Chasing Sanitation

Falling in Love with New York's Strongest

:: Don’t Get Nervous ::

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,”

and paused,

“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?”

“My mother.”

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 says.

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.

Responses (2) to “:: Don’t Get Nervous ::”

  1. ricky says:

    good work, and there is so much more to cover.

  2. SILVERFOX says:

    Queens also has great SANMEN and stories and we dont run nor dump.

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