The young valet adjusted his bow tie while he stared into the dark night. He stood underneath the awning and watched the rain fall on the asphalt of the parking lot until a polished black stretch limousine pulled up in front of the yellow marble steps. The valet jumped up and over a puddle to open the car door and escort the guests up the steps.
El Caribe Country Club, on the southern edge of Brooklyn, was festively lit with what seemed to be millions of tiny Christmas lights that reflected gently on the valet’s big black umbrella. The formally dressed men and women did not even seem to notice the rain as they marveled at the decorations and entered the building.
Inside, a team of smiling organizers took everyone’s coats and handed out table numbers and a program for the evening; cocktails at seven, dinner at nine, speeches at ten and dancing at eleven.
At least 400 people came out to NYC Department of Sanitation Columbia Association’s 43rd annual dinner dance that night to enjoy the abundant free drinks and different kinds of Italian delicacies. The Columbia Association is the Italian-American benevolence organization for the sanitation workers at the Department of Sanitation in New York City and throws a big party for its members every year. Most tuxedo and evening dress-wearing Italian-Americans were sanitation workers who every day pick up trash for their bread and butter.
“It’s basically about drinking and dancing with your co-workers,” Ronny Cohen, president of Columbia, said while standing in line for a second serving of freshly cooked ham with mustard sauce. “And eating a lot of fancy food.”
Even before the main dinner, guests had the opportunity to devour all sorts of appetizers, snacks, entrees and deserts; most of it beautifully displayed on red and white checkered tablecloths, on plates with white and green ribbons, piled up on a wheel of Parmesan or underneath 20 salamis hanging upside down from a wooden truck in the middle of the room.
“All fraternal organizations for sanitation workers always had dinner dances once a year,” said Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association (Teamsters Local 831). “Irish, Italian, African-American, Polish, Jewish, German. It was real big one time with meetings once a month, and a dance for each organization. But now the organizations are getting smaller, and dinner is $85 a ticket.”
Judging by the number of sanitation workers with and without accompanying spouses that showed up that night, Columbia’s dinner dance is still popular. People crowded each other in front of the buffet, shuffled over the dance floor, went for yet another refill at the open bar and worked the room.
“I went to the party tonight to hobnob with my bosses,” Michael Moss, a district supervisor in Queens, said. With his wine-red silken tie and his dark navy blue suit that hugged his sturdy frame in all the wrong places, Moss looked like he had just walked out of a gangster movie from the 1920s. “Everybody here either outranks you or you outrank them. Without the uniforms on, you can’t tell who’s boss and who’s not; you have to be nice to everybody.”
New York City’s Department of Sanitation is a Para-military organization, Keith Mellis, deputy chief of public information for the Department of Sanitation, said. This is necessary because citizens of the Big Apple produce 11,000 tons of garbage every day, which adds up to almost 4 million tons of refuse each year.
And that is only residential trash because businesses have to arrange their own pick-up with private carters. “It’s a war. Not a war that will kill you necessarily, but it’s a war and the enemy is out there every day,” said Robin Nagle, a professor of anthropology at New York University and author of an upcoming book on life at the Department of Sanitation in New York City. “That’s why the department is structured like a quasi-military organization, because you have to fight it like a war.”
This era might be technologically advanced, but trash doesn’t magically disappear. Garbage still needs to be collected every day, the physically demanding job of sanitation workers. Not garbage men and women, because they are not men and women of garbage. New York City employs 7,775 workers, to be exact, and they work out of 59 garages all over the city.
Each garage has its own culture, its own feel. Some of the workers from the same garage are close, commute together, have breakfast together or a beer after work and some don’t even speak to each other, forget having a beer together. But they all have the same goal: cleaning the streets of New York City.
Over 6,300 miles of streets get cleaned everyday throughout the five boroughs. That’s almost three times the distance from New York City to Los Angeles. With so many streets to clean, sanitation workers stumble upon the strangest things. From expensive Persian rugs, to bags that practically “walk away” because they’re alive with maggots feeding on dead fish heads. From entire miniature Barbie sets, to soiled mattresses, gym bags stuffed with fake dollar bills and buckets with pigeon blood.
Sanitation workers have seen it all. Nespoli clearly remembered that one time he found an actual treasure. He saw a sparkle from the corner of his eye when he was dumping a pail and hanging out of the top there was a gorgeous diamond cross his wife still wears today. “Very rarely you’ll walk away with a jewel,” Nespoli said. “Most of it is serious garbage.”
