The alarm is the wind-up kind with a fire-bell clang. It shatters my sleep at 4 a.m. I sit bolt upright in bed and say aloud to myself, “The hardest part of the job is getting up.”
The officers tell us this several times a day. We are a motley collection of 121 men and four women in a class of recently hired New York City sanitation workers—”garbage men” in common parlance—and so far, only a handful of days into our new career, the depth and persistence of our fatigue is the biggest surprise of the job.
I don my uniform, a janitor-green color officially called “spruce.” Starting this year, every sanitation worker must have his name embroidered on his shirt. The new policy is meant to assist the many systems of surveillance that come with the job, but the crisp white letters look sharp on the dark cloth and I stand a little straighter.
On the street, the asphalt is shiny under a pattering rain that makes the darkness seem deeper than usual. I point my car east and half an hour later am in Queens at the Central Repair Shop, a massive two-building garage with three floors above ground and three below. It takes up more than a whole city block. Heading into the main entrance, up a steep ramp, feels like climbing into a cave in the side of a small mountain. The complex houses heavy equipment and the crews that repair it, as well as four separate sanitation garages, the Queens West borough office, and part of the Safety and Training Division.
Safety and Training is responsible for, among other things, transforming new uniformed employees into members of a quasi-military organization (as the department describes itself). Our class comprises only some of this year’s several hundred hires. We’re at the midpoint of our formal training, which lasts three weeks. Real training, of course, will continue for years.
So far, we’ve listened to a lot of folks talk at us—chiefs and a clinic nurse and credit union reps—and everyone starts with a hearty “Congratulations,” which is appropriate, because getting this far was not easy. Forty-thousand people took the written test. A much smaller number was eligible for the physical test. Then there was a battery of medical and even psychological exams, followed by days at the department’s personnel division filling out reams of paperwork, including a 20-page booklet that took me an entire hour to complete. At any moment in the process, for a host of reasons, a candidate can be disqualified and kiss the job goodbye. I had heard guys say that becoming a sanitation worker was like winning the lottery; now I understand what they meant.
But no one had warned us how tired we would be, and we quickly learn that we get no sympathy. We’re directed to stand in the back of the classroom if we have trouble staying awake. “I don’t want to hear this!” admonishes a supervisor, thumping the table with his fist in imitation of someone’s head, fast asleep. I haven’t yet heard that thump, but plenty of us have found our way to the back of the room. I was there a few times, until one morning in frustration I pulled out a sock in progress and started knitting under the table. With the distractible part of my mind focused on that simple task, it was easy to stay alert, though my classmates thought I was a bit odd.
When a collection of individuals must be molded into a cohesive whole, sleep deprivation is a common starting point. Groups as diverse as military units, nunneries, and New Age cults use this method. Surely sanitation officials know that being in uniform and ready to go by 6 in the morning leaves us exhausted, and I wonder if sleep deprivation is an official part of our training. When I suggest the idea to friends on the job, they tell me I’m nuts, but the weariness we wear like a weight is a sign that some old part of us is getting sloughed off so that a new Us—the united, uniformed Us that the Department of Sanitation relies on for its most important front-line work in the streets—might come into being.
A buddy who has worked behind the truck for nearly two decades laughs when I complain about getting up so early. “That’s where you learn humility,” he says. Others are more pragmatic. Early hours are a small price for steady pay, job security, benefits. “You’ll have a paycheck for the rest of your life,” we are told over and over. “This job will let you raise a family, buy a house, send your kids to college.” The American Dream is laid out before us as shiny as the wet streets outside; all we have to do is hang in for 20 years.