IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

The Pickup Artists

by Paul Hond
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 Robin Nagle (center) at a DSNY garage in Manhattan. / Photograph by Lauren Lancaster

To contain Robin Nagle’s ardor for garbage in five pages of recyclable magazine print requires acts of consolidation worthy of the mashing hydraulics of New York City’s 2,030 white sanitation trucks, whose two-person crews collect about 11,000 tons of municipal waste each day (and nearly another 2,000 tons of recyclables), so let’s cut to the chase: Morningside Heights, 6:10 a.m., midwinter, 14° F. Blueberry darkness. Nagle ’94GSAS strides up Broadway with a hiker’s gait, wearing a spruce-green jacket on whose back is written, in white letters, DSNY ANTHROPOLOGIST. Her head is covered with a beet-red, cylindrical wool hat that she knit herself. She’s here at this hour to help us better understand an event so commonplace, so essential, so successful, that we notice it only when it fails to occur — which is just one form of waste-related invisibility that Nagle breaks down in her new book, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, a compact volume jammed with observation sharp as the peeled-back license plates that cut workers’ calves as they move between curb and street, fragrant with a poetry of putrefaction (a garbage transfer station, with its mounds of rotting waste, is “nothing less than the juicy, pulsing, stench-soaked center of the universe”), colored with history and lingo and tough, gloves-on research.

“When people learn I was a uniformed New York City sanitation worker, they’re astonished,” Nagle says into the lunar freeze as she crosses West 111th. “If they found that out about you, they might or might not be astonished, but they’d be less so because you’re a boy. But in certain circles, there’d be people who’d say, ‘You did that work?’ Because you are supposed to fit into a different category of labor. And you are supposed to have different opportunities. And you are representative of that class that would never choose work that’s so physical and smelly. And ‘Oh, sanitation workers are’ — fill in the blank — ‘not bright, not ambitious, not capable.’ None of which is true.”

“Why do people think that?” we say.

Nagle pauses a long second. “I’m going to get wonky.”

“Please.”

“There are categories of labor that are focused on materials or functions that culturally we segregate. And we collapse those materials or functions with the people who have to deal with them. So if we disapprove of, or stigmatize, or don’t want to think about certain infrastructures and behind-the-scenes processes, we also disapprove of, stigmatize, or don’t want to think about the people responsible for those processes.”

“We don’t see them.”

“We learn not to see them.”

“Does guilt figure into this? We don’t see them because on some level we’re ashamed that they’re picking up our droppings, so to speak?”

“Yes. We do feel guilty, and we need a scapegoat, and sanitation workers are very convenient, because they’re out there every day. ‘I don’t like that pile of trash in front of my house, and they’re actually touching it and handling it, so they’re bad guys.’”

“And maybe I’m a bad guy for generating it. But that’s so buried, probably.”

“Buried, and also: ‘My little bag of trash is just such a little bitty piece in a big pile. I’m not responsible for that big pile.’”

One summer, when Nagle was ten, she went hiking in the Adirondacks with her father. As she walked through a green forest unspoiled by humanity, she happened upon a big pile: an unauthorized dump. The sight shocked her, and raised a few questions in her future-social-scientist’s brain. Where does garbage go? Who takes it there? Why do we make so much of it? In the early 2000s, while researching Picking Up, Nagle, by then a professor of anthropology at NYU, decided that to really understand the job she had to do the job. She took the test and was hired. After a few months, the difficulties of balancing two full-time jobs and a family caused her to resign, but she sought to stay connected. She remembered Mierle Laderman Ukeles, DSNY’s artist-in-residence since 1977, and came up with the idea of an anthropologist-in-residence, a nonpaying position that would allow her to continue her work with the department, which includes an oral-history project and plans for a sanitation museum. She has held the position since 2006.

“There’s a lot of attention given to garbage as a problem to solve, but almost none given to the human beings who make the system of garbage management work.”

Now, as she stomps up Broadway, Nagle glances down the side streets, where supers and porters have already lugged their buildings’ contributions to the curb. The sanitation trucks aren’t due until seven, but out on Broadway, the private carters — the green trucks — gobble pyramids of dark-bagged commercial waste. All this trash will leave the city. Since the closing of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill, the world’s largest, in 2001, New York’s waste has been shipped at great cost in dollars and diesel emissions to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina.

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