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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  • First Published:
    Jul 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2006, 336 pages

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I looked at the worker cards stuck into a bar on the Plexiglas window. The rectangles of cardboard were soft with handling, inscribed mostly with Italian and Irish names, and coupled with trucks identified with an alphanumeric. As senior men, Sullivan and Murphy had exclusive day use of truck CN191 (another team would use it at night). The junior men took whatever they were handed. By now, about thirty men were standing around smoking and chatting in their dark green DSNY sweatshirts. The garage had one female sanitation worker, but she wasn't in today. When I'd meet her later, she'd invite me to use her private bathroom, which was decorated with cute animal posters.

New to this scene, I was struck by the way the men spoke to one another. They were loud and harsh, in one another's faces. They seemed quick to anger. Maybe there was too much testosterone in a small place. Or maybe just too many men who didn't like to have a boss breathing down their neck, a factor that had lured some of them to the job. Inside, the complaints never ceased. So-and-so was an idiot. The night crew never did its job right. The boss could go to hell. I'd be crushed by such contempt, but no one here seemed to mind.

Terlizzi was parked behind a small desk. He was tall and thin, with wavy silver hair, high cheekbones, and a bemused manner. "I'm missing a truck," he told a clerk, irritated. Its collection ticket, which would state how much weight the truck had tipped at the transfer station, hadn't shown up in his paper or electronic records. The clerk opened a program on the ancient computer and scrolled down. "I checked that already," Terlizzi barked. The clerk sighed, and Terlizzi stepped out to call roll.

Two to a truck, the men roared into the twilit streets, and soon the office fell quiet. After asking me to sign a waiver, Terlizzi handed me over to John Burrafato, who worked on Motorized Litter Patrol. A pugnacious man with a small black mustache and a military bearing, Burrafato cruised the district in a department sedan, making lists of bulk items—pallets discarded in an industrial area, a blown tire in the middle of the road—to be collected by truck. He noted problem areas and wrote $25 summonses to residents who didn't follow the recycling rules and $1,500 summonses (going up to $20,000) for wholesale illegal dumping. Because DSNY spent relatively little on public education, only a minority of city residents seemed to understand all the garbage rules. Being pugnacious, then, was a prerequisite for this job.

Burrafato was supposed to bring me up to my neighborhood, where Sullivan and Murphy were already at work. But he wasn't ready to do this quite yet. First, there was paperwork for him to clear, then a mechanic to insult. I sat on a brown footlocker and read the the Daily News while he flitted in and out of the office. Terlizzi had found his missing truck, but the air was still poisoned with his ill humor. Someone on the telephone was pressuring Terlizzi to sign off on some forms. He said, "I didn't say when I'll do it, but if you need it right now, I'll come back there and do it!" He leaped to his feet and slammed down the phone. "Fuck you!" he shouted at the supplicant, who could easily have been me. Just yesterday, I had been pestering him on the phone about getting the waiver. "You make that coffee yet?" he growled at Burrafato now.

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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