Secrets of the San Man

John Maida on his route.Photo: Michael Schmelling

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.

John Sullivan on his route in Brooklyn.Photo: Michael Schmelling

At eight o’clock, truck CN191 turned east onto my block. “We’ll get ten tons today,” predicted Sullivan. We moved up the street, about three brownstones at a time, looking for breaks between parked cars. This type of collection is called “house to house.” In Manhattan, where high-rises are the norm, san men do “flats,” and a truck can pack out after clearing just one or two big buildings.

My quest to learn what happened to my garbage was partly anthropological: Like fossils, ancient kitchen middens, and Clovis points hewn by early man, the stuff we reject today reveals a great deal about human beings and how we live. My quest was also grounded in a growing sense of environmental consternation: Where was all this stuff going, and what impact did it have once it got there? As I would soon learn, my dinner scraps, in the anaerobic confines of a landfill, produced methane, a potent greenhouse gas. My spent batteries leaked heavy metals into groundwater. Burned in an incinerator, busted PVC toys and empty shampoo bottles would exhale noxious fumes, including dioxins and furans. This stuff didn’t go away: It was increasingly coming back to bite us—in our food, water, air, and soil.

At last, CN191 parked in front of my building: a brownstone divided into three apartments that shelter six adults, three children, two dogs, two cats, and one fish. I was nervous. Had we put the barrels—two for putrescible waste, two for recyclable containers, and one for paper—in a convenient place? Were the lids off? They were supposed to be on, but they were a pain and the san men didn’t like them. I wondered if my trash was too heavy or too smelly or contained anything identifiably mine. Would Sullivan make some crack about the stained napkins and place mats I was tossing? Would Murphy think it coldhearted to throw out a child’s artwork?

I suspected that many people feel guilty about the volume of their trash. I certainly did. There was stuff in my barrel for which I’d failed to find further use. When I’d brought this stuff into the house—a new T-shirt, healthful food, a really fun toy—it was live weight, something I was proud to have selected and purchased with my hard-earned money. Now the contents of the bag were dead weight, headed for burial. No wonder we prefer garbage bags that are opaque.

Sullivan rolled one plastic bin to the street, and Murphy grabbed the other. They looked heavy—I knew they were about three-quarters full—but they hoisted them to the hopper’s edge without apparent effort. A small plastic grocery sack puffed with refuse, possibly mine, tumbled into the street. My heart stopped. Murphy swooped down upon it, tossing the tiny package into the hopper with a flick of his gloved hand. It was over. Nothing untoward had happened. Nobody had said a word.

Was I being neurotic? What, after all, could Sullivan and Murphy say about me, based on an average week’s trash? That I wasted food, made unhealthy snack choices, bought new socks, or had a cold? I knew, after just one day on the job, that san men constantly make judgments about individuals. They determine residents’ wealth or poverty by the artifacts they leave behind. They appraise real estate by the height of a discarded Christmas tree, measure education level by the newspapers and magazines stacked on the curb. Glancing at your flotsam and jetsam, they know who has broken up, who has recently given birth, who is cross-dressing.

When sixties radical A. J. Weberman sorted through Bob Dylan’s garbage, snatched from outside his Greenwich Village brownstone, he found nothing that helped him interpret his hero’s cryptic lyrics. Unhappy about this invasion of privacy, Dylan chased Weberman through the street, smushed his head to the pavement, and eventually sued him. Weberman went on to found the National Institute of Garbology, and when he tired of Dylan’s trash, he dove into Neil Simon’s (he found bagel scraps, lox, whitefish, and an infestation of ants); Gloria Vanderbilt’s (a Valium bottle); Tony Perkins’s (a tiny amount of marijuana); Norman Mailer’s (betting slips); and the antiwar activist Bella Abzug’s (proof of investments in arms companies).

At a large apartment building on the corner of Eighth Avenue, Sullivan parked the truck at an angle to the curb. The building’s super had heaped long black garbage bags—each a 120-pound sausage—into a four-foot-high mound. It took the team less than two minutes, and a few cranks of the packing blade, to transfer the mound from the street to their truck and crush it together. When they were done, one bag remained on the sidewalk, its contents gushing through a long tear. “Gotta watch for rats when it’s like that,” Murphy said. “Once a rat ran across my back,” Sullivan said. “Whaddaya gonna do?” Maggots, known in the biz as “disco rice,” were something else. On monsoon days, they floated in garbage pails half full of rainwater. “I won’t empty those,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan talked about the seasonal changes in garbage. “In the springtime, there’s a lot of yard waste and a lot of construction, because of tax returns. You get more household junk in the spring. You can always tell when an old-timer dies. There’s 30 bags and a lot of clothes.” Sullivan continued. “And you can always tell when there’s a sale on washing machines, usually around Columbus Day.”