At the swinging dinner in El Caribe’s country club, district supervisor Moss told his fellow sanitation workers about his craziest trash discovery. With animated gestures he told the crew of men circled around him, how he was called in early one day because there were police on the transfer station in the Bronx. “They had those police dogs, those German Shepherds, with little booties on their feet because they didn’t want their feet to get pricked and they didn’t want dirty feet in the car,” said Moss, unable to suppress a giggle.
“The shepherds are sniffing around the entire dump and find another body than the one they came for, right. They make these bales out of the garbage; they compress the garbage and make three-foot by three-foot bales. So apparently the second guy’s body is stuck in a bale and I go: ‘I can’t see no body,’ cause it was stuck in the bale, it was folded backwards. But it said Jose on his stomach, so the other guy was like, ‘It’s right here, it says Jose on it.’ And there it was…” Moss swung his arms out to each side and took a Jesus-like pose while exploding in loud roaring laughter. After he caught his breath, his face turned serious. “That’s what you call a lot of paperwork.”
On a crisp sunny Monday morning David Falzon, a senior sanitation worker with very short salt-and-pepper hair, a green DSNY headband and warm brown eyes walked behind the truck. He works from the Manhattan 3 garage on South Street, but lives on the Lower East Side and is therefore used to madness, he said. To be honest, the dead horse he found on the curb in the East Village ten years back was something else altogether. “It did not fit in the truck,” soft-spoken Falzon said. “So we had to call in a special unit. But even when it’s weird, it’s still normal because this is New York City. This is Manhattan!”
Manhattan has a long history of street cleaning, but in the 19th century the streets were similar to an open sewer. Horses were the main source of transportation, which resulted in a knee-deep blend of horse manure, urine and rotting carcasses of horses that died and were left for days on end. Everywhere, except in wealthier parts of the city, people threw their garbage on the street and the stench of ash, decomposed leftovers, buckets of excrements and dirty dishwater made scented handkerchiefs a necessity.
Then there were scavengers: pigs, goats, chicken and ducks. In 1842 Charles Dickens warned visitors of New York City: “Take care of the pigs… they are the city scavengers, these pigs.” The herds of wild hogs were, in a way, New York’s first street cleaners until the Department of Street Cleaning was founded in 1881. The first commissioner who took the job seriously was Colonel George E. Waring, who formed an army to fight the filth. His workers were known as the “White Wings,” dressed in white uniforms and dedicated to the task. Muckraking journalist Jacob Riis observed in his book “A Ten Years’ War”: “It was Colonel Waring’s broom that first let light into the slum… The streets that had been dirty were swept. The ash barrels, which had befouled the sidewalks, disappeared… His broom saved more lives in the crowded tenements than a squad of doctors.”
But the father figure of sanitation in New York City as we know it today, is John J. DeLury, a pipe-smoking former dump worker in Brooklyn. DeLury started sanitation’s first workers group, the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, in 1938. He lead the workers during a weeklong strike in the late 60’s that landed him in jail for 15 days, but brought the city to its knees. Salaries increased and, the story goes, DeLury is the man who changed the term ‘garbage man’ to ‘sanitation worker.’
Nowadays, there are 6,600 uniformed sanitation workers cleaning, sweeping, recycling and removing snow for the Department of Sanitation, including 135 women. Anne Pabon and Carlen Sanderson became the first female sanitation workers in 1986. “They are all real people, good people,” Nespoli said. “I love representing this workforce because there is no phoniness about them.”
For most of the workers, their colleagues are the main reason they work for the department. They either had family, neighbors or friends in the department or they were simply attracted by the benefits and the life-long pension.
The starting salary of a sanitation worker is $26,000 per year and can increase to $57,396 after five and a half years. The union has welfare funds for healthcare and guarantees a pension of half the worker’s salary for life after 20 years of service. “It’s definitely one of the better jobs in the city,” Robert Flaherty, district supervisor in Queens, said. “You can’t beat the benefits, and you’re very well compensated in the long run.”
Nespoli emphasized that government jobs are almost the only ones left that have defined benefits. “It’s like winning the lottery,” Nespoli said. “What else is out there? Without a real good education, you’re flipping hamburgers, without the benefits.”
To become a sanitation worker, you have to get in line. People only get hired when others retire, just like with all other city jobs. To be an eligible candidate you must be on the civil service list. This means passing a written exam and a physical test administered by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Anthropologist Nagle said by law a new test has to come out every four years, but out of the 75,000 people who try, only 15,000 or less end up getting a civil service list number. Then they wait.
