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Elizabeth Royte
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New York's Strongest
Monday, Mar 8, 2004 (11:01 AM)

Early on the morning after the Saint Agnes meeting, I flew to New Mexico to work on a magazine story that, blessedly, had nothing to do with garbage. But garbage issues interrupted my hiatus. I opened my newspaper on the plane and read, with a hollow feeling in my stomach, about the death of Eva Barrientos, a nine-year veteran of the sanitation force. The forty-one-year-old mother of three had climbed atop her garbage truck to free a jammed trash bag when a mechanical arm that tips dumpsters crushed her. Barrientos had worked in Brooklyn, in the Bushwick neighborhood. (Brooklyn is divided into sections North and South, with eighteen sanitation garages between them.) She lived with her boyfriend, who also works for the Department of Sanitation (DOS), in a public housing project in Red Hook, just over the Gowanus Canal. The Red Hook houses, home to 11,000 mostly low-income residents, were just a block from my neighborhood's garbage transfer station, where a steady stream of packer trucks unloads 740 tons of household waste a day and a steady stream of eighteen-wheelers hauls it to out-of-state landfills, mostly in Pennsylvania. Throughout her shift, Barrientos had filled trucks that she tipped in her own backyard, or its equivalent. Of New York's 26,000 daily tons of commercial and residential trash, 70 to 80 percent of it flows through two of the city's bleakest neighborhoods: Brooklyn's Greenpoint-Williamsburg and the Bronx's Hunts Point. As one resident of the Red Hook Houses told me, "You know why the garbage is here? It's because we're poor."

Garbage dumping, 1908
Courtesy of the NYC DOS

More than a thousand sanitation workers attended Barrientos' funeral, which also featured a bagpiper, an honor guard of police officers, and a few words by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. ("Thank you for everything you do," he said. "But just please be safe.") Such tributes have become standard for sanitation workers, as with police and firefighters, who die in the line of duty. But this was the first time a female san man (as both men and women call themselves) had been so honored. DOS employs only 153 women, out of a workforce of some 6,000, and Barrientos was the first since the department began hiring women in 1986 to die on the job.

Most people don't think of garbage collection as particularly dangerous work. It may be dirty or boring, but compared to the rigors of, say, coal mining, the labor of heaving trash seems minor. But in fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies refuse collection as "high-hazard" work, along with logging, fishing, mining and driving a taxicab. Garbage collectors are approximately three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters.

Recycling, 1908
Courtesy of the NYC DOS

Six days a week New York's Strongest, who along with New York's Finest (the cops) and New York's Bravest (its firefighters) constitute the city's three uniformed services, operate heavy machinery in snow and ice, in scorching heat and driving rain. Cars and trucks rip past them on narrow streets. Danger lurks in every sack: sharp metal and broken glass, protruding nails and wire. And then there's liquids. Three san men have been injured and one killed by acid bursting from hoppers. It takes about a year for a san man's body to become accustomed to lifting five to seven tons a day, apportioned into seventy-pound bags. "You feel it in your legs, your back, your shoulders," my regular trash collector once told me.

Still, plenty of people want the job. The starting pay is $40,000, with an increase to $60,000 after five years. The health benefits are great (they'd better be, considering the job's risks); the scavenging superb (claiming discards for yourself - the san men call it "mongo" - is officially forbidden but unilaterally tolerated); and you can retire with a pension after twenty years. With a good winter, one with plenty of snow to plow (in New York, the DOS is responsible for snow removal, which often involves overtime pay), a senior san man can earn $90,000.

More than 40,000 men and women applied to take the DOS' written test last spring, and 22,315 passed. Next comes the physical exam, a further winnowing from which the department will eventually select 410 new employees.

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Past Entries
03/02 Rising from the Dead
03/05 Less than Barren
03/08 New York's Strongest
03/11 Scrapping over Nickels
03/15 Let it Burn?