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From Our Window

Last night at 1:30 AM (that is, early this morning) a New York City garbage truck pulled up to our building. The last several snow storms have left garbage uncollected and buried not only under a mountain of snow but behind the cars encased in snow.

Amazing performance by two sanitation workers. One clambered over the mountain of snow and began throwing the black garbage bags out to the street; the other grabbed them and threw them into the maw of the garbage truck. Bundeled up, the two looked like the Goodyear tire man, stiff and imoblile. Yet they had a rhythm and a grace, yes, even in 14 degree weather, that was impressive. Bravo!!

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Sanitation workers are so crucial to our way of living. They deserve solid middle class pay. I'll trade any three bankers you want to name for one good garbage worker.

In montreal, garbage collection doesn't really stop due to snow, but that first big snowfall will always cover up a ton of trash that only emerges when the ice thaws thaws (which may happen once or twice before Spring). What I hate the most isn't just the garbage that is revealed, but the piles and piles and piles of dog excrement. It's like the first robin redbreast: a true sign of Spring.

Provided they're dressed in layers of clothing, 14 degrees (F) should not impede the work of able-bodied men. They should have no difficulty in working with rhythm and grace -- except perhaps if they have to work against a strong wind.

Dog excrement: Fortunately NYC has "pick up the poop" laws, mostly enforced by dog owners themselves and the parents of small children. We will not see much of that come the thaw. But yellowed snow (from dog pee) is a regular feature of the landscape.

Do something nice for your sanitation workers Sept. 8, feast day of SS Zeno, Nestulus, and Eusebius, patron saints of sanitation workers on account of their being martyred and burned up on a garbage heap in Gaza.

You city folk make me happy I live in the sticks. We have at least three feet of snow on the ground (another four to six on the way today), but none of it is yellow, and when it melts there's nothing under it but green green grass. Plus in cold temps, the smell from the cow prison to our north abates, and the air is crisp and clear.

And I bet you don't have to dig out your car--not just from the falling snow but from the frozen slush the plows push to the side right up against the car.  On the other hand, why would anyone have a car in NYC?

Oh, yeah, people pick up after their dogs (doubt it's as enforced)--somehow, there's still enough around to be revolting. And the only snow that's not black is yellow. Snow is hideous.

Margaret, no, we don't have to dig out the car because we don't have on-street parking. The problem is that just when you get the driveway shoveled, the plows come and shove it all back into the driveway, filling in the approach with hard pack. I still have my ice spud from my ice-fishing days, so I go out there and break it up while The Boy shovels it out. I also have a drywall bucket full of sand and gravel in the back of the Jeep in case I get stuck in a parking lot.

I watched with horror as those folks in Atlanta just kept spinning their wheels and burning rubber off their tires on the ice down there, and not a bag of sand to be seen.

Abe, we don't get the black snow until mid-March, and then I'm ready for it to be over.

The life expectancy of garbage men is significantly lower than average.  It'ts truly dirty work, and no doubt that has something to do with it.  They deserve good wages.

Mondays like today normally would be a garbage pickup day for us, but It being President's day, I'm not 100% sure they're going to come by today.  We're getting the same 4-6" of snow that Jean mentioned above, so I hope they do come by or those bags may not re-emerge until March.  The wall of snow along our curb is so mountainous from previous snowfalls and plowings that I can't actually see the garbage bags where I propped them against the snow-cliff this morning.


Even when dog owners are diligent about scooping poop (as most seem to be in Chicago, at least on the North Side when I lived there), there are strays.  Apparently nobody knows how many there are, but one number floating about on the Internet suggests there may be as many as 70 million stray cats in the US  - a number I find impossible to believe.


