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Taking out the trash
Garbagemen are largely invisible, said Robin Nagle, but they make modern cities possible.
 
I

T 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.

Kurtz, 48, had about 18 years as a New York City sanitation worker—or “garbageman,” in common parlance. His partner, who threw bags toward us, was Sal Federici, 50-ish, with more than 20 years on the job. (Both names are pseudonyms for people who wish to remain anonymous.)

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? I decided to look for answers among the men and women of my city’s Department of Sanitation. The best way to learn about their work was to do it with them, 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.

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 WORKFORCE OF Sanitation is surprisingly small. New York’s 8.2 million residents are served by fewer than 10,000 Sanitation employees, all of whom make it possible for the DSNY to carry out its three-part mandate. The first two parts involve picking up the garbage and figuring out where to put it. Sanitation makes sure that more than 6,000 miles of streets are swept several times a week and that the city’s 11,000 tons of household trash and 2,000 tons of household recycling are collected every day. Snow removal, the Department’s third duty, is a large task that occupies more than just the winter months.

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 59 districts into which the Department divides itself across the city. Districts, or garages, are managed through seven borough-based commands. (There are five boroughs in New York, but Sanitation splits Queens into West and East, Brooklyn into North and South.) Manhattan has 12 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.

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. 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.

If truck allocations are the measure, Manhattan 7, which has five sections and runs about 100 collection and 50 recycling trucks a week, is the borough’s second busiest. 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.

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-20s, with flawless olive skin, large eyes, full lips. Her hair, neat behind her shoulders, bounced lightly in sync with her brisk footsteps.

Kurtz 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. 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.

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. 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 acts as a cloaking device. It erases him.

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 as a garbageman near Washington, D.C. His route took him to a tony suburban neighborhood. “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.”

The sociologist Wayne Brekhus might point to sanitation work as an example of an “unmarked” element of daily life. 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.

LABORS OF WASTE certainly qualify as unmarked, but a sanitation worker is not physically invisible. 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.

A sanitation worker’s career is focused on objects and debris that others have decided merit no further attention. His work is preventive, not reactive, and thus it becomes marked only when it’s not done. A steady joke 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 unexceptional. No matter the circumstances—a blizzard, a terrorist attack, a blackout, a hurricane—the garbage gets picked up. The sanitation worker is as unremarkable and as certain to arrive as the morning sun.

Sanitation is the most important uniformed force on the street. No city can thrive without a workable solid waste management plan. 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 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.

The claim extends beyond public health. 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. 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.

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.”

Excerpted from Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks With the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. ©2013 by Robin Nagle. All rights reserved. 

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