'Dr. Garbage' Studies Unsung Local Tribe

Lauren Lancaster for The Chronicle

NYU's Robin Nagle checks out the board where sanitation workers' whereabouts are tracked at a Manhattan garage. Her book about trash collecting is about to be published.
March 04, 2013

Robin Nagle's title at New York University—clinical associate professor of anthropology and urban studies—doesn't exactly strike fear in the hearts of men. But that green-and-black windbreaker she's wearing over several warm layers this chilly morning? That's another matter altogether. It's the style reserved for chiefs of New York City's Department of Sanitation, and white capital letters across the back spell out "DSNY ANTHROPOLOGIST."

So several dozen sanitation workers waiting for roll call take notice when, a little before 6 a.m., she strides cheerfully into the sodium-­vapor glare of the Manhattan 2 garage, a hulking yellow-brick relic of mid-20th-century New York that juts into the Hudson from the West Village. A sidelined collection truck—what most people would just call a garbage truck—sits outside the door, while salt spreaders are parked cheek by jowl inside (sanitation workers are responsible for clearing snow as well as collecting trash). Over by the office, guys are standing around in boisterous groups, sipping coffee, telling stories, ribbing one another, and waiting to get their assignments for the day.

Several recognize Ms. Nagle. In some cases, that's because she has worked alongside them—about 10 years ago, she decided that the best way to do field research on the department was to get hired as an ordinary sanitation worker and see DSNY from inside its lunchrooms and transfer facilities, to say nothing of seeing it from behind the gaping maws of its trucks. Other guys know her because she rode with them while collecting information for Picking Up, her new book about the department and its people, or for one of her related projects, like a series of oral histories she assigned as a class project at NYU two years ago.

Marc Murphy—"Mawwk," he seems to be saying as he extends a friendly hand—is among the latter group, a Manhattan 2 sanitation worker who is also a shop steward for the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, Local 831 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Mr. Murphy tells Ms. Nagle that, thanks to winter weather, he's worked 12-hour shifts every day for the past three weeks. He has nine years' seniority, which is, he says, "nothing in a garage with 19 guys over 20 years." Sanitation workers can retire with half pay and full benefits after 22 years; while they're working, overtime and extra pay for the hardest assignments can push their compensation to the neighborhood of $80,000 or $90,000 a year, if they're senior enough.

Picking Up, which is due out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, explains that seniority determines almost everything about a sanitation employee's work life—whether he gets the choice assignments and the best overtime opportunities, where he falls in the bidding for vacation time (about 95 percent of sanitation workers are men, Ms. Nagle says). The book also decodes, among many other things, the tags arrayed in clear slots inside the big window between the inner office and the garage. That's "the board"—an at-a-glance representation of which workers are assigned to which trucks on which routes, who is home sick, which trucks are out of service, and so forth.

Ms. Nagle describes the book, which was written for a general audience, as "an introduction to the most important work force in the city," but for an introduction to trash collection and snow removal it is delightfully erudite and entertaining, quoting a Richard Wilbur poem here and sending you to the dictionary there, to look up "susurrus" (as in "the susurrus of its machinery"). It's also funny, naming the four seasons from a sanitation worker's perspective: spring, maggot, leaf, and night plow, the last being the November-to-April span when half the department is on night shift in case snow starts falling.

The book even includes a glossary, titled "How to Speak Sanitation." The term "mongo," for instance, is both noun and verb, referring to either "objects plucked/rescued from the trash" or, as a verb, to what is also known as "hopper shopping." Once, when Ms. Nagle was working out of Manhattan 7, she and a partner who ranked as the third-best mongo collector in the district found in the trash "a flimsy pair of black-and-gold women's stretch pants by Armani" that were in good shape and still had the price tag attached—$1,325. They were several sizes too small for a woman as tall as Ms. Nagle, so her partner gave them to a waitress at a diner he sometimes patronized.

"What do you dream to teach that no one else teaches?" an NYU administrator asked Ms. Nagle not long after she went to work there. The answer, it turned out, was trash, a fascination she traces to a garbage dump she encountered on a family camping trip when she was 10. In the past two decades, she has studied trash, loaded it onto trucks and dumped it out, written about it, led seminars devoted to it, become known as "Dr. Garbage," and earned her chief's windbreaker as the first DSNY anthropologist (an unpaid position, by the way).