Jim, ugh, stray cats. Once spring comes and things start to thaw, it's pretty apparent how many stray cats have been wandering around the neighborhood marking territory. The only product I've found that works on cat pee around doorways and fences is Smells Be Gone.

it's really hard to get a bead on strays, but some years ago, our vet helped my son with a science project to show show how quickly the stray population can get out of hand: Figure every female cat over a year old has four littlers of kittens per year with an average of four kittens per littler. Multiply that by the five years average a stray might be able to survive, and you have a single female cat who produces about 64 kittens over her lifetime. About three quarters of those kittens will die from disease, exposure, accidents, or as prey to larger animals, leaving 16 of those kittens alive. Figure that half of those 16 kittens are females, and you'll have another 126 cats if they reproduce and their offspring survive at the same rate.

While feral cats usually stay clear of people and don't spread diseases to them directly, they can infect pet cats with whom they come in contact. And the toll in animal suffering is very sad. 

Why is the life expectancy of garbage men lower than average? Is it related to their work? Do they get run over by cars, or do they get pricked by infected needles in the trash, or what? If they risk getting run over, shouldn't they do their work by daylight? Why 1:30am?

Sanitation workers (that's what they're called in NYC). Not sure about their life expectancy, but it might help their lungs if they wore dust masks. When the great claw at the back of the truck presses on the plastic bages, they pop and puffs of dust explode. Can't be good to breath.

Why 1:30 AM? That's not their usual time, which is usually 7-7:30 AM. I think they're trying to catch up. The SW are also the men (and they are all men; what women would want the job?) who drive the plows and salt trucks.

Abe: Maybe you should move South--how about Michigan! Jean would be a terrific neighbor.

Dogs and Cats: I can't say we have stray dogs in Manhattan because dogs must be leashed; a dog without a leash is jailed. Must be stray cats, but have never seen one. Maybe they live in the sewers with the stray rats. The mice live in our apartments.

Snow?  What is that?  Here in California there are many stray cats/dogs ... very sad.  I'm currently leaving out dry food for three stray cats  :(

I couldn't find any figure for the life expectancy of sanitation workers, but here's an interview with the official anthropologist of NY Dept. of Sanitation (yes, anthropologist).  Among other interesting facts she says that the average NY dept. worker walks 15 miles per week and lifts 26 (!) tons of garbage.  The interview is enough to convert you to environmentalism.


One fascinating point which we seem to naturally repress -- everything you look at will one day be garbage.  Everything.  The anthropologist says that we represss the evanescence of garbage because it reminds us of our own mortality.  Hmm.

Several other articles point out that the average life expectancy for all people started to increase dramatically when cities started to pick up their garbage, and garbage men have saved more lives than doctors by preventing epidemics.  We really, realy owe them,

It's 60-70 degrees in San Francisco, outdoor tables in the cafe' are filled with techies.. no rain in sight so heaven may be dry this summer. Our garbage men's coop  was bought out and they all became millionaires.  .

My recollection - always risky - is that health issues for sanmen were worse before the exhaust pipes on the trucks were raised from underneath the collection rucks to the roofs.  That's ancient history; done under Mayor Linsley.  (Is that how Mike Q  prounced it?)  As far as continuing health issues, it's one thing to be throwing those cans when in your 20s and quite anothe to be doing it still in your 40s. Perhaps, especially absent aerobic exercise.

Casual observance of sanitation men at work suggests ages between 25 and 45: no very young men, and no older ones. A minimum 20 years seems to be required for retirment though there are probably age qualifiers, etc. More than other city workers--police, fire, teachers--sanitation workers would seem to have unrelenting physical labors, but I'd be suprised if retirement rules are very different for them.

EG: So drought in San Fran! I'd think all of that fog would lubricate things a bit. New York media is full of stories about how awful SF is: expensive, housing shortage, people living on the streets, smelly buses carting techies off to Mountainville--and now NO WATER. Trouble in Paradise.