Currently, almost half the workforce in New York City is new on the force, because the department just went through a big retirement period, Nespoli said. With almost 3,000 new people, the department is ready for upcoming snow. “We’re in pretty good shape,” Nespoli said, while rubbing his hands. “They’re young, so they’re strong and they’re at a lower scale, so the city isn’t really paying a lot of money.”
The job itself is one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the country according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sanitation workers have gotten hit by flying debris such as pieces of glass, splinters of metal and flying wire. Workers have died after being trapped between the mechanic compactor in the back of the truck and one worker died on the spot after being showered with hydrofluoric acid.
Trotting alongside the dirty truck in the East Village Lanzo explained for him the perks outweigh the risks. “It’s dangerous, sure, but I am always outside,” Lanzo said, while he picked up another bag and professionally swung it into the back of the truck. “That’s the bright side.”
An average worker on collection duty moves roughly five tons or 400 garbage bags a day. The heavy workload resulted the department its title of New York’s Strongest. Back in 1978, president Nespoli, who has the broad shoulders and thick neck of a former football player, became involved with forming a football team. It would compete with the police and firemen, who both had good names like New York’s Bravest and New York’s Finest. “So what are we?” Nespoli asked his wife Florence Anne one night at the kitchen table.
She then came up with New York’s Strongest. “It kind of stuck,” Nespoli said, referring to Avenue of the Strongest in lower Manhattan, a street that was re-named in honor of the city’s sanitation workers in 1996. “Physically, I don’t think there’s an agency out there that does the tonnage we do. Everyday you go out with an empty truck and, everyday you come back with a full truck. That stuff doesn’t jump in the hopper.”
A hopper is a nickname for one of the approximately 5,700 vehicles the department uses, which include different kinds of collection trucks, street sweepers, salt and sand spreaders and front-end loaders. The heavy machinery has no rear view mirror and is not easy to drive safely. “There’s a competence you need to have,” Nagle said. “People say it’s an unskilled job, but I disagree completely. Understanding the turning radius and understanding how much time you need to stop is definitely a skill.”
Another expertise sanitation workers develop is picking up bags and throwing them into the back of the collection truck. That sunny Monday morning early thirty something Leston “Bennie” Judge, who works together with Falzon from the Manhattan 3 garage, routinely jumped in the cab of the smudged white and green truck and set the enormous vehicle in motion. Judge patted some dirt from his green sweater that has his name calligraphically embroidered it and wiped off the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. The traffic behind him backed up down the block and then the first impatient driver started to honk. “I’m just doing my job,” Judge said softly.
Eight feet further, he stopped the truck and hop skipped toward another pile of trash. He lifted two bags with one hand and swung the bags into the truck. A lever on the side of the truck set off the mechanical hiss of the compactor in the back and a series of crushing, cracking and popping noises released the unmistakable smell of trash. “Better turn your head when I pull the lever,” Judge said. “You never know what might squirt out.”
Sanitation workers tend to have a blunt sense of humor and seem to be experts in self-mockery. Some proudly call themselves “trash hounds” and joke about their poor wives who have to wash their smelly uniforms. But others are less open about their job and won’t even tell their neighbors what they do for a living. “There’s still a stigma attached to it,” district supervisor Flaherty said softly while he looked around the room on Columbia’s annual dinner dance. “You’re a garbage man, basically, and that’s always going to follow you around. People with half a brain know that it’s a great job, but there’s an inferiority complex we can all relate to. We’re like the orphans of the city workers. We ‘re not as flashy as the police or the fire department. They get a lot of headlines for being heroes and stuff. But we’re out there every day on the street, working the street just as hard as they are.”
The sanitation department’s work hours are not your average and shifts bounce all around the clock: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight and midnight to 8 a.m. “It is the city that never sleeps, and the job needs to get done,” Nespoli said. Most of the sanitation workers said the hardest part of the job is waking up in the middle of the night, especially those who have to commute an hour to work. “It never gets easy, it never really does, getting up at 4 a.m.,” Nespoli said. “Your body gets used to it, but it never gets easy.”
Sunday nobody has to work and there is a chart system to figure out the other day off. The chart day is almost never consecutive: it’s very rare people get two days off in a row. Charts are randomly assigned, and lucky ones have an officer’s chart. An officer’s chart mean having Monday off one week, Tuesday the next, Wednesday after that, then Thursday, Friday and finally Saturday. The luxury is that they have a whole long weekend free every six weeks.
