Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

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9780374534271: Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

"Meticulous . . . [Nagle's] passion for the subject really comes to life." The New York Times

New York City produces more than twelve thousand tons of household trash and recyclables a day. As quickly as it accumulates, it's hauled away. But who makes that happen? What's life like for the workers with careers built around garbage?
In Picking Up, the anthropologist Robin Nagle takes us inside New York City's Department of Sanitation, a largely unseen and often unloved army responsible for keeping the city alive. Nagle spent a decade with sanitation people of all ranks to learn what it takes to manage Gotham's garbage. She even took the job herself, driving trucks and plowing snow while enduring the physical aches, public abuse, and risk of injury that are constant realities of the job. Nagle offers an insider's perspective on the complex hierarchies, intricate rules, and obscure language unique to this mostly invisible world.
Not just a contemporary account, Picking Up charts New York City's four-hundred-year struggle with trash. It traces the city's waste-management efforts from a time when filth overwhelmed the streets to today's far more vigorous practices, which have made the city cleaner than it's been in decades.
Complete with vividly evoked characters and memorable descriptions of the sights and smells of the job, Picking Up reveals the vital role sanitation workers play in every city across the globe.

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About 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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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...

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