Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York Cityby Robin Nagle
America's largest city generates garbage in torrents—11,000 tons from households each day on average. But New Yorkers don't give it much attention. They leave their trash on the curb or drop it in a litter basket, and promptly forget about it. And why not? On a schedule so regular you could almost set your watch by it, someone always comes to take it away.
America's largest city generates garbage in torrents—11,000 tons from households each day on average. But New Yorkers don't give it much attention. They leave their trash on the curb or drop it in a litter basket, and promptly forget about it. And why not? On a schedule so regular you could almost set your watch by it, someone always comes to take it away.
But who, exactly, is that someone? And why is he—or she—so unknown?
In Picking Up, the anthropologist Robin Nagle introduces us to the men and women of New York City's Department of Sanitation and makes clear why this small army of uniformed workers is the most important labor force on the streets. Seeking to understand every aspect of the Department's mission, Nagle accompanied crews on their routes, questioned supervisors and commissioners, and listened to story after story about blizzards, hazardous wastes, and the insults of everyday New Yorkers. But the more time she spent with the DSNY, the more Nagle realized that observing wasn't quite enough—so she joined the force herself. Driving the hulking trucks, she obtained an insider's perspective on the complex kinships, arcane rules, and obscure lingo unique to the realm of sanitation workers.
Nagle chronicles New York City's four-hundred-year struggle with trash, and traces the city's waste-management efforts from a time when filth overwhelmed the streets to the far more rigorous practices of today, when the Big Apple is as clean as it's ever been.
Throughout, Nagle reveals the many unexpected ways in which sanitation workers stand between our seemingly well-ordered lives and the sea of refuse that would otherwise overwhelm us. In the process, she changes the way we understand cities—and ourselves within them.
“Meticulous . . . [Nagle's] passion for the subject really comes to life.” The New York Times
“With Picking Up, Nagle joins the likes of Jane Jacobs and Jacob Riis, writers with the chutzpah to dig deep into the Rube Goldberg machine we call the Big Apple and emerge with a lyrical, clear-eyed look at how it works.” Sydney Brownstone, Mother Jones
“In her 10-year, sometime-firsthand study of ‘san man' crews, cultural anthropologist Robin Nagle shines a light on their invisible lives . . . [she] evokes the physical and psychological toll of this dangerous, filthy, necessary work.” Nature
“Nagle worked as a garbage woman to better understand her subject, and that experience, combined with years of research, results in an intimate look at the mostly male work force as they risk injury and endure insult while doing the city's dirty work. She also provides a fascinating capsule history of the department and the city's 400-year relationship with waste” Publishers Weekly
“War correspondents routinely embed with military units, and it's only appropriate that Robin Nagle embedded with the people who daily go to war against New York's city's unimaginably unending flow of trash. In gripping and often harrowing detail, Robin Nagle shows us the unbelievable amount of crap the Strongest go through (and put up with) to keep a city clean, navigable and safe, all times of year, especially winter. Thanks to Nagle, you will never think about snow the same way again.” Robert Sullivan, author of Rats and My American Revolution
“Gamely braving ‘indications of unwelcome,’ Nagle – bad-ass and brilliant--insinuates herself inside sanitation garages to decode the folkways of a vast, and essential, city bureaucracy. Scholarly and funny, Picking Up is an irresistible work of participatory journalism and cultural anthropology.” Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land
“Robin Nagle's brilliant book does not simply teach us about a reviled occupation. It serves as an inspiration to open our eyes to the unnoticed and unmarked experiences of city life.” Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk
“Picking Up eloquently conveys the human stories behind the dirty work of trash collection. With a literary sensibility, Robin Nagle gets inside the guts of one of the largest rubbish hauling systems in the world, and, in doing so, reveals the dignity of these filthy, at times demeaning, always brutal labors. This book will change how you think about the people who haul away your trash.” Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong and Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage
“Robin Nagle's Picking Up brings a necessary ‘bottom-up' approach to the chronic problems of collection and disposal of municipal waste. The very human quality of the book should remind us that sanitation workers are not faceless drones, but public servants taking on tasks that any of us would shun. Nagle shows us that solid waste service might be a mundane task, but without it we couldn't even step out of our houses without a sensory and environmental assault. Picking Up is a fine corrective” Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City
Picking Up eloquently conveys the human stories behind the dirty work of trash collection. With a literary sensibility, Robin Nagle gets inside the guts of one of the largest rubbish hauling systems in the world, and, in doing so, reveals the dignity of these filthy, at times demeaning, always brutal labors. This book will change how you think about the people who haul away your trash.