“Getting your chart,” is an expression used for working on your day off. The bonus is that workers get paid double. Because it’s profitable “working your chart” usually several workers are interested when there’s an opening. Then politics of the department come into play, then it’s important how much time someone spent on the force. The senior always “got the other beat,” as the sanitation slang goes. “Who has the right of first refusal is very important,” Nagle said. “The department is governed by seniority and if somebody does that out of order — Fireworks!”
At the start of a sanitation worker’s career, everyone is on probation. There are many ways to get disqualified, such as tardiness or failing random drug testing. “It’s the young ones I’m worried about,” Nespoli said. “Sometimes they don’t understand they can’t be out partying and report for duty the next day with any alcohol on them. There are no second chances here, so there’s no leeway for mistakes. And if they mess up and realize what they lost two years later, they lost the lottery.”
The union has successfully negotiated with the city government for the defined benefits, salaries and working conditions for decades. The collection trucks used to have three men on a truck. Now there are two. The labor was always physically taxing, but with the words ‘increased productivity’ come ‘it tears their bodies down,’ Nespoli said. “We’re getting compensated money wise, but I see the change in the fact that my workforce are retiring at a younger age.”
Nationwide unions are losing the guaranteed pension and the way union president Nespoli understands it, New York State is contemplating to confront the state workers on their benefits. “They challenge them on that up there,” Nespoli said. “You know someone is going to pick up the ball down here and we got another fight on our hands.”
Nespoli noticed that his workforce is not hanging out after work as often. “In the old days you’d have a drink, sit there and talk,” Nespoli said. “You knew exactly what was going on in everybody’s life. But nowadays both parties in a family have to work or work two jobs to make a go at it. So they don’t stay around anymore. It’s not really the people changing, but the way of life.”
One aspect of the work at the Department of Sanitation in New York City that has remained a big part of sanitation worker life is snow removal. As soon as it starts snowing, the streets need to be cleared and everybody is on mandatory overtime. “When it snows the city owns you,” Flaherty said during Columbia’s party while the men around him nodded in agreement. When it snows people work 13-hour shifts and sometimes sleep in their car, because there’s no time to go home in between shifts. “But it’s the job that gets us the most recognition. It’s a part of this job that the public actually recognizes.”
When it first starts snowing sanitation worker will say they’re not snowflakes, but dollar bills falling from the sky, because there’s a lot of money being made. During snow they get paid time and a half, and after a certain number of hours or days, double. “But they call it blood money because of how hard they have to work for that money,” Nagle said. “It’s nice to make overtime, but it’s also nice to see your family and it’s nice to sleep.”
The department will plow and clear for days after a big storm and will then “chase the garbage” they weren’t picking up during that time. And according to professor Nagle, who joined sanitation workers once during a pitch-black night on snowplow duty with white snowflakes falling hypnotically to the windshield. “It’s easy to start hallucinating in those conditions,” Nagle said. “And the best thing that can happen to them is to trip the blade.” Tripping the blade in front of the truck means the bottom of it is caught in a manhole, it bends, bends, bends and — Boom! “When it flips back, it’s like someone shot a rifle beside your ear out of nowhere. It’s the most violent noise,” she said. “But the guys say it saves lives.” The biggest problem of the sanitation workers is that people want the streets clean, but they don’t to pay extra for greener garages or extra transfer stations in their neighborhoods that would increase self-sufficiency, Nagle said. “Everybody wants their trash picked up, but nobody wants to see or smell it.”
Grown men with shiny ties and young sanitation workers in tuxedos hit the dance floor when the D.J. dimmed the lights and someone handed out glow-in-the-dark sticks to spark things up. In the hallway a professional photographer stood in front of a big grey sheet hanging from the wall, where couples, partners and entire teams could get a prom-like picture taken underneath the art deco chandelier of El Caribe’s country club.
Jim van Woert, who works for Waste Management, Inc., a corporation that works with DSNY, leaned back in his chair. He glanced over the menu with a selection of eight different entrees and let his eyes slide over the long table and all the half-empty plates: pineapple shells, veal caprese, rack of lamb and double cut pork chops. “It was a lovely meal, don’t you think?” van Woert said. “I just can’t help but wonder who’s picking up the trash here tomorrow.”