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Keeping College Park Clean Street by Street

Newsline photo by Steven Mendoza
Jerry Dunn (left), Richard Cunningham (center) and Larry Brown remove trash in College Park. (Newsline photos by Steven Mendoza)

By Steven Mendoza
Maryland Newsline
Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009

First in an intermittent series of profiles of folks with interesting jobs

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It’s sunrise at College Park’s public works facility on another clear and cold February day. Men congregate in the yard holding snacks and lunches, waiting to start the day’s work. Some climb into a cavernous temperature-controlled cab, others onto the back of a garbage truck.  

Richard Cunningham steps into a $250,000 garbage truck, “The Steve Harvey Morning Show ” blasting from the radio. Jerry Dunn and Larry Brown climb onto the back of the truck.

Cunningham, who turns 39 next week, has been driving a garbage truck in College Park for nine years. He applied for the job to try something different. He had grown tired of the plastering and air-conditioning work he had been doing since graduating from high school.

Driving is something he has always liked doing. 

When you drive, you are in control.

“I drive fast. The quicker you get in, the quicker you get out,” Cunningham says of his work.

“If you can do it in two hours [and] get paid for eight, why not?  The only thing [is], I gotta get the guys to come here early. If they get in early enough, we can be done by 10.”

Accelerate, park, rumble and lurch forward. This pattern repeats itself for blocks. 

Sometimes Cunningham gets out to help Brown and Dunn, partly to keep the pace up and partly to break the monotony. He says one of the hardest parts of his job is staying alert while he waits for the cans to be hydraulically emptied at the back of the truck.

While he’s stopped on the side of a street, he takes out the Metro section of The Washington Post, changes the radio station.  

His two sons want to go to college, and Cunningham will drive the truck to pay for it. One wants to be an airplane mechanic, the other a detective. 

Richard Cunningham
Richard Cunningham

Cunningham wanted to be a firefighter when he was boy.

The truck turns a slight left and then comes to a stop. The right rear quarter panel of a small green Honda juts into the road.

“This is the hardest part of my job, right here. Tight spots,” Cunningham says. 

Brown comes around to guide Cunningham. The truck’s engine roars as the truck inches forward, closer, closer.

“Nah. I can’t make it. I’ll go around and back down [the street],” yells Cunningham out the window to Brown. “I could give them all tickets, [by radioing the town’s Department of Transportation], but I know what it was like to be their age." College students.

About five hours after he started, Cunningham will be driving home to Southeast Washington, waiting for his wife and two sons to come home.

“Everybody else I know is still at work. [It’s] too early to go to a bar and drink,” he says, laughing.

Copyright 2009 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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