The Secret World of 'Garbagemen'

An anthropologist joins the ranks of the underappreciated sanitation workers of New York City. The result? An eye-opening account of the mysterious and dangerous world of trash.
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garbagepickup.jpgNew York City Sanitation Dept. workers collect bagged garbage on Feburary 8, 2011 following the Department's diversion to snow removal duties after a large storm (AP Images)

Have you ever wondered about the secret life of your trash after you toss it into the dumpster, or after it has disappeared from your curb? How about the lives of the people who pick it up? How about what would happen if suddenly all trash collection stopped?

The idea of a semi-invisible world undergirding the modern city has long captured the human imagination. Look to the many books, TV shows, and movies about street urchins, sewer-dwellers, and the criminal underground, or the many plot devices centering on the hidden wealth of information in the homeless community.

But what about the legitimate, government-funded shadow cities that allow the cities we know to exist? What about sanitation work--its armies, its garbage fields, and its machines in the war against ever-accumulating trash shoved out of sight, even stigmatized, while the work of the fire department or police department is glorified? Children may clamor in the morning for a glimpse of the garbage man and his colossal truck, but their parents would prefer they not become sanitation workers. And you won't find adults tuning in to dramatizations about garbage men on HBO that night.

Sanitation workers, it turns out, have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters.

Maybe HBO should risk a pilot, though. In Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, New York University anthropologist Robin Nagle lets the uninitiated in on the vital, hidden, and arcane system that enables cities to function--from the logistics to the slang and jokes to the places most of us never see. To study the mini-society known as New York's Department of Sanitation, not only did she follow the men in the garbage truck around through their day--something that took years of trust-winning on its own--she also trained and sat for exams to become a sanitation worker herself.

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Sanitation workers, it turns out, have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. And their work has similarly life-or-death consequences in the long term, as Nagle shows by taking a look back at New York City's history. "A study done in 1851," Nagle writes, "concluded that fully a third of the city's deaths that year could have been prevented if basic sanitary measures had been in place."

The reader comes away with a greater appreciation for trash, the necessary byproduct of our consumer society we spend a great deal of money not to think about. But perhaps more importantly, the reader comes away with a greater admiration and appreciation of the men and women that make their way through Nagle's pages: the beloved younger garbage man who dies on the job, the prankster who destroys one of the hated public trash bins, the suspicious lunchroom clan, the teacher of new trainees who acquires cult-like status.

To learn more about Robin Nagle's experience working within and observing this community, we called her up. Here's the conversation, edited for clarity.


How did you decide to write this book? It's an unusual and interesting project.

Let me contradict you on part of that: It might be unusual in the subject, but the project itself is kind of a classic ethnographic research project of the sort anthropologists conduct all the time. There have been works about police officers and firefighters and corrections officers and lots of other forms of labor and work-place cultures. That no one had done this kind of project with sanitation was an oversight, and it was my good fortune because I got to step into it.

It's odd that it's been overlooked: Garbage heaps are one of the most valuable sources of information about past societies, right?

Precisely so. It's the guts of much of archaeology.

You went a bit deeper than some anthropologists, though: You wound up sitting for the sanitation exam and training and working as a sanitation worker. What struck you first when you started with that job?

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When I was on the job instead of just following the workers as fieldwork, the level of responsibility was suddenly far greater, and there was no wiggle room. Academics have the luxury of setting their own schedules to a certain extent. You don't have that luxury when you have a job where you have to punch a time clock or sign a time sheet and where the work must be done. You can't telecommute as a sanitation worker. You can't say, "Oh, I'll do it tomorrow." Yeah, you will do it tomorrow, but you'll also do it today. And the day after that, and the day after that. Of course I knew that going in, but to actually feel it was a very different experience.

In addition to being demanding, sanitation work is quite dangerous. Where does the danger come from, aside from the obvious issues of making one's way through traffic?

Think about what you throw away, or what you see other people throw away, if you live in a multi-unit building. Most of us see household trash with some frequency. If you just pause and actually look at it you can very quickly discern objects that, if they were in the home, we would be very quick to segregate so they would not harm us. I'm thinking of things like broken glass or wood with nails sticking out of it or various household chemical substances that in small quantities, safely kept, are not necessarily going to harm us, but spilling out of a bag and catching the body of a worker can do great harm.

When those things are on the street, we forget about them, but as individual objects, and even more so in the combined intensity of the collected garbage in a bag or in a container, they're full of hazards.

You mention that we've created ways of recognizing the dangers that members of the fire or police department put themselves through. We don't do that with sanitation workers. Did you get a sense of why?

Urban infrastructure, when it works well, is nearly invisible. Buddhists call housework "invisible work" because you only notice it when it's not done.

