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By Bruce Jacobs

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

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28.00, Hardcover, 280 pp)

Robin Nagle is the poet laureate of garbage – a bard who can sing with equal eloquence about the lowly broom man sitting snug in his sweeper “like being in a tall Volkswagen Beetle… [with its] chugging hum…and lurching stops and starts” or about the cavernous transfer station where the big trucks hydraulically squeeze out their turds of excrement atop mountains of garbage into “nothing less than the juicy, pulsing, stench-soaked center of the universe.”

She is also an academic: a professor of anthropology at NYU who has taken the notion of fieldwork beyond dumpster-diving to become a bona fide member of the Teamsters Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, Local 831.

Picking Up, her new book about the Department of Sanitation in New York, takes advantage of both perspectives to tell the story of just where household waste goes – and how it gets there.

The Poetry of Garbage

Whether heaving ten tons of trash bags into a collection truck every day or quoting poet Richard Wilbur, sociologist Wayne Brekhus, or especially her inspiration, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Nagle both knows her garbage and how to talk about it.

Most of the words we use to describe garbage suggest our own lack of interest in the process. When things have outlasted their usefulness we “throw them away.” We don’t “put them up” or “dispose of them.” We dismissively toss them in a trash bag for the garbage man to take to a safely mythical “away” –– someplace we really don’t want to know about.

The Unheralded Garbage Man

Nor do we want to know much about the garbage man himself. Uniforms tend to make individuals invisible. A policeman, a fireman, a doctor, a judge all come decked in a uniform that indicates the services they provide . . . in their cases, services we generally want or need. When the garbage man bangs the trash cans and “hits the handle” to start his truck’s loud hydraulic crusher at 3 AM, he’s wearing only his green DSNY hat, mucked up boots, and reflective-taped green coat. We see him only as an annoying necessity – not a person. But Nagle makes it her mission to push our noses into the lives and trade skills of these “San Men.” We may never need to call for a cop or fireman, but we need the San Man every day.

It’s no surprise that the Department of Sanitation was not thrilled when Nagle first made her pitch to tag along with garbage men on their daily rounds. At the time, she was sure her good intentions and naiveté would win the day. “Please, I begged inwardly, I come in peace. I bow to your gods. I will smoke the pipe with you. We will trade daughters and join our tribes in harmony. Please. Please. Please.”

DSNY reluctantly agreed to give her access to the Upper West Side district; but she quickly learned that tagging along was one thing, getting the crew to talk openly with her was another. They’d seen her sort before – the advisers and observers looking for reasons to restructure or belittle their jobs. They smiled and accepted her daily offerings of coffee, but basically stonewalled her all the way.

Living The Dream

Nagle knew she needed more. “How could I know what it was like to survey the city from behind the wheel of my own truck? To get up so stunningly early every day? To be in the public eye while wearing a uniform with my name on it?”

She had to get a union card and actually work the streets as a participant rather than an observer. In one of her most interesting chapters, she takes us through the long, difficult process of becoming a New York City garbage man: the written test, the physical exam, the Commercial Driver’s License training and test, and finally winning the lottery that ultimately shrinks the pool of successful applicants to the number of open jobs.

Even though she got her training on a “cut-down” rather than the much bigger collection trucks, she dutifully followed the directions of her instructor Mo––”one of the two or three best teachers I’d ever seen in front of a class, in any subject, in any context . . . With his mirrored sunglasses and slight swagger, he was our Patton. We would have followed him anywhere.”

“How Much Time You Got”

In the inner sanctum of the DSNY, there is really only one question: “How much time you got?”

Nagle’s first response betrayed her academic background. “How drastically our lives would change if we knew the answer!” she thinks. But no one who asks the question is thinking about mortality. Time refers to seniority.

In the world of a New York garbage man, everything is determined by seniority…job assignments, overtime, vacation time, pay––even locker assignments. New York is not only our largest city. but also home to the largest municipal bureaucracies and unions. In the DSNY, the contract rules.

A Heap of Facts

A good researcher, Nagle provides plenty of facts, figures, and history to tell her story (as well as a glossary of garbage man slang, maps, and enough footnotes to fill a small dumpster).

There are 7,300 uniformed sanitation employees in New York City (compared to 37,000 uniformed police). They service and clean six thousand miles of streets, collect 11,000 tons of household trash and 2,000 tons of recycling material every day.

Contrary to the stereotype, they do not just lean on brooms at the back of the elephants in the Thanksgiving Day parade (although parade clean-up is a big deal in New York). They have their hands full (quite literally) every day. The impatient cabdriver honking madly at the big truck working down the block doesn’t know the half of it.

As Nagle reminds us, “Sanitation workers are key players in maintaining the most basic rhythms of capitalism. If consumed goods can’t be discarded, the space they occupy remains full, and new goods can’t become part of a household . . . Used up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place.”

Keeping New York Afloat

Trash collecting, hauling, and dumping are only part of the garbage man’s job. Nagle effectively argues that snow removal is also an important side of the job. If the streets are snarled with traffic stuck in snow, the garbage sits unattended. Too many big city mayors (e.g. John Lindsay, Michael Bilandic, and almost Michael Bloomberg) have learned the hard way that the quickest way out of office is to screw up snow removal after a storm.

If driving a trash truck in the summer is tough, it’s an Olympic sport in the winter to steer the behemoth with plows and chains attached through the narrow streets of New York. When Nagle describes her first plowing run with a five truck tandem on the Bronx River Parkway, it’s almost poetic:

“The third plow created a curl taller than the truck, which I turned into a still bigger, more extravagant wave before the last plow sent it vaulting over the right lane guard rail. We were a mighty force, clearing all that stood before us. Maybe God used invisible tandem plows to part the Red Sea for Moses lo those many years ago.”

An Anthropologist in Residence

Like a good anthropologist, Nagle digs deep for the story…and comes up with up with the mother lode.

By the end of the book, she has earned the respect and confidence of the whole Sanitation Department from top to bottom. She is now the first (and only) official “anthropologist-in-residence” with the DSNY.

Picking Up is not just some puff piece celebrating the unsung heroes of the city in exchange for limited access. Yes, it is a celebration…but a thoughtful, well-researched, and entertaining one.

Nagle’s official black and green windbreaker from the Department of Sanitation has DSNY ANTHROPOLOGIST stenciled on its back.  But she is equally proud of her department nickname: Dr. Garbage.


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