IN THE ACADEMY: DR. GARBAGE
by Ben McGrath
There is a saying among the rank-and-file members of the Department of Sanitation, otherwise known as san men, or New York’s Strongest: “You can go your whole life without ever having to call a fireman, and if you’re lucky you’ll never have to call a cop, but you want to see a sanitation worker every day.” Robin Nagle, the director of N.Y.U.’s Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought, cited this adage the other day in the course of explaining her new gig as the D.S.N.Y.’s official anthropologist-in-residence, a role that seems to involve at least as much cheerleading as it does scholarship. “If every anthropologist in the country folds up his research kit and goes home, the world isn’t necessarily going to notice,” she said. “But, if every san man in the world packs up his kit and goes home, we’re in trouble.”
The position is unpaid, and comes with the blessing of Sanitation’s artist-in-residence, Mierle Laderman Ukeles (also unpaid). (Her conceptual work “Touch Sanitation,” completed in 1980, involved her shaking hands with eighty-five hundred san men.) Nagle’s office remains at N.Y.U., but her field work, in her first few weeks on the job, has taken her to Rocco DiRico’s auto-repair shop, off Queens Boulevard, where the trucks and street sweepers get serviced, and to Floyd Bennett Field, where employee training takes place. “I’m putting together a presentation for new hires, so that people will understand the legacy,” she said, sitting behind her desk, on which she’d neatly stacked a few issues of the magazine Waste Age next to a book called “High Tech Trash.” (“It’s really gripping reading,” she said.)
Nagle, who is forty-five, has been researching the Department of Sanitation for the past several years, while working on a book, “Picking Up.” At first, the san men were convinced that she was a plant, from one of various surveillance agencies. “We are from different worlds,” she acknowledged. “I have tried to close the gap between us. I walk in, I’m female, I’m an egghead, I’m older, I have a Ph.D.—for some reason, they foreground that. My response is ‘La-di-fucking-da, I have a Ph.D. Whatever.’ ”
She said that she had earned her commercial driver’s license in 2004, and pointed to a Teamsters Local 831 jacket hanging behind the door, with “Robin” embroidered on the front. “You have to know what you’re doing or you’ll end up killing somebody,” she said. “As one of my instructors told me, if a car can be a weapon, a garbage truck can be a nuclear weapon.”
Nagle’s interests lie more with the trash collectors than with the trash, although the two intersect on the subject of “mongo”—sanitation lingo for “redeemed garbage” or the act of collecting it. (Nagle consulted a lexicographer, looking for help in tracking down the etymology, to no avail.) “Within the department, if you mongo or if you don’t—there’s kind of a dividing line,” she said. “ ‘He mongos.’ ‘Do you mongo?’ ‘Oh, mongo, are you kidding? I wouldn’t mongo.’ ” She paused. “Hell, I mongo, absolutely. And I have some pretty nice things.” A book cart to her left bore a sticker that read “NYU Asset Management: Authorized for Disposal.” She had found it on the curb. Maps on the walls outside her office were rescued from a Dumpster. And her winter wardrobe draws heavily from a stash of cashmere sweaters that she found in a garbage bag behind the Dakota, while accompanying a san man known as the Mongo King on his rounds, in 2003.
The first major charge of her residency will be to organize a Wall of Honor, commemorating all the men and women who have lost their lives in the line of duty, dating back to 1881; nationally, fatality rates for sanitation workers, owing to the risks associated with loading trucks in the midst of moving traffic, are roughly three times those for firemen and policemen. Next, she plans to coördinate a sanitation museum.
“Let’s imagine this: On the nightly news every day, there’s a Waste Watch,” she said, and then affected a news anchor’s stentorian tone: “ ‘Well, we see East Queens seems to be up in tonnage this week for reasons we can’t quite discern, whereas Brooklyn in the northwest quadrant has reduced its solid-waste generation by a staggering fifteen per cent since a month ago.” A waste man, to complement the weatherman—“How cool would that be?” Nagle said.