EVERETT — For most people, a trip to the dump is a noisy, stinky, unpleasant task.
For Joel Christensen, it’s bliss.
What’s up with that?
Joel, 24, is blind and nearly deaf. He was born with Infantile Refsum disease, a rare metabolic condition affecting his physical and neurological development.
His other sensory systems come alive on the tipping floor at the Snohomish County Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station. He feels the vibrations of heavy equipment clanking and beeping across the immense garbage pit. And the smells? They don’t bother him. If anything, they excite him.
He’s kind of obsessed with trash.
“He loves to throw things in the garbage,” said his dad, Craig.
At home, Craig monitors the trash cans for money and anything else of value Joel purloins and tosses. Joel also keeps a stash in his pocket, for tactile purposes.
People with the genetic disorder lack the enzyme that breaks down a fatty acid found in dairy, beef and some seafoods, causing a toxic buildup. There is no cure, but a strict diet helps. Many with Infantile Refsum disease don’t live to celebrate their 24th birthday, as Joel did recently.
The disease causes problems with imbalance and coordination, as well as vision and hearing loss.
“Kids on the playground when he was young would get upset because he touched them. I’d say, ‘He’s just looking at you, he doesn’t see,’” Craig said. “He’s sociable. He likes people.”
People like him back.
“Societies that value people like Joel, that’s a pretty good society,” Craig said. “People like Joel bring a certain something that nobody else does. But at the same time if they’re not watched over or supported or helped, they don’t survive.”
Still, his is a small world. There are limited places for Joel. He aged out of Everett Public Schools programs. He requires full-time care.
Joel, the youngest in a family of four children, divides his time between the homes of his dad and his mom, Cindy. He likes riding in his grandfather Harold’s 1996 teal blue Mazda pickup truck. One day a few years ago he went with his grandpa, a retired Cascade High School math teacher, to drop a load at the transfer station. It was like experiencing pure Disneyland to Joel, right up there with those weekly meandering trips to the Silver Lake Costco where everyone knows and welcomes him.
Taking the Mazda to the transfer station to toss trash became a routine outing for the three generations of men.
The station has a massive tipping floor where the big garbage trucks jettison their loads at the end of their routes. The refuse is dumped here and readied for its final resting place in a landfill.
On the other side of the pit, people toss their stuff over the concrete ledge into the abyss. The machines claw, smash and smoosh the remnants of civilization. A mattress, bags of trash, tree branches and old issues of The Daily Herald.
It’s the demolition derby of trash.
Workers noticed Joel’s joy each and every time he came to the station. They gave him his own orange hard hat, just like the ones they wear.
“We made him an honorary member of the team,” said Shintaro Ishikawa, an employee who drives one of those clamoring machines in the pit.
Joel’s speech is limited and garbled. He communicates with high fives, using both hands. He grabs your wrist and there’s no escaping until he is done. His thin hands and fingers pack a surprising strength. His eyes squint with laughter.
For those on the receiving end of a Joel high five, his squeeze offers a meaningful connection, opening minds and perhaps even hearts.
He delivers a rapid succession of about 15 high fives to Ishikawa.
“Most of the time people don’t want to high five the person working in garbage,” Ishikawa said.
Most people don’t dillydally at the dump. They are in and out of this place lickety-split.
When Joel is down to the last piece of cardboard, he lingers. Dropping it means it would be time to go.
He doesn’t want to go.
He stands there, clutching it between those strong but scrawny fingers.
His dad and granddad wait patiently.
“It’s like a carnival ride,” Craig said. “Let’s just stay on the ride.”