For the brief time she was a Sanitation Worker, Robin Nagle was the only Ph.D. who wore the spruce-green uniform.
But Dr. Nagle, who is a professor and administrator at New York University as well as Anthropologist-in-Residence at the Sanitation Department, said that over the years she has known other people in the DSNY ranks with graduate degrees, and lots of highly-intelligent people without them.
‘Made Me Look Incompetent’
“Plenty of people who had high school diplomas had street smarts, a knowledge of the job and other types of informal education that made me look incompetent with my advanced degrees,” she said during an interview last week in her NYU office, which is dominated by a photograph of white-uniformed SanWorkers from the 1920s. “Why is my education given more status than that form of education?”
Dr. Nagle, who says she is “borderline obsessed by trash,” is the author of “Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City,” recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book draws on her own experience as a SanWorker as well as her studies of the department.
Dr. Nagle was hired as a Sanitation Worker just like any other candidate, after passing the civil-service test, a medical exam and a physical-fitness screening, and obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License.
‘Didn’t Get Any Favors’
“Nobody did me any favors getting me the job,” she said. “I didn’t have any hooks. The integrity of the hiring process is pretty solid.” It took her 15 months from taking the test to getting hired. She said many SanWorkers describe the gantlet they must run to get the job as “the lottery,” because there are so many steps where things can go wrong.
Hiring was followed by several weeks of training, which included how to drive the department’s 36-ton refuse trucks. She quoted her instructors: “If a car can be considered a weapon, a collection truck can be considered a nuclear weapon.”
DSNY teaches recruits how to lift garbage, she said, but every worker has to develop his or her own way of doing things. “People corrected me on my lifting technique,” she said. Some newbies start out wanting to put their arms around a bag and lift it, but, she said, “you don’t want to hug the bag. It’s the last thing you want touching your body.”
One colleague told her that “it took him five years for his body to adjust so he was doing the work without hurting himself.”
Once on the job, she found she preferred to work the mechanical brooms that sweep the streets clean rather than the collection trucks. A broom has “a dashboard full of dials and gauges, like you’re in a very slow-moving plane,” she said. These allow the operator to adjust the brushes depending on street conditions. At the end of the day, she said, SanWorkers clean their brooms with a firehose and grease more than 35 points on the machine. “I could never find them all without help” from more-experienced colleagues, she said.
‘Can’t See the Difference’
But at the end of a shift, she said, “you could look back over that street and find that you made a difference.”
She also plowed snow as part of a tandem arrangement, one of five trucks lined up next to each other as they proceeded down the road. “Oh, we were mighty,” she recalled. “It was just the most fantastic thing. We were invincible. We made the entire highway clear.”
But she resigned after only a few months, because NYU would not give her a leave of absence and family responsibilities made it impossible for her to hold down both positions on a full-time basis. Although, she said, “Many, many people in Sanitation do two full-time jobs.”
She still misses the people. “The camaraderie you can build on the job is unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a university,” she said. “It’s the shared travail of being in this unloved occupation together.”
Respect’s Safety Component
The public’s lack of respect for SanWorkers becomes a safety issue, she said. “When a person’s job means you can disqualify them as being fully human, it means that you can be less careful when you move your car around them,” she said, referring to drivers passing collection trucks on narrow streets. This means workers are more likely to be hit and injured.
Dr. Nagle offered some advice for the next Mayor: “If you’re looking for ways to make city governance more efficient, and Sanitation is a part of that effort, get to know this operation. Spend the time. Ride the trucks, talk to the people before you mess with it.”
She smiled but did not otherwise respond when asked whether she was referring to Stephen Goldsmith, who served as Deputy Mayor for 14 months before resigning in 2011 after he was arrested for domestic violence at his Washington, D.C. home.
Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, told THE CHIEF-LEADER last year that he warned Mr. Goldsmith, who made a reputation as a government reformer while serving as Mayor of Indianapolis, that the city did not have enough Sanitation Workers to handle a bad snowstorm.
‘Not in Indiana Anymore’
“He says he doesn’t think we need that many people,” Mr. Nespoli said. “He said, ‘Well, in Indianapolis—’ I said, ‘This is not Indiana, this is New York City.’’’ A few months later, a blizzard the day after Christmas paralyzed the city for a week.
As DSNY’s Anthropologist-in-Residence, Dr. Nagle’s focus right now is weeding through, organizing and digitizing agency’s archives. Records are scattered among various buildings, and she wants to make them accessible to her successor researchers in 100 years.
Other projects include a Sanitation Department museum (still looking for a site and for legal assistance) and an oral-history project, which eventually will record 100 voices from all ranks, both sexes and every experience level.
Dr. Nagle said she had been interested in trash disposal for many years and “I eventually realized it deserved the kind of study given to more conventional subjects.” Early in her career at NYU, she said, she and a department chair were discussing what kind of class she should teach. “He said, ‘What’s your dream?’’’ Dr. Nagle said. She responded, “‘That’s easy—garbage.’” So she developed and taught “Garbage in Gotham: The Anthropology of Trash.”
Cites Artists As Mentor
DSNY was a tougher nut to crack. When John J. Doherty became Mayor Bloomberg’s Sanitation Commissioner and brought back spokesman Vito Turso, it made the road inside easier, she said.
She also credits as a mentor artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ms. Ukeles did a number of projects with DSNY, including one called “Touching Sanitation” in which she visited every garage and shook hands with the workers, saying, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”
“That shows profound respect,” Dr. Nagle said. “And it’s exactly true.”
While some SanWorkers are proud of their work, others, perhaps because of the public’s pervasive disrespect, don’t even tell their neighbors what they do for a living.
“Many people don’t want it to be known that they have this job,” Dr. Nagle said. “One of my goals in this book is to help people who hide it realize that maybe they don’t have to hide it.”