Riding around in Clayton's truck, I felt like the queen of Sheba
Clayton Butterfield was our rubbish man for more than 50 years. I wrote about him for Image magazine in the spring of 2015; a year later, Clayton retired at the age of 85. This is my tribute to him.
As a kid, I thought our rubbish man was called Spot Cash Sager because he was so good at finding the money his customers left for him in secret hiding places: a 50-cent piece in a mayonnaise jar behind the woodpile; a dollar bill under a plant pot next to the garage.
Recently, Mr. Sager’s son-in-law, Clayton Butterfield, set me straight. When Mr. Sager, who was also a handyman, finished a job, he would go to the back door to collect his pay. Cash on the spot was Everett Sager’s way of keeping his business neat and tidy. It was part of his being a gentleman.
“Spot cash. That’s what he told me," says Clayton, who took over Mr. Sager's rubbish route in the 1960s. "If you wait a week and they have time to think it over, they might not wanna pay you.”
We’re driving around town in Clayton’s rubbish truck, an old Chevy pickup with a ladder on the side, and I’m feeling like the queen of Sheba. I’ve been hankering for a ride in that truck since I was a kid. It took me 50 years to realize that all I had to do was ask.
The Chevy is like a museum, stuffed with artifacts from its years on the job—a collection of ladies’ hatpins above the sun visor; a “Safe Sex Saves Lives” keychain found on the trail; a portable radio that appears to be almost as old as the truck, which is almost as old as Clayton, who is 84. The car seats, Clayton explains, came from a boat.
At our first stop, I get out to help, surprising Clayton, who thought I was just along for the ride. He rummages around in his pile of work gloves, hands me the cleanest pair, and together we have 50-pound plastic bags, tree branches, and an old mattress into the back of the pickup.
Clayton and me, tidying up the neighborhood.
Easter is four days away, and Clayton is dressed for spring in a pressed button-down shirt and spotless khakis. “People tell me I’m the cleanest rubbish man they ever had,” he says, deftly scooping up a bottle in somebody’s yard.
Along the route, we take our time. Children wave, and we wave back. Some of the kids know Clayton as the man who is married to the donut lady; in spring the children from the Montessori school walk up School Street to the Butterfield house for donuts and maple syrup and a lesson in sugaring.
Several customers come out to say hello when they hear the truck. Some of them live alone; some have troubles. One man tells us his father-in-law fell and is in a nursing home. “When I stand up, I always take a minute to check and make sure everything’s working,” says Clayton.
At its peak, the rubbish route had 125 customers, give or take, but that was years ago. Now there are 30, and Clayton isn’t taking on new ones. Most days, the route takes all morning, from seven to noon. With me helping, we make good time, so after a couple of hours, we decide to stop by the Butterfield house and say hello to Lois.
“My car had a wolf whistle,” Clayton says, when I ask the Butterfields how they met. He and a friend were cruising around when they spotted Lois and her sister in the car ahead. Clayton lay on the wolf whistle, and after a few miles, the ladies pulled over. He asked Lois for a date and she said no. He kept asking her out and she kept saying no until one night they were both at a barn dance and the band started playing “Kisses in the Moonlight.” Clayton asked Lois to dance and she said yes.
Clayton was number nine of eleven kids. His parents had a little farm on the White River in Stockbridge, Vermont, and his dad cut timber. Clayton went to high school in Bethel, eight miles east, staying with an older sister during the week. Every Friday afternoon, he bought a bunch of bananas for 25 cents and walked home, eating the bananas on the way.
After high school, he served in Korea (“sixteen months and 23 days, and I still remember my serial number”), and then had a series of truck-driving jobs before lucking out and getting hired by the post office, where he worked for 27 years. Lois cleaned houses for 35 cents and hour. She worked eight hours a day, five days a week. She wanted to work Saturdays, too, but Clayton wouldn’t hear of it.
One day he said to Lois’s dad, “If I buy a truck, would you mind throwing a little business my way?” That how he became our rubbish man.
Lois cleaned house fo us; my mother loved her. Everybody did. WCVR named her Working Girl of the Week. When her doctor said she had to give up the cleaning business because of her asthma, she didn’t want to quit. “I cried my heart out,” she says.
I asked her and Clayton about the small charity they run, handing out medical equipment to those in need. It started out for vets, but now anyone can call up and ask to borrow a walker, a shower seat, or a wheelchair. The Butterfields collect the equipment, inventory it, store it, keep track of donations, and send out handwritten thank-you letters. “I try to do something for somebody every day,” Lois says. “Yessir. You got to. They need you.”
In 2007, Clayton delivered a walker to our house. That spring, I moved back home to help my mother, who was 87 and could no longer take her envelopes of rubbish money down the drive to the garage. The walk was too much for her old legs. This became my job, along with chauffeur, snow shoveler, and morale booster. Every other Wednesday, there was Clayton. Know you could count on him was a comforting feeling. One winter he fell off his roof while shoveling snow, broke several ribs, and punctured a lung. A month later he was back on the job.
A few days before my mother died, Lois sent donuts. That fall, I left a sitter in charge of the house; being there without my mother made me sad. I was sure Clayton would drop us now that my mother was gone. The following spring, I came back home to an empty house and tried to pick up the threads of my life. On Wednesday morning, there was Clayton.
Back in January, Clayton asked Lois a serious question. Lois hadn’t been feeling too well, and he was worried about her. The weather was getting to him. Every season had its problems. So after giving the matter careful consideration, he asked Lois if she thought it was time to retire. And Lois said no.
I leave the Butterfield kitchen with a bag full of frozen donuts. On our final swing through town, Clayton says, “You make a good rubbish man.”
I ask him what he would want for his route. “Somebody offered me five hundred, but I think it’s worth more,” he says.
Would he throw in the truck?
Clayton eyes me over the top of his glasses. “That might be a deal breaker.”
My reporter’s notebook is open on my lap, and I write, “You make a good rubbish man,” pleased with the compliment but doubting its validity. I’m pretty sure I don’t have what it takes.
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"Riding With Clayton" was originally published in Image magazine (used here with permission). Clayton is now retired from the rubbish business. He is still driving his old Chevy around town.