The Pickup Artists

by Paul Hond
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A

“We have to recalibrate how we live,” Nagle says. “And to do that, we have to understand as much as possible about all the systems — oh, a broom! There’s a broom!”


“See the blinking yellow lights? That’s a broom. Let’s go up there.”

Nagle walks briskly toward West 113th and those yellow lights, past still-shuttered shops and scraps of trash on the sidewalk that eluded capture. She picks up her thread.

“In order to recalibrate, we need to understand as best we can all the systems on which we rely to sustain this lifestyle. Garbage creation. Garbage collection. Garbage management. These are huge factors in climate change and environmental crises of all kinds. There’s been 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. If we have a better grasp of what this is all about, then we can understand — perhaps — how to change it in a way that is effective and positive. OK, now that’s a broom. Let me tell you about the broom.”

The broom. A boxy white street-sweeping machine with a quirky aura of modesty and cleverness, like a Pixar character.

“Its nickname is the bumper car,” Nagle says. “You don’t drive a broom; you operate a broom. You sit in what I call the cockpit (nobody calls it that — they would think that’s nuts) and you have an array of dials and gauges around you for things like how much water you have, though when it’s this cold you’re not going to use water because it’ll freeze. But water suppresses dust beautifully, so when you’re sweeping it’s much more effective if you can spray water in front of you.”

Nagle, during her sanitation career, spent many a solitary hour in the cockpit.

“There are two of these round brushes on the side — they look like big pizza pans with bristles. They’re at an angle that is carefully calibrated. You control the speed and the force. There’s a real skill to operating a broom. It takes a while to learn. More accidents happen with the broom than the truck, because the broom operator is constantly monitoring her mirrors and her gauges as well as the street.” The broom sits idle, waiting for the parked cars in front of the NO PARKING signs to move. “Brooms have a narrow window of time in which they can legally go in and sweep,” Nagle says. “Cars still at the curb can get a ticket. But without an enforcement agent, a broom can’t make anyone move. The operator can honk but can’t write a ticket.” The broom swings into a space between cars, sweeps, maneuvers back out. “That’s called sniping.” Nagle’s voice rises in empathy. “That broom can’t wait. If it waits for everyone to clear, it’ll never finish this stretch before that narrow window is closed.”

Photograph by Lauren LancasterIt’s time to thaw out before the trucks come. Nagle goes into Nussbaum & Wu (blessedly open since six), orders tea, and sits at a table facing the glass doors so she can watch for a white truck. Two feet away stands a swing-lid trash bin with a paper plate stuck in its maw. Nagle sips from a paper cup. No absurdity is lost on her, even at this hour.

“We’re sitting here at a coffee shop with paper containers of tea and coffee,” she says. “I have a bagel wrapped in wax paper on a paper plate, with a paper napkin. I’m going to throw it all out when I’m done.” It almost sounds brazen. “But if I save it and recycle it and make sure that no piece of the leftover goes into the garbage, I’ve just done a good thing for the planet. Right?”

“Um —”

“No. It’s too small. If I went back to the factory that manufactured the paper and found a way to make sure that the production of this paper plate — the bleaching process that makes it white, the machines that make the crimping around the edge — was carbon-neutral and that it was a zero-waste plant, would that make a difference? To the planet?”

“Well —”

“No. Because it’s still too small. If you took every paper manufacturer in the US and they all calibrated to be zero-waste and carbon-neutral, would that make a difference to the planet?”

“Er —”

“In a tiny, tiny way, yes. But enough to begin to tilt the scales and really address climate change and the particulates in the air? Not yet.” According to the EPA, Nagle says, municipal solid waste accounts for 3 percent of the nation’s waste stream. The other 97 percent is mainly industrial, commercial, medical, manufacturing, agricultural, construction and demolition (C&D), and mining. That paper cup is a grain of sand. “When we talk about New York City generating 11,000 tons of garbage per day, that’s just household waste. C&D is approximately another 11,000 to 13,000 tons. So is commercial waste. That means New York City generates something close to 40,000 tons a day. Yet there’s a lot of attention and resources given to municipal curbside recycling, and it is important, but not as important as we teach. We tell children, ‘When you recycle that plastic bottle, you save the planet.’ Nonsense.”

Log in with your UNI to post a comment
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (72)

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time