At a large apartment building on the corner of Eighth Avenue, Sullivan parked the truck at an angle to the curb. The building's super had heaped long black garbage bagseach a 120-pound sausageinto a four-foot-high mound. It took the team less than two minutes, and a few cranks of the packing blade, to transfer the mound from the street to their truck and crush it all together. When they were done, one bag remained on the sidewalk, its contents gushing through a long tear. "Gotta watch for rats when it's like that," Murphy said, slightly breathless.
"Once a rat ran across my back," Sullivan said. "Whaddaya gonna do?" Maggots, known in the biz as disco rice, were something else. On monsoon days, they floated in garbage pails half full of rainwater. "I won't empty those," Sullivan said.
Before the city's recycling suspension, it was easy for street people to collect deposit bottles for redemption: residents segregated the glass and plastic for them. Now, scavengers tore through everything in the same sacks, heedless of the mess. "It's the homeless," said Sullivan with a shrug. "The super is gonna have to clean this up." A driver with a cell phone to his ear leaned on his horn. Murphy and Sullivan appeared to be deaf.
The ITSAs rolled on and on. I lost track of the street, whether we'd cleaned the left side or the right. Sullivan talked about the seasonal changes in garbage. "In the springtime, there's a lot of yard waste and a lot of construction, because of tax returns. You get more household junk in the spring. You can always tell when an old-timer dies. There's thirty bags and a lot of clothes."
Sullivan continued. "Food waste goes up after Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. You see a lot of barbecue stuff, lots of food waste. And you can always tell when there's a sale on washing machines, usually around Columbus Day."
"People eat different up top," Murphy said, meaning the blocks closer to Prospect Park. "A lot of organic people, fresh stuff. They're more health conscious. There's more cardboard from deliveries; they order those Omaha steaks. People up top read the New York Times. They're more educated. In my neighborhood, Dyker Heights, it's all Daily News and the Post." Though Sullivan thought garbage increased in the summer, with tourists visiting, Murphy thought it went down. "People are away," he said. "In October, you get a lot of rugs and couches." Harvest season.
The way residents treated their garbage said a lot about them, in the san man's world. "In the neighborhood where I live, the garbage is boxed and gift-wrapped," Joey Calvacca had bragged to me. For the last seventeen years, Calvacca had been working in the Brooklyn North 5, in East New York. Though he'd long ago moved from the city to Long Island's North Shore, he still spoke in the dialect of The Sopranos, eliding all r's. "But where I work, it's a mess. People don't use bags. There's maggots, rats, roaches. The smell will make you sick. I've gotten stuck with needles."
"And what about your garbage?" I asked.
"It's normal garbage," he said, shrugging.
Good and bad referred to garbage content as well as garbage style. Good garbage, the san men taught me, was garbage worth saving. They called it mongo. The sanitation garage was brimming with it: a microwave, a television, chairs, tables. "Some neighborhoods in Queens, the lawn mower is out of gas and they throw it out," Calvacca said. "They throw out a VCR when it