Posted: February 9, 2021 in donna besel
Tags: , , , ,

photo credit: eaton hamilton


When I was a student, Manitoba Parks Branch offered me a job in my hometown, West Hawk Lake, beside the Ontario border. Permanent population is around two hundred. In summer, cottage owners, campers, and day visitors flock there by the thousands. And they create tons of garbage.

At first, I was a gate attendant, a job usually performed by women. At the end of June, I asked to transfer to campground janitor. This meant a bump in pay. The head ranger agreed; females could be cleaners. His belief in women’s intrinsic hygiene struck me as ironic.

As kids, my nine siblings and I often worked in our family’s construction business, but we didn’t do much housework. When I was fourteen, our mother died. After that, no one noticed if the toilet was clean or dirty.

A stern campground attendant taught me to mop and scrub. The next two summers were a blur of shit and vomit and drunken nakedness. Every day, I walked kilometres between washrooms and retrieved articles stuffed into flooding toilets — diapers, beer bottles, towels, condoms.

The following summer, I asked to work on the garbage truck. The ranger reluctantly agreed — no woman had ever done it. On my second day, as I was hanging off the back of the truck, the ranger and his assistant drove up behind us. After we reached the beach roadway, three metres above the sand, they stopped tailing us. They had seen me tossing full bins up to my co-worker, a slim city boy, who reached over the railing to catch them.

For the next three summers, I worked with this same guy. We met tons of bears and other wildlife. Children marched behind our truck, entranced by the “garbage girl” novelty. We decorated the hopper with old teddy bears and plastic flowers, and collected beer bottles to finance parties. During trips to the dump, we slept off the consequence.

I even got to fight forest fires, another job no woman had ever done. And I got paid more than all the other female students.

Now I come to the “ICK” memory.

Spread throughout the park, fish cleaning tables had holes in the centre and garbage cans underneath. In busy times, our visits could be three days apart. Fish rot made us retch more than any other garbage. Hot sun converted skins and guts into heaving masses of maggots, the colour of dirty boiled rice.

Or gravel embedded in cement.

A surface ranging from dark to light, just like the above ‘litter prompt’ picture I was sent.

Donna Besel loves writing of all kinds and leads workshops for all ages. Her work has won several national contests and been long listed for the CBC Literary Prize. Her collection of short stories, Lessons from a Nude Man (Radiant Press, 2015), placed fourth on McNally Robinson’s bestsellers list, and was nominated for two Manitoba Book Awards. A memoir, published by University of Regina Press, will be available in fall of 2021.

If you’d like to listen to a podcast segment that tells a story about Donna Besel’s garbage partner, check out CBC’s Love Me: Lost and Found, Episode 6.


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