Public Eye: Trash anthropologist Robin Nagle
The Department of Sanitation's anthropologist-in-residence talks trash—and the people who pick it up
Wed Mar 19 2014
Photograph: Rayon Richards
How did you get into studying trash?
As a kid, I was hiking in the Adirondacks with my dad. It was this beautiful, unspoiled forest—except behind the campsite, there was this 40-square-foot, fly-infested, stink-filled dump. I was flabbergasted. Everywhere I went from that point forward, I had that question: Who is cleaning up after us? And when I moved to New York as a young adult, I’m looking around, and it’s these big white trucks.
And that led to working with garbage full-time?
I did fieldwork the way anthropologists do fieldwork. And as part of that research, I took a job as a sanitation worker. I went through all the steps to be hired, and was assigned to the Bronx. I drove the truck, operated the mechanical broom and plowed snow. But I was working full-time as a sanitation worker, working full-time at NYU, and I couldn’t hold it all together.
Yeah, that’s a lot to handle.
It was too much. So after a few months I went to the sanitation brass and I said, “Look, I would like a title inside the department that uses what I bring to the table. Let me be your anthropologist-in-residence.” The model for this is the department’s artist-in-residence, Mierle Ukeles, who’s been in that title for almost 40 years. She’s a brilliant visionary, revolutionary.
What projects are you working on for the job?
One was finishing a book that came out last year [Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City] that is the story of the department and the people in it. There’s an ongoing oral history project that’s online. And then the big dream is to found the Museum of Sanitation.
What has surprised you the most about doing a job that most people think is gross?
How much fun it is to operate the broom [truck]. It’s got a three-part dashboard full of dials, gages, switches, buttons and lights. It’s a very sophisticated contraption. There’s a real flow and rhythm. If there’s a street where you can’t get to the curb because there are cars parked intermittently, you do this kind of do-si-do. Mierle once choreographed a ballet for mechanical brooms.
Have you ever found anything really cool while you were collecting trash?
A bag of high-end, untouched yarn. It was leaning against a collection of garbage, absolutely pure: No dog had peed on it, no coffee grinds or egg shells. I knit, and I still wear the scarf I made from that yarn. If it had just been the guys I was working with that day, that would have gone straight in the back of the truck.
What’s the biggest misconception New Yorkers have about trash collectors?
That it’s an unskilled job. That’s profoundly untrue. You can learn the basics relatively quickly; however, learning what to do in an almost limitless number of different situations takes time. Some of the smartest people I have ever met—and I have a Ph.D., la-di-da [Laughs]—work for the Department of Sanitation.
You’ve said that sanitation workers are the most important uniformed force on the street.
In New York, if we didn’t have a way of getting the garbage off the street, we would be dying of preventable diseases, we would be overrun by bugs and rats. I’m taking nothing away from police and fire—I’m just suggesting that we share the love.
How do you think that our relationship to garbage has changed over time?
We are becoming more aware of how urgent a problem municipal waste really is. I see that in the spread of curbside recycling programs and efforts to be more environmentally sensitive. But municipal household waste represents a tiny percentage of the total waste stream of the nation—like, around 3 percent. So what on earth is happening with the other 97 percent—big-category things like industrial and agricultural waste? They’re not in our daily lives as immediately as the garbage we create in our homes and offices, but they’re there. I think it’s a really central question that we are only beginning to explore.
See Nagle speak
- Critics choice
Anthropologist and author Robin Nagle (Picking Up) illuminates the dirty work of the city's sanitation crews.
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)