JOHN WOOD stands six feet tall, the height of two garbage cans stacked upon each other. He is a big man with a soft voice and, from all accounts, a softer heart.
He's up every day before sunlight, headed for work at the city sanitation yard on Bowley's Lane. He meets up with other men and women who wear grimy work gloves and boots and orange "trashball" shirts. And he's off, again, in a mammoth trash truck, rumbling through narrow city streets, picking up the dirty and filthy things people throw out.
Wood, 57, is a garbage man. And he is the breadwinner of a large family: his wife, three children, his wife's sister, one foster child who has cerebral palsy and another who is legally blind.
Some days, he lifts broken-down refrigerators, used dishwashers and filthy mattresses above his head and throws them into heavy, rumbling garbage trucks. Other days, he and his sweaty crew sweep up dirty alleyways, clearing grit, dead cats, soiled diapers, rotting tree branches and broken toilet bowls. When there is a spare Bobcat forklift, he helps his driver haul dirt, broken glass, sinks, vacuum cleaners and other thrown-out household items into a garbage truck, destined for a transfer station on Reisterstown Road.
It's rotten hot and foul in the summer time. Usually, he says, "it ain't too bad.
"But when it's 103 degrees, it's hell," he says. "You have some smells out there that are out of sight. You pick up something and maggots jump all over you. You worry about fleas, you worry about poison ivy. Sometimes you don't know what you got."
During the nearly 30 years he has worked for the city, Wood has seen his title change from sanitation engineer to solid waste engineer to trouble-shooter and gang leader.
"It's a better name, but it means the same," says Wood. "Garbage mover."
He's not complaining. Instead, he talks about the virtue of honest work and the importance of doing good deeds for others. Perhaps that's why the creators of Fox TV's new sitcom "Roc," a show about the trials and tribulations of a hard-working garbage man and his family, say they learned a few things from Wood. The show premieres Aug. 25.
Wood influenced the development of the show's namesake, the lead character played by Baltimorean Charles Dutton. Dutton, 40, is the Tony-nominated star of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Piano Lesson." He and Wood lived in the same Baltimore neighborhood, around the 800 block of Greenmount Avenue, when they were growing up.
"I saw him in passing," Wood said. "He was a bully, I know that. You knew he was there. He threw his weight around." Dutton eventually landed in prison, convicted of killing a man during a knife fight; he later be come a star of the Broadway stage. Wood moved out of the neighborhood.
Their paths didn't cross again until last year, when Dutton and his producer, Stan Daniels, spent time in Charm City talking to sanitation workers about their jobs. They took Wood out to lunch, and Wood took them to a landfill.
"[Wood] was one of the most together men I ever met, this man who has been with the sanitation department in Baltimore for 30 years," says Daniels.
Wood still can't pinpoint why his insights and experiences helped the creators of the show. They asked him about the trucks and the workings of the landfill, technical questions about the job. He believes Hollywood's interest in him lies in his expertise with the different trucks the city uses in their garbage collection.
"I was happy that somebody thought that much about me," Wood says. "But I wish I could get all my crew in because they deserve all the glory too."
Wood went to work for the city on Oct. 30, 1962. After almost three decades, he earns a little more than $21,000. Yet, after all these years, "I don't want to change my job. I'm satisfied where I'm at.
"It's not the best job, but it's an honest job," he says. "It's labor. It beats stealing, and I don't have to go to stealing and I don't have to go to jail."
His take-home pay each week is not enough to make ends meet, so he takes on odd jobs for extra cash. He moves and hauls just about everything, from bedroom furniture to bulk trash, with his three-quarter-ton Ford pickup truck. At times, he makes $35 to $50; but sometimes, his soft-heartedness takes over. Sometimes, he only asks for gas money or does the work for
free, to lend a helping hand.
He was asked recently to move a bedroom set for a woman who had fallen on hard times. She had four kids and little money. He obliged -- and was willing to charge nothing -- even though he needed the money, because "people don't make a whole lot of money," he says.
Wood comes from a family of 24 children -- eight sisters and 16 brothers. From them he learned how to cook, clean, sew -- and share. "My mother always told us to share with somebody, regardless of who it was," he says. "If you have half a loaf of bread, share it with somebody. Then the good Lord will bless you."
All things considered, he is a lucky man, he says. "Look at me, I have a loving family. Most people don't have a loving family. And I have a loving crew. Most people don't have that. It's nice to have a crew that you can come to in the morning and have a pleasant day with."
Roc, the main character on the Fox TV show, married a nurse and lives with his crotchety dad in a Baltimore rowhouse. Coincidentally, Wood's wife is a nursing assistant, but she quit her job to take care of Allan, 5, a foster child who has severe cerebral palsy and mental retardation.
Wood, who received no pay for helping the Fox producer and actor (he says he was offered T-shirts for his children, but he hasn't received them), works so much that he barely has time to spend with the family he loves. Sometimes he comes home from moonlighting at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., only to leave the house at 5:30 a.m. to start his city job.
"My husband, ever since I've known him, is a very, very hard-working person," says Hattie Wood, his wife of 22 years. "He's the type of person who has to keep busy. If he sits down for a while, boom, he's asleep."
A fire 10 years ago at their East Baltimore house destroyed most of John Wood's football trophies -- he played semi-professional football with the Baltimore Rams. But he has other mementos: Tables and walls are crowded with family pictures.
A baby wheelchair for Allan takes up a lot of room near the kitchen, and on a wall hangs John Wood's certificate of appreciation, which he received for working a 72-hour shift during a 1981 snow storm. It was given to him by then Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
Wood's garbage pickup route extends from the 1600 block of York Road to the 2900 block of Harford Road to 33rd Street to Bayroof Plaza. As a gang leader, he's in charge of four to six guys. He's worked with many of the same names and faces for 20 years and says they've become part of his family. There's a guy named Turtle, because he's slow, and there's J.W. Jones and China.
"He's a good foreman," says Kevin Johnson, who's worked with Wood for more than two years. "A lot of these foremen, they don't know you. They care about getting the job done. He cares about you. He helps everybody. If somebody owes rent, and he has the money, he'll give it to you."
Says Wood, "The most important thing about work is knowing your crew. And if you know your crew and if you can speak to your crew, it makes work easier.
"Your biggest problem working is trying to understand people," he says. "If he has an attitude, you find out whether he's had something to eat. If he hasn't, then you're in trouble. He's bitter, he's hungry and he's angry at you. So you give him something to eat and he'll become a good guy."