Tuesday, September 14, 2004

VIP Trash Lady Keeps On Truckin' ... And Watching For Bears

Her favorite part of her job is riding around and taking in the beautiful Colorado scenery or shooting pictures of black bears with her Panasonic camcorder. Leaves fall from clusters of Aspen trees as the big white truck rolls over the damp street, covered with different shades of gold and yellow. In the distance hues of green and yellow complement the gray cliff and rock jutting out of the steep incline on Ajax Mountain.

Growing up in the mountains of southwestern Utah is part of the reason Dee Hockins appreciates nature and wildlife as she picks up garbage six days a week in the Roaring Fork Valley. Another part is the fact that she stayed indoors all day cutting meat in Snowmass Village before her brother, Tom, started a small independent garbage company, VIP, in 1995 and she joined a few months later. The main reason, however, is cancer. Doctors diagnosed Hockins with breast cancer in June 2000. Based on a study in the late ‘90s by the National Cancer Institute, approximately one in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.

Although apprehensive, Hockins had surgery right away, wanting to get rid of the cancer like a smelly bag of trash. And she had the right mind set. The doctors told her she was the most positive cancer patient they had ever treated, and by November, a week before her birthday, Hockins had finished chemotherapy. Cancer free.

Being positive is one thing, but missing two weeks of work, because of surgery, is another. Perhaps it was growing up as a tomboy, playing with cars and sports with her three brothers that made her tough and determined. But two weeks is all Hockins took off.

“Why sit there and mope over the whole thing?” she said.

The only major change in her life was her hair. Before, her hair dropped down to the middle of her back. Then losing it during chemotherapy Hockins figured short hair better suited her job as her short spikes of blonde hair allude.

She admits, with some guilt in her tone, that when she went home after work and finished vacuuming she had to take a nap. She was fatigued. The job did have benefits though.

“It’s a good workout,” she said. “I don’t have to go to the gym at night. And I sleep good at night.”

After doctors removed her infected lymph nodes, they said using a big steering wheel is good therapy for her arms. So she steered the big wheel on the truck for therapy.

Taking on cancer is a daunting task, but so is the garbage business, especially when you’re throwing trash into a pickup truck and mashing it down, which is how Tom started nearly 10 years ago in Marble. Sick of her job as a meat cutter, Hockins joined her brother’s company named VIP, or Very Important People, because they wanted to cater to their customers’ garbage requests like making driveway stops or putting the can by the house if the customers are out of town.

Because VIP charged less than their competitors and were reliable, the business spread by word of mouth. Today they have customers extending from Aspen to Rifle. According to Hockins, there are now three other garbage companies in Aspen: Waste Management; Waste Solutions; and Pueblo Disposal. Her Aspen route is on Thursdays. And the days of using a pickup truck have been replaced with the five trucks they have in case of a breakdown. Tom and Dee have hired helpers, but they’ve never been dependable. So it’s remained a business of two, if you don’t include Zowie and Zokay, the two small, white westhighland terriers that accompany Hockins in her side-loader truck.

While their business and equipment have grown, their schedule has remained consistent. Hockins begins her route at 7:30 so she doesn’t wake most of her customers. By four in the afternoon she usually is finished with the trash and recycling. When asked how she deals with the winter snow, she says she puts studded chains on the wheels. So far, she says, they haven’t missed a day because of snow. And why would she want to miss a day? After all, she might miss a closeup of a black bear.



This story was first published in the Aspen Daily News in September 2004.

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