Behind the Scenes with NYC's Garbage Collectors

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

This live interview with Robin Nagle originally aired on March 19, 2013. An edited version was aired as part of a special episode of The Brian Lehrer Show on July 5, 2013. 

NYU anthropologist Robin Nagle is a big fan of NYC’s garbage collectors and makes the case that theirs is the city’s most essential and most dangerous job.  She is a clinical associate professor of anthropology and urban studies at NYU and the Department of Sanitation's first official "anthropologist-in-residence".  She shares the inside knowledge she picked up studying and working as one of "New York's Strongest" in her new book: Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City.

→ Event - Booksigning: April 4th, 12:30-2PM at CityStore Books in the Municipal Building at Chambers & Centre

How to Speak Sanitation: A DSNY Glossary

air mail: Garbage thrown at the truck from windows above.

baskets: An assignment to empty public litter baskets along a defined route. It includes no truck money (see below). When you finish the route, you go back to the top and start over. It's one of the least popular assignments; junior workers are stuck on baskets.

blood money: Overtime for working snow once the novelty has been replaced by the relentlessness of too many hours and no days off.

board: The assignments board, which changes from day to day. Sanitation workers scrutinize it at the start and end of their shifts; it tells them what they are doing and with whom they are doing it. It is ruled by seniority.

disco rice: Maggots.

export: What happens to New York City's municipal waste now that there are no disposal options within the city's boundaries.

gate work: Lifting garbage cans and garbage bags over the gates that stand between a home and the street.

mongo/mungo: (N .) objects plucked/rescued from the trash; (v.) to take objects from the trash.

picking up: Where you work. Someone working in Greenwich Village around the university would say, “I pick up NYU.” Someone working in Brooklyn 6 would say, “pick up Park Slope.”

truck money: The extra pay a sanitation worker earns when assigned to collection or recycling. This was negotiated as part of the deal with the city when crews went from three- man to two- man in the mid- 1980s.

Excerpted from Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle, published in March 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2013 by Robin Nagle. All rights reserved.



Robin Nagle

Comments [31]

Sky from Manhattan

To all the current and former garbage collectors in New York City, I'm working on a story about the craziest things you've seen or picked up on your route? Drop me an e-mail,

Jul. 23 2014 03:46 PM
reg from New York

I don't understand who is commenting on this site. I guess you all work for sanitation.

My experience with NYSD is a terrible one. The guys won't pick up more than two garbage cans, all the while getting half of the garbage on the street. Additionally, they want you to pay them to pick up more than two garbage cans. I refuse and I reported them to 311. The sergeant came over and "suggested" that I take care of the guys. I told him off and and stated that I will report him, and all of a sudden the garbage truck "magically" reappeared and my garbage was picked up. After that day I did receive some bogus sanitation tickets all of which I fought and won.

I now have a camera on my house and the garbage men (that's what they literally are) know better than to mess with me. I just wish more new yorkers would report when these guys try to extort money. I pay enough real estate taxes as it is.

Jul. 05 2014 09:31 PM
Bruce from NYC

The sanit men and your building's janitor are the people who make the City's recycling programme work. They make everyone's "good intentions" a practical reality. For that alone, they deserve high praise.

Jul. 05 2013 01:43 PM
Nice from B'KLYN , NY

This comment is to " Robert" from NYC , maybe the garbagemen didn't break the bag,maybe it was the poor people looking for 5cent bottles or cans. If its by your building, you should clean it up and let the garbage men continue to pick up the 8 or more TONS of garbage that's on the route.

