:: The Chase ::
December 30, 2008
He’s a good guy. He’s the guy that you can call when you need to be taken to the airport. He tries to be a good guy. He’ll tell you that. He’ll also say there were a lot of years of his screwing up. But he’s a good guy. He’s Schmekel the Airport Guy.
(Oh, he’s going to looove that. )
Each Sanitation Worker I interview – salt of the earth. I keep digging … deeper and deeper, more and more different Sanitation Workers, and each one reveals some other layer of ground-in integrity, the ownership of humanity’s flaws, proud gratitude and a dogged humility.
“Who am I to talk? There’re always two sides to every story… I’m just sayin,’”
Andrew says a few times throughout the interview. He just wants to find the balance of things.
His partner’s Johnny Chest Pains. His supervisor is “usually a nervous wreck about everything.” Andrew’s life motto: “Don’t Get Nervous.” He’s just trying to be the calm in the center of every hurricane. It ain’t easy, but it’s his schtick. Andrew tries to keep perspective, so everyone keeps perspective.
Johnny Chest Pains calls a couple of times during the interview. Andrew checks who’s ringing him and takes the call. Talks to him, counsels him, calms the guy on the other end down. Johnny Chest Pains is lucky to have Andrew Nitroglycerin.
He’s the Shop Steward – he represents his garage’s crew of SanMen and SanWomen to the Union, should things come up… complaints, injustices, pay. He’s got monthly meetings to go to. He doesn’t get anything for this – no extra benefit other than the title of Shop Steward. After the first shoot, I asked him if I could interview him. He called the Union to see if it would be ok. He protects himself, he protects the job. I was thrilled that he called. He actually smoothed the road for us when we’d later get a meeting with Union President Harry Nespoli.
When he was a kid, he wanted to be a garbage man like his father or a fireman like his uncle.
He took the FDNY test. His mother’s brother was a fireman. He likes his uncle. He took the test, when he was 18, as soon as he could. Since I moved to New York, I’ve interviewed potential out-of-town roommates who wanted to rent my apartment just to claim New York residence so they could take the test to become a Hero in New York.
Andrew didn’t pass. He doesn’t give me details as to why.
“I probably wouldn’t be here, you know, if I’d passed, what with 9/11, you know?”
So he took a job with Bell Atlantic (what’s now known as Verizon) as a “I guess … I guess … I was a telephone repair man.” In November 1990, he took the test for the DSNY – his father retired a Sanitation Worker.
But this man – his father – when I ask him if his father might be willing to talk to me, he said,
“I don’t know. We don’t talk no more.”
I looked at him.
“Eh, don’t matter,”
“His loss is what I say.”
These men don’t have death wishes…. Johnny Doz said the same kind of thing. “I like living, why would I want to go join the army and get shot?” said Doz. But that’s not slighting anyone’s choices – every man makes a choice for his own life.
These men like to work, a lot of them. And they like to live. And they all admit to screwing up all the time but feel good about the work that they do.
Andrew’s all about the balance … representing the fair … representing correctly.
“Who raised you?” came out of my mouth when I realized he kept answering my questions honestly and then double-backing with a “eh, but who am I to talk?”
He tells me the guys are always busting his chops about his wife, who’s Jewish. He catches a lot of flack in his personal life about his boys wanting to be a garbage man.
“They want them to be an actor or lawyer or something,”
He took the test to be a Hero, The Bravest. But now, he’s the Strongest. He’s got two kids and a place of respect in the truck, in the garage, in the Union.
When one of the Strongest gets hurt in action, it’s buried in the papers, on the blogs, if appearing at all. Sure, we all understand it. But it’s not fair. The Strongest have made a choice just as respectable as any of ours. The choice to show up and commit to the City. No one’s gets a purple heart for showing up every day, and yet there’s an unresolved valor in it. But there’s an in-house newsletter produced by the DSNY that recognizes their achievements. No one ever sees it. But it’s there, the City’s got some stuff for posterity. Here’s hoping Dr. Nagle can find some more help and funding to get that out to the public.
