Excerpt from Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Garbage Land

On the Secret Trail of Trash

By Elizabeth Royte

Garbage Land
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2005,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2006,
    336 pages.

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"No, I'm getting these guys straightened out." Burrafato went out, came in, went out.

"Okay, the coffee's done. You want a cup?" Burrafato was talking to me.

"No, thanks," I said, wanting only to get out of there. Burrafato went into a small room and poured himself coffee. By now I was reading the sports section. Then I read the ancient memos on the walls and studied the maps, trying to figure out my district, garage, section, and route. New York's roughly 320 square miles are broken into fifty-nine sanitation districts, where about 7,600 workers clean the streets twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. (In comparison, Los Angeles has about 580 workers tidying up 450 square miles, but its population is less than half of New York's eight million, and its trucks host just one worker instead of two. Chicago, with a population of 2.9 million spreading over 228 square miles, relies on 3,300 sanitation workers.) Brooklyn's districts are divided into zones North and South. Here in South, there are eleven other garages besides my own, which is called the Six. The territory covered by the Six is in turn broken into five sections: my street is part of Section 65, which is divided into three routes cleaned by three different trucks. When I was satisfied with my triangulations, I poked my head into the side room to ask Burrafato a question. He was watching TV and sipping a second cup of coffee.

I retreated to my footlocker. Terlizzi was now on the phone with "the borough," his bosses at the Brooklyn headquarters, ordering up an FEL, or front-end loader. "Someone just dumped the contents of the first floor of his house onto the street," he said to me. "Happens all the time." As soon as he got off, the phone rang. It was the cat lady on Fifth Street, complaining yet again that the san men hadn't collected her garbage. A clerk named Scooter handled the call, which meant he held the receiver at arm's length so the entire room could hear the woman's litany of grief. When it was over, he told her soberly, "I'll make sure this information gets to the right people." He hung up, and the assembled burst out laughing. Everyone knew about the cat lady; she owned twenty animals. "It's not against the law to dump your litter box onto your garbage, but it's common courtesy to put it in a bag," Scooter explained.

At last, Burrafato unlocked his sedan and drove me uphill. By now, Murphy and Sullivan were halfway through their route and lightly sweating. The men seemed dour and angry to me, and I was afraid to ask them questions. On foot, I watched and I followed. Soon I realized they seemed sour only because they were concentrating. In constant motion, lifting heavy barrels, they could get hurt if they didn't pay attention. Metal cans banged against their legs; trailer hitches poked from high SUV bumpers. Drivers honked, urging the men to hustle it up, to get their truck out of the way. Double-parked delivery vans blocked their progress. There was also a surprising amount of dog shit near the garbage cans, and many plastic bags were shiny with urine. Had I never noticed this before?

After a few minutes, I began dragging together barrels from neighboring houses to form a group, but the guys didn't want me lifting anything into the truck. "You're gonna be sore tomorrow," Murphy said. He was rounder than Sullivan, and he had a stiff, loping walk, not quite a run. He kept his head mulishly down, his eyes trained on the ground. His palms were thick-skinned and yellow, with deep crevices near the nails. Around the garage, he was known as Daddy. Sullivan had an angular face softened by a narrow strip of beard. His hair was a wiry brown and gray, cut into a mullet. A black belt in karate, he was more agile than Murphy. I found him soft-spoken but intense.

From Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte. Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Royte. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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