May. 30 2013 04:46 PM
Eileen Lyons Polakoff from New York City

I worked at the Sanitation Dept. from 1973 to 1978 as the first female employee in the garage at East 73rd St. & the FDR Drive. In late 1972 the department began using civilian employees to take care of paper work, scheduling the men on the Board, report # of tickets issued, and, in general, assist wherever we could to free up a San Man (or SanMen) to work behind a truck or some other work that was essential in the garage. Until the 1970's SanMen who had been injured on the job or who had developed a condition gradually while working behind a truck and needed "light duty" for an extended period of time. In some cases we had SanMen who had worked for forty or more years behind a truck and just couldn't do it anymore. (By the way until Commissioner Jerry Kretchmer changed the location of the exhaust pipes to above the truck, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the exhaust pipe was at the back of the truck and the SanMen were breathing in the exhaust for 60 or 70s years. Think about it. When I was with the Dept. I got to know the Artist-in-Residence with the Dept. named Mierle Laderman Ukeles who had a wonderful theory that the public didn't appreciate the SanMen and treated them as inferior because they dealt with "garbage" totally forgetting it was our garbage originally. Once we put it out at the street corner we mentally denied it was ours, and gave it to the SanMen to take care of. Her greatest expression of this was to cover a large collection truck with mirrors . . . to remind the public that it was their garbage in the truck! It drove around the city for special events and to pick up the garbage occasionally. She also attempted to shake the hand of every SanMan and personally Thank them for the work they did . . . I'm assuming she finished because that was what Mierle was all about. I met her while at the Department and really got to know her in my next job: working for her husband Jacob B. Ukeles at an office working closely with the Mayor of the City (first Beame and then Koch) while he planned a new agency for the City (and did a dozen other things) -- the Office of Operations. I worked for Jack for more than four years and he was a major influence on my career to this day.

I could talk about the Dept. of Sanitation and my years there for hours. It was a wonderful time and I think of my 400 male colleagues in District 6 & 8 at that garage often! Great male-to-female odds, you'd think I married someone from that cohort, but no, I married someone who wrote the news for television every day. That didn't last too long, but something I discovered while married -- genealogy or family history -- has lasted more than 30 years now.

Thanks for the memories,

Mar. 21 2013 09:51 PM
JosephSciortino from Nassau County

My father, Giuseppe Sciortino, immigrant from Sicily, joined the Sanitation Dept. in early 1930's as a temp. Mayor LaGuardia decided that "shape ups" should not continue because the city needed a more permanent work force. And my father got a job when he badly needed it during the depression.

Mar. 19 2013 02:36 PM
Lynn from New Jersey

Sanitation workers should get more credit for their hard labor. They are dedicated and work in all kinds of weather conditions. I raised three children to respect sanitation workers and not take that type of job for granted. It is an honest way to make a living. Just think where would we all be if not for the removal of unwanted trash.Trash collection separates our society from the not so fortunate third-world countries. As the saying goes, one man's trash is another's treasure and I think garbage men may have been amongst the 1st recyclers. God bless!

Mar. 19 2013 12:01 PM
francyne pelchar from Pelham Bay Park

Our sanitation workers are great. Always friendly when I'm out walking the dogs, and they do a great job keeping the neighborhood clean.

Mar. 19 2013 11:53 AM
jgarbuz from Queeens

I salute WNYC for letting this lady anthropologist to honor some of the hardest working yet unappreciated servants working for the people of New York. It's so refreshing for a media outlet to do so instead of just lionizing wackos, book scribblers , narcissistic celebrities, self-serving politicians, and the like.
I hope WNYC brings us more stories of such innocuous workers who do the tough jobs that rarely go reported on, or rarely given any credit whatsoever.

Mar. 19 2013 11:46 AM
clkq from nyc

I get very upset by the number of dog owners who allow their pets to urinate on garbage bags (probably the same ones who let them urinate on the side of buildings) but I always ask them to consider the worker who will have to pick up that bag.

Mar. 19 2013 11:43 AM
Carol Scott from Belle Harbor, Queens

I live in Belle Harbor, Queens, and the Sanitation Dept. has been heroic in their efforts to remove the debris from the storm. Workers have been here around the clock on many days, and they have gone above and beyond the call of duty. They are truly our heroes, and we cannot say how much we appreciate what they have done.