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Read an Excerpt
1. Garbage Faeries
It was a radiant autumn morning. Tree leaves and car windows sparkled. The garbage bags that filled the back of our collection truck shimmered as Ray Kurtz pulled the handles that activated the bawling hydraulics of the hopper blade. Eager to be useful, I leaned against the load so no errant pieces would fall out, then stepped aside while the blade moved down and pushed the pile into the truck’s body. The machinery howled a note higher as it finished its cycle.
Kurtz was a loose-limbed blond who looked younger than his forty-eight years. He had a mullet, an easy smile, a gently self-deprecating sense of humor, and about eighteen years as a New York City sanitation worker—or “garbageman,” in common parlance. His partner, who threw bags toward us from farther up the curb, was Sal Federici, a dark-haired fifty-something with more than twenty years on the job. Federici, tall and lean, was enigmatically quiet and a liberal smoker. Kurtz had been a few-packs-a-day man himself until the emphysema diagnosis.*
I was working behind a garbage truck so that I might better understand some of the human costs and labor requirements of waste. All of us create trash in great quantities, but it’s a troubling category of stuff that we mostly ignore. We particularly ignore how much care and attention it requires from a large, well-organized workforce. What would life be like if the people responsible for managing the waste of contemporary society were not on the streets every day? What do their jobs entail? Why don’t they get the kudos they deserve? These are urgent questions, and since I live in New York, I decided to look for answers among the men and women of the city’s Department of Sanitation. The best way to learn about their work was to do it with them, a notion that eventually inspired me to get hired as a san worker, but I started my research by accompanying Sanitation crews in various parts of the city—which is how I found myself behind the truck on that beautiful morning, marveling at the light and trying not to get in Kurtz’s way.
Both Kurtz and Federici had spent their careers in a Sanitation district called Manhattan 7, and both had enough seniority to be regulars in section 1, the district’s plum assignment. The 1 has a reputation for clean garbage. The bags don’t often break and maggots are less common, even in summer’s heat.
Every crew starts their shift with a long oaktag card, formally called the Daily Performance Record but more commonly known as the 350, on which their supervisor has written that day’s route (pronounced like “grout,” not “root”).1 A route is figured in lines called ITSAs—Individual Truck Shift Assignments—that indicate the specific block and side of the street to be collected, and in what order. The south side of Eighty-Fourth Street from Broadway to Central Park West, a distance of three blocks, is three lines. This particular example would be written “84, B’Way–CPW, s/s.” If both sides were to be collected (abbreviated on a 350, logically enough, as b/s), it would constitute six lines.2 Kurtz was explaining some of these details while we worked. Federici just smiled, taking drags on his cigarette between bag flings.
Kurtz was the driver and Federici the loader, but both men tossed bags. That particular day, on a block of fastidiously restored brownstones near Central Park West, we were doing house-to-house.* We picked up the garbage left in front of one small building—a town house or a modest apartment complex or a church, for example—and then moved the truck forward a stoop or two to get the pile that waited in front of the next small building, and the next, and the next. The quiet morning streets had been our domain when we started at 6:00, but by about 7:30 more and more people with pressed clothes and closed faces were emerging from doorways and descending stoops. It felt odd that our day was already well under way while these sluggards were only now heading to work, but my colleagues didn’t pay them much attention. The passersby paid us even less.
