Anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation, Robin Nagle, has always been obsessed with garbage. In Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, she goes on a quest to understand the importance of trash.
What inspired this book?
As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by trash—how casually we create it, how little we know about where it goes, how serious are its environmental consequences. But one set of questions kept sparking my interest more than any other. Who takes our garbage away? What’s that job like? Why would anyone choose it? When I couldn’t find the answers, I decided to go out and learn them myself.
What is the role of an anthropologist-in-residence?
I want the world to know more about the people who keep New York alive by keeping it clean, and [I want to] thereby give people a better sense of who does that work in all our towns and cities. Picking Up is one part of the effort, but there’s also an oral project and an initiative to organize the Department of Sanitation archives. We’ve also taken real steps toward founding a Museum of Sanitation.
Why do you think the sanitation workers are “the most important people” on the city’s payroll?
No city can thrive without an effective solid waste management structure. If the department didn’t take away our old stuff, we’d never have room for new stuff, and the economy would falter. If sanitation workers weren’t taking away our many tons of trash every day, New York would be a public health nightmare, which, in fact, it was for hundreds of years.
What is the relationship between the stereotypical image of the “garbage man” and the people profiled in the book?
I never met a sanitation worker who fit a “garbage man” stereotype, but the image is stubborn. It’s one of the reasons that many department employees won’t tell their neighbors where they work. I’m hoping that my book gives readers a more complete understanding of—and empathy for—the real people on the job. Those who “pick up New York” (as department slang describes the work) are not much different from anyone else.
Why do you say the greatest obstacle to being a good sanitation worker is going to work every day?
Workers on the day shift must be at roll call, in uniform, ready to go, by 6:00 in the morning. Depending on the commute, it means some people must set their alarm clocks for 3:30a.m. They must get up in the middle of the night. Multiply such a schedule by five or six days a week for a couple of decades, and it takes a toll.