PICKING UP by Robin Nagle


On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City
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A deserving profile of the hardworking folks who work a particularly dirty job.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, refuse collection is the seventh most hazardous occupation. Nagle (Anthropology and Urban Studies/New York Univ.), the New York Department of Sanitation’s first-ever anthropologist-in-residence, confirms this with insightful information on both the job itself and the men and women who scour New York City’s streets. The physically strenuous work of the garbage collector encompasses the three-part official mandate of collection, disposal and snow removal. Though these distinct laborers receive “scant notice and even less praise” for collecting citywide refuse, Nagle writes, most are dedicated to their unique livelihood and faithfully adhere to the many restrictions of the trade, including the non-acceptance of tips, the rigorous written and physical exams, and the “instant termination” drug policy. Nagle points out that it’s our “lushly consumptive economy and culture” keeping these reliable workers in business, since, without them, “the city becomes unlivable, fast.” Her head-to-toe immersion in the sanitation process included manning a garbage-collection route and often exasperatedly reporting that the job is less a matter of on-the-job perils and more about the early-morning start times and the sheer physical resiliency required for successful employment. Nagle takes the science of scavenging seriously, as evidenced by her postgraduate seminar “Garbage in Gotham,” which included a tour of the colossally expansive Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill. Her multifaceted analysis alludes to the impermanent nature of the things we own, including our own bodies, and how the sanitation worker performs just one key component of that intricate transmogrification.

Sure to garner newfound respect for an essential yet greatly underappreciated workforce.

Pub Date: March 19th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0374299293
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2013


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