Dressed in military fatigue-like uniforms with reflective stripes, the garbage collectors of Santa Barbara can’t be missed on our morning drive to work. But even if they lacked their bright outfits, they wouldn’t go unnoticed. They hustle through the streets, darting in and out of morning traffic dragging empty and full trash cans behind them. They work hard. “Garbage collector” seems to be one of those professions that well-intentioned but perhaps misguided parents use as a threat to children who aren’t getting good grades or are acting up in school. The world takes all kinds though, and any job well done should be a job worth doing.
I asked for an extra beer while on my flight to Japan. Beer was complementary for the international flight, but once the flight attendants served dinner, I thought it would be harder to flag them down and get a second beer, so asking for two with my food seemed like the gluttonous but efficient choice. The flight attendant smiled and said, “Don’t tell anyone you got it from me.” She passed me two beers. It was her and another employee manning the cart. When the food cart came around, I watched and was mesmerized by how the team of two worked together. I thought I was a little confined in my seat, squeezing in next to my fellow man in an aluminum tube with wings. But at least I could try to relax a little. I didn’t have to work, to do my job, in those same conditions. Barely exchanging words, their arms wove into and out of the cart, reaching for one thing and handing another to each other like a practiced dance.
They both smiled, despite having to work in such close quarters, despite having to wait on customers who probably weren’t so kind all the time, despite having to sleep on this international flight in what was probably a small dorm-like room below the main cabin. When the plane landed, one woman even thanked me, for “handling” the emergency exit door, as she told me, even though all I did was sit next to it while enjoying the extra leg room. No, I said, thank you. It takes all kinds to run the modern world the way we run it. And it works so well when we take pride in what we do and when we can be grateful for the work that others do for us.
The best part of my trip to Japan was probably hiking Mt. Odake. On many mountains in Japan, the Japanese have built shrines. Hundreds of years old, thousands of years old, these shrines have been impossibly erected as close to the heavens as possible, close to the skies and close to nature. To access each shrine, rocks that have been flattened by feet over time, forming a staircase to the top have been put in place. This makes an easy climb to the top but one of wonder and amazement. I couldn’t help but reflect on the hard work put into carrying each stone, laying each stone, from the bottom to the top.
This was all done without modern technology. The best tools the Japanese had, if any, were probably just the tried and true simple machines – the pulley, the lever, the inclined plane. In some cases, I imagined, each stone was laid one-by-one by one person over his entire lifetime. Some might think that a life wasted. An entire career of carrying stones? But here I was, centuries later, walking upon the same hard stone placed so long ago. Even if the culmination of someone’s entire life work was to carry a final stone up to the very top of the mountain all the way from the base below, I would be appreciating it many years later, without that person knowing.
I realized that’s how all work should be considered. Here I am now, centuries later, trying to place metaphorical stones on a staircase to new technologies and scientific discoveries. Others around me are placing stones; hard-working and amicable flight attendants laid paths that got me comfortably from California to Japan. The garbage collectors of Santa Barbara lay their stones by keeping the streets clean and making our mess disappear. Will others walk over our stones in the future, even without us knowing? It’s worth it to think there’s a chance – even if we are just laying one single stone step, it might be the last one someone else needs to get to the top.