate with people,” said the 70-year-old New Bedford resident who says he started working when he was nine years old.

            Mendes is not a fan of any technology that distances the customer from the people providing the service.

            “You lose touch with people,” said Mendes, who has driven garbage trucks for 50 years, spending the last 20 of those years with ABC. Harvey, a much larger company, has taken over in Mattapoisett.         “That’s why I say, ‘Nope. I’m not changing my ways. I’m going to keep doing it like I’ve been.’ … I work quick enough but not crazy.”

            Mendes has loved working in Mattapoisett these past eight years. His Monday-through-Thursday schedule has remained manageable. He skips lunch and gets through his daily route quickly enough to give certain customers special attention based on their specific needs or limitations.

            “He looks out for us all … knows our names, our pets, gives treats to dogs … beeps his horn when our bins aren’t out. I cannot recall a Tuesday where George wasn’t there for us,” said Mattapoisett customer Sandra Anderson. “He is always happy, always smiling and knows when our kids start driving, asks if they are okay when he sees a car in the yard that has had an accident … he has watched some of our kids grow up and quite frankly knows their names too!”

            Anderson said residents even receive greeting cards from Mendes upon the holidays.

            Every customer is as important to him as President John F. Kennedy, whom Mendes met face-to-face on the job while collecting trash in Hyannis back in the early 1960s.

            Mattapoisett resident Rica Brodo has known Mendes for 20 years and recalls when she was obviously pregnant, and Mendes made sure to spare her any heavy lifting of her trash bin. Her children have since learned one day of the week by “Trash Tuesday.”

            “If it’s hot out, the kids bring George something to drink,” said Brodo, and the holidays, well, cookies of course. Brodo says Mendes brought kites to her kids and chalk to mark up the sidewalk. “He really delivered love every time he came here.”

            Brodo says Mendes’ presence and thoughtfulness meant even more during the COVID-19 pandemic. “In isolation, he was one of those connections to the outside world who made you feel like it was still human,” she said.

            When Brodo heard of his retirement, she ran out of the house to ask him, “George, is it true?” Mendes explained his decision. They wished each other well and Brodo went back inside. Then she heard his truck beep so she went back outside.

            “He said, ‘Thank you for just being here.’ He’s thanking me, and that’s kind of the opposite of what you would anticipate,” she said. “He said, ‘I just want you to know how much I care about you and your family. If I’m in the area, I’ll stop by.’ I hugged the man and I cried. He’s such a love.”

            In recent years, Mendes has made doubly sure to look after the elderly on his routes, and he has even given out his phone number to some of those customers, noting that his daughter lives nearby and can respond in a pinch.

            One thing he cannot sleep with is the thought that an elderly person with osteoporosis could slip and break a bone because he did not put his best effort into the job. There are handicapped customers and elderly customers whose trash totes get extra attention.

            “I don’t do it for everybody because if I did it for everybody, it would really eat into my time,” he explained. “If you’re young enough to do it, well and good. But, if you’re not, I’m going to do it. … You go along with that, some people accept it, some people don’t.”

            Mendes admits not every customer exudes appreciation, but he won’t withhold his trademark kindness, and he doesn’t accept tips.

            “That’s not me, I’m not waiting for anything,” he said. “I do it because I love doing it, and love doing it for people that I want to do it for. Other than that, no. … They don’t owe me anything. I’m working for them in that aspect.”

            Thirty years as a basketball referee obviously contributed to Mendes’ even-keel approach to the job. On the court during heated moments, he always made sure he would hear out a disagreeable coach or player and then explain his ruling.

            “That’s only my temperament. I played the game so that’s how I refereed the game,” he said. “Kids will listen to you if you explain it to them.”

            The 40-hour grind may be over, but Mendes insists his work is not done.

            “Like I tell some of them, ‘I’m not gone. Once in a while, when the weather breaks, I’ll come and check on you and I’ll check up on the driver to see if they’re doing their job,'” he said.

            Just to get out of the house, Mendes hopes to work 20 hours a week in retirement, and he hopes it can be in Mattapoisett because the town’s people remind him of his encounter with JFK.

            “It’s not like, ‘You’re beneath me,’ they’re really talking to you,” he said. “That’s why I do it because these people really talk to me. … You treat them the way you want to be treated, everybody talks to each other.”

By Mick Colageo

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