On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City
By Robin Nagle
Farrar Straus Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374299293, 280pp.
Publication Date: March 19, 2013
America's largest city generates garbage in torrents 11,000 tons from households each day on average. But New Yorkers don't give it much attention. They leave their trash on the curb or drop it in a litter basket, and promptly forget about it. And why not? On a schedule so regular you could almost set your watch by it, someone always comes to take it away.
But "who," exactly, is that someone? And why is he or she so unknown?
In "Picking Up," the anthropologist Robin Nagle introduces us to the men and women of New York City's Department of Sanitation and makes clear why this small army of uniformed workers is the most important labor force on the streets. Seeking to understand every aspect of the Department's mission, Nagle accompanied crews on their routes, questioned supervisors and commissioners, and listened to story after story about blizzards, hazardous wastes, and the insults of everyday New Yorkers. But the more time she spent with the DSNY, the more Nagle realized that observing wasn't quite enough "so she joined the force herself." Driving the hulking trucks, she obtained an insider's perspective on the complex kinships, arcane rules, and obscure lingo unique to the realm of sanitation workers.
Nagle chronicles New York City's four-hundred-year struggle with trash, and traces the city's waste-management efforts from a time when filth overwhelmed the streets to the far more rigorous practices of today, when the Big Apple is as clean as it's ever been.
Throughout, Nagle reveals the many unexpected ways in which sanitation workers stand between our seemingly well-ordered lives and the sea of refuse that would otherwise overwhelm us. In the process, she changes the way we understand cities and ourselves within them.
“Meticulous . . . [Nagle’s] passion for the subject really comes to life.”
—The New York Times
“With Picking Up, Nagle joins the likes of Jane Jacobs and Jacob Riis, writers with the chutzpah to dig deep into the Rube Goldberg machine we call the Big Apple and emerge with a lyrical, clear-eyed look at how it works.”
—Sydney Brownstone, Mother Jones
“In her 10-year, sometime-firsthand study of ‘san man’ crews, cultural anthropologist Robin Nagle shines a light on their invisible lives . . . [she] evokes the physical and psychological toll of this dangerous, filthy, necessary work.”
“Nagle worked as a garbage woman to better understand her subject, and that experience, combined with years of research, results in an intimate look at the mostly male work force as they risk injury and endure insult while doing the city’s dirty work. She also provides a fascinating capsule history of the department and the city’s 400-year relationship with waste.”
“War correspondents routinely embed with military units, and it’s only appropriate that Robin Nagle embedded with the people who daily go to war against New York’s city’s unimaginably unending flow of trash. In gripping and often harrowing detail, Robin Nagle shows us the unbelievable amount of crap the Strongest go through (and put up with) to keep a city clean, navigable and safe, all times of year, especially winter. Thanks to Nagle, you will never think about snow the same way again.”
—Robert Sullivan, author of Rats and My American Revolution
“Gamely braving ‘indications of unwelcome,’ Nagle – bad-ass and brilliant--insinuates herself inside sanitation garages to decode the folkways of a vast, and essential, city bureaucracy. Scholarly and funny, Picking Up is an irresistible work of participatory journalism and cultural anthropology.”
—Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land
“Robin Nagle’s brilliant book does not simply teach us about a reviled occupation. It serves as an inspiration to open our eyes to the unnoticed and unmarked experiences of city life.”
—Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk
“Picking Up eloquently conveys the human stories behind the dirty work of trash collection. With a literary sensibility, Robin Nagle gets inside the guts of one of the largest rubbish hauling systems in the world, and, in doing so, reveals the dignity of these filthy, at times demeaning, always brutal labors. This book will change how you think about the people who haul away your trash.”
—Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong and Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage
“Robin Nagle’s Picking Up brings a necessary ‘bottom-up’ approach to the chronic problems of collection and disposal of municipal waste. The very human quality of the book should remind us that sanitation workers are not faceless drones, but public servants taking on tasks that any of us would shun. Nagle shows us that solid waste service might be a mundane task, but without it we couldn’t even step out of our houses without a sensory and environmental assault. Picking Up is a fine corrective.”
—Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City