But when one dies, the DSNY newsletter comes out to announce they’re naming the Coney Island garage after one of its SanMen died when a truck that wasn’t properly parked lurched forward and hit him. They named the Park Slope garage in Brooklyn after its first female Sanitation Worker who was killed in action. And the Mayor and the Commissioner come out to preside over the ceremony, and with all the flack the City gets for its bureaucratics, Mayor Bloomberg still comes out and says,
“Our Sanitation Workers are entrusted with keeping our City shining each and every day. Whether it’s cleaning our 6,300 miles of streets, picking up our garbage and recycling, or clearing our streets of snow and ice, the commitment of [the] Sanitation Department is unflinching … This necessary and admirable mission, however, is both dangerous and physically challenging. Sanitation Worker Eva Barrientos, the first uniformed female Sanitation Worker to die while on duty, was serving her city when she tragically died four years ago. Eva’s name on this new building will be a reminder to all of her colleagues and future Sanitation Workers of her unwavering dedication to duty, as well as her love and service to our City. We will never forget her.”
Well, Sanitation won’t forget her.
The City knows who its heroes are. Be as cynical as you want to be about photo opps and lip service. But my history and childhood in Memphis, TN never showed me the amount of built-in ceremony and service and support that I have found in this one civil service. So there’s confidence in this City’s garbage man job. And that’s why a lot of them say they’ve hit the lottery when they take the test and get chosen for Sanitation. And then they get to spend the next 20 years working out outside every day. And some will tell you, “I love this job! I’m free!”
A Sanitation Worker dies on the job, or can’t catch his breath still from a few days working Ground Zero, or struggles one day because his wife miscarried that week, or one of their pals has been taken by some financial partner and is looking at a hefty debt, or a separation is turning into a divorce. Who cares? The other Sanitation Workers do. And they come to the funeral or they talk about their colleagues while on the route or on break. And they wonder why it wasn’t them. And they wonder who it’s going to be next. Accidents, malfunctions, the job, family – it’s all in keeping the day to day the day to day.
Andrew knows his place. And sure, it sucks when all you hear is complaining and you go home to your family and they wish you knew how to invest your money better or could bill a client $300 for a phone call. But when you get home, you have a job that’s accountable by everyone. 14 tons of work can’t be obfuscated by pencil-necked analysts or Ponzi-schemers. And you know you’re taken care of when you retire. And no one’s shooting at you and no one’s expecting you to lose your life. At least …. in most neighborhoods.
A San Man is more likely to come around tomorrow than not. And his wife will just miss him in long hours of the snowy winter’s night.
So if you need a ride to the airport, you’d better hope you have an Andrew in your life that’s not going to bitch about it – especially when New York cabs will run you an easy $50. Andrew thinks that’s stupid when he could just drive you.
His boys want to ride in the truck. He wears glasses and keeps his hair cut close to the scalp in the summer and longer in the winter. His nickname is Cup because he keeps a paper coffee cup in his hand all the time (and throughout the interview). He says he has “mental disturbances.” He comes through as much as he can. He says yes to too many things. He thinks there’s no camaraderie like the FDNY camaraderie but has taken yet ANOTHER phone call from Johnny Chest Pains. He just wants a balanced life.
This is Andrew. Andrew Aspromonte.
::: ::: :::
For more on Schmekel, click the Mongo.
October 15, 2008
Doz hasn’t called.
It’s the night of the Presidential Debate, and I’m going to have to flipping watch it. I usually do, but I didn’t want to tonight. I wanted to talk to a Sanitation Worker.
Eh, I’m in Park Slope, anyway. The loose plans we set – you never know. He might come through.
I’m sitting at Aunt Suzie’s on 5th Avenue with a glass of Montepulciano and a salad. I’ve always wanted to try the place, and Doz hasn’t confirmed and I’m starting to collapse into poor-mouthing everything. I think he’s flaking on me. If he flakes, I’ve started a stupid project following around deadbeats and losers who can’t do any better. I always start these projects based on someone’s failing self-esteem, intent on writing them out of it. Committed to giving them a little support from my vantage point. I’m like some sort of emotional probation officer. It’s stupid. But I can’t stop. And there’s little payback and there’s a lot of keeping the faith. After so many pitches and projects, I can waver fast. So I’m sucking down this Montepulciano fast and distracted.
