The Inside Story of What It Takes to Keep New York City Clean

New book traverses the streets of New York City with sanitation workers

Some years ago, when our editors discovered that the New York City Department of Sanitation had an Artist in Residence program, Metropolis ran a story on the times and works of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. I never forgot her courage and imagination as she made art from the enormous, stinky piles of garbage we produce daily.

So when news came of a new book, Picking Up by Robin Nagle, an anthropologist at the same city department, I was eager to get to the inside story of what it takes to keep our city clean. This is an eye opening, rewarding, thoughtful, and eminently readable text on a topic we’d rather forget. So the next time you see the sanitation workers’ truck screech to a halt next to a pile of trash, and watch the men jump off the side of that truck to toss huge, leaky bags into its grinding, mechanical maw, think of them as performing an essential service, without which our city would be an unbearable place. Here is Robin’s empathetic introduction, Prelude: Center of the Universe, to her subject and try to resist the temptation to learn more.–SSS   

I don’t usually name my trucks, but this one I call Mona, after the sound she makes when I push her toward her top speed. She has other quirks typical of a collection vehicle with many miles on the odometer. Her shocks and seat springs stopped softening the jolts of the road long ago, and her side-view mirrors shimmy so hard that cars behind me look like jittery smears.

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I am heading south during the evening rush hour on the Major Deegan Expressway in New York City, carrying a load of densely packed garbage to the dump (more properly called a transfer station). As I thread the truck’s thirty-five-ton bulk through thick traffic, well aware that no one is glad to see me, the engine’s steady keening aligns with my own sense of caution. Though I own the road— few motorists will play chicken with a garbage truck—fifty miles an hour is plenty fast enough for me.

Just before the Major Deegan becomes the Bruckner, I descend from the highway to the gloomy streets of the South Bronx. Only recently has the neighborhood started recovering from decades of decay and neglect. I bump over a rutted road, cross a set of train tracks, and drive carefully onto a scale, where an unsmiling youngman takes my paperwork. Diesel fumes and river water scent the air. Once the truck is weighed, I move toward the dump itself, a vast barnlike structure a few hundred yards farther on. Other trucks are already waiting, so I pull up to the end of the queue (never a line), set my parking brake, and ponder Mona’s noise again. Perhaps it isn’t a keening. Maybe it’s a truck-ish manifestation of our journey’s ritual gravitas, a mechanical form of circular breathing that lets her intone a single note without pause. She is the ten-wheel equivalent of a chanting monk.

This is a story that unfolds along the curbs, edges, and purposely forgotten quarters of a great metropolis. Some of the narrative is common to cities around the world, but this tale is particular to New York. It centers on the people who confront the problem that contemporary bureaucratic language calls municipal  solid waste. It’s a story I’ve been discovering over the past several years, and from many perspectives.

The job of collecting Gotham’s municipal waste and sweeping its streets falls mainly to the small army of men and women who make sure the city stays alive by wrestling with the challenge of garbage every day, fully aware that their efforts will receive scant notice and even less praise. This army makes up New York’s Department of Sanitation, the largely unknown, often unloved, and absolutely essential organization charged with creating and maintaining a system of flows so fundamental to the city’s well-being that its work is a form of breathing, albeit with an exchange of objects instead of air molecules. Or maybe its work is tidal: ceaseless ebbs and floods created by an almost gravitational pull between global economic forces that relentlessly shape both physical geographies and political landscapes. Just as a cessation of breath kills the being that breathes, or the stilling of tides would wreck life on earth, stopping the rhythms of Sanitation would be deadly to New York.

In many ways, the story is difficult to tell because it has no natural beginning or end—so let’s start in the middle.

Garbage transfer stations are not on most tourist itineraries, nor are their neighbors charmed by their ambience. It’s safe to say that dumps are largely despised, as is the continual parade of large, loud trucks that feeds them.  The public loathes the loads these carriers move, their comings and goings that never stop, the potholes they gouge into surrounding streets, the fouling exhaust, the trailing smell of trash that sometimes reaches farther than the laws of physics suggest is possible. We hate that transfer stations have to exist at all, no matter how remote their locations.

I’m thinking about how such structures came into being in the first place—surely we could figure out a better way to manage our discards—when a horn behind me breaks my reverie. Dump workers have been letting vehicles onto the tipping floor a few at a time, and there’s a gap between me and the rest of the queue; I pull forward.

Then it’s my turn. My gut gives a familiar flutter of excitement, and I take Mona across the threshold. Of course she chants. Though we understand this place to be odious, it is nothing less than the juicy, pulsing, stench-soaked center of the universe.

