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Secrets of the San Man

By what you throw away, they shall know you. One woman’s quest to learn the afterlife of her own trash.


John Maida on his route.  

It’s gonna rain the next three days,” said one of the garbagemen waiting for 6 A.M. roll call at the local Department of Sanitation garage, a low brick structure on the farthest fringe of my Brooklyn neighborhood.

“Oh, man,” said another. “That garbage is gonna be heavy. You’re gonna lose five pounds on Friday alone.”

“I hate rain. That’s a drag.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a garbageman.”

I had biked down to the garage before dawn that morning on the first leg of a meandering quest to learn what became of my garbage once it left my house.

While I waited for the garage supervisor to introduce me to my san men, as the workers call themselves, I took a look around. Every stick of furniture in the office—desks, cabinets, footlockers—appeared to have been plucked from the street and coated with the same brown paint. The walls were crammed with yellowed memorandums and notices. A dark-roan dog and a dull-black cat padded around, former strays, but even their names seemed impermanent.

“The dog, the dog. Oh yeah, that’s Lupo,” said an officer uncertainly, when I inquired. And the cat?

“Her name is Meow,” said a clerk.

“No, it’s Mami,” corrected another.

Then two men came in from the street, jostling and punching each other’s shoulders. One said, “Somebody just stole the wheels off a bike out there!” I sprang for the door, and the guys laughed. “Just kidding, but I wouldn’t leave it there. Some bum from the park is gonna steal it. Bring it in here.” He said it “he-yeh.”

By now, about 50 men were standing around smoking and chatting in their dark-green DSNY sweatshirts. A phone rang. It was the cat lady on Fifth Street, complaining yet again that the san men hadn’t collected her garbage. A clerk named Scooter handled the call, and held the receiver at arm’s length so the entire room could hear the woman’s litany of grief. When it was over, he told her soberly, “I’ll make sure this information gets to the right people.” He hung up and the assembled burst out laughing. Everyone knew about the cat lady; she owned twenty animals. “It’s not against the law to dump your litter box onto your garbage, but it’s common courtesy to put it in a bag,” Scooter explained.

An officer called roll, and two to a truck, the men roared into the twilit streets. Though barrel-chested and muscle-bound, John Sullivan and Billy Murphy, my san men, moved with balletic precision in a blur of trash-can dragging, lid tossing, handle cranking, and heaving. Sometimes Murphy jumped down to load, sometimes Sullivan did it on his own. Then they switched. The truck moved in jerks, halting with a screech of brakes. The men seemed dour and angry to me. But soon I realized they seemed sour only because they were concentrating. In constant motion, lifting heavy barrels, they could get hurt if they didn’t pay attention. Metal cans banged against their legs; trailer hitches poked from high SUV bumpers. Drivers honked, urging the men to hustle it up.

I began dragging together barrels from neighboring houses, but the guys didn’t want me lifting anything into the truck. “You’re gonna be sore tomorrow,” Murphy said. He was rounder than Sullivan, and he had a stiff, loping walk, not quite a run. He kept his head mulishly down, his eyes trained on the ground. His palms were thick-skinned and yellow, with deep crevasses near the nails. Around the garage, he was known as Daddy. Sullivan had an angular face softened by a narrow strip of beard. His hair was a wiry brown and gray, cut into a mullet. A black belt in Tae Kwan Do, he was more agile than Murphy. I found him soft-spoken but intense.

Most people don’t think of garbage collection as particularly dangerous work. In fact, while the fatality rate for all occupations is 4 deaths per 100,000 workers, garbage collectors die at a rate of 68.3 per 100,000. They’re more than three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters. Cars and trucks rip past them on narrow streets. Danger lurks in every sack: sharp metal and broken glass, protruding nails and wire. And then there are the liquids. Three New York City san men have been injured and one killed by acid bursting from hoppers. It takes about a year for a san man’s body to become accustomed to lifting four to five tons a day, apportioned into 70-pound bags. “You feel it in your legs, your back, your shoulders,” Murphy told me. Still, plenty of people want the job, which has a starting pay of $30,696. The last time it was offered, 30,000 applicants sat for the written portion of the Sanitation test.

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