Chasing Sanitation

Falling in Love with New York's Strongest

:: He Wouldn’t Let Liz Take His Picture ::

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.

::: ::: :::

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