* * *
The workforce of Sanitation is surprisingly small. New York’s 8.2 million residents are served by fewer than 10,000 Sanitation employees (9,216, to be precise: 7,383 uniformed personnel and 1,833 civilians), all of whom make it possible for the DSNY to carry out its three-part mandate.3 The first two parts involve picking up the garbage and figuring out where to put it. Sanitation makes sure that more than six thousand miles of streets are swept several times a week and that the city’s eleven thousand tons of household trash and two thousand tons of household recycling are collected every day.4 Both these tasks are organized by the Department’s Bureau of Cleaning and Collection. Most of the people who work in uniformed titles are assigned to BCC. Once the trash is off the streets, the Bureau of Waste Disposal has to put it somewhere. The problem occupies many fewer people than are required for cleaning and collection, but BWD accounts for a quarter of Sanitation’s $1.35 billion budget.5
Snow removal is the Department’s third duty. Snow does not belong to any single bureau. The public might assume it’s a concern only during the cold months, but everyone on the job, in every title and in every office and among all ranks, will tell you that the many tasks required in preparing for winter make snow a year-round focus.
Behind these organizational divisions stands an eclectic assortment of support personnel. Mechanics, lawyers, plumbers, architects, engineers, electricians, analysts, carpenters, and a host of others keep the physical and political machinery of the Department moving smoothly.
The Manhattan 7 garage serves the Upper West Side neighborhood, which is where I was working with Kurtz and Federici. It’s one of the fifty-nine districts into which the Department divides itself across the city. Districts, or garages—the words are interchangeable—are managed through seven borough-based commands. (There are five boroughs in New York, but Sanitation splits Queens administratively into West and East, Brooklyn into North and South.) Manhattan has twelve districts, as does the Bronx; Brooklyn North and Brooklyn South have nine districts each; Queens East and Queens West have seven each, and Staten Island has three.
Every district is commanded by a superintendent who oversees a team of supervisors, also known informally by their older title of foremen. Supervisors directly manage the sanitation workers who drive the trucks, pick up the trash, and operate the mechanical brooms. Supervisors also serve as intermediaries between what happens on the street and what happens higher up the Department bureaucracy. Until 2011, their responsibilities were organized according to sections, the smaller units into which districts are divided.
Geography, staffing needs, and equipment allocations vary from one garage to the next. Manhattan 1, for example, is a small district of just three sections. M1 covers the Wall Street area, runs about 20 collection trucks and 15 recycling trucks a week, and hosts 55 workers, officers, and support staff across all shifts. A big district like Brooklyn South 18, by contrast, has seven sections, runs 150 collection and 66 recycling trucks every week, and has 168 workers. Queens East 13, so big that it’s called the Ponderosa, covers eight sections out of two garage facilities. Each week, about 185 collection trucks, 72 recycling trucks, and 200 workers serve the neighborhoods of Laurelton, Rosedale, Bellerose, and Queens Village.6
If truck allocations are the measure, Manhattan 7, which has five sections and runs about a hundred collection and fifty recycling trucks a week, is the borough’s second busiest.7 Four of M7’s five sections boast trendy shops, lace-curtain restaurants, and a surfeit of luxury residential real estate, which varies from well-kept single-family homes and block-square prewar palaces to big-box newcomers like Donald Trump’s mammoth structures on a former rail yard overlooking the Hudson River. In the 5 section, the district’s northernmost, Spanish is heard as often as English, and corner bodegas are more common than high-end retailers. It’s easier to find small diners not famous for their coffee than cloth-napkin establishments requiring reservations. Columbia University, edging the top of the 5, inflects the streets with a college-town accent. Garbage in the 5 is supposedly heavier and messier than in the rest of the district and is alleged to attract more rats.