When my phone starts vibrating.
“Where are you?”
“I’m eating but can meet you at Bar Loki in a half hour. Can you do that?” I feel like I’m begging this guy. Why is everyone so hard to track down? I just don’t want to do this with them on the job, in the garage, with all the guys there watching and commenting and razzing them later about ‘talking to the reporter.’ I’m no reporter. And it’s just too political in the garage. I’ve got to get permission, etc. etc. Who needs it? Why is it so hard to get a person out for a drink and a burger?
I hear ya, Doz, I do too. Used to be so easy …
So he shows up. I offer to buy him a beer. “My interview, my treat,” I say.
“I can’t drink much, but sure, ok, I’ll take a Heineken,”
he says to the bartender.
And I ask him his stats and, BAM, we’re well on our way into the first interview.
He’s wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Baseball cap turned backwards. He wears the LiveStrong yellow bracelet from Lance Armstrong’s foundation. He’s got an earring in one ear. He walks proud, chest out, head held high – like he’s always ready to catch anything that’s thrown at him – a punch, a ball, a Barcalounger. He smells like a shower. He’s not at all nervous. He’s got a drum set at home and a custody case in full swing. He owns two humble but running cars. He’s worried about the guys that cleaned up after 9/11 and who are still sick now. He worked one day and couldn’t go back. He’s named after the Beatle, not the Pope. He’s a cheap date. He takes his vitamins every day. His house is cleaner than your mother’s. He hates long weekends. He lets no grass grow under his feet. He’s got a closet of toys for his kids when things settle down.
This is Johnny. Johnny Doz.
::: ::: :::
For Mongo on Doz, click here.
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?
‘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.
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.
::: ::: :::
Cutting Our Teeth On Mark and Johnny-Dodges-the-Check
August 30, 2008
We’d been chasing and shooting since 6:30 am on this Saturday morning.
John Hathaway and Andrew Aspromonte had already given us the best of them, and we wouldn’t know just how vibrantly their shots, their laughter, their teamwork would show up in photos until later.
We were on fire, excited by them, thinking this first shoot went easier than we thought. They both agreed to an interview!
Oh, yeh, this was going to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It would write itself.
Liz and I found a diner in my neighborhood to power down. We burst through the door of the D&D Diner on Ft. Hamilton in Borough Park yapping, giggling and sweating. We had both shown up that morning in the very same outfit – jeans, black shirt, tennis shoes. That was weird. We were pretty nervous. I had no idea what I would say to any of these guys. I knew precious little about hierarchy and titles and garages and routes.
There’s a lot to be said for just sort of chasing after your dream, not knowing too much about getting there.
So, anyway, there at the D&D Diner, we slopped all our gear and bags down in a booth. Liz breathlessly said to me, “You were so right.” About what? “About this – the whole idea – the guys. I mean, I kind of thought when you first asked me, sure. But then my life and workload were so crazy and then you asked about it again, and I said, Sure, Why Not. It’s a big project, but you were so right.”
I’m still not sure exactly what she meant. But we both couldn’t stop telling the stories of just the last hour and a half back and forth to each other. “And Paul, that foreman guy? With the
‘We’re men! Don’t degrade us!’
That was amazing!
‘We don’t stink!!’
And everyone giving him shit. And then that neighbor guy that recognized you from the neighborhood!”
(That’s Hal. He lives on my street. More on him later …)
She’s a morning person. I am not. But I’m ramped up high this morning. Just then, a couple of collection trucks pulled up and parked outside. A couple, like, FOUR. And then they all started pouring in. Sanitation Worker after Sanitation Worker. Who knew we had landed at the routine break on the morning route for Brooklyn 12 Borough Park Garage? That was weird too. A fifth truck pulls up outside the window we’re settled at. Liz looks at me. I look at her.
“Can we talk to them? Do you mind?” I ask her. “Oh yeh! Absolutely!” She’s already got her hands on her camera.
In walks Johnny Doz. He’s on his cell, not even barely through the door when I,
“Hey! Can we talk to you?”
