IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK

The Pickup Artists

by Paul Hond
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“Not only did Sandy slam the city and create instant debris,” says Nagle, “it hit neighborhoods where lots of sanitation people live. In many cases, the workers who responded in the Rockaways, Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Staten Island, and Red Hook live in those places, and their own homes were destroyed. I don’t mean their basements flooded. I mean their homes were turned into kindling. But they couldn’t tend to that because they had to be on the frontlines twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, for all those weeks, answering the city’s need to clean up.”

Nagle speaks with an emotional hitch of the WE ♥ DSNY signs painted on the sides of flooded houses, and of a news photo of President Obama shaking hands with a san man.

“The workers carried an extraordinary burden. And they got real kudos.”

Even so, invisibility remains the rule. Nagle connects our blindness to the death fear: trash as a reminder “that nothing lasts, not even ourselves.” Why wouldn’t we want to avoid everything about it?

“I was astonished how completely invisible I was, and how easy it was to become invisible,” Nagle says, knitting away. “You put on that sanitation-worker uniform and you will achieve invisibility. I did occasionally get looks going to or from my work site if I traveled in uniform, because I don’t fit the stereotype. But once I was working, in the truck or the broom, I was, at the most, an obstacle to be navigated by motorists. Walking on the street in uniform, or standing behind the truck, I’m like the weather. I’m just there. I will come and I will go. If things have been rescheduled for snow, my truck will get to my pickup a little later than usual, which is a variation in the pattern that, if anyone notices it at all, is just a blip. You’re almost an element of the city as foundational and unthoughtworthy as a stop sign or a fire hydrant. You’re like moving street furniture.”

“How did that feel?”

“Alarming. Bemusing. Liberating. I had a certain sense of freedom because I realized nobody gave a shit about who I was or what I was doing, so long as I didn’t get in their way and I was in and out of their block fast. There’s a truck.”

White elephant. Crossing Broadway, headed west. Nagle puts away her knitting, drops her trash in the bin, goes outside into the whip-cold morning, and turns the corner.

The street slopes down to Riverside Park, overlooking a sweep of the park’s bare trees, stark against pearly river and milk-blue sky. The truck is the groaning, hungry creature of a frigid dawn. It hugs the hill. The south side of the street is peaked with piles of dark bags. Two sanitation workers, male, clad in bright chlorophyll-green vests, work in silence: one tosses the heavy bags from the curb to the street, two at a time; the other lifts those and throws them into the hopper, then works the handles on the side to activate the compactor blade, which descends inexorably on the load. Bags burst. Pop! Pop! Pop-pop-pop! Mists exude from ruptured objects. The truck keeps gorging. “The specs are for a max load of roughly twelve tons, but you can squeeze fifteen if you have the right conditions,” Nagle says. “That requires water, which helps things squish together better.”

“A chair — a chair just went in there.”

“Sure,” says Nagle. “See the mirror? I’ve seen those shatter into a bajillion shards of gorgeous little flying knives.”

The mirror, a pristine, above-the-mantel heavyweight, is devoured without incident. The driver tosses more bags from curb to street.

Splat!

“OK, that bag broke,” says Nagle, “but its contents did not fly out in the street. When that happens, it’s called ‘spillage.’” The driver hops into the cab and backs up while his partner guides him with clear and simple hand signals. The two are in constant communication, little of it verbal. “People who have been doing this together for a long time don’t need to talk much,” Nagle says. “They know each other’s rhythms so well that it becomes a kind of choreography.” The truck stops, the driver gets out, and the men resume their dance: bags fly two by two, land, lift again, and plop into the hopper. In minutes, with deceptive speed, the duo has conquered the block.

The truck rounds the corner at Riverside. Nagle, at the crest of the hill, watches it disappear.

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