The Believer recently published this delightful interview with Robin Nagle, the NYC Department of Sanitation's anthropologist-in-residence, who's probably the only person to have been employed both as a professor at NYU and a sanitation worker in the Bronx. The conversation touches on topics like the history of urban sanitation (and the issue of smell I raised in the post below), the role of waste in forming the micro-geography of the city, and the paradoxical infrastructural scale and social invisibility of sanitation work. The following exchange seemed particularly relevant for this blog:
BLVR: You’ve also written about how sanitation workers commented on how they get to know a block’s trash on their route over time, down to the specific households. I was wondering if this was at all surprising, or useful, for you in regard to your training in anthropology and social science, which aim to coax out subtle information but in very different ways.
RN: It’s just archaeology. But it’s archaeology in the moment, very temporary, nothing formal. It’s a folk archaeology of contemporary household trash on the curb.
It takes time, because you don’t get a steady route, necessarily, until you have some seniority. But senior men and women who’ve been on the job for a while, who’ve had the same route for a long time, they know. I’ve heard stories of a guy who watched a family: watched a couple marry, move into this building where he picked up, and they had a child. The child came to know him. He watched her grow up. He watched her go to college. He watched her have children of her own. And they became buddies over time. And then when he retired, she was heartbroken. It was a nice little vignette.
We assume when we put our garbage in the bag—especially if, you know, it’s a black bag, usually, or a green bag, we can’t see what’s inside. We don’t want people to see what’s inside. How embarrassing! But those bags break. Or it’s just in a bin and then it’s tipped and all the contents spill. And sure, you can read it. Over time, if you’re doing that same set of blocks for ten years, you will be able to give a pretty savvy account of what’s happened there across that decade.