Mar. 19 2013 11:41 AM
Joel from Nyack

Here in Nyack we have a great public works department. They do an excellent job of picking up the garbage, keeping the streets clean and clearing the snow. Hard work, well done.

Mar. 19 2013 11:41 AM
John from Boerum Hill from Brooklyn

Could your guest please comment as to why food establishments and other businesses aren't required to consolidate their packaging garbage. Why must sanitation workers grapple with mounds of oozing bags and the public forced to stand in front of blocked bus stops on sidewalks covered with fructose slime?
The unsightly volume of garbage could be greatly reduced in this city before it's ever set out. I don't recall seeing central London or Paris piled high with garbage that sits out all day.

Mar. 19 2013 11:40 AM
Sarah from Brooklyn

I live across the street from a sanitation garage of street sweepers and I have to say that they are always very nice and courteous to us, the neighbors.

Mar. 19 2013 11:40 AM
Rachel from Sunset Park

Hi Brian,
I love garbage collectors. They work hard and do a lot of good for the city. What can help with garbage is whole communications plan regarding litter and what happens to litter. All city school kids should have a specialized curriculum that explains the ills of litter, the benefits of recycling, etc. A program like this in the 70s reduced smoking by a lot. If the kids know that litter is bad, the parents will stop too.

Mar. 19 2013 11:36 AM
elisa zazzera from hastings on hudson, ny

yes- sanitation workers are essential. i have fond memories of a nyc columbus day parade many years ago when the sanitation department marched by - i hooted & hollered & cheered them. for years i've been trying to get my town in westchester to include our sanitation crew to march in our parades. they deserve a standing ovation! thank you robin nagle

Mar. 19 2013 11:36 AM
Robert from RBC

In my earlier post I may have given a wrong impression about the sanitation workers, I definitely appreciate them and their work and are aware that the job is very difficult and I'm sure dangerous. I was just disappointed and complained about that one thing that then seem to not do and I think it's part of the contract. But certainly I am aware of their importance in this city where many pigs have no regard for trash and filth especially obvious on the subway tracks and cars. We don't see the signs posted as once we did about picking up after oneself. Even the curb your dog and pick up afterward signs are gone. Some younger people and probably new comers are unaware of the curb your dog policy and they allow their dogs to do what they don in the middle of sidewalks and on building stoops. And some don't pick up.

Mar. 19 2013 11:34 AM
Barlow from astoria

How about the sanitation workers at Ground Zero? I volunteered there and did drawings when off shrift, and some of the hardest work, and best scenes, in the first days, before the rain and the President visited, was the work they did with brooms...all that dust

Mar. 19 2013 11:34 AM
Sher from lower Manhattan

I do NOT forget every day the valuable service sanitation workers provide for us - AND that it is very Hard, Phyically demanding work! I try to personally thank and acknowledge them in passing, several times/year when I can, without breaking their rhythm.

Mar. 19 2013 11:34 AM
William from Manhattan

Terrific topic and guest! I'm always so interested in DSNY workers when I see them on the job - can't wait for the look behind the scenes. This book is going on my wish list (though I will buy not on Amazon but at my local independent bookstore - price is about the same, convenience better, and experience incomparable).

BTW, great producing on previous segment about Cyprus - kudos to the clever person who fact-checked the aside about Vermont GDP. That's worthy of Harper's Index.

Mar. 19 2013 11:33 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

So, is it true that Upper East Siders throw out fine china and flat screen tv's?

Mar. 19 2013 11:28 AM

In Denmark, they are respected members of the community and know the people of the neighborhood that they clean for personally, and have pay and benefits that are respectable.

Mar. 19 2013 11:27 AM
marty from prospect heights

Is the Mafia still involved in private sector of trash removal?

Doesn't the mafia still dump in public landfills

Mar. 19 2013 11:25 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Sanitation workers are awesome. That being said, why is NYC such a dirty city, is it a cultural thing?