He looks at me with the WTF face. You know that face. It’s a New Yorker face. It’s suspicious, it’s why-ya-bothering-me, but it’s open for opportunities to mix it up.
He looks at the both of us, sees all our stuff. He pauses a little. So I bark up again, “We’re doing a project on you guys – you know – the Sanitation Workers of New York.”
“I’ll call you back,” he says into his cell phone, and his face softens. “Oh yeh?”
“Wanna sit here?” I gesture to the empty booth next to our table. “Yeh, sure, what the hell,” he shrugs. The tough guy shrug like he’s making a choice to go along with me. “If it’s okay with my partner.”
And so they ordered and we talked. And it was in a few diner orders and a lotta laughs later that I fell in love.
With both of them.
And therefore, with all of them. It was sort of from that moment on that I started hoping I could get my hands on a green DSNY T-shirt of my own to lay around in on Saturday morning writing about them.
Johnny Doz and Mark. It was only about 20 minutes that we spent with them. They started finishing up with their meal, and it was getting to that uncomfortable point of what to talk about next – politics, the weather, the Yankees, the Hasidic bakeries nearby, my frizzy hair, how all the busting of each other’s chops was slaying us.
Johnny Doz gets a call. He excuses himself to take it in the truck outside.
The waitress brings the check, and Mark starts in.
“He gets a phone call every time it’s time for the check. Look at that, he’s out there on the phone and look! The check’s here,” and he holds up to us.
Mark’s bright blue eyes – he’s busting his chops. The guys obviously don’t hate working with each other – they had a sort of honed rapport, which I later learned they all sort of have when they’re partnered with any Sanitation Worker that has the same sort of work ethic and won’t drive them crazy yapping about stupid stuff in the truck.
Mark pays it, and Johnny comes back and asks about it. “Yeh yeh, I got it. I told them you got the phone call when the check comes.”
Johnny says, “Aw, no! The junior picks up the senior check? That’s not right!” Mark laughs. And Johnny’s face mock pouts. He knows he needed to pay. Maybe this is something he does?
I asked Mark, “So who takes out the trash in your house?”
“Really? Seriously? You take out everybody’s trash all day long and someone can’t take out your trash?”
“I don’t mind.” His conversation shifts nervously to telling me he’s having a birthday party for his 1-year-old the next day. “Oh my gosh – congratulations!” I say, when just then, Johnny pops his head in the door from his cell phone call to ask, “Your party tomorrow? What’s gonna be there?”
Without blinking, Mark says, “Pony, chickens, a goat and one of those face painter people. 2pm. Don’t be late … I’m paying the petting zoo from 2-4.” Johnny ducks out again, and Mark leans in to our table, “One of those miniature horses – whaddaya call those things?”
And he laughs. “Right! I bust the chops of the short guys at the station about they get free rides!”
So I’m still curious. I force him to go back to talking about taking out the trash at home. I hate taking out the trash. I have my trash issues. Woah, some newsflash.
“So you take out the trash?”
“Yeh, I don’t want her too. She works so hard. Harder than me. Longer hours than I gotta. It’s alright.”
Mark has been with DSNY for 4 years. He used to drive a liquor delivery truck until “something was getting a little fugazi with our pensions disappearing.”
Mark, being a junior to Johnny’s 9 years on the job, was staunch throughout the conversation on “don’t write that down” and “take off that bandanna” to Johnny because it wasn’t uniform code. The juniors are always more nervous about all the rules of the DSNY than the guys who have a few more years on the job. It’s best that way.
Johnny’s got two daughters - a nine-year-old and a 14-year-old. It had to have been a female on that call – he was so serious out there.
Soon, they both were out the door, and Liz right with them. I watched them yapping her up and her giggling and shooting and giggling and shooting, and so I followed. They were setting up a shot. It was Marc’s idea.
“Give ‘em your number – I’m married!” Mark urges Johnny. “Give ‘em your number!” and handed him a pen. We waved them off, promising to call later – for an interview! For an interview.
Weirder still. And then again, maybe, not so much.
This is Johnny Doz. Johnny and Mark.