As a subject of anthropological research, DSNY is only a little more unusual than, say, a lost tribe in a remote rain forest, though it's more convenient—Manhattan 2, for instance, picks up around NYU. And certainly the department's rules and customs are as mysterious to the average New Yorker as those of, say, the Aleuts or the Swartzentruber Amish. Even so, Ms. Nagle's agent shopped her book around twice before Farrar, Straus and Giroux warily signed on for a revised version. It seems that marketing departments are as uneasy around manuscripts about sanitation workers as the public is around the workers themselves.

That is, in the end, the book's most telling point: Unlike police officers and firefighters endlessly celebrated as "first responders," sanitation workers are looked down upon. And that's when they are noticed at all, which they often are not—they work the avenues and streets as visible as ghosts and as honored as pickpockets. That is true, Ms. Nagle notes, even though sanitation workers are many times more likely to be killed while on the job than cops or firemen are. Working in traffic is dangerous, as are the collection trucks with their powerful compacting blades. Collecting refuse is, by one estimate, the fourth-riskiest career a person could pick (after fishing, logging, and piloting planes).

"Garbage itself is the great unmarked and purposely unseen result of a lushly consumptive economy and culture," Ms. Nagle writes in one of Picking Up's more professorial passages. "The work is further unmarked and unseen because it exists along both physical and cognitive edges. A sanitation worker's career is focused on objects and debris that others have decided merit no further attention and that are in transition out of the home to a 'final' resting place."

And, of course, there are the odors. Ms. Nagle describes them early on, in a passage about taking a loaded truck to a transfer station in the South Bronx: "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."

But without DSNY, where would New York be? Ms. Nagle doesn't have to look far back in time for answers. A Civil War-era report found that more than 3,200 cases of smallpox and well over 2,000 cases of typhus a year—many of them fatal—could have been prevented by better sanitation, but it wasn't until 1881 that the Department of Street Cleaning was organized. Fifteen more years passed before an election ousted the last of the corrupt Tammany Hall politicians and brought a new sanitation commissioner, Col. George E. Waring Jr., who drew on his Civil War experience to establish what Ms. Nagle calls "a military-style order."

Within a matter of months, Waring succeeded in ridding New York's streets of ash, manure, trash, and myriad other kinds of filth, and the department has never looked back—unless you count occasional strikes, which serve to remind New Yorkers what a mess the city would be without DSNY. On an average day, the department's 7,400 uniformed employees and 1,800 civilians are responsible for collecting some 11,000 tons of household garbage and 2,000 tons of home recycling, in addition to emptying litter baskets and sweeping many of the city's 6,000 miles of streets.

All of this requires an early start. Around 6:15 a.m., a Manhattan 2 supervisor carrying a clipboard calls for attention. Nearly two dozen men from garages in Queens have been assigned here for the day—DSNY regularly shifts employees to where they're most needed—and the supervisor warns them that "here in Manhattan you gotta watch yourselves." Anyone seen working without the regulation yellow vest could be subject to a 90-day suspension, he warns as he passes out route assignments.

Al Chorny, the Manhattan 2 superintendent, comes over to talk. His uniform includes a shiny "MA2" insignia and shoulder patches with the department's logo. Today his crews are playing catch-up after a Monday holiday, and 40 loads of road salt are being delivered by a line of idling dump trucks that already winds from the salt shed around the garage and out to the street. ("You can taste it on the breeze," Ms. Nagle says of the salt, mounds of which front-end loaders are shoving into the shed.)

Upstairs, mismatched lockers ornamented with mongo fill the locker rooms; a stain on the tiles of the main floor shows how far the Hudson reached during Hurricane Sandy, which exiled workers from the garage for more than a month. Ms. Nagle is particularly interested in the big carding book on a desk in the office. It's a gloriously Dickensian tally—blue ink for the day shift, green for night, red for snow work—of who in Manhattan 2 collected exactly how much refuse where and when.

"The more time I spend with sanitation, the more I know there's so much more to learn," Ms. Nagle says later in the morning, after repairing to a nearby diner called Hector's. Indeed, she says, her next book may be about the department's legendary Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, which is being reclaimed as a park. In the meantime, though, there's a book party to plan for Picking Up. Ms. Nagle is hoping that DSNY will send a ceremonial collection truck that it usually reserves for parades—and she hopes to have copies of the book piled in the back.