Joel Christensen, donning a hardhat gifted to him from employees at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett, tosses old newspapers with the guidance of his grandfather, Harold Christensen. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Joel Christensen, donning a hardhat gifted to him from employees at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett, tosses old newspapers with the guidance of his grandfather, Harold Christensen. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

At the dump, Joel is just one of the guys in an orange hardhat

Solid waste is a happy place for Joel Christensen, 24, who is blind and nearly deaf from a rare genetic disorder.

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.

Joel Christensen, who was born with Infantile Refsum disease, causing him to be unable to see or fully hear, stands with his grandfather Harold at his side as he tosses trash into the pit at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. Going to the transfer station is one of Joel’s favorite activities with the vibration of humming machinery, the whooshing of front-end loaders and the tactile nature of his family’s trash all stimulating his strongest senses. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Joel Christensen, who was born with Infantile Refsum disease, causing him to be unable to see or fully hear, stands with his grandfather Harold at his side as he tosses trash into the pit at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. Going to the transfer station is one of Joel’s favorite activities with the vibration of humming machinery, the whooshing of front-end loaders and the tactile nature of his family’s trash all stimulating his strongest senses. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

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.

Craig Christensen holds a box of old newspapers so his son, Joel, can grab papers and throw them into the pit at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Craig Christensen holds a box of old newspapers so his son, Joel, can grab papers and throw them into the pit at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

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 Christensen, left, stands with his father Craig before getting into the car to head out after helping dump his family’s trash at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. Craig Christensen said the family was probably off to Costco, another favorite activity of Joel’s. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Joel Christensen, left, stands with his father Craig before getting into the car to head out after helping dump his family’s trash at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. Craig Christensen said the family was probably off to Costco, another favorite activity of Joel’s. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

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.”

Joel Christensen, being supported by his father, Craig, gives a round of high-fives to heavy equipment operator Shintaro Ishikawa, right, at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. Ishikawa and other employees at the station took notice of Joel’s frequent visits, and even gifted him a hardhat of his own as a way to recognize their appreciation for his presence. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Joel Christensen, being supported by his father, Craig, gives a round of high-fives to heavy equipment operator Shintaro Ishikawa, right, at the Airport Road Recycling & Transfer Station in Everett. Ishikawa and other employees at the station took notice of Joel’s frequent visits, and even gifted him a hardhat of his own as a way to recognize their appreciation for his presence. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterbrown.

Talk to us

More in Local News

King County map logo
Tribal members dance to start an assemble on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and Orange Shirt Day Friday evening at Tulalip Gathering Hall in Tulalip, Washington on September 30, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
‘Still here’: Tulalip boarding school descendants celebrate resilience

On Orange Shirt Day, a national day of remembrance, the Tulalip Tribes honored those who suffered due to violent cultural suppression.

Councilmember Megan Dunn, left, stands next to County Executive Dave Somers as he presents his 2023 budget proposal to her, Councilmember Nate Nehring and Councilmember Sam Low. (Snohomish County)
As County Council begins budget talks, here’s how you can weigh in.

Department heads will make their pitches in the next few days. Residents will get a say at a forum and two hearings this month

Representative Rick Larsen speaks at the March For Our Lives rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Larsen to hold community meeting in Everett on Monday

The veteran Democratic lawmaker will address recent legislation passed by Congress and other topics.

Everett
Everett gets state Auditor’s Office stewardship award

State Auditor Pat McCarthy presented the award during the most recent Everett City Council meeting.

Toggle’s Bottle Shop is closed permanently on Monday, Oct. 3, 2022, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Citing landlord dispute, Toggle’s closes in downtown Everett

The popular taproom shuttered Sunday. “Everett needs a cooperative landlord-tenant relationship in the commercial district,” a co-owner said.

Community Transit chief financial officer Eunjoo Greenhouse
Community Transit hires King County staffer as CFO

Eunjoo Greenhouse is set to join the agency Oct. 24 after years in King County government.

(Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest - US Forest Service)
U.S. 2 reopens east of Index as Bolt Creek wildfire moves north

The highway was blocked off earlier this week as the fire spread.

FILE - Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a news conference the vote to codify Roe v. Wade, in this May 5, 2022 file photo on Capitol Hill in Washington. Murray is one of the U.S. Senate's most powerful members and seeking a sixth term. She is being challenged by Tiffany Smiley, a Republican from Pasco, Wash. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Providence continues to face questions about hospital debt collection

The hospital group has pushed back against the notion that Providence “intentionally takes advantage of those who are vulnerable.”

Most Read