Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City
© 2014 Robin Nagle
When young Robin Nagle stumbled upon a communal dumpsite in the middle of an otherwise picturesque meadow, she was astounded by the thoughtlessness of her fellow campers. Who did they think would take care of their rubbish, the garbage fairy? People rarely give thought to their garbage service, unless it hiccoughs, but sanitation workers are arguably more indispensable than police or firemen. Given individuals can get by for decades without calling for fire or police services, but try going decades without the garbage man. Sure, if you have a suitable vehicle you can haul your own bags to the dump, but how do you feel about living in everyone else’s rubbish? A city like New York, a hive of millions of souls, would choke within days were it not for an efficient army of men and women in white trucks and olive uniforms hauling their refuse away.In Picking Up, Ms. Nagle joins those men, delivering stories and an inside look at a sanitation department working overdrive in New York City with unexpected humor.
Garbagemen are, despite the lack of a caste system in the United States, our untouchables. We pretend not to notice these men and women whose job it is to take care of that which we have decided is beneath our attention. Certain aspects of their work can’t fail but be noticed: garbage haulers and mechanical sweepers are work trucks, loud and odoriferous, and their working environment places them in the middle of every aspect of urban life. The men and women themselves, however, are overlooked, unless they’re being held as the subject of derision. Ms. Nagle’s time spent with the department — first as an anthropology student, then as an actual worker — looks at san-men square in the face. Through the details of their lives, Nagle teaches readers the ins and outs of keeping city streets clean.
Nagle begins with a brief history of garbage collection in New York, moving forward to present day municipal waste services. There are distinct operations; the most prized work is picking up actual bags of trash, preferably dumped in one massive pile called a flat. This is heavy and sometimes dangerous work, depending on what is being disposed, but it pays well. Crews assigned to travel down a street dumping its public waste baskets into the truck face far more tedious hours, and street sweepers present their own challenge. This work is constant; sanitation never sleep, operating two shifts, and on some streets the the job is never done. As soon as a collection truck has finished its route, so many pedestrians have thrown their fast-food rubbish into the bins that they’re already full and the truck makes the round again, like a very smelly bus stop. In the winter, sanitation workers assume a second job — clearing the streets after every snowfall. Keeping the New York economy running on ice-free streets is such a demanding task that some DSNY planners regard plowing or preparing for plowing their first duty, with rubbish-hauling merely something to occupy time with during the summer. What doesn’t change with the seasons is the danger: sanitation work is the fourth-deadliest in the United States, behind airline piloting, logging, and commercial fishing. Spending eight to twelve hours working on city streets alive with traffic exposes sanitation workers to being mowed down by cars, and their crushing equipment is a peril to their limbs if not life.
Picking Up makes for fascinating reading; it’s not so much about trash as the men who take care of it. Nagle’s journey always stops at the transfer station; what happens to it after that, who else is involved in making it go “away”, is not her concern. This is a study of men (and a few stray women) at work, constantly keeping the commercial machinery of the City from being clogged by its own refuse. It ventures to muse on waste and consumerism, slightly, but sticks mostly to regaling the reader with the diverse day to day experiences of the sanitation department — navigating traffic in massive trucks, manhandling bag after bag of mysterious waste, dealing with unions, government bureaucracies, a distant city government, and a hostile if not dismissive public — and how the men adapt.
Gone Tomorrow; Garbage Land. What happens to trash after the transfer station.
Hack, Melissa Plaut. Another account of driving/working in New York.
Pedal to the Medal, a truck-driver turned sociologist’s similar treatment of truck drivers