Twenty some years ago at New York University I met an engaging and super smart anthropologist, Robin Nagle. She had a reputation as a very good teacher (well-deserved) and I was carried away by her enthusiasm and curiosity. We started talking about her interests and she told me that she was fascinated by garbage. I didn’t understand. What could possibly be so interesting about garbage? I knew of garbage’s historical value in digs and excavations, but I didn’t grasp what could be special about garbage from an anthropological point of view. She explained it to me simply and memorably. “Hold something valuable in your hand,” she told me. “Now move it two feet to the left and put it into that waste basket – and think about all the ways that this simple movement has changed the status and meaning of the object.” I have been a fan ever since and I have never thought of garbage – or stuff the same way.
Nagle has followed her curiosity and passion. Still at NYU but now also New York City’s Department of Sanitation’s first and only anthropologist-in-residence, Nagle recently wrote Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. It is a thoughtful and provocative book of all things garbage-related in Gotham, bringing a unique perspective to an under-examined topic. Driven by deep curiosity, strong theories, and a sympathetic appreciation for workers, Picking Up is a very engaging study on a topic that we – by human nature – tend to ignore.
Nagle weaves together three distinct but related spheres of inquiry in the book. One is grounded in anthropology and offers different ways of understanding the material (garbage) and the values and practices about it. Theorizing is light but present enough to raise good questions throughout. Nagle asks, for example, why most people ignore sanitation workers. What makes us uncomfortable with their presence? Is it our dependence upon them? The intimacy that our garbage reveals? Or some deeper connection between garbage and death? The historical development of the New York Department of Sanitation is another theme in the book. Nagle moves swiftly here, focusing key events and personalities, such as the innovations of Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., in the 1890s, and the blizzard of 1969, which was labelled the Mayor Lindsay storm.
What sets Picking Up apart, however, is Nagle’s third theme: her efforts to become a “San Man” – a sanitation engineer. She started as an observer, but then, to gain a deeper understanding, joined the Department as an employee. Nagle passed the written and physical exams. She obtained a Class B commercial driver’s license after being taught how to drive trucks on Floyd Bennett Field. She ran a mechanical sweeper, drove a snow plow, and collected garbage. Importantly, Nagle’s commitment to the work and her colleagues is real. She is not “playing” at sanitation as George Plimpton played at boxing. Nagle’s values and anthropological training giver her a genuine stance from which to work, think, question, and write. It is an ethnographic study, but much more. Nagle explains the complicated bureaucracy of the Department, the culture of the employees, and the challenges and dangers of the job. Sanitation is hard and difficult work on its own. Adding to this is the cultural stigma of sanitation work. Opening a window into the culture and practice of sanitation work, Nagle helps us understand and appreciate the men and women who keep our communities clean.
Robin Nagle has written a beautiful book about garbage and the men and women who handle it in New York City. It is a pleasure to read and to recommend.