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.
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?
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.