By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
NEW YORK -- The soon-to-be-unveiled museum devoted to the sanitation workers of New York -- do not call them garbagemen -- will prompt smart alecks to wonder: Are they just cranking out museums for anybody these days? When do meter maids get a turn? Hey, how about a wing of the Smithsonian for those dudes who wave in jets at the airport?
Buh huh huh huh.
You people. You know what you need? A little thought experiment. Let's imagine life without sanitation workers in the country's largest metropolis. How, exactly, would the Big Apple rot if nobody picked up the trash?
Within a couple of weeks the city would be carpeted with trash -- more than 120,000 tons of it, according to Robin Nagle, the Sanitation Department's "anthropologist in residence." (It's an unsalaried job that she talked the department into creating.) Rats would be rampant and bolder than ever. There'd be typhoid and dysentery. It'd get violent -- the rich would hire private garbage haulers, plus armed guards to keep the riffraff from dumping in wealthy neighborhoods. The stink would be unimaginable. The tourist trade would crash, probably wrecking the economy.
"At that point," Nagle says, "we could just push New York City into the river."
So you see, the question isn't "Why do we need a museum for sanitation workers?" It's "Dear sanitation workers, shouldn't you guys have a much bigger museum?"
Because, frankly, it's kind of a stretch even to call this a museum. It's more like a large exhibit, mounted in 13 storefront windows that wrap around a corner of a building at New York University, specifically the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life. Or it will be on Friday, when the show goes on public view for six weeks.
From the sidewalk -- yes, this is more like a Macy's storefront than, say, the MoMA -- you will be able to gawk to your heart's content at a trove of rubbish-related history and objects: antique garbage cans, shovels, pitchforks, scale model garbage trucks, a collage of old photos, including an image of a 1961 copy of the now-defunct Sweep magazine.
A poster will provide a sense of the scale of the Sanitation Department's job in New York City: some 2,500 tons of Christmas trees collected each year, 400,000 tons of paper for recycling, 20,000 tons of autumn leaves, all of it collected from 6,000 miles of streets. Another poster pays tribute to the history of the department and its standout leaders. Among them, Col. George Waring, a commissioner who seemed to care about collecting the trash rather than using the job to enrich himself through kickbacks and graft. (The job was a Tammany Hall cash cow for many years.)
In the 1890s, Waring figured out a way to instill pride in his employees -- giving them uniforms, marching them in Labor Day parades, turning them into local heroes. When everyone else in New York was terrified of the Five Points neighborhood, Waring's squads were greeted there like the Red Cross in a war zone.
Nagle curated "Loaded Out: Making a Museum," as it's officially known, and created the exhibits with the help of students at NYU, where she teaches when she isn't trying to enhance the Sanitation Department's image. It's been a passion of hers since she was 10 years old, when she and her dad went hiking in the Adirondacks and found heaps of garbage in an otherwise pristine campsite. ("Who did they think would clean up after them?" she remembers wondering.)
Much of her academic career has been spent underscoring a simple point: Without an army of sanitation workers to handle a vast huge ecosystem of refuse, city life would be impossible. So where's the love? If the police and firefighters have their own museum in New York City, why shouldn't "New York's strongest"?
"When you think about the history of the city, the key to growth and well-being is effective garbage removal," Nagle says. "You can't have a sparkling city without it."
Nagle spent more than a year working with New York sanitation teams, sometimes hauling bags, sometimes driving garbage trucks. She ended up with a huge amount of material for a forthcoming book, "Picking Up," and a somewhat smaller collection of what is known as "mongo." It's a sanitation crew term for something plucked out of the trash for reuse.
Technically it's prohibited, but apparently it will get you in trouble only if a supervisor has it out for you and can't nail you for something else. Otherwise, nobody seems to mind.
"I would guess that about half of the guys mongo," Nagle says.
A mongo sampler is part of "Loaded Out," including luggage, an electric fan, gloves, a framed photo of an old car, a vinyl record of a Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand duet. Typically, stuff like this gets repurposed in a variety of ways.
"Some sanitation workers eBay their mongo, or they sell it in a yard sale," Nagle says. "One guy gave it to his church. Another guy found this really beautiful white cashmere scarf and he took it to the dry cleaner and gave it to his wife on Christmas. I don't know if he ever told her it was mongo."
Let's hope not.
Mongo is just one of the benefits of sanitation work. The pay is pretty good, too. Most sanitation workers are earning $56,000 a year five years into the job, and you can retire after 20 years of service, with about half your salary for the rest of your life. Take a bow, Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, part of the Teamsters.
"I had to go into a lottery just to take the exam," says Robert Attina, a supervisor. "Thousands of people apply. I think there were 200 people in the last class."
On the downside, the work is dangerous. Nagle swears she has stats proving that New York City sanitation workers die more often on the job than New York City cops. Getting hit by a car is one of the biggest hazards.
If she gets her way, "Loaded Out" will be just the beginning -- or rather, step number two, since this is the second iteration of the exhibit, which first opened in a Sanitation Department building in Chelsea late last year. Nagle is planning a full-scale, permanent museum at a site that she would rather not identify. She'll start building just as soon as she persuades the city and private donors to cough up the many millions of dollars needed for construction.
The more you contemplate life without sanitation workers, the more you think: Pay the lady.