::: ::: :::
What He Doesn’t Want People to See
August 30, 2008
I pulled up behind a recycling truck on 46th between 7th and 8th in Sunset Park.
It was a once rainy, now humid overcast Saturday morning. There was an Asian man loading up clear and
neatly tied recycling bags. He looked bedraggled … not tired in that physical labor way … mentally tired. Heart tired. Maybe that was just me projecting through the distance between he and I, as citizen and SanMan, woman and man, Eastern and Western. It was our first day – maybe I was looking for something specific in a garbage man.
Here in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, the residents rushed out, handing him their smartly wrapped bags of jugs and cans and paper. Some of them spoke to him. He didn’t engage. And he’s looking at me looking at him and then at Liz who’s walking around wielding her camera. He’s suspicious. His furrowed brow with a wave of his hand flagging me, he started over towards me in my van. He pointed to Liz who was just up the street with the truck in front of them, laughing it up with the drivers and pointing and clicking them like mad.
He’s in his late 30s, maybe 40s, barely graying at the temples, handsome if he wasn’t so … depressed? Exhausted? Mad at me? I couldn’t put my finger on it, until –
“Why she taking pictures?”
I told him, “She and I are working on a project about the sanitation workers and how they take care of the neighborhood.”
He started waving his hands low, like an umpire and saying, “I don’t want picture of me, no pictures.”
I screw up my face and ask why.
“I don’t want nobody knowing I am stinky ole garbage man.”
Man! My first thought was: he makes more money than me. He has health insurance. He’s got us following him around at 7am on a Saturday morning. Nobody’s begging for my picture. No one wants my freelance life.
I know it’s weird – this crush-turned-envy I have for Sanitation Workers. But then, really, it’s not all that weird at all.
Look, I’ve had and still have my own shame about my job status. For all of my adult life, I have had to keep a day job and write and produce and perform outside that day job for love, pleasure and money on the side. This keeps me over-explaining and lying about what I do in various circles – never with the straight story. Both of my jobs are cocktail conversation killers, so I try to keep it simple. Tell people I’m a writer. Shuts people up and they assume that I’m published like crazy. It’s fine – let them assume what they want. I am sort of published – I’m no David Foster Wallace or Jennifer Weiner though. I’m something different.
And I understand the garbage thing, sort of. I get the divided brain feeling of realizing what you ALLOW yourself to get paid to do. I was once a buyer of celebrity paparazzi photos. I was at one of those websites that made its money and fame proudly bringing you the panty-less Britney and the racial slurring Mel Gibson. I hated telling anyone I was a stinky ole celebrity website editor. I grinded my teeth every night.
I had health insurance and hunched shoulder pain and drank about 40 gallons of coffee a week, sure, and those drunk starlets put money in my 401K, but never did I have pride, nor a pension.
I certainly, to this day, have NOTHING to show you for my 16-months of buying Lohan, TomKat and D-listed Pauly Shore footage for obscene amounts of money. I have nothing to show, really, for that time, but a couple of links and a vague understanding of XML.
And I get what it’s like doing a job that people laugh at and collectively mock but secretly need.
But I don’t understand HIS shame. I do but I don’t.
And it hurts me, that he walks away in the middle of a sentence. I can’t see this man as a stinky old garbage man. I don’t know what it means to a man’s sense of self, to be ashamed of his work. I don’t know what it’s like to be an immigrant working for the City. And I can’t keep him long enough to even thank him for his work. He goes back to the curb and picks up what I pulled him away from.
Thanking him – it’s just so cliché – and inappropriate in this weird moment of unreceived honor. The Chinese residents try to speak to him in their own languages, and he sometimes answers them, sometimes shrugs.
Maybe that’s it – the sheepishness I’m feeling.
Maybe that’s what drives the friendliness I feel from these guys in the neighborhood.
Maybe it’s all they got, is that shrug … “just doing my job … can’t hide … here I am … don’t judge me for earning a living and I won’t judge you for what I see you waste everyday.”
Maybe it’s that slack they cut themselves that I’ve not been able to do for myself.
It’s impossible to see your own nobility when you’re in the middle of it.
::: ::: :::