Re: retirement age for sanitation workers: one of my wife's neighbors where she grew up, on South Side of Chicago, was able to retire after 20 years, while still in his mid '40s.  The Teamsters negotiated that deal for him.  It's hard work, often in nasty weather, with very early morning starts.  A lot of risks involved, from heavy lifting to getting hit by traffic to getting bitten by dogs.  He's worked some other jobs since retirement mostly to stay busy and stay out of his wife's hair.  And he has a lot of time for his grandchildren.  Good for him, I say.


It seems to me that New York  (capitol of the East Coast) and California (capitol of the West Coast) have been competing fto be the cultural/financial capitol of the US.  Not surprisingly two of the greatest US industries -- movies and tech -- are now centered in the West Coast, and even Western banking is gaining.

But take heart, New York.  The Tonight Show returned last night to Studio 6B at NBC in New York City.

Again trying to recall data from almost 40 years ago may be just plain silly but my recollection isl that back then sanitation men's compensation tracked, with salary being a percentage, the other uniformed services.  The argument in contract negotiations was that sanitation was the more dangerous job and that the san men were a bargain in comparison to police and fire.  I found nothing online except this tease:

"Sanitation workers, it turns out, have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. And their work has similarly life-or-death consequences in the long term. . . ."

See:  The Secret World of 'Garbagemen' - Heather Horn - The Atlantic

Wow! Thanks. Terrific article. The whole idea of "invisible infrastructure" is a fascinating one. The author mentions sewers as one example. In the midst, of the snow pile up here, I am reminded of drains and storm sewers meant to capture water and melting snow. For some reason, in NYC people pile snow on top of them so that the water backs up and blocks the cross walks. It drives me a little crazy! I am thinking of getting a shovel and ice choppers and straightening things out.


The life expectancy of sanitation workers in France is 17 years less than the general population (7 years less than other manual workers). To recognize the fact that they'll spend fewer years in retirement, they get to retire at 57.

Details on the health hazards are in an English-language 300 page thesis:


17 years is a lot. Any clues as to the causes? Are they also the workers who sweep the gutters? I remember the intricate dance of turning on the hydrant, using thick rugs to direct the water, and brushing down to the next drain. Maybe the system has changed.

The thesis points to the dangers of handling toxic stuff. Accidents with dangerous trash of various kinds, but also long-term effects, with a much higher incidence of cancer.

Every time I see work(men, which they usually are), digging up streets, taking down buildings, and collecting garbage, I think: they need masks, goggles, ear protectors, heavy work boots, etc. Whether from lax enforcement or their own "tough guy" reluctance, they are all courting cancer, asthma, and other occupational diseases.

One of the articles I read said that sanitation workers in NY get $900 per year for clothing and personal equipment, but it doesn't nearly cover the costs.  About buying their own equipment -- I wonder if that is a remnant of the old thinking about skilled workers like electricians, mechanics and plumbers who used to buy their own and still do.  (These days that would be sort of like asking the techies to buy their own mega-computers for work.)

Out here in my part of the Left Coast the garbage pickup is almost all automated.  One man per truck.  The trundles the specially designed bins to the trick, a mechanical arm picks it up, empties by banging the hell out of it, and drops it back on the ground.  The man trundles the bin back to the curb.  On to the next house.

I have breakfast with a couple of retired garbage men (no, they never claimed to be sanitation workers) and when their private company was sold to Waste Management, each and every employee got an equal share of the sale price.  These guys have never told me what the got, but  they live well, have big RVs, a couple of houses, drive nice cars and travel a lot.

They are doing better in their retirement than I, a highly exalted White Collar Worker with some work toward a graduate degree, ever hoped to do and have been able to do.

If life is so dangerous for these guys on the East Coast, then their unions aren't doing their jobs or something else is wrong.

Jim McCrea - Perhaps your last sentence is correct.  However,  I think that parking issues alone as found in NYC would make the comparison between the Big Apple and Shangri La or Sesame Street, where you live, unhelpful.  Note, I'm trying to be polite because I believe that you owe me breakfast at Kuleto's.  JK

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