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

3.86 of 5 stars 3.86  ·  rating details  ·  218 ratings  ·  59 reviews
America’s largest city generates garbage in torrents—11,000tons from householdseach day on average. But New Yorkers don’t give it much attention. They leave their trash on the curb or drop it in a litter basket, and promptly forget about it. And why not? On a schedule so regular you could almost set your watch by it, someone always comes to take it away.

But who, exactly, i
...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published March 19th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Community Reviews

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Brendon Schrodinger
Robin Nagle's Picking Up, is one of those great little micro-history, author immersion books that is guaranteed to be an insightful and fascinating read. Indeed it is one those books to take to work and read at lunchtime. It soon sorts out the interesting people from the dullards. "You're reading a book about rubbish?" from which the only reply is "Shouldn't you be watching How I met Your Mother or something?"

If you have ever looked up and down your street while taking out the garbage and done s
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Mikey B.
A look at the garbage (or should I now say “sanitation”) workers of New York City. The author did work for some time in the sanitation department –picking up garbage and driving the street sweeping trucks. Plus she did winter work as in driving plow trucks during a snow storm; surprisingly, to me, snow removal falls under the sanitation department in New York.

The book provides us with a history of sanitation removal in New York. For example, if one romances the days of horse and buggy this did l
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Margaret Sankey
The most dangerous job in NYC isn't cop or firefighter, it's the garbage men. Nagle, an anthropologist, was embedded for two years in the never ending War on Trash (and rats), and delivers a truly fascinating inside study of the workings and history of the vital, disgusting and high risk world of trash pickup, waste management and snow removal that keeps big cities livable. She highlights the byzantine interlockings of two unions and the city bureaucracy, the gender stresses of adding women to t ...more
David Dinaburg
Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City sets a new standard in approachability for non-fiction. The clunkiest sentence in the whole book is the subtitle; the typical phrasing is refreshingly—almost defiantly—colloquial, and sanitation department idioms are ubiquitous enough to necessitate a comprehensive glossary of terms. The anecdotes and facts swirl together so casually that it’s hard to remember you’re reading an anthropologist's study an ...more
Patrick
This is a surprisingly readable account of a remarkable world- remarkable for the subculture revealed (as only an anthropologist could), but as well for the fact that it surrounds us but is completely unknown. For those who doubt the existence of caste in America, here is evidence of a group of people who are not simply untouchable, they are invisible. Hagle reveals this world to us, and makes a plea for a more sympathetic attitude to the people providing this essential service.

Along the way, s
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Kathleen Hulser
It's romantic, it's stinks, it's a big, big story. New York is built on trash. Robin Nagle wants us to see it and smell it and reckon with it in squirmy, squelchy ways. Nagle underlines the invisiblity of the people who grab the trash of the streets, marveling at how something as huge as a garbage truck can somehow remain below the level of consciousness. She worked with Sanitation, wore the green and got doused with the ritual baptism of rotted unmentionables on an early route. Her lively accou ...more
E
Perfectly serviceable memoir of this lady's time with the DSNY. Short and breezy. I would have preferred a little more information about the trash itself. She talks about the people picking it up, and all that goes into that process, but little about what happens to the trash afterward. Chapters about hierarchy and union politics were less than thrilling. History was good but could have been more.

And she didn't address the question that pops into my mind every time I see a trashman--how do they
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Mark Schlatter
Our author, Robin Nagle, worked both as an anthropology professor and a sanitation worker for the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY), and this book is her apology (in the literary sense) for the department. Nagle spares no expense to explain the necessity and primacy of garbage collection and disposal in a huge modern city, and she emphasizes the statistic that it's more dangerous to work for the DSNY than the New York police or fire departments. Besides the defense, she writes on the soci ...more
Jonna Higgins-Freese
I love histories of work, of daily life, and of everyday things (_The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance_ is a particular favorite). This was a particularly lovely example of the genre.

Nagle is a great writer: clear, smart, funny, and with a gift for choosing the right word. She captured the complexities of the job (and I love that -- every job I've ever had, from detasseling corn to being a cashier right on up to my current white collar work, carried a number of conflicting requiremen
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Stephany
I read this book because I wanted to read about work that matters, that genuinely makes a difference in everyone's lives, everyday, and that causes suffering if it is not done. Such a thing is increasingly rare.

Sanitation work is that kind of work. If you are not convinced, the section of this book on health crises and death before sanitation work existed will cure you of that. I had read previously about this, but Nagle's description is the best I have come across. The photos of streets filled
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Jeramey
I was hoping for this book to be either more technical (why certain things are done certain ways, advantages, disadvantages, etc, etc) or more thorough (following the garbage from the curb to the landfill or employees for full days/weeks/etc). Instead it glanced at the people and the job, but didn't deliver the depth I wanted.

It was interesting, but at the same time I never felt quite the connection I was expecting. There weren't any real characters from which to really gain insight into the peo
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Elizabeth
New York generates approximately 11,000 tons of garbage and 2,000 tons of recyclables a day. Yes, a day...

