The 2000 block of Dreer St. in East Kensington is a narrow, one-way passage connecting Amber to Coral.
On one side sits the looming brick wall of The Milk Depot lofts. The rumble of passing elevated trains inescapably echoes off of it with regularity. On the other side, nine rowhomes sandwich a fenced-off swath of lawn.
The scene inside one of those homes around 9 a.m. Thursday spoke to frantic, but deliberate, last-minute party preparations. Pages of a “Make and Do Craft” children’s book were regularly cited for direction and inspiration.
Finishing fiesta touches
Lollypops were being placed into sugar ice-cream cones. Pizzas were being heated in an oven. Oranges were being cut ever-so precisely into the form of candy-topped treats.
It would all be carried outside from a dining-room table covered with cotton candy, “carousel” cupcakes, whipped cream and, among many other treats, munchkin donuts.
The delicacies were then placed on a table outside of the home into which artist Jenny Drumgoole and her husband moved in 2009.
Tied to battered car tires on either side of it were dozens of balloons in the forms of smiley faces and trash trucks, the latter style specially ordered from a dollar store two weeks in advance.
There were sparklers and bubbles and sidewalk chalk. There were noisemakers and doodle books and handcrafted bottle-cap pins. There was a party hat which combined a cat-food box with one that held sourdough pretzels. There was Allison Sexton, Drumgoole’s friend from college, walking up and down the block picking up “wicked gross garbage” for party purposes.
And, there was also ample signage indicating what this weekday-morning fiesta was all about.
The letters of a standard “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” banner flapped in the wind. The “BIRTH” part had been intentionally removed; in its place, the aluminum foil-hued word “TRASH.”
Attendees from near and far
On this day, Drumgoole (in the artsy role of a character named “Soxx”) hosted a couple dozen friends from as far away as Vermont.
Their mission was simple, but unusual: Telling Philadelphia’s garbage and recycling collectors that their public service was super-duper appreciated.
That’s exactly what Soxx — a photography instructor at Rowan University who went to Yale and had an intern on the party-prep scene — vowed to do in a three-minute speech before City Council one week earlier.
And that’s exactly why more than a dozen sanitation workers became the life of the party upon their 10:42 a.m. arrival, as the chief of operations for the Streets Department sanitation division and head of their union looked on appreciatively, snapping photos of the festivities.
All were enthusiasticly welcomed by Soxx, who donned a jacket (or dress) to which she hot glued 12 bags of beans and macaroni for the occasion, thus creating a 60-pound garment.
“It’s the little things that make people happy,” said Soxx. “Clearly, this is a little thing, but it’s great to make them so happy.”
How this came to be
Chronologically speaking, the Happy Trash Day seeds sprouted to the surface this summer.
Specifically, it was June when Soxx and intern Maggie sat on a stoop braving sweltering temperatures from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. — “it got to the point that we didn’t think they were coming,” she explained — until the garbage and recycling collectors arrived.
When they got to Dreer Street, they would receive more than bins and cans filled with refuse like every other day of their careers. They would hear cheers and adulation, and they would also hoist Soxx off the back of their truck for one of several Trash Day video clips.
Creatively speaking, though, it dates back well beyond a few months.
Soxx’s website features video of her turn as a “Wingette” for competitive eater Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas at the 2006 rendition of WIP’s grub-guzzling spectacle. It also chronciles her approach to a 2010 contest hosted by “celebrity chef Paula Deen” in which Soxx merged Rambo and cream cheese.
And, Happy Trash Day follows this artistic vibe. Videos from it will be crafted into a December exhibit at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.
Yes, there is clearly a method to Soxx’s artistic gladness.
That’s not to say that Soxx wasn’t nervous when she went to the Oct. 17 City Council meeting, though.
For one thing, the bottle-cap Happy Trash Day pins which she carried set off the metal detectors outside. Then, once she explained her way past security with a story they likely had never before heard, she was alone, and clad in bright garb calling to mind a Cirque de Soliel show sans trapeze artists.
“I almost didn’t get up eight times,” she told NewsWorks a week after she not only got up, but grabbed a ton of attention in Council Chambers.
Invitations were extended to City Council in its entirety (they didn’t make it, what with the festivities coinciding with the legislative body’s weekly meeting.)
An invitation was also extended to Mayor Michael Nutter, who Soxx said presided over her wedding. Making that event stand out was the high-five post-vows exchange since rings weren’t brought to City Hall on what was supposed to merely be marriage-license procuring day. (He didn’t make it, either.)
But attendance figures mattered little when sanitation truck No. 035332 turned onto Dreer from Amber Street, setting the heretofore unseen celebration into motion.
Appreciating a rare show of appreciation
“Redbeard” said he’s been a sanitation worker for the past decade.
His real surname is Gibson, but when he stuck his face through a Happy Trash Day cutout-photo display to the glee of all, his red-hued beard proved why his nickname is an apt descriptor.
“Crazy. It was crazy!” Redbeard said of what he encountered on that first celebration in June. Of Thursday’s event, he noted that, “It feels good. It feels really good.”
That was the common refrain from his coworkers, who looked both surprised and humbled by the outpouring of appreciation.
As Redbeard chomped on a piece of pizza, and some of his peers smilingly devoured pieces of Happy Trash Day cake, sanitation worker Steven Scott explained why this event was so meaningful.
“We go block by block, house by house, and it’s a tough job, a demanding job,” he said. “It feels good to know we’re appreciated.”
Echoing that sentiment was Keith Warren, chief of operations for the Streets Department’s sanitation division, who came out to watch the festivities.
“This appreciation for the difficulty of the job we do is great to see,” he said.
Party’s over, party’s just begun?
Less than 20 minutes after the trucks arrived on Dreer, it was time for the workers to work. It was, after all, trash day in the neighborhood. Much was left to be picked up. (But after it was, at least one worker took to Instagram to share his recollections of the day.)
As Queen’s “Life Is Real (Song For Lennon)” blared from a Bose sound dock on the sidewalk under the craft table, the guests of honor disappeared into East Kensington, leaving attendees to peek at their smart phones for the pictures they’d snapped.
Soxx then put her 60-pound jacket inside, exposing the same outfit flair she’d brought to Council the week before. Not five minutes later, a man pushing a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans came up the street.
He accepted the crowd’s offer of Happy Trash Day cake, saying “God bless you! Thank you! That’s so nice! I’m having a good day now!”
Running on an hour of sleep, Drumgoole contemplated what could become of the event that just concluded.
“Now, I really want to get ‘Happy Trash Day’ passed as a [City Council resolution]. Everybody on Council should sponsor it,” she said, noting that City Councilman David Oh reached out via a Twitter account she forgot she had. “Are we going to do this again? I guess we have to now!”
To be sure, just hours after the initial party, “We had two more rounds of trash crews come, the last of which was my regular crew. I even had one worker who had taken the day off, but who had been here for all of the other happy trash days, drive in at noon to celebrate. That was pretty great,” Drumgoole shared.
There is good reason to believe this was not the last Happy Trash Day event, too, and that goes beyond plans to start organizing one for a Tuesday in West Philly.
City Councilman Mark Squilla, in whose district the party occurred, said Friday that he has a November meeting scheduled with Drumgoole “to discuss options for promoting this great idea.”
“It sounded a little off the wall at first, but then I just shook my head and thought, ‘Yeah, this could really work,'” he said, citing both the appreciation of hardworking employees and the trickle-down potential of urging others to join the standouts in their sanitation ranks.
“A lot of people only hear feedback when they’ve done something wrong,” he said. “It’s a great idea to say thanks when someone does a good job, too.”