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

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  476 ratings  ·  106 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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Average rating 3.92  · 
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B 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
Anne Bogel
Jan 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Rounded up from 3.5 stars.

Author Robin Nagle embedded with NYC's Department of Sanitation to see what it really took to dispose of 11,000 tons of garbage a day. While a little overly detailed in places, I found this fascinating and surprising; I'll confess to constantly reading stats and insights aloud to any family members in the vicinity. And when I traveled to NYC just weeks after finishing this book, you can bet I looked at the garbage bags and city trash cans in a whole new way.

I was surp
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
Aug 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: geekery, library
Fascinating urban anthropology. Gave me a lot to think about, with city infrastructure, the things I take for granted as a city dweller... good look at history. And fascinating to see an anthropologist who parlayed her fascination with the cultural context of trash and what a society gives up or throws away, into learning about NYC's sanitation work and culture, that facet of the city's infrastructure. I learned a lot about everything from routine trash pickup to snow preparedness. Yes, there ar ...more
Dec 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
“You collect garbage, that doesn’t mean you are garbage. What you do is important. What you do matters. What you do is difficult and dangerous and absolutely fundamental to the well-being of this city. Never mind if the public ignores you or even scorns you. Look at what you’ve given your families; look at the children you’re raising, the homes you can provide for them. take pride in your job. ... Be proud.”

"If you're lucky you can go your whole life without ever having to call a cop. And you ca
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.
Elizabeth Desole
Sep 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
A fascinating look at the little known or understood world of waste removal. It’s a nice basic overview of the entire system. There’s a little history, a little explanation of the logistics of waste removal in America’s largest city, a little of the culture of the organization itself. The only reason I only gave 4 stars is that I was hoping for more about the internal culture. It’s rare that anyone is motivated enough to get behind “the green wall” of the DSNY. And not enough was done with that ...more
Sep 27, 2019 rated it it was ok
reading this for class and the writing is incredibly grating
Aug 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
If you sometimes wonder where all that refuse goes, this is *not* the book you're looking for. This first-hand account of the sanitation profession was written by a cultural anthropologist, and deals with its social and cultural aspects. But there's plenty of food for thought, as well as rippin' good tales. It's an armchair visit to the streets of New York City. ...more
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
Amy Rohn
Feb 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
3.5 rounded up.

This book is a fascinating look at an essential job that not too many people stop to think about, but that keeps their lives running smoothly. If you live in New York City you'll find this book particularly interesting, but even if you don't this is still an interesting look at one of the most important aspects of our society. This one also took me a lot longer to get through than most other books I read. I've found that with nonfiction, I have to focus a lot more to grasp everyth
Aug 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
I was excited to read this book. And it did not disappoint. My favorite chapters were the ones that talked about the history of NYC garbage collection. I was surprised to learn that NYC used to throw its garbage in the ocean. And empty its chamber pots in rivers. I makes me glad to live at this time.
I was also surprised to learn that some NYC garbage were ashamed to be garbage men. One man has not told his neighbors what he does for a living. Me personally I think being a garbage man is a hono
Jul 25, 2014 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
Feb 22, 2016 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.
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: set-in-nyc, 2020
I have a pretty big interest in NYC but even I wondered if a whole book about its sanitation workers would be interesting. I was amazed that it was! Earned an extra star for making garbage collection and snow removal so interesting! I look forward to annoying my companions with tidbits learned here the next time we visit.
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.
Tim Popko
Nov 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
The New York Times has done a lot of promotion for Robin Nagle. Her name and her book are plugged in regularly by Times reporters, often in musings about the derision of working-class culture.

Picking Up is written as a scholarly treatise that teeters on beauty. In her opening prelude, Robin writes, "Imagine if we were capable of a form of empathy that lets us know one another by savoring the aura on the things we have touched. We would go to a dump and get drunk on one another's souls." p. 8. It
Joseph Hirsch
Sep 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Many people would be surprised (maybe even shocked) to learn that being a sanitation worker in New York City is more dangerous than being a policeman or a firefighter. I certainly didn't know as much before reading this book. And yet, despite the near-heroic work done by sanitation engineers, when a young and idealistic kid talks about the kind of job he might want to do when he grows up, something like firefighter or policeman tends to make the list right after a gig like astronaut, while "garb ...more
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
Alexis Beshara
Jan 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic exposition of the thankless workings of New York City's Sanitation Workers, without whom the city would quite literally drown in their own waste. This should be a required reading of every NYC resident.

Chock full of historical context, insights into changing political climates that have affected the DSNY, and personal anecdotes of the workers themselves (including the author), Picking Up paints a picture of sanitation workers both in NYC and around the world that offers a more empath
Yiannis Psaroudis
In _Picking Up: On the Streets & Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of NYC_, author-cum-anthropologist-in-residence Robin Nagle provides a behind-the-scenes look into arguably the country's, if not the world's, most complex and vital sanitation department. And, like any good anthropologist, that means more than just relaying first-hand accounts; Nagle actually suited up and became a sanitation worker, herself—passing all the requisite tests and requirements—in an effort to give us an ...more
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
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
Nov 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
To most of us, Sanitation Department workers go unnoticed as our trash and garbage seemingly disappear magically. All we see is the tip of the iceberg. Robin Nagle literally dives in and uncovers an unexpectedly interesting and engaging story with real people and real stories. She's been there and done that as both an anthropologist and sanitation worker. If you give it a read, you'll gain a world of respect for these mostly unseen but necessary worker-bees in our beehive society. I enjoyed the ...more
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142 likes · 40 comments
“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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