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

3.88  ·  Rating Details  ·  260 Ratings  ·  69 Reviews
America's largest city generates garbage in torrents—11,000 tons from households each 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,
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published March 19th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Brendon Schrodinger
Jul 19, 2014 Brendon Schrodinger rated it really liked it
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
Nov 01, 2015 Eric_W rated it it was amazing
Arguably the most important service a city provides is garbage removal. All city functions become virtually impossible when trash is not removed in a regular manner. Not only that, but they are key players in fueling consumption and capitalism. Without regular disposal of consumed goods, there is no room for new goods to replace them.: "used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place."

The euphemistic sanitation workers are the real "invisible" men. Workers are truly ignored. They
Nov 15, 2015 Jeanette rated it liked it
Good survey of garbage service in NYC, mostly Manhattan. Ok non-fiction, but I wanted far more output information upon garbage separation and/or end placements, and far less union in-fighting politics and admins politico histories. Some of the chapters were excellent, and others not at all. But then I am a difficult audience for this and especially for a place that doesn't require much, if any, hidden alley pickup. Far more difficult and dangerous than that which is on a full frontage street sit ...more
Mikey B.
May 22, 2013 Mikey B. rated it really liked it
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
Margaret Sankey
Aug 01, 2013 Margaret Sankey rated it really liked it
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
Apr 22, 2016 Kurtbg rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction-non
If you live in New York, drive, and found yourself behind a sanitation truck during pick-up you really feel their presence. Perhaps walking around you notice the weekly piles of trash and recycling on the curbs especially in the winter time when snow has delayed the pick-up schedule.

For the most part, garbage collection goes unseen in the city. Not because they're not there, but because socially they are not acknowledged by pedestrians. It's as if they were ghosts or house elves. I've never hea
David Dinaburg
Jun 07, 2013 David Dinaburg rated it really liked it
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
Jun 02, 2013 Patrick rated it really liked it
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
hen young Robin Nagle stumbled upon a communal dumpsite in the middle of an otherwise picturesque meadow, she was astounded by the thoughtlessness of her fellow campers. Who did they think would take care of their rubbish, the garbage fairy? People rarely give thought to their garbage service, unless it hiccoughs, but sanitation workers are arguably more indispensable than police or firemen. Given individuals can get by for decades without calling for fire or police services, but try going decad ...more
Linda Gaines
Jan 02, 2016 Linda Gaines rated it really liked it
This a good book in describing the people of the Sanitation Department of New York. There were some wonderful stories, including some very funny stories. I have high respect for people who do the jobs that no one else wants, like those of sanitation workers. This book only made me respect them more. My only compliant is that I really wish the book had discussed more of the operations of the department. It had almost no discussion of what happens with the trash once it is put into a truck and sen ...more
Kathleen Hulser
Nov 26, 2014 Kathleen Hulser rated it really liked it
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
Alison Wade
Aug 27, 2015 Alison Wade rated it really liked it
Everyone - but especially New Yorkers - should read this book! It will give you a whole new appreciation for sanitation workers. NYC often feels like a pile of hot garbage but without these men and women we would be living in squalor.
Jul 25, 2014 E rated it liked it
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
Mar 10, 2016 Jkhickel rated it really liked it
I almost gave up on this book after the first few pages, when the writing style struck me as a little...well, overdone. For example, on describing a trash dump: "The reek, the howling, the gloom--a newcomer would be forgiven for thinking he's stumbled onto a modern-day staging of The Inferno. In the Third Circle of Hell, where the gluttonous are doomed to spend eternity in filth...."

The good news is, this stuff dies out pretty quickly, and the remainder of the book is a fresh look at stale old g
Mark Schlatter
Dec 27, 2014 Mark Schlatter rated it really liked it
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
Aug 27, 2013 Stephany rated it really liked it
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
May 06, 2013 Jeramey rated it liked it
Shelves: urbanism
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
Sep 19, 2013 Elizabeth rated it really liked it
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 she became a sanitation worker! She describes taking the test, waiting for
Feb 04, 2014 Karen rated it really liked it
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
Aug 29, 2013 Melissa rated it really liked it
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
Jul 30, 2014 Katherine rated it really liked it
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!
Feb 04, 2014 Trailhoundz rated it it was amazing
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!
Sep 21, 2013 Patricia rated it liked it
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
Nov 26, 2014 Tracie rated it really liked it
Shelves: bookclub
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.
Mar 09, 2016 Sandra rated it liked it
Shelves: social-history
3 1/2 stars. The story of the Department of Sanitation in NY and it's workers, sort of. Parts explain the workings of the DSNY and it's mandate. Other parts are devoted to the people that work there. The language can be quite florid, particularly considering the subject matter, which can be jarring at times.

If you are interesting in seeing government bureaucracy in microcosm, this is a wonderful read.
Daniel Farabaugh
Mar 26, 2014 Daniel Farabaugh rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 30, 2014 Jean rated it really liked it
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.
Apr 30, 2013 Laura rated it liked it
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
Mar 07, 2015 Kerry rated it really liked it
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.
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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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