Chasing Sanitation

Falling in Love with New York's Strongest

:: Always with the Why? ::

It’s deep – this thing with me and Sanitation. And it’s got a life of its own.

Why I thought about Chasing Sanitation for a year is really beyond me.

Why I still think about them –
when it snows,
the Yankees win –

I’m still not too sure.

It changes on any given day – the things I tell smart people, people with sway, people who need to be educated, careless people, thoughtful people, overachieving people. But the real why?
I talked about it a lot, asked a lot of questions – before I talked to Liz, before I made a proposal, before I made the first phone call to the Dept. of Sanitation’s Public Information Office. I just couldn’t get over them – they were everywhere – this is not normal for Chicago, Memphis, Los Angeles.

Or, OR, there’s something about Sanitation in New York that I couldn’t ignore. But in talking about it, in fleshing it out and gauging interest, from my friends, colleagues and cocktail party attendees, I’d get these assumptive responses.

“I’m doing a project on the Dept. of Sanitation.”

Are you an anthropologist?

“No, no – I’m just a writer.”

Oh. Are you doing an exposè on sanitation in New York?”

“No, no – It’s not about garbage. It’s about them – the street crews – the people.”

Oh, I see. You a graduate student? A sociologist? You studying municipal unions?

“No. Um – they’re friendly, and they’re gorgeous, and they’re everywhere. I wanted to get to know them, so I’m interviewing them. See?”

These overeducated conversations sort of drive me crazy. Like I have to have some sort of justifiable agenda to be interested in these people? Why can’t I just see them as beautiful and comforting?

It made it clearer to me that some people know that they should care about who takes out their garbage, but don’t feel the need to connect to them regularly as people. Such is the great divide of a person doing a job and the person.

But of the Sanitation Workers? What would they say when I told them I was putting together a project on them?

WHY ???

“Why not?”

Cause we stink! I don’t stink, we don’t stink, but that’s what people think. Well, this guy stinks but it’s not because of the garbage, know what I’m saying? HA! No, we got showers back there, but that’s what people think – we don’t smell like garbage. Garbage smells like garbage.

“That’s sort of why. People don’t know you. I don’t know you, but you keep my neighborhood clean. I want to know who cleans up after me. I guess that’s why.”

We’re garbage men. Nobody cares about us.

“I do.”

And then you couldn’t shut them up.

From an evening walk one night in Park Slope, I’ve thought they were my protectors. One guy doing baskets on 5th Avenue chatted me up, and he was all tatted up and friendly and so what if he was flirting with me. Who knows? Maybe keeping some conversation going at midnight on the graveyard shift on a physical labor job is better than bitching about it the whole time. In any event, I found the Sanitation Workers to be my friendly neighborhood protectors, and I just had a feeling about them.

There was magic around them.

See, there’s something about a man who takes out the garbage, every day. And later, I would find out, there’s something extra special about the woman who takes out your trash every day. And there’s definitely something about this woman who hates taking out her trash every day.

But when we showed up one sulty, rainy morning in August at 51st and 1st in Sunset Park in 2008, something got shoved into motion. Wary that we had showed up just to complain, the garage foreman, Paul and the superintendent Domenic talked to us anyway. They made their phone calls downtown to check to see if we were authorized. I kept telling them we weren’t. We stood there, blinking, smiling, hoping, sweating. We weren’t leaving. We had to chase them once, at least. And Paul and Domenic – they seemed just happy to getting something other than negative attention.

It wasn’t until Hal, who lives up the street from me, came bounding up to us being shook down by the DSNY, that Paul and Domenic looked the other way. “Hey, I know that girl! She’s my neighbor!” I told him what we were up to and Hal said, “Hey guys, I’ll vouch for her – she’s my neighbor.”

I gotta tell you – my family never vouched for me. And here, this guy that’s just seen me walk to and from work to the train for a year vouched for me. On his turf.

Thank god for Hal. Little does he know that he set this whole thing spinning. Sort of blessed it. Because Hal vouched for me and Liz, Paul and Domenic relented and looked the other way when they weren’t supposed to.

So why am I Chasing Sanitation?

Magic. There’s Magic.

::: ::: :::

Responses (3) to “:: Always with the Why? ::”

  1. frank palmieri says:

    You make me smile. This makes me smile. Add that to your list of why’s

  2. Lance Lewin says:

    Thank You! I’m a 10 year veteran of the Dsny Manhattan East 3 garage and your kind words and photos make it all worth while. we are overlooked and underappreciated but oh so necessary. i look forward to attending the exhibit

  3. Sanmanbx9 says:

    Thank you. I am damn proud of being a sanman. This makes me smile also. Thank you again

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