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Indy solid waste driver picks up trash — and friends along the way

Henry Bell, an Indy DPW driver, watches for traffic on his Friday pickup route on March 22, 2024. (Provided Photo/Pete Blanchard/Mirror Indy)

(MIRROR INDY) — Every Wednesday morning, 87-year-old Dave Marks waits for the garbage truck to arrive at his south side home.

The driver, Henry Bell, honks his truck’s horn to let Marks know he’s outside. He gets out of his truck, and the two friends take a few minutes to catch up before Bell heads out for the rest of his shift.

“He’s a hell of a good guy. He works hard,” Marks says. “He does a good job for the people out here.”

Bell arrived at work by 6:30 a.m. that day in early April with a coffee-filled thermos. A co-worker made him the thermos, complete with his nickname, “Hen-Dog,” written on it in bold lettering. By the time he clocks out eight hours later, he’ll have taken trash from about 700 households.

At a time when the face of government is increasingly concealed behind touch screens and websites, Bell, 61, stands out as a rare example of accessible and friendly service. He was hired by the city 36 years ago, making him the longest-tenured trash driver in Indianapolis. 

“He goes beyond the call of duty,” said Steve Quick, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local #725, the union representing Indianapolis Department of Public Works drivers. “He’s always volunteered to train new drivers. He doesn’t complain. He’s helped senior citizens with their containers if they can’t get them out.”

Jane Jackson, the union steward, and Bell’s co-worker, says the driver is a welcome presence at the city’s public works garage. Jackson calls him Big Bird, a nickname the 6-foot-3-inch tall man earned after he was seen washing a truck in a bright yellow rain jacket.

“He makes my morning when he comes in,” Jackson said, “and when he doesn’t come in, it doesn’t feel the same.”

Bell started the job in 1988 because the money and benefits were good. He stayed because of people like Marks on his route.

“I wouldn’t trade this for anything because I like working with the public,” Bell said. “If I have enemies, I don’t know who it is. They need to come and tell me so I can fix it.” 

The only trouble he ran into happened about 15 years ago, when he received a distressing phone call from his wife.

‘You’ve gotta be patient’

When Bell started the job, drivers were still picking up trash by hand. Workers got hurt on the job more often back then, Bell said, so the city started purchasing trucks with a built-in crane to grab trash cans.

It’s a job that requires focus, patience, and hand-eye coordination. With his left hand on a joystick that controls the crane and his right hand on the steering wheel, Bell reflected on what it takes to be a solid waste driver.

“You’ve gotta be patient,” Bell said this month while working his southside route. “You can’t have anything on your mind. If you’ve got something on your mind when you leave home, you’ve got to leave it at home. It can only take one second for you to cause a lot of damage.”

Bell learned that lesson the hard way, when his wife called about 15 years ago. He was making his usual pickups when she shared the news: Her brother passed away from a heart attack.

Bell, who was close with his brother-in-law, was floored. Distracted, he drove off without realizing the truck’s crane was still wrapped around a trash can. He took the can with him, and the can collided with a parked car, causing minor damage.

Bell pulled over and called the cops while another driver finished his route. Later, he had to face an internal review board, which decided to dock him two points. 

If you get eight points on your record, Bell said, “you’ve got some problems.”

Since that incident, his record has remained spotless. 

Friends along the way

Bell spends most of his shifts alone, but over the years he’s made lifelong friendships with some of the folks on his pickup routes, some of which he’s kept for more than a decade. An older couple on Shepard Street bakes him cookies, and on hot summer days, some people hand him cold beverages.

But some people just want to talk.

Eric Johnson, who retired from his mechanic job at Marathon Petroleum Corporation three years ago, brought Bell a plastic water bottle, crackers, and some candy on a recent April morning. The two share a fondness for classic cars.

“Every week I watch for Henry,” Johnson says. “We talk cars, family. No politics or religion. It’s probably best to leave those two things out. We talk about getting used to things, because things change so fast.”

Bell has befriended more than humans on the job.

On one winter day, Bell pulled over after his truck started leaking oil. As he waited for a mechanic, he felt something brush up against his leg. It was a baby pit bull, shivering in the cold. He took the dog home and bathed it, but his wife, Deane, said they couldn’t have a dog, so he gave it to one of his neighbors.

When he got home from work the next day, however, Deane asked, “Where’s my dog?” She apparently regretted the decision, and so Bell went to the neighbor and returned home with the dog.

They named her Tee Tee.

In a few years, Bell will reach retirement age, and he plans to spend his latter years enjoying time with friends and family, fishing, and restoring old cars. He owns two 1965 Galaxie Ford 500s, along with his dad’s old 1971 Lincoln Mark III.

For now, Bell is going to keep doing the job he loves.

Just as he did during that recent April morning, when he saw two trash cans close together. His crane was just wide enough to grab both at once.

“That’s like a 3-point shot for me,” he laughs.

Peter Blanchard covers local government. Reach him at 317-605-4836 or Follow him on X @peterlblanchard.