When they were boys, my friend Steve and his brother followed garbage trucks through their neighborhood, begging for a ride and waiting for that delicious moment when the jaws of the great metal beast devoured something unusual, like an old sofa or a washing machine. Decades later, his eyes still light up at the memory.
He didn't find it so thrilling, though, when I told him of the high fatality rate among refuse collectors and public works employees in general—higher than police and fire. This fact was driven home when I joined the weekly safety meeting of the waste management operation serving Chesapeake, Va., a community of about 200,000. Sixty vehicles idled in the yard out back as administrator Dave Thompson urged operators to take care so they'd return to their families at the end of the day.
As I surveyed the room, feeling like I was on the set of the 1980s police drama Hill Street Blues, it hit me: If Hollywood can make the law, police work, and medicine sexy, it can easily do it for public works.
Most lawyers spend their days in the office, not wringing confessions from reluctant witnesses in the courtroom. Criminal investigators spend hours analyzing bank accounts and phone records. Except for the emergency room, most medical work is routine.
But public works is dramatic every single day! You never know what's going to happen.
Just imagine the potential plot lines. Standoffs between public works directors and corrupt politicians at budget meetings. Big, strong public works employees in backhoe loaders and grapple trucks clearing debris after a tornado as police and fire wait helplessly. Fast-paced, witty banter among department heads as they share the status of capital projects. Toll collectors threatened at gun point by deranged motorists. Mobs of angry citizens storming city council meetings over proposed rate increases. Street crews standing down teenagers brandishing cans of spray paint. A snow plow driver rushing a pregnant woman to the hospital during a blizzard as residents hurl shovels at his vehicle, oblivious to the precious cargo inside.
Throw in some office romance and you've got a hit. It's the ultimate American drama: proud, hard-working men and women laboring together to keep their communities up and running despite interference from elected officials and residents.
C'mon, Hollywood, there's money to be made here!
Once Dick Wolf (creator of Law & Order) and his ilk realize the inherent dramatic potential of public works, they'll start cranking out the ridiculous—but spell-binding—plots that keep viewers riveted to their televisions. Americans will watch week after week, wishing their jobs were as exciting and as meaningful.
And maybe, just maybe, communities will approve more than minimum wage for entry-level laborers, enabling departments to retain them once they're trained. Bright young engineers will forsake the siren call of the private sector for the chance to put their skills to the test on aging infrastructure.
And, maybe, the public will finally understand what you do.
Editor in Chief