* * *
Kurtz, Federici, and I were making our way down a street lined with tall sycamore trees and elegant town houses when all at once, as if she had materialized out of the remarkable morning light, a muse appeared. She was tall, slender, in her mid-twenties, with flawless olive skin, large eyes, full lips. Her hair, neat behind her shoulders, bounced lightly in sync with her brisk footsteps. Surely, I thought, this was the inspiration for Richard Wilbur’s poem “Transit,” which starts, “A woman I have never seen before / Steps from the darkness of her town-house door / At just that crux of time when she is made / So beautiful that she or time must fade.”
As we turned to watch her, time did fade. So did our focus on our work.
“What use to claim that as she tugs her gloves / A phantom heraldry of all the loves / Blares from the lintel? That the staggered sun / Forgets, in his confusion, how to run?”8
Never mind the sun—Kurtz was the one who was staggered. He leaned against the truck, folded his arms, and gazed at her; when a trace of her perfume reached us, he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. I imagined tendrils of fragrance curling cartoon-style around his chin, tickling his nose with a long feminine finger. He smiled hugely, his eyes still closed, and I smiled as well to see a man so frankly enjoy the sight, and scent, of a woman.
I didn’t know it yet, but that morning on the street I was also observing a man who could stare so blatantly because any potentially disapproving members of the public wouldn’t notice him doing it. In fact, as Kurtz knew well, passersby didn’t even see him. Years on the job had taught him that when he put on his uniform every morning, like Federici and every other sanitation worker in the city, he became invisible.
In mechanical brooms or driving the truck, san workers are merely obstacles to be skirted. When I worked parade cleanups in warm weather, I quickly learned that it was useless to ask bystanders who lingered against the barricades to move back just a little. The coarse bristles of my hand broom were going to scrape their sandaled feet, but even when I stood directly in front of them saying “Excuse me” over and over, they didn’t see or hear me. It’s not that they were ignoring me: I was never part of their awareness in the first place.
Uniforms in general change the way any worker is perceived. The man or woman wearing a uniform becomes the Police Officer or the Firefighter, the Soldier, the Doctor, the Chef. Individuality is subsumed by the role that the clothing implies.9 But the sanitation worker is more than just subsumed by a role. Because of the mundane, constant, and largely successful nature of his work, his uniform (its official color is spruce) acts as a cloaking device. It erases him. He doesn’t carry guns or axes, no one begs for him in a 911 call, he is not expected to step into a crisis, to soothe an emergency, to rescue innocents.10 Instead, his truck and his muscle punctuate the rhythms of a neighborhood at such regular intervals that he becomes a kind of informal timepiece.
Effective garbage collection and street cleaning are primary necessities if urban dwellers are to be safe from the pernicious effects of their own detritus. When garbage lingers too long on the streets, vermin thrive, disease spreads, and city life becomes dangerous in ways not common in the developed world for more than a century. It is thus an especially puzzling irony that the first line of defense in any city’s ability to ensure the basic health and well-being of its citizenry is so persistently unseen, but the problem is hardly unique to New York.
John Coleman, president of Haverford College in the early 1970s, spent part of a sabbatical working for two weeks as a “garbageman” near Washington, D.C. His route took him to a tony suburban neighborhood late on a Saturday morning.11 “I thought this might mean more talk back and forth as I made the rounds today,” he mused. “While I wouldn’t have time to talk at length, there was time to exchange the greetings that go with civilized ways. This was where I got my shock.”
Both men and women gave me the silent or staring treatment. A woman in housecoat and curlers putting her last tidbit of slops into the pail was startled as I came around the corner of her house. At the sound of my greeting, she gathered her housecoat tightly about her and moved quickly indoors. I heard the lock click … Another woman had a strange, large animal, more like a vicuña than anything else, in her yard. I asked her what kind of dog it was. She gaped at me. I thought she was hard of hearing and asked my question louder. There was a touch of a shudder before she turned coldly away. A man playing ball with his two young sons looked over in response to my voice, stared without a change of face, and then calmly threw the next ball to one of the boys. And so it went in almost every yard.12
No wonder people gaped at him or turned away. By speaking to the householders he met on his route, Coleman had transgressed. Invisible laborers are not supposed to make themselves noticed. They are meant to do their work and move along, heads down and mouths shut. Though most householders would admit, if pressed, that the people who tote away their garbage are important in the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t mean they must acknowledge the one who does the toting. Heaven forfend!