Anthropologist Robin Nagle wanted to find out how the fewer than 10,000 men and women of the NY Department of Sanitation manage to make all this disappear in a fairly simple manner. I found it fascinating. At first, she interviewed workers and supervisors. She thought she wasn't getting to the bottom of the story...so she became a sanitation worker! She describes taking the test, waiting for
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Karen
Feb 04, 2014 Karen rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: all New Yorkers.
Really interesting look at the history and culture of DSNY. I work for the City so I may have more interest in the subject than most people, but even with this extra awareness I was surprised at how much I take for granted. I finished reading this in between very snowy days and the plows are out in full force, along with spreaders ready to combat the elements. Finishing up the section on snow preparedness and removal was definitely good timing and made me that much more appreciative. Sanitation ...more
Melissa
While I've read casual reviews on different sites of this book that express some sense of disappointment at this not being a history of the DSNY, it is important to note that this is an ethnography about the work of cleaning up performed by Sanitation workers in NYC. Two of the chapters are more specifically historical, but the rest of the book deals with the various themes of special importance to garbage men (since the department is mostly made up of men). Dr. Nagle does a wonderful job at put ...more
Katherine
A brisk and enjoyable tour of the cleaning up of garbage, past and present, by the anthropologist-in-residence of New York City's Department of Sanitation. Managing waste is at the heart of being able to live in a city - and, increasingly, of being able to live in a consumer society - and this account is rigorous enough for academics and readable enough for pleasure. I only wish it were longer!
Trailhoundz
This is a fabulous book about one of the most important yet undervalued jobs in society- that of the sanitation worker (specifically those who cover Greater New York City). Easy to read, funny, enlightening, startling- just a really great book. The photo insert inside is a nice bonus. Three cheers for these folks who have a helluva job keep our cities clean,debris- & snow- free!
Patricia
I realize that 3 stars doesn't look very exciting. Actually, the first part of the book really interested me and I would have given it 5 stars easily--it was about the history of garbage and the story of how garbage pick up developed in big cities. The second half of the book wasn't as good, or, at least, I didn't find it as interesting, although I'm sure that if I lived in NYC my interest would have ramped up a notch. I also felt that the author lost a bit of her focus towards the end, and her ...more
Tracie
This was a really interesting read and I learned a lot about the NYC sanitation department and its workers, especially about how much I take them for granted. It's a quick read and everyone who lives here should probably read it so that you stop being a dick about your garbage.
Daniel Farabaugh
All parts of this book worked very well together. The author is able to combine her own personal experiences with the history without either overshadowing. She is able to treat her subjects fairly and convey the importance of what they do. Really, really enjoyable.
Jean
History, NYC, garbage - my kind of book. I appreciate the author stepping into a san worker's shoes, thoroughly researching a wide variety of interesting related topics, and presenting it all in a fair, straightforward and entertaining way.
Laura
I really liked this, but I wanted more information about certain things. She makes passing mention of driving a paper recycling truck, but that's the only time recycling came up. I would think it's made a huge difference in the world of trash collection and wanted to hear about it. I was also curious about things that are different than NYC in my suburban Missouri world. We only have one san man, not two, and the truck does the lifting thanks to a special trash can that fits on it. Why doesn't N ...more
Kerry
It is astonishing how riveting an account of the New York Department of Sanitation can be! I found the personal accounts and the history deeply fascinating--the exposition of political machinations a bit less so. Well worth a read.
Alex French
Quick read, very interesting.

I would have liked more pictures.

I would have liked a more concrete sense of time over the decade(s), what stories came from what phase of the author's involvement with the city.
Mary
This was a fascinating look into the life of sanitation workers in NYC, as well as a history of trash and how it's been handled in the city through the years. Very enjoyable and interesting!
Kit Fox
Eye-opening look into the inner workings of the NY Sanitation Department. A far cry from those "I did x-for a year and wrote a cursory book about it" yarns, Nagle's interest in (and appreciation for) sanitation workers runs deep. A quick yet entertaining overview of the history of tacking out the trash from NY's Dutch colonial days up to the Snowpocalypse of 2010, I'm most appreciative of this tome for introducing me to the best new vocab word ever: "mongo." As a verb, it means "to sift through ...more
Lisa
As Nagle suggests, the world of sanitation workers was invisible to me. Of course, I had had a fleeting thought about what happens to my garbage, but I had never put any serious effort into figuring it out. Nagle presents a series of vignettes about the life of a sanitation worker (some better than others).
Ken
much better than any book about sanitation needs to be (in fact, this is the second book of this nature that i read.. this is vastly superior to the other one).
breezy read, yet informative.
Lauren
One of the best non fiction books I've read lately. The author is an anthropologist who studies garbage, and spent 2 years working with the New York Dept. of Sanitation. Author includes a balance of history and personal experience, plus comedy and tragedy to create a total picture of the work of a "garbage man" and in many instances "garbage woman". My favorite quote: "if you're lucky you can go your whole life without calling a police.. or calling a firefighter but you need a sanitation worker ...more
Kate
A smart, breezy look into how garbage collection in NYC works, written by a NYU professor who spent time as a sanitation worker herself. Great capsule history of garbage through the history of NYC, and thoughtful passages on what our garbage (and how we treat the people who collect it) says about us as a culture. Poignant and often hilarious anecdotes from sanitation workers who, surprisingly, have a higher on-the-job death rate than either the NYPD or FDNY. Not nearly as academic and much funni ...more
Benjamin Malnor
This book provided a close up look at what it's like to work for DSNY. It covered DSNY's organization structure, routes, history, and the ever-changing sanitation worker exam. I really liked the chapter about learning how to drive the sanitation trucks.

I went into this book hoping for more information on where the trash goes after it leaves NYC. If you're interested in that, you'll need to get a different book. If you're interested in personal stories and history of DSNY, this is the book for yo
...more
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“Garbage Is, always. We will die, civilization will crumble, life as we know it will cease to exist, but trash will endure, and there it was on the street, our ceaselessly erected, ceaselessly broken cenotaphs to ephemera and disconnection and unquenchable want.” 3 likes
“Imagine if we were capable of a form of empathy that lets us know one another by savoring the aura we leave on the things we have touched. We would go to a dump to get drunk on one another's souls.” 1 likes
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