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Picking Up by Robin Nagle

How much time do you think about your trash? The garbage you put out on the street, the trash you throw into city wastebaskets, and (sadly) for some of you out there, the trash that you litter on the street. Not much right? We only really seem to think about it when it’s negatively affecting us in some way. When the kitchen trash smells terrible because you cleaned out the fridge and had something extra fragrant in it. Or because you accidentally left something you meant to throw away in your car or room and now it’s stinking up the place. I’ll admit it, once I get the trash out of my life in some way I forget all about it and have never really given much thought to what happens after it’s removed from my possession. I just know it’s permanently and promptly gone when I put it out.

So when Robin Nagle’s book Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City was published it got me thinking about my trash, other people’s trash, and the workforce that has made a career out of very efficiently picking up after everyone. It also got me thinking about why I had never thought about the topic before. After reading Nagle’s book it turns out that I’m not in the minority. That, in fact, sanitation workers make up a workforce that is largely unseen by the general public….unless something doesn’t run smoothly and in those cases the public tends to notice these public servants just enough to behave uglier than their garbage looks.

So here’s why I enjoyed the book and recommend you add it to your reading wish list…

1. Since Nagle has been the anthropologist-in-residence at the New York City’s Department of Sanitation since 2006 and has performed the work of a hired sanitation worker herself she is able to uniquely balance multiple perspectives while providing detailed accounts. We learn about what it takes to become a sanitation worker, what the job actually looks and feels like once one gets past the lengthy and strict application process, what the culture is like on the inside and what that translates to on the streets. Although Nagle doesn’t make it a focal point, it’s also interesting to see how she, as a woman, is received in a highly male dominated field.

2. Picking Up puts our role as the public and our relationship with sanitation workers into perspective. How we throw away our trash matters since it’s not in fact magically gone as I feel we have a tendency to feel. It’s actually going to another person– we’ve passed the baton– and our trash has not yet reached the finish line. This was definitely not something I ever thought about, how to throw things away so that another person could safely take the stuff somewhere else. This means wrapping knives in cushion so a sanitation worker doesn’t cut themselves when lifting the trash bag. It means disposing of hazardous chemicals in appropriate ways and marking the container as hazardous so it doesn’t explode onto the sanitation worker when it’s thrown into the truck. How we put out the trash is a matter of safety. I was extremely surprised to learn that being a sanitation worker has consistently been reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be “among the most deadly occupations” with over “10 times the overall-on-the-job fatality rate” (Nagle 58). This means, contrary to what most people might think, it’s actually significantly more dangerous to be a sanitation worker than to be a firefighter or a police officer. This is due, in part, to the amount of toxins sanitation workers are frequently exposed to, projectiles that fly out of the truck back at them, and the amount of hit and runs that happen to them while they’re on the job.

3. This anthropological look at particularly the New York Department of Sanitation also made me really think about how I function in the world and how we as a society need to start being better people to everyone– including those we traditionally take for granted. Nagle leaves off with a sanitation worker’s profound reflection:

“‘If you’re lucky,’ he said as he tossed a couple of bags into the hopper,’ you can go your whole life without ever having to call a cop.’ He pulled the handles; the hopper blade jerked into motion.’ And you can also go your whole life without ever calling a fireman.’ The blade shoved under the trash, its machinery groaning. ‘But you need a sanitation worker every single day'” (Nagle 224).

What this man says is not an opinion. It’s a fact. New York City, and any city for that matter, can only function if the Department of Sanitation does it’s job with the regularity and efficiency that it does. If we had to sit with our trash– live in our trash and the trash of others– life would get quite unbearable quite quickly, our health would deteriorate and disease would run rampant as it once did when filth and waste was a central part of everyday life.

This fact, and a variety of others, leads me to believe the take away from Nagle’s work (if nothing else) should be to treat public servants in sanitation with respect and dignity. I was appalled by the amount of tales Nagle was able to describe of sanitation workers and the DSNY in general getting cursed, assaulted, ran over and then left for dead, spit on, and just generally and grossly disrespected. Calling them dirty, ignoring them or treating them like what they do everyday is not vital isn’t acceptable. And now that there’s a book like this, neither is staying in the dark about one of the most important labor forces in our society.

So add Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City to the list, read it, and start thinking about your trash. 😉


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