Here’s an especially illuminating and depressingly common example of Invisibility Syndrome, one I’ve heard from junior Sanitation folk and seasoned vets alike. A san man reaching to pick up a bag of trash encounters a dog walker who lets Fido let loose at that exact instant on that exact bag. Imagine the san man in motion, his body bent so he can grasp the slick plastic of the bag, finding himself face-to-face with a dog’s raised leg and liquid output. A variation on this theme is that the dog walker plops a sample of the pooch’s poop precisely where the worker is reaching, in which case the worker in motion closes his fist not around the ear of the bag but around a bagged (or sometimes unbagged) pile of shit.
The situation presents a few choices. The worker can ignore it. Or he can politely but firmly point out to the dog walker that her behavior is offensive. Or he can become irate. A new hire still on probation is wise to stay quiet, though he in particular will often find that the most difficult choice. A san worker with a few years on the job who is familiar with this moment knows that nothing he does or says will change the dog walker’s attitude or behavior—in fact, even a polite comment from him will most likely inspire invective—so he usually doesn’t bother to respond.
But to another man with a few years on the job, or perhaps the same man on a different day, the rudeness can carry an unexpected prickle, maybe even a sting, that ruptures his calm. In the versions I’ve heard, the san man who decides to protest always starts by speaking respectfully, which may or may not be true, and the dog walker always responds with obscenities, which I believe. The curses are variations on the command that the san man mind his own goddamn business, an illogic I especially like. That garbage Fido is soiling? It is the san man’s business.
When the dog walker starts unloading expletives, the san man faces another choice. He can ignore her and continue his work. Those who take this path explain to me that they had to say something, even though—as predicted—the dog walker refused to hear it. But another worker, having opened his mouth in the first place, will sometimes further tease what now qualifies as a frayed interaction. The most popular strategy—a surprisingly spontaneous consensus, since there is no section of any codebook that recommends this reply—is to volunteer to deliver fresh dog shit to the dog owner at her job. Perhaps she would like it in the middle of her computer keyboard?
As one would expect, the suggestion provokes new outrage from Fido’s owner, usually along the lines of “How dare you talk to me that way?” or “Who the fuck do you think you are?” or every civil servant’s favorite, “Watch your mouth, you stupid asshole; I pay your salary.” Once in a while the affronted citizen will formally complain, in writing or by phone, but the Sanitation officer hearing the offense likely experienced the same situation when he was on the street and will do little except make soothing noises to the complainant, along with assurances that the intolerably bad-mannered sanitation worker in question will suffer harsh consequences, which is nonsense.
There are exceptions to san workers’ invisibility. Building supers and porters often help throw bags into the back of the truck. Small children sometimes stop to talk to the crew and watch them work, especially if the hopper blade is making an extra lot of grinding, crunching noise while it pulverizes something big, like a stove or a couch. Old people often watch closely, too; sometimes they offer thanks or querulous criticism. And motorists notice sanitation workers, but usually only after they turn onto a narrow street, come halfway up the block, and find themselves stuck behind the truck—the very same truck that was right there, easily visible from the intersection, before the motorist made the turn.
An alarming number of people seem to become cretins when they slip behind the wheel of a car. Or maybe a particular species of New York driver is prone to a form of magical thinking. When this person sees a street blocked by a working collection truck and makes the turn anyway, he must believe that he can cause the obstacle to vanish if he just concentrates hard enough. When that strategy fails, it seems that the driver attempts an alternative ensorcellment: if he says the right spells—that is, if he’s rude enough—then the truck will disappear.
