:: The First Blush ::
She’s been on the job for 19 years.
She had a certain heaviness about her. Liz didn’t see it. I couldn’t help but see it. Liz chided me about seeing only this part of people’s lives. To watch myself. Liz saw joy and strength. I saw something else … not sure what yet.
Maybe it was strength … but at a cost.
Strength at a cost.
We chased her and her partner Kenny for about an hour. We came up to a huge pile of garbage and I watched her walk up to it and paused momentarily. I asked her,
“Hey Mary, so everyday, you see this big pile of trash, right?”
She said, “Unh huh…”
“And so, everyday, do you just look at it and go ‘Oh. My. God.’ ?”
She laughed and said, “Yeh, Every day, that’s right. ‘Oh Lord!’”
She has two sons. One that just got married. She wants that marriage to go well – she’s waiting and watching … We followed her for a long time in a pretty nice area of the Bronx – Riverdale. Cars would come up and honk and threaten and hassle her and her partner.
She held up her hands and said, “I can get you a pair of gloves and this’ll go faster.” And that would shut them up.
She kept saying to us, “I can’t believe this is what I do everyday. I never saw my life as being like this.”
Does any of us? Does any of us see our lives turning out the way they do?
She’s retiring within the year. And she’s going to relax.
This is Mary. Mary Russell.
::: ::: :::
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.
::: ::: :::
Throughout New York’s history, throughout municipal histories worldwide, labor movements have been tethered to the battles lost and gained by Sanitation unions. If we were to gain wide attention for the people that we Chase and come to love, we would have to win the City – and mostly, the Union.
We first met with Harry Nespoli, the president of the Local 831 Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Union back in February 2009. Liz and I – we were naive, but excited, stoked to get up at 4 in the morning, to get in a car at 5, to make sure we get to his office in lower Manhattan at 6 sharp. If they can do it, we have to do it. These guys have fought more than just their morning alarm clock.
We wanted him to see what we see. Or rather, to show him a new side of something he’s been guardian of since 2000. When he came across one closeup shot of Roy DiMaggio, he stopped. He lingered and moved closer to the photo.
“Ah! My hair used to do that!”
With one shot, Roy’s thick black hair brings this robust, white-haired union leader right back to his younger days on New York’s streets.
Harry tells me,
keeps telling me,
tells me again of his talks with the City about what 20 years of picking up garage can do to the body. No matter when you come in. It’s his job, it’s his conviction, and it’s his shoulder reminding him to keep the City aware of what’s really happening daily on the job. Harry may never ever meet Roy, but he got his stories in his bones.
Roy’s the kind of guy that all the girls likes, and he’ll never know it. Well, he might know it, but he’s not the kind of guy that really believes it. He’s the guy that’s always one eyebrow raised and grinning underneath it. He’s offering to pick up the check and acting like ‘he’s all good.’ And you’ll think so, because he has a smile as wide and as young as a Christmas morning.
He hangs his head a lot, moving forward down the street, but call his name and the sparkle of a kid that can get away with anything when he needs to perks up. He flies under the radar because he’s mischievious but never causing trouble, never harmful. He’s not a player, but he could be. But he won’t. Because he wants something different.
One thing’s for sure – there are a few chicks out there all married up now and spending quiet moments thinking about that Roy DiMaggio as the One That Got Away.
He’s got a mop of black hair and blue eyes. He’s about 5’9” when he walks proud. He’s light on his feet and has a steady pace. He saves his energy, as most of them do, not rushing through the route. Rush and you’re done earlier and have to sit around and do time until your shift is over. Rush and you might have to dump the truck in New Jersey and that’s not always the most fun thing to do. It’s time-consuming and boring. Rush, and you won’t last your 20 years of service.
“I’m 39, you know, some days I can’t get outta bed. But I have to and it’s raining and the rain’s the worst.”
There’s nothing inside him that wants to grow up and wear some suit and be THAT guy in the room.
He wants a couch, some food, the people he loves, a couple of sweet girls that ask him questions about his life, his bigger and louder buddies around him that take the light off him and he’ll always show up on time. He’s nervous when he doesn’t.
His grin … hard to tone down, let me tell you. But it comes and goes as the interview continues. Every third or fourth question, he’s interviewing me.
“Why are you doing this? Why do you care?”
… always with the why, I tell ya.
On the day of the interview, he wears a long-sleeved t-shirt underneath the short sleeved t-shirt. He tells me to meet him at a Starbucks in Bensonhurst. He’s got a cup of coffee, and he’s paging through the Sunday New York Times after the Election Tuesday. It’s a couple of weeks after we shot him working, and I expect his shy, embarrassed way. What I got was a guy that couldn’t stop being curious as to why I was so curious about him.
“So is it just questions about work or my personal life?”
I said, mainly work.
I tried to tell him that I know how weird it seemed. I tried explaining to him that I’m an office manager during the week, and no one comes into my office and says, “Hey, how do you manage all those files and invoices every day all day?”
I know it’s weird.
And yet he still came out on a crisp fall morning to see what it was all about. He knows what he does every day is important. Maybe not every day, but this day, he was going to trust it. He probably was ready for me to be full of bullshit. Maybe he thought … well, I really don’t know what he thought. With every interview, I’m just so grateful. It takes a certain something inside you to meet with a stranger to talk about your life. It takes a certain confidence or curiosity or what-the-hell. Whatever it is, I respect it and I try to just let it breathe its own life into the interview.
I showed him shots of himself and asked him what was his favorite. As I want this book project to help the SanMen and Women see themselves differently – it’s important to me his reaction. To my surprise, he chose one of him in action – chucking recyclables into the back of a truck. He liked seeing himself in motion.
Sometimes, you just don’t know what you do all day long when you’re busy flying underneath the radar.
Sometimes, getting on the other side of yourself can help you stand up a littler straighter.
Here’s hoping Roy’s walking tall somewhere out there in Brooklyn today. For a few minutes anyway. Roy’s not the kind of guy that will ever walk tall for too long. It’s just not him.
He’s got two sons. He could listen to Pearl Jam three days straight. He’s picked up a 3’ foot alligator in Sheepshead Bay. He’s baffled that I’m interested in his life. He’s got a great nickname, and he won’t let me tell you what it is. Not even when I beg.
This is Roy. Roy DiMaggio.
::: ::: :::