Circular File

Circular File: What ‘Picking Up’ is Laying Down

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Reviewing Robin Nagle’s new book about NYC sanitation workers.

New York City is now considering adding another hurdle to becoming a city sanitation worker. Before taking the written and physical tests for this job, applicants may also have to win a lottery that will determine who’s eligible to take those tests. In addition to having brains and brawn, successful job applicants may need to be lucky.

The last time the tests were given, 37,000 people took them. Officials anticipate even more applicants but did not say why the job is so popular. Perhaps the reason is the job’s wages, health benefits and pension or the lingering effects of the recession. I’d like to think, however, that “Picking Up,” Robin Nagle’s new book about life as a New York City sanitation worker, is the reason for this enthusiasm.

“Picking Up” describes the daily lives of the men and women who collect New York City’s residential trash and recyclables. It details their backbreaking labor and deals frankly with the many dangers of their job. The book closely examines why, even though they are New York City’s “Strongest,” sanitation workers are ignored when they are working on the street. While this invisibility is not unusual for service workers in our culture, many people believe garbagemen are tainted by a dirty job. Even though we cannot live without the work they do, we are quite capable of not acknowledging their existence.

Nagle writes from experience. She is an anthropology professor at New York University with a deep interest in garbage. Her curiosity was sparked when, as a child, she realized that other campers had turned a bucolic campsite into a dump. She pursued this interest by teaching a seminar at NYU called “Garbage in Gotham: the Anthropology of Trash.” To learn more, she started riding on trucks with sanitation workers.

Yet she realized that to really understand garbage, she had to become a sanitation worker herself. After passing the written and physical tests, she went from observer to participant, even earning a commercial drivers license in order to drive a garbage truck. Now she was one of the invisible “garbage faeries” who makes other people’s trash go away.

“Picking Up” also describes the street sweeping and snow clearing tasks performed by these city crews. The chapters on both those operations bring an additional appreciation of the hard work they do to keep the Big Apple clean. Her description of the sanitation department’s bureaucracy and its endless forms add to our admiration for these workers.

This book is a joy to read. Nagle does not write in the normal dead academic style. Instead her prose soars as she describes the work she and her coworkers are doing. She takes a job that is looked down on and blesses it with respect.

I have only a few quibbles. The claim that recycling doesn’t do “squat” for global environmental health is unsubstantiated, an odd lapse for an academic. Moreover, the contributions and hard work of private sector garbagemen are not discussed even though they, not city workers, collect commercial trash and recyclables and construction and demolition debris.

These private sector carters and their workers collect twice as much trash and surely work just as hard as their public sector counterparts to keep New York City clean. They deserve equal respect.

Nonetheless, “Picking Up” provides invaluable insights into the daily realities of our industry. Pick up a copy today and enjoy it!

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on Nov 14, 2013

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What's Circular File?

Waste and recycling insights from Chaz Miller, state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association

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Chaz Miller

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington, D.C.
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