Woe unto that motorist. Excessive honking, yelling, and cursing are excellent ways to invert the standard relationship between seen and unseen: the san man does not seem to hear the horn or the curses, nor does he see the car. Astute observers will notice that—is it possible?—the more grief they get, the slower a crew moves. Indeed, some workers add an extra cycle of the hopper for every honk of a horn. The men have nowhere to go except the end of the block and then the block beyond that, and they are not interested in working faster every time someone in a car is inconvenienced. Moreover, this particular motorist is the umpteenth idiot to throw profanities at them, and they are thoroughly unimpressed. (Who’s invisible now, suckah?)
I witnessed a near fight one morning when a man in an SUV worked himself into a froth while the delivery van in front of him was slow to squeeze past our collection truck. When the SUV pulled up next to the Sanitation crew, its driver asked, in accented English and with spittle flecking his lips, why they didn’t move the fucking truck over a few fucking inches to allow the goddamn cars to pass. The two san men turned as one to look at their truck. If it were any closer to the cars parked at the curb, it would have taken off those cars’ side-view mirrors. The men turned back to the motorist.
“Move it over where?” asked the driver, a stocky African American man in his fifties. “I’m supposed to climb out over the cars? Or over the loader’s seat?” The motorist, a vein pulsing in his forehead, insisted that the truck had room to spare, that the san men were fucking idiots if they couldn’t see that.
The loader, a young man, stepped forward. Earlier in the morning, he had been talking with pride about his parents, who had immigrated to New York just before he was born. He leaned down until his face was inches from the motorist’s.
“Why don’t you go the fuck back where you came from, you little shit,” he said quietly. “No one wants you in this country. You can’t even speak fucking English.”
Had the motorist not been pinned by a seat belt and a car door, he likely would’ve taken a swing at the loader. Perhaps he considered disentangling himself and leaping from his car, but when he paused to converse with the crew, he had created a fresh traffic jam, and car horns were blaring anew. He glowered, spilled a few more curses, and stepped on his accelerator, his tires squealing as he zoomed toward the intersection.
The loader explained to me that even if it gets you in trouble, some insults you must answer, because are you a man or aren’t you a man? If his supervisor had overheard this exchange, however, or if the motorist had taken note of the truck number, the street, the time of day, or the loader’s name embroidered on his sweatshirt, the worker would almost certainly have been banged (that is, he would have received a formal written complaint). If it had come down to a he said/he said account, the motorist could have been faulted for starting the feud, but he would have suffered no repercussions.
Despite public perceptions to the contrary, guys will, in fact, take the truck around the block now and then to relieve the traffic backed up behind them. A dewy-eyed woman with a hitch in her voice can sometimes get a crew to move the truck out of the way in a heartbeat—but not always. Work is work, and often there are two dewy-eyed women for every three cars stuck. A short-lived policy from the Department required workers on some routes to move the truck every time it impeded traffic, a scheme that provoked great skepticism among the rank and file. Such thorough accommodation to motorists ensured that collection routes were never completed. Crews spent their shifts driving in circles.
* * *
The sociologist Wayne Brekhus might point to sanitation work as an example of an “unmarked” element of daily life.13 The world around us is more completely comprehended if we look for phenomena that are usually unnoticed—unextraordinary, he calls them—and therefore unanalyzed. They stand in contrast to things, relationships, identities, or behaviors that are marked, claims Brekhus; these garner a lot of attention and are often used as examples that purport to illustrate larger realities, but recognizing only marked phenomena distorts our understanding of the world.14 Brekhus makes the case that important truths are lodged within the unmarked and the unseen.
Municipal recycling programs are a good example. They are central to waste management strategies in towns and cities all over the world and are usually accompanied by rhetoric about how recycling helps save the planet. It’s an unfortunate claim. While such programs have many benefits, they don’t do squat for global environmental health.15 Yet curbside recycling, a marked component of what’s considered responsible ecological stewardship, receives real resources and support while other, less obvious, more complicated choices that have the potential to make a real difference, like a more politically engaged citizenry and government incentives against various forms of large-scale pollution, are largely unmarked and so are ignored.