Mar. 19 2013 11:24 AM
John from NYC

I agree with Robert above. While the job is dangerous the DSNY is not trying new methods to retrieve trash. They dismantled the Leaf Compost program due to some expense rationale. Why don't they invest in new vacuum equipment for this seasonal work in the fall or hire temp workers like they do for shoveling snow. The DSNY never attempts new approaches like other cities and seems to emphasize continually the need for overtime for the workers. Why don't they hire new workers instead to save payroll expense? Why do they need to maintain such a highly paid administrative staff to communicate to the public about the DSNY. The Deputy Commissioner for Public Information for DSNY should be merged into some centralized communications bureau and save the payroll for new DSNY workers on the street.

Mar. 19 2013 11:23 AM
beaglelover from Queens

I remember many years ago when John Deluria was head of the sanitation union and they went out on strike. No one doubted who was the most important city employee after that and no one has heard any discord from the sanitation workers union since. They get what they ask for and, in my opinion, what they earn, the hard way!!!

Mar. 19 2013 11:20 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Garbage collectors and all the people who clean up after us are really the most important people in our society. Think how you'd feel if you were waiting at the airport for a flight and needed to use the restroom and when you got in there, it was so filthy you couldn't breathe. Or remember the garbage strike a few years ago when the City started to stink and the rat and cockroach populations started to increase.

On the other hand, our collective work ethic seems to have taken a nosedive lately and it is more important than ever for workers to be trained properly, to understand that NOT doing their jobs correctly can be grounds for termination, and for supervisors to make unscheduled visits and tours to make sure that the work is being done properly. Garbage collection that isn't done properly leaves garbage on the street, destroys owners' garbage cans, destroys cars parked near collection sites.

Any job worth doing is worth doing correctly.

Mar. 19 2013 10:57 AM
augenblick from SI

As someone who's been involved in the cleanup efforts after Hurricane Sandy, I see Sanitation Workers as heroes. They did more for victims than any other agency, working around the clock to pick up the mountains of garbage we were putting out and coordinating with volunteers to place containers throughout the neighborhood. Thank you DSNY!

Mar. 19 2013 10:55 AM
Leah from South Harlem

I want to know how much, as a tax-paying citizen of NYC, I am entitled to really KNOW about what happens to trash and recycling after it's picked up. I see people in my building "recycling" filthy containers, leaving bottle tops on, etc. Also, why is it practically impossible to recycle things that are perfectly (technically) recyclable, such as yogurt containers?

Paul Hawkin wrote in his important 1999 book THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE that average people won't continue to do something voluntarily if it's not attractive. He said we need a whole new service class who'll be glad to do this work in exchange for PAY. I heartily agree.

Most average citizens aren't even where they're supposed to be now. We need to leapfrog to a better model.

Your guest's thoughts?

Mar. 19 2013 10:44 AM
Robert from NYC

I'm sorry but the garbage collectors do not do as good a job as they did years ago. I don't deny that they have a dangerous and difficult job, but the job itself has changed over the years whereby if they break a bag while lifting it to the truck they leave the mess on the street. They no longer have the large brooms on the side of the truck to sweep up that kind of a mess. How can a sanitation department allow garbage to be left for the building superintendent pick up. Their rationalization is that the bag was probably closed improperly or the bag defective and it's not their fault that it broke. But is that really the point! The bag broke, just sweep it up and dump in the truck. Often the mess left isn't seen by the building caretaker until later in the day and sometimes an inspector has seen the mess and tickets the building. I'm sorry but I think if your title includes sanitation in it and you ignore a mess then something is wrong.

Mar. 19 2013 10:07 AM
brooklyn_Mom from Brooklyn

Garbage Collectors Essential. You bet they are, we could not live without them! Take my Garbage P L E A S E -- especially the "disco rice."

Mar. 19 2013 09:34 AM

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