When hundreds of tons of garbage are heaped in one place, the stink is overwhelming—but only at first. Sanitation workers swear that you get used to it, and by the end of my on-the-job training (OJT), I no longer minded it.
The stench is the cloying, frowsy odor of an over-fecund culture. We produce and consume in vast quantities and at great speed, and the refuse has to go somewhere. No matter the individual components, when it’s all mashed together, trash generates a signature smell. In a transfer station in Istanbul last year, I closed my eyes and swore I was in a transfer station in New York. Follow garbage trucks in Paris, in Rio de Janeiro, in London, and the smell is the same. (The truck technology is pretty similar, too.)
The transfer stations—otherwise known as dumps—are where the city turns over household trash to private companies that charge millions of dollars to move it to new locations via trucks, trains, or barges. My recent OJT consisted of driving full trucks on the 4:00 to midnight shift from a garage in the Bronx to various nearby dumps.
I drove collection trucks during training at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn (see Wednesday’s diary) but this didn’t prepare me for the experience of steering a full one through the South Bronx in rush-hour traffic on a six-lane highway at dusk. Motorists have no pity for garbage trucks and will do anything to avoid falling in behind one; during OJT, I often cut off a driver in the course of switching lanes. The driver always responded with enthusiastic gestures of ire.
The truck perplexed me; I seemed unable to understand its size. Several times I nearly side-swiped a car or street sign on my right. My partner, a seasoned san man, saved us from disaster by grabbing his steering wheel and moving us slightly left. The trucks are “dual op”—both sides have steering wheels, brakes, and gas pedals—the happy side effect of which is fewer accidents for new hires.
My partner had worked out of this garage for nearly 10 years and warned me about every sharp bank and unexpected pothole, but still I took many bumps too quickly and almost slammed our heads into the ceiling of the cab or bounced him out of the truck entirely (we wore seatbelts but drove with the truck doors folded open, otherwise we’d have been dripping with sweat).
I most disliked dumping split-body packer trucks, often used for recyclables. Instead of a single big hopper in the back like a conventional packer truck, split-bodies have two side-by-side hoppers, one for metal and the other for paper. They must be dumped at two different transfer stations
Dumping paper requires three steps. First, we back onto a scale in a narrow driveway so the truck can be weighed. Then we pull out, drive down the street, and back into a warehouse to unload the paper. Finally, we pull out once more, return to the driveway with the scale, and back up for a final weighing. This complicated process tells us how much paper we delivered to the recycler.
I was good at backing up at Floyd Bennett Field, but tonight, on OJT, I’m inept. If the truck isn’t aimed precisely when backing onto the paper scale, the driver has to pull out and start over, but then the scale goes haywire and must be recalibrated. This, I’ve been told, drives the scale operator nuts. He goes ballistic over small things, and messing up the scale is a big thing. Needless to say, I mess up the scale.
Dumping garbage is much simpler, since the packer trucks have a single hopper. I love the transfer station on the shore of the Harlem River, where the water glints like aluminum foil and the grasses along the banks nod in the breeze. We drive easily over the scale and head up a road into a low-slung building as big as a few football fields. The heavy smell embraces us as soon as we cross the threshold. A mist meant to settle dust and counter the odor drifts from nozzles on the ceiling. In the dim light, it’s a fog that sits gently on immense berms of trash, which are continually sculpted by a bulldozer with spiked metal wheels.
Backing up here requires no finesse, though when I brake, the truck slides a few feet in the muck that coats the floor. My partner and I remove the pins from either side of the hopper at the back of the truck, then pull the lever that will bring the hopper straight up. Imagine an ant queen with a long, narrow body, the back third of it jointed and flexible: The hopper rises slowly, the noise combining with the thrum of the truck in a deafening drone.
Once the hopper is completely open, I work another lever to expel the garbage. Compacted trash being squeezed out the back of a collection truck looks like—forgive me for this unsavory analogy—an immense, slowly excreted turd. And the noise is overwhelming. It joins the din of the other dumping trucks that surround us, as we add our deposit to the steaming, mist-covered mounds.