San workers recognize that they are engaged in unmarked labor and are themselves unmarked laborers. One afternoon a san man listened passively as his supervisor yelled at him for something or other. When the rant subsided, the worker said wearily, “C’mon, Eddie, what are you getting so upset about? It’s only garbage.” The phrase is common. Following a difficult time “chasing garbage” after Department resources had been diverted for a large snowstorm, a district superintendent received low marks from his superiors for the efforts of his garage. Like everyone else, he was bone tired from consecutive weeks of twelve- and thirteen-hour days. He took his responsibilities seriously, and the criticisms stung. But then he shook his head dismissively. “It’s only garbage,” he said, sighing.
Labors of waste certainly qualify as unmarked, but a sanitation worker is not physically invisible. Haverford’s John Coleman wasn’t wearing a magic cloaking device when he was collecting garbage, nor do New York’s Sanitation crews become see-through when they’re on the street; rather, their consistent state of not-there-ness is a status given to them by the larger culture. When going about their everyday chores, sanitation workers are willfully unseen by the public.16
Garbage itself is the great unmarked and purposely unseen result of a lushly consumptive economy and culture. The work is further unmarked and unseen because it exists along both physical and cognitive edges. A sanitation worker’s career is focused on objects and debris that others have decided merit no further attention and that are in transition out of the home to a “final” resting place. He occupies in-between physical spaces—the street, yes, but specifically the curb, the alley, the end of the driveway. He moves garbage, the ultimate unloved Stuff, to areas zoned mostly for industrial uses. He starts and finishes his workday in a garage that is usually on the outskirts of a neighborhood. He is the intercessor between the uncomfortable here and now of an individual’s own refuse and a safely mythical “away.”
But there’s more. His work is preventive, not reactive, and thus it becomes marked only when it’s not done. A steady joke and truism among san workers is that they get attention on only a few occasions; one of them is a missed pickup. Systematic garbage collection was instituted in New York less than 120 years ago, but since then the public has come to rely on the service as commonplace and unexceptional.17 No matter the circumstances—a blizzard, a terrorist attack, a blackout, a hurricane, a fire that razes a garage—the garbage gets picked up. The sanitation worker is as unremarkable and as certain to arrive as the morning sun.18
A reader of a certain ilk who has stayed with me this far may be growing impatient. “Yeah,” I imagine him saying, “so garbagemen—er, ‘sanitation workers’—don’t get much attention. So what? A lot of different kinds of workers don’t get much attention. Why should I care about sanitation people?”
An excellent question. The quick answer, which consternates even some people on the job: because Sanitation is the most important uniformed force on the street. No city can thrive without a workable solid waste management plan. If sanitation workers aren’t out there, the city becomes unlivable, fast. Before problems of rubbish and street cleaning were solved, much of New York was infamously filthy. Thousands upon thousands of people who had no choice but to endure streets shin-deep in all manner of debris, whose homes were airless rooms and lightless cellars, died in extravagant numbers of diseases that even back then were largely preventable. Responses to this constellation of horrors came from many quarters, but effective garbage collection was one of the bedrock foundations upon which reform was built. Certainly police and fire, corrections and transportation, child welfare and education, are all essential to a healthy city, but New York’s history proves that neither cops nor firefighters nor teachers can function effectively for the city as a whole when the streets they travel and the neighborhoods where they work and live are buried in waste.
The claim extends beyond public health, and the second reason for Sanitation’s importance has two factors. San workers are key players in maintaining the most basic rhythms of capitalism. Material consumption always includes, though seldom acknowledges, the necessity of disposal. If consumed goods can’t be discarded, the space they occupy remains full, and new goods can’t become part of a household.19 Because sanitation workers take away household trash, the engines of our consumption-based economy don’t sputter. Though this is a simplistic description of a dense and complex set of processes, the fundamental reality is straightforward: used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place.
