The Pickup Artists

by Paul Hond
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Nagle pulls from her bag a ball of yarn the same red as her hat and begins knitting. She grew up in the Adirondack village of Saranac Lake and spins her own yarn. Once, while on collection on the Upper East Side, she found, by the curb, a bag of pure wool of the highest quality, over a hundred dollars’ worth. That was serious mongo. Picking Up’s glossary defines mongo as “(n.) objects plucked/rescued from the trash; (v.) to take objects from the trash.” It’s against DSNY regulations to mongo, Nagle says, but workers quietly indulge. Lamps, books, air purifiers, microwave-oven plates. “A bag tipped over, a ball of yarn fell out, and I understood why guys who mongo tell you, ‘The street gives you things that are yours.’” Nagle is open to cosmic suggestions. Primo yarn? How could she not mongo? “That would be like refusing a gift from the universe,” she says. “Which is rude.”

While Nagle is comfy on academic panels theorizing and psychologizing about consumption and disposal, Picking Up is told from the trenches. And it’s not just about the street: Nagle examines the “eye-crossing” paperwork of the DSNY bureaucracy and the folkways of a thoroughgoing male culture that was slow to warm to a female newbie professor. It wasn’t until 1986 that women were admitted to the ranks. Of today’s 7,000-strong force, about 220 are women. Nagle reports that gender attitudes have improved, at the expense of macho assumptions about what it takes to be one of New York’s Strongest. Still, she encountered locker-room skepticism of a woman’s ability to lift and heave bloated bags, operate trucks and mechanical brooms, endure extreme weather and rats and maggots (AKA “disco rice”) and the intense stink that, at its transfer- station apotheosis, attains, for Nagle, a kind of olfactory purity. “It’s easy to think of the smell as abhorrent,” she says, “but at the same time, you have to let go. It’s like the cold. Or the heat. At some point you have to stop fighting it.”

“I was astonished how completely invisible I was, and how easy it was to become invisible. You put on that uniform and you will achieve invisibility.”

Gag-inducing odors, disco rice, bone-snapping cold — these are among the job’s gentler dispensations. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics places sanitation consistently among the top-ten most hazardous jobs. Picking Up enumerates the perils: projectiles shooting from the hopper (“bolts, nails and screws, plastic bottles, cans, shoes, mattress springs, wood fragments, glass shards”), noxious materials (“It would be difficult, if not impossible, to catalog all the toxins to which sanitation workers are exposed”), and, of course, traffic. More sanitation workers in the US are killed on the job per labor hour than police officers or firefighters — which makes one wonder why there isn’t, to Nagle’s knowledge, a municipal monument to sanitation workers. Nagle’s museum would address this deficit: it would educate visitors on the human side of sanitation and introduce them to figures like Colonel George E. Waring Jr., the engineer who, having designed Central Park’s drainage system and led the Fourth Missouri Cavalry in the Civil War, became, in 1895, New York’s Commissioner of Street Cleaning. (The Department of Street Cleaning, founded in 1881, is the forerunner of the DSNY.) Waring achieved what was generally considered to be impossible: he raised an army of broom-carrying, white-uniformed men (white to signify hygiene) and sent them into battle against a gigantic, waist-deep, vermin-crawling, disease-spawning enemy that festered in the reeking streets of a city plagued by yellow fever and cholera. Like no one before or since, Waring cleaned up this town. “San men were heroes,” says Nagle. “There were Broadway plays about them.” So what happened? “We got used to it being done well. We take it for granted that they’re out there every day. We don’t have to worry about it, because they’re out there.”

But one recent event — a historic storm last fall — brought sanitation workers more credit than they’d received since Colonel Waring’s men subdued the Five Points.

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