“People eat different up top,” Murphy said, meaning the blocks closer to Prospect Park. “A lot of organic people, fresh stuff. They’re more health-conscious.” Good and bad referred to garbage content as well as garbage style. Good garbage, the san men taught me, was garbage worth saving. They called it “mongo.” The sanitation garage was brimming with it: a microwave, a television, chairs, tables. “Some neighborhoods in Queens, the lawn mower is out of gas and they throw it out,” Joey Calvacca, a san man from the Brooklyn North 5 Garage, said to me. “They throw out a VCR when it needs a $2 belt. We throw it in the side of the truck to bring home.” Officially, mongo didn’t exist. San men weren’t allowed to keep stuff they’d found. But everyone did, and no one complained.

The truck was about two-thirds full now. Rounding the corner onto Seventh Avenue, Sullivan and Murphy pulled over to gulp from water bottles and wipe the sweat from their foreheads. Their cotton shirts had bibs of sweat. On 95-degree days, Sullivan said, he went through three dry T-shirts in one shift. I asked how close they were to finishing today. “We’ll do it all in three and a half hours,” said Sullivan. “That’s without a coffee break or lunch.”

“Why do you work so fast?”

“To get it over with,” said Murphy. That didn’t exactly explain the panic to finish early. San men can’t go home when their job is done; they have to stay in the garage until their shift ends, at 2 P.M. The men pass the time eating lunch, watching videos or TV in the break room, playing cards, napping on white leather couches, and working out on exercise equipment rescued from the jaws of the hopper. Break-room décor varies enormously, constrained by the availability of local mongo, the super’s aesthetic sensibilities, and the culture of the particular garage. Now and then, a call from “downtown” results in a clean sweep, and all the bad paintings, ceramic kitsch, macramé wall hangings, tin signs, plastic flowers, hula hoops, and velvet Elvises go into the garbageman’s garbage pail.

“The time passes quickly,” said Sullivan. “You’re coming down from a big high afterward. It’s like an athletic event.” He screwed the cap onto his water bottle. “I figure it’s the length of a marathon, every day. You just try to get through it. You can’t think about it. It’s a state of mind.”

To be a san man is to be a denizen of a hidden world. “People think there’s a garbage fairy,” one worker told me. “You put your trash on the curb, and then pffft, it’s gone. They don’t have a clue.”

“We get no respect,” said Calvacca. “Only when it snows and we keep the city open. We are just like garbage—we’re maggots.”

I asked Calvacca if he thought we had a garbage problem. “We’ve got room for it now,” he said, but someday we were going to run out. The world would someday be overrun with its own waste. And what was Calvacca’s solution? “We should blast it into outer space on rockets,” he said. It was an option put forth by a surprising number of san men.

When their truck was full, at around 10:30, Murphy dropped Sullivan at the garage, then rumbled over the Gowanus Canal and pulled into the IESI transfer station, a white-painted brick building at the corner of Bush and Court Streets, in Red Hook. The drill here was simple: Weigh the truck, then pull around to the tipping floor, back in, and pull the lever to dump. If they had loaded their truck properly, the ejected garbage would extend six to eight feet in a super-compressed bolus before dropping to the ground.

The quality of the dump was known as “the turd factor.” According to one designer of packer trucks, “The driver can learn from experience by observing the turd factor and know just how much trash he can put in the truck per trip. If he gets a good turd on every trip to the landfill, that’s a good day.” Judging by the conformation of today’s load, Murphy and Sullivan had done well. The morning’s labors—20,000 pounds collected in less than four hours—now lay in a heap, indistinguishable from the heaps dumped before or after. My trash was there, too, somewhere. From the earth all of this stuff had come, and to the earth it would return. Some of it, for sure, would be a problem for the environment, but not for Sullivan and Murphy. Without a backward glance, Murphy put the truck in forward gear.

Adapted from Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte, to be published in July by Little, Brown.

Secrets of the San Man