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

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  371 ratings  ·  84 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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3.89  · 
Rating details
 ·  371 ratings  ·  84 reviews

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Brendon Schrodinger
May 18, 2014 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 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 02, 2015 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 17, 2013 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 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
Edward Sullivan
In this fascinating chronicle, anthropologist Robin Nagle introduces readers to the men and women of New York City's Department of Sanitation and explains how this remarkably small army of uniformed workers is the most important labor force on the streets. For her research, Nagle accompanied crews on their routes, interviewed supervisors and commissioners, and listened to collection crews tell stories about blizzards, hazardous wastes, and other on-the-job experiences. Nagle joins the department ...more
David Dinaburg
May 30, 2013 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
Yunis Esa
Sep 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
A mix of history, anthropology, and personal journey. Robin Nagle ambitious project on painting a glimpse on one of most important task force, maybe the most important, in the best city in America.
Mar 08, 2013 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
May 06, 2013 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
Alison Wade
Aug 27, 2015 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.
Jun 17, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Effective garbage collection and street cleaning are primary necessities if urban dwellers are to be safe from the pernicious effects of their own detritus.

"C'mon Eddie, what are you getting so upset about? It's only garbage."

"We depend on our ability to move fast, and so assume the briefest relationships with coffee cups, shopping bags, packaging of all kinds -- encumbrances we must shed quickly so that we can maintain what I call our average necessary quotidian velocity. Such velocity is conn
Jan 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Anthropology professor Robin Nagle grew up fascinated by the Sanitation system. As an adult, she researched its history and ultimately ended up joining the force to get the best in-depth perspective. Her recounting of this experience, and her related research, makes this book a really interesting read.

The book taught me many things I hadn’t considered and many things to appreciate about the Sanitation system. It also raised good points about class and hierarchy and our society.

The history of st
May 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Just the right combination of facts, anecdotes, how-to’s, and history to be interesting. The author interviews, then applies and is accepted as a sanitation worker. They can make $80,000/yr ! But after reading of the dangers, and terrible hours and schedules, I’d say they deserve more than the $35K most people might say is enough. (80 seems hefty, but it is NYC). Politics plays some part, but the chapters stay short and easy to manage, without drifting off topic. The only slow part was at the en ...more
Jun 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
For anyone who has ever WONDERED: what happens to my trash and who are the people that pick it up? Look no further than this expertly written book by Robin Nagle. Nagle's research is part of "participatory journalism," that is doing the thing you're writing about with the people who do it on a daily basis. The honest insights, history, anecdotes and sheer level of detail will make you see NYC and your own cities' sanitation department differently.
Rogue Reader
The details of trash and waste - its history, the people the produce it and those who take it away and where it goes in New York City. Another one of those things that we just take for granted, a payment every month, the bins out the door on Friday, bring them in at the end of the day. Nagle writes with honesty, perseverance and personal perspective.
Sophie Golomb
Jul 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As someone who loves NYC and it’s inner workings, this book really hit the mark for me. I loved how something seemingly mundane was told in such a compelling narrative. The book took an issue (waste) that I already feel passionate about and gave it a human face.
May 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
A good book on removing trash and more than that. This books talks about the humanity of Sanitation workers and the jobs they do removing the garbage our modern life creates.

I will be honest I started reading this because it looked interesting and it was.
Arlene Garcia
Sep 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting read. It not only described in detail the job of the DSNY but gave an extensive history about sanitation and its importance. I would highly recommend this book.
Jan 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
excellent view of sanitation, past and present, in NYC.
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
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
Stephany Wilkes
Jul 08, 2013 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
Kathleen Hulser
Oct 31, 2014 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
Mark Schlatter
Mar 11, 2013 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
Oct 25, 2015 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
Sep 19, 2013 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
Jul 04, 2013 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
Sep 11, 2013 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
May 23, 2013 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
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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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