The query is on a T-shirt, our gift for participating in a blood drive on our last day of training. Two weeks ago, when we were first asked to donate, only a quarter of the class volunteered. Then the supervisor with the sign-up list narrowed his eyes, closed the classroom door, and reminded us that we’d be coming off a 4:00-to-midnight shift the night before. If we gave blood, he said sweetly, we’d get to leave the classroom and lie down on a cot. The number of volunteers tripled.
While we wait to get stuck, we are a little giddy. We’re reunited as a class for the first time in more than a week; we’ve just learned our garage assignments; we’re more tired than ever (if that’s possible); and some of us are plain terrified of needles. We talk louder than usual, tell dumber jokes, tease each other more pointedly.
Next week, when we report to our garages, the real work and the real weariness begin. I’ve been in collection trucks and on the streets with sanitation crews in various parts of New York City for the last two years, flinging trash and asking questions. I’m writing a book about the essential but unacknowledged labor of sanitation workers, so I know a little more about the job than most new hires.
Today I lie on my cot, consider my classmates, and feel a disconcerting rush of concern for them.
I want to warn these guys (and four girls) that when they start hefting their share of 10 or 13 or even 20 tons of trash a day, their bodies will ache in ways they never knew possible.
I want to tell their families to be patient with their new sanitation son or husband or mother because junior workers are forced to bounce all over the clock. A dreaded schedule called a “round robin,” most common for newbies, is especially grueling: They’ll work from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon, return at midnight to work until 8:00 the next morning, then report back at 4:00 that afternoon.
New hires know that snow is a big part of the job in the winter. With plows attached to the front of collection trucks, Sanitation becomes one large snow-fighting unit. But they don’t yet know that their overtime pay is called blood money. “When it snows, the city owns you,” a supervisor told us flatly. Veterans of big storms in 1996, 2001, and 2003, tell of working 13-hour shifts for 18 or 27 or 36 days straight, of sleeping in their cars because they were too exhausted to drive home.
I know, too, that sanitation workers will learn to read a neighborhood more closely than the most sophisticated sociologist just by observing what it discards, but no one will care about their insights. In fact, no one will care much about them at all, and I want to shield them from this insult most of all.
Precisely because of the success of Sanitation—it transformed the crisis of chronically fouled thoroughfares into a smooth process of regular trash collection and street cleaning, and has been doing the job pretty well for nearly 120 years—the public doesn’t have to think about sanitation workers and their labors. But worse, it scorns them. Examples of this attitude are endless. School teachers warn students to study hard or risk becoming garbagemen. Dog-walkers let their pooches pee on a garbage bag at exactly the moment a san man is reaching to pick it up and are irate when he protests. A woman offers the day’s newspaper to a san worker, then inquires hesitantly, “Can you read?” A radio commercial for a dating service asks, “Why settle for a garbageman when you could go out with a stockbroker?”
While eating at a sidewalk cafe not long ago, my 5-year-old and I met a pediatrician recently retired from the teaching staff of a major New York hospital. When she saw my son in a child-sized DSNY T-shirt, the doctor looked puzzled.
“Now, why,” she asked, “would you let your son wear a garbageman’s shirt?”
I thought of the sanitation men and women who had let me work with them over the last couple of years, and of the new ones with whom I’d been hired. I thought of the long hours, heavy lifting, and public disdain that comes with chasing garbage so endless that in the trash industry it’s called the waste stream.
I thought of the nightmare of New York without a Department of Sanitation. It was created out of the Department of Health in the late 19th century, when the germ theory of disease finally won public acceptance. Once street cleaners were organized to collect household refuse effectively for the first time in the city’s history, infant and child mortality rates plummeted. The DSNY has saved the lives of more children than 100 pediatricians ever could.
“Because it’s the most important uniformed force on the streets of the city,” I answered.
She responded with the merry laughter of disbelief.