Contemporary consumption and discard habits represent a use of time that has no historical precedent.20 We depend on our ability to move fast, and so assume the briefest relationships with coffee cups, shopping bags, packaging of all kinds—encumbrances we must shed quickly so that we can maintain what I call our average necessary quotidian velocity. Such velocity is connected to our identities, which have never been more malleable; consumption is the mechanism we rely on in this moment of time to declare and recognize distinctions of class, education, political leaning, religious belief.
By this logic, sanitation workers are absolutely central to our physical well-being as residents of a metropolis and to our sense of proper citizenship within a hyper-paced world, even while the work of sanitation remains bluntly physical. Despite unprecedented technological sophistication, the labors of waste literally rest on the bodies of men and women whom we routinely stigmatize. The radio ad for a dating service asks, “Why settle for a garbageman when you can have a stockbroker?” A woman offers a sanitation worker that day’s newspaper, and as he thanks her, she asks hesitantly, “You can read, right?” A cartoon of a couple at a nice restaurant shows the woman, looking distressed, explain to her date, “When I said I wanted someone in uniform, this wasn’t what I had in mind.” The man, surrounded by flies, wears a jacket from Joe’s Garbage Service. A newspaper story about a college football scandal quotes an administrator justifying false grades for school jocks by explaining that he wanted his athletes to get jobs at the post office instead of having to become garbagemen.21 Tourist shops all over New York City sell knockoff FDNY and NYPD gear, but little or nothing from the DSNY. Chain stores, other retail outlets, and even some colleges in the New York region give discounts to cops and firefighters but not to sanitation workers. And every sanitation worker of a certain age remembers the teacher yelling that if he didn’t get good grades, he’d end up a garbageman.
The stigma smarts, but it is especially disturbing because, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, sanitation work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation, with significantly higher injury and fatality rates per labor hour than policing or firefighting.
Families whose loved ones become sanitation workers often cite the absence of guns and flames as a reason to be glad for the job. “I didn’t want to get shot one day,” a new hire told me, explaining why he turned down the chance to be a cop. It’s true that as a san man he’s not likely to have someone pull a gun on him (though it has happened), but he is quite likely to get beaned in the head, or punched in the gut, or scored on the legs with a random assortment of blunt or sharp or jagged objects. Various toxic substances inside the trash he’s handling can cripple or even kill him. And while he’s working in the street, his chances of getting clipped, crushed, or run down by traffic are alarmingly high.
* * *
New Yorkers know none of this. “They put their garbage out at night,” quip old-time Sanitation personnel, “and think the Garbage Faeries make it all go away.” The city’s Garbage Faeries are workers who wear dark green uniforms, drive loud white trucks, and lift, in some districts, their share of twenty tons of trash every day; whose families must adjust to a schedule that allows two days off in a row only once every several weeks; who, when they are junior hires, find out only at the end of one shift when and where their next shift starts, which can bounce them all over the clock and sometimes all over the city for weeks, months, even years; who spend their working hours handling heavy machinery and stepping in and out of traffic; and who suffer an array of debilitating and sometimes deadly injuries, regardless of how careful they are. Roughly a quarter of them are African American, slightly fewer than a fifth are Latino, and a little more than half are white, though within that category are many who make a sharp distinction between Irish and Italian.22 Regardless of their ethnicity, their time on the job, the families who depend on them, the specific assignments they take, the physical hurts they endure, or their crucial role in the city’s well-being, when the Garbage Faeries put on that uniform, it’s as if they cease to exist. This had bothered me for a long time.
Copyright © 2013 by Robin Nagle
Meet the Author
Robin Nagle has been anthropologist-in-residence at New York City's Department of Sanitation since 2006. She is a clinical associate professor of anthropology and urban studies at New York University, where she also directs the Draper Interdisciplinary Master's Program in Humanities and Social Thought.
Robin Nagle has been the anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation since 2006; she is the first person to hold the title. She teaches anthropology and urban studies at New York University, where she also directs the Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought. She is the author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City and she lives in Harlem.
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garbage is both ubiquitous and invisible. this book investigates the hows, whys, and history of sanitation, with humor and insight. very interesting!