I think it's connected to the mundane and regular nature of the work. I don't mean "mundane" in a critical way. I just mean that when it is that normal and that much a part of the daily patterns of life, it's one of the things that we get to overlook -- along with other structures that are essential to a community's well-being, like running water and water treatment systems that take away the sewage so it doesn't kill us.

Urban infrastructure, when it works well, is nearly invisible. Buddhists call housework "invisible work" because you only notice it when it's not done. You notice sanitation workers, for example, if they've been diverted to clean up a snowstorm and the labor that would be used to collect garbage has to be used to plow. The garbage lingers and people put it out every day and the piles can grow kind of tall. But as soon as it's taken away, the whole structure is "invisibilized" again, because it's done well.

In the book, you mention a parade in New York City in 1896 for sanitation workers where people actually showed up and cheered. What was different then?

That parade took place 16 months after a guy named George Waring became commissioner of the Department of Street Cleaning--the agency that's the predecessor to today's Department of Sanitation. Before Waring, New York was infamous for the filth of the streets. The political powers said for decades, "New York is too crowded, too big, too complex--we can't clean it." It's pretty hard for a contemporary reader to imagine just how awful it was. There are photographs from 1893--before photos--and then 1895--after photos--taken in the exact same locations, and you're looking at garbage that is, as I describe in the book, "shin-deep" ... and I was careful when I wrote that, because it sounds like an exaggeration. It was not an exaggeration.

If I ever have the chance to travel back in time, that's one of the times I would like to visit--the before and after of that moment.

So think about this perpetual muck and gunk and stink that filled the streets of every neighborhood, except where wealthy people could hire private sweepers and carters. Think about where you live and imagine if you had to keep your windows closed all year and you had no air conditioning, but leaving them open on any warm day guaranteed a stink and a layer of grime that would ruin your home. Imagine something awful like that. And then imagine it cleaned up. Almost literally overnight this guy Waring reconfigured the entire approach. Imagine, after that kind of filth, being able to walk across streets and see the cobblestones and see the curb lines and see a workforce come through with punctual regularity for the first time in anyone's memory.

So, yeah, that parade, they were heroes. If I ever have the chance to travel back in time, that's one of the times I would like to visit--the before and after of that moment.

What would it take for modern New Yorkers or other city-dwellers to recognize what the sanitation workers do?

Well, the worst way for sanitation workers to get positive recognition would be to stop doing their work. During the strike of 1968, the public was famously angry. Even today when they have to be diverted to clean up snow, the public gets angry very quickly.

The recognition for sanitation comes in part, I hope, as we as a larger culture become more deeply aware of the crazy rhythms of consumption that require this unilateral direction--this movement from extraction to manufacturing to distribution to consumption to discard. We let the discard end of it go but then it becomes somebody else's problem. That entire system is unsustainable, economically and environmentally, and we're beginning, I think, to grapple with that.

The people who make the decisions--mayors, state representatives, and so forth--don't necessarily know what it's like in the street. They're not often drawn from the ranks of people who are actually doing work like that, like sanitation. Therefore there's a lack of awareness at that level.

What about implicit classism--the assumption that it doesn't require much formal education to do this job, so it must not be hard?

That's a big factor. One of the things that struck me very early on and that continues to puzzle me is the way in which some forms of knowledge are considered more valuable than others, and they tend to break along educational lines. College education is considered of higher status than the kind of education that lets a person know how to repair an engine, or design a truck that's going to be safer for the workers, or organize things.

An example: If you operate a mechanical broom and you have a route that you have to complete within a certain time frame for that day's shift, someone has designed that route. To design that route, they need to know what the directionality is of the streets you're supposed to be cleaning and at what hours the cars are off the curb (this is the New York City system of alternate side parking) and which street connects to which other street.

I've heard experienced broom operators describe really well-written broom routes the way you might describe a wonderful rendition of an opera or a fine wine: "Wow, that was good. That was well done."

I would have no clue how to write a route like that without a lot of study. It takes experience, it takes time, and it takes real care and thoughtfulness to put together a route that will be efficient, that will flow, that will get the streets clean within the periods that the broom has access to the curbs and is within the confines of the 8-hour shift. I've heard experienced broom operators describe really well-written broom routes the way you might describe a wonderful rendition of an opera or a fine wine: "Wow, that was good. That was well done." But that guy--this one person in particular I'm thinking of that designed that route--who's ever going to applaud him for that?

If I stop working tomorrow, I'm not sure New York City will suffer. If the Department of Sanitation, for whatever reason, stops working tomorrow, the city will suffer immediately. So whose work is more important here? I'm not saying my work doesn't matter within the context of the academy, but their work matters a whole lot more than they get credit for.

Image of Robin Nagle by Michael Anton/DSNY
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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