If They Asked Her, She Could Write a Book

IF THEY ASKED HER, SHE COULD WRITE A BOOK: Robin Nagle, an anthropologist who briefly served as a Sanitation Worker, has written a book about life on the job that explores the history of the Sanitation Department going back to the days when it was the Department of Street Cleaning.

It’s not easy being a Sanitation Worker. You get out of bed as early as 3:30 a.m. to make it to the garage by 6. Each truck is expected to pick up an average of 10 tons per day, so your muscles ache viciously during your first months on the job. Now and then, you and the garbage have a particularly close and unpleasant encounter; one SanMan is doused with a can full of water, rotting dead pigeons and maggots.

The job does have its advantages. With “truck money,” extra pay for staffing refuse trucks with two SanWorkers rather than three, senior workers can earn nearly $90,000 a year. Then there’s “mongo,” treasure salvaged from trash: toys, electronics, furniture, even a pair of Armani women’s stretch pants still sporting a $1,325 price tag. Retirement at half-pay comes after 20 to 22 years.

Times Square Pick-Up

And it has its special days. One of them is New Year’s Day in Times Square, after millions of New Year’s Eve celebrants have left behind bottles, streamers and other debris piled ankle-deep.

But the most special of days are those with serious snowstorms. Many SanWorkers and their bosses consider the Department of Sanitation’s primary duty to be snow removal rather than cleaning. The plowing equipment bolted onto the trucks combines with the bad weather, long hours and hypnotic effects of falling snow to make a dangerous job even more hazardous.

Then, when the snow is finally off the streets, the SanWorkers go back and pick up all the garbage they couldn’t remove while they were plowing.

That’s the life of a Sanitation Worker, as described by Robin Nagle, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and is director of an interdisciplinary master’s-degree program at New York University. She is also anthropologist-in-residence at DSNY, and was so taken with the business that she actually took the test, went through the training and became a Sanitation Worker. She preferred to forego the truck money and work the mechanical brooms—ride-on gadgets that sweep trash off the streets.

Book on Cleaning Up

Her book, “Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City,” just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is an inviting and readable look at the department’s history and its place in the life of New Yorkers.

The Department of Street Cleaning was a patronage sinkhole until Col. George E. Waring Jr. was appointed Commissioner by a reform administration in 1895. He proved that it was indeed possible to clean the streets and keep them pristine, if you just required your employees to show up for work. When the usual suspects retook City Hall three years later, he was out, but he had set a standard to which future Sanitation bosses had to adhere.

Ms. Nagle argues that sanitation is the most important service the city provides, but acknowledges that SanWorkers are ignored by residents, unless a truck is blocking the street or the snow is piling up unplowed. “They put their garbage out at night and think the Garbage Faeries make it all go away,” say some old-timers.

One SanMan recalled: “We were in Brooklyn. It was over 90 degrees, humid; we were very tired. We loaded a lady’s garbage into the truck, and sat down on her porch steps for a minute. She opened up the door, and she said to us, ‘Get away from here, you smelly garbagemen. I don’t want you stinking up my porch.’”

Sees Lack of Respect

One officer criticized “the injustice of media attention given to a sanitation worker killed on the job compared with the coverage for the death of a cop or fireman. Police officers and firefighters receive front-page banner headlines and often several days of television news. The San Man gets a few inches on a back page and maybe—though not always—brief airtime on a local TV station.”

Ms. Nagle notes that Federal statistics show that “sanitation work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation, with significantly higher injury and fatality rates per hour than policing or firefighting.”

As one SanMan puts it at the end of the book: You can go your whole life without calling a fireman or a cop. But you need a Sanitation Worker every day.


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