Book Review: Picking Up- On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City

Picking Up cover
Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle.

Robin Nagle. Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

On a visit to New York in March as a member of staff on an undergraduate field trip, I was presented with a wealth of book buying opportunities. I was unfortunately (or fortunately, if you are my bank balance or my boyfriend) limited by BA’s baggage allowance, so I had to be highly selective about what I bought. Picking Up was one of the lucky few (well, 7) that made the cut. I enjoy books about cities, but I especially like books that approach a city from a direction that’s a little bit different. And, as Robin Nagle makes abundantly clear, what public service is more overlooked than rubbish collection?

All of us create trash in great quantities, but its a troubling category of stuff we mostly ignore. We particularly ignore how much care and attention it requires from a large, well-organized workforce. What would life be like if the people responsible for managing the waste of contemporary society were not on the streets every day? What do their jobs entail? Why don’t they get the kudos they deserve?

(Nagle, 2013; p.12)

Picking Up blends statistics, history and personal stories to tell a rich and detailed story of the Department of Sanitation New York (or DSNY- the book contains a helpful glossary so you can get your head around all the acronyms and slang that the sanitation workers use). The DSNY only receives public and media attention when something goes wrong; you don’t often stop to be grateful when your rubbish is collected on time, but you certainly do kick up a stink (pun intended) when a collection is missed. So Nagle had to work hard to gain the trust of the DSNY and its employees, first getting access to their archives, then being allowed to observe garages and collection trucks on their rounds, then, finally, getting a job as a sanitation worker herself. Her fascination with the topic, and her dedication to finding out more about the complex system that prevents New York City from drowning in its own waste, is evident in her writing.

Nagle uses her own transition from curious outsider to tolerated observer and finally valued colleague to structure the book. As she learns how to lift properly, how to navigate bureaucratic politics, and how to operate the complex and dangerous machinery (you are statistically more likely to die on the job as a sanitation worker in New York than a police officer or fireman) so does the reader. Well, not literally, but I felt like I was discovering more about this overlooked world with Nagle, rather than just being told about it.

An anthropologist by trade, Nagle is fascinated by what the ways that society deals with rubbish can tell us about ourselves and the societal norms we construct. The book doesn’t contain much theory- it is clearly aimed at a non-academic audience, but what is included adds a depth that I think the rest of the book could have benefited from. The discussion about the term ‘throwing away’ and its implications for how society views waste, for example, is fascinating.

I work from home quite often, so I regularly see my local sanitation workers coming to collect our rubbish and recycling on Thursday mornings. Before reading Picking Up, I might have glanced up to see what the noise was. Now, I am much more aware of the service they perform. Picking Up takes a new perspective on New York City, a difficult thing to do for one of the world’s most observed and represented cities. But it also encourages you to think differently about your own city, and what more can you ask from a book than to change your perspective?

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