The smell hits first, grabbing the throat and punching the lungs. The cloying, sickly-sweet tang of household trash that wrinkles the nose when it wafts from the back of a collection truck is the merest suggestion of a whiff compared to the gale-force stink exuded by countless tons of garbage heaped across a transfer station floor.

The body’s olfactory and peristaltic mechanisms spasm in protest.

Breathing through the mouth is no help, and neither gulp nor gasp brings the salvation of fresh air; there’s none to be had.

While the stench throttles nose and throat, deafening noise assaults the ears. Collection trucks are loud anyway, but their sound is considerably amplified when several gather inside a huge metal shed and  they disgorge their  loads all at once. Piercing backup beeps and roaring hydraulics are accompanied by shrieks of metal against metal, and the acoustic onslaught reverberates off the walls like a physical force, so intense that it takes on a kind of aural purity. Workers who spend their shifts inside the facility wear fat red headphones, but those of us only passing through must suffer the cacophony. The best way to communicate is with hand signals.

Then there’s the remarkable interior landscape. The floor of the cavernous space—it feels as big as a few football fields—is three- quarters buried under garbage piled higher than our trucks. Mist meant to suppress dust falls from nozzles on the distant ceiling and blends with garbage steam rising from the heaps to create a sepia haze that obscures corners and far walls and makes the trash recede into yawning darkness. An oversized bulldozer lumbers across the mass as if sculpting it. The mounds quake beneath its weight like the shivering flanks of a living being, some golem given sentience by an unlikely spark that animated just the right combination of carbon, discards, and loss.

The reek, the howling, the gloom—a newcomer would be forgiven for thinking he’s stumbled into a modern-day staging of the Inferno. In the Third Circle of Hell, where the gluttonous are doomed to spend eternity wallowing in filth, even a poet as gifted as Dante couldn’t make it worse than this. The Fourth Circle, in which the avaricious must bear great weights that they use to assault one another in perpetuity for the sins of hoarding and of squandering, is also perfectly represented.  Trucks and bulldozers stand in for human beings, but the task of moving enormous burdens is similarly endless.

Those burdens  are terrifying not only because their existence requires a place like the dump but also because of their provenance. They are made of material objects once distinct but now mashed indiscriminately into that single abhorrent category called garbage. Things never meant to be together are smeared and swallowed and dripped into one another, their individual identities erased. Such transmogrification—or is it transubstantiation?—suggests that, de- spite appearances to the contrary, the physical world is always ephemeral. If we ignore the dump, we can more easily ignore the simple and chilling fact that nothing lasts.

Though I’ve made many trips to this place, the moment of arrival always amazes me. I nearly bring Mona to a complete stop while I gape and listen and try to take shallow breaths. Then I notice a red-headphones man motioning me to an empty space at the edge of the pile. I wave an acknowledgment and swing the truck around, listening as her backup beep joins the surrounding tumult. I set my brakes once again, jump down, pull the pins, then raise the hopper and activate the mechanisms that will eject her freight into the gigantic heap behind her.

A Buddhist prayer of thanks said at the start of a meal acknowledges that the food about to be consumed is “the work of many hands and the sharing of many forms of life.” So is the accumulation at a garbage dump. The garbage here and in every other dump the world over reflects lives lived well, or in desperation, or too fast, or in pain, or in joy. Even without the status of worth or a claim of possession, each bag stuffed with trash, each wad of spent tissue, every shred of shrink-wrap, every moldy vegetable and maggot- covered turkey leg, hints of countless stories. Archaeologists of contemporary household waste have demonstrated this; indeed, insights that the field has given us about our own past often rest on analysis of nothing more than the garbage of civilizations long dead. We understand such artifacts to be treasures.

Less tangible and more metaphysical is the sense that all of these unloved things hold traces of their former owners. Marcel Mauss, an early twentieth-century sociologist, proposed that even when an object “has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him.”   The original notion referred to gift exchanges in small-scale or tribal societies, but the point can stand for anything that has passed through a life and been cast off.  Imagine if we were capable of a form of empathy that lets us know one another by savoring the aura we leave on the things we have touched. We would go to a dump to get drunk on one another’s souls.

But we haven’t yet evolved such sensitivities. We generate our dregs, we create their hazards, and then we invent the dump as one of the places to which we banish them so that we can pretend they won’t harm us. But who plays the role of Charon, ferrying our de- ceased belongings out of our daily lives and across what River Styx into the imagined safe zone of the dump?

Or, to put it more bluntly: Who keeps us safe from ourselves?

PICKING UP: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

Courtesy (c) Robin Nagle, 2013 Publishing by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Robin Nagle has been anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation since 2006. She is a clinical associate professor of anthropology and urban studies at New York University, where she also directs the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought. This excerpt is from Nagle’s book, PICKING UP: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, published in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Robin Nagle. All rights reserved.

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