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Sunday, November 01, 2015

Review: Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle

Arguably the most important service a city provides is garbage removal. All city functions become virtually impossible when trash is not removed in a regular manner.  Not only that, but they are key players in fueling consumption and capitalism. Without regular disposal of consumed goods, there is no room for new goods to replace them.: "used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place."
The euphemistic sanitation workers are the real "invisible" men.  Workers are truly ignored.  They can stare, whistle, remark, clatter,whatever, with impunity because as far as the general public is concerned they are part of the background noise.  They are mere obstacles to be avoided. But an absolutely essential job, dwarfing most others in importance. And messy. Garbage from the trucks is taken daily to transfer stations, where “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.”  What we have forgotten is that all of that used to be all over the streets. “ Householders no longer [have] to keep their windows clamped shut all day, even in the worst heat of the summer, against the nauseating dust that billowed from the streets. (In the rain that dust became an unctuous mud with a repulsive smell. God help the man or woman who found it adhered to shoe soles or skirt hems; the stench permeated forever anything it touched.)”
It's not an easy job and a very dangerous one, vastly outranking police and fire in fatalities. (A check on the Internet listed them as fourth highest fatality rate behind loggers, fishermen, and aircraft pilots and flight engineers of all things --another source listed them as fifth, adding steel workers ahead of them.)  One horrific example involved a worker who had been on the job twenty-three years.  “It was the usual pile that awaited him at this stop, one of the last on the route. He tossed a load in the hopper and was just turning away from the truck when the blade bit through a bag and broke open a jug of liquid concealed within it. The resulting geyser that hit Hanly full on was a 70 percent solution of hydrofluoric acid. His funeral, which drew nearly two thousand Sanitation people from across the city and around the region, made the television news.” Then there are objects that don’t make it into the truck.  The compactor blade can do strange things when it hits solid objects.

“ Bolts, nails and screws, plastic bottles, cans, shoes, food debris, mattress springs, wood fragments, glass shards, become lethal projectiles. Workers tell routine stories of getting hit in the chest, head, back, arms, and legs. One man I worked with on Staten Island reminisced about the time someone had thrown away a bowling ball. When he tossed it in the truck and pulled the handles, it came back at him as if shot from a cannon, caught him in the belly, and knocked him out. The driver, who thought his partner was on the back step, didn’t notice that the fellow was missing until he’d turned the corner. When the driver went back to look for him, it took a while to find his unconscious body because he’d fallen into the tall grass by the side of the road.”

The section on mechanical sweepers -- the drivers are called broomies -- had fascinating detail. The dials and readouts in the broomie’s cab rival that of a small airplane and learning just how much water to add, the angle of the brooms, and maintenance require vast experience. The annual celebration in Times Square that apparently involves enormous quantities of cut-up paper and other colorful detritus takes hours to clean up in the wee hours of the morning and incurs wrath when it’s not done on time.  But sometimes, nature makes it difficult. Rain and snow for example. “The mechanical brooms were churning the wet litter into a thick soup dyed pink by the metallic red cards that had long since disintegrated into the mash. It looked like oatmeal made with Pepto-Bismol. Mechanical brooms don’t do oatmeal. Workers with hand tools moved it into the gutters, but then the brooms trundled past and sprayed it back onto the sidewalks. The hand sweepers and blowers pushed it into the gutters once more; the brooms splattered it back. All over Times Square, mechanical brooms and sanitation workers were having the same exchanges of pink spray. Our boots and pant legs and jacket hems started to look like Jackson Pollock had been experimenting with them as canvases. The equipment wasn’t up to the conditions, but short of a large sump pump I’m not sure what would have worked.”

And all that is not even to mention snow removal, that bane of all mayors, which has caused more political defeats than sex scandals. It can be an almost impossible job when snow is falling at the rate of two-three inches per hour and the wind is blowing, maneuvering around stuck cars and with unrealistic citizen expectations. The drivers often have to work forty or more hours straight and conditions can conspire to make their jobs miserable.

A fascinating look into an essential job that few appreciate and most are reluctant to pay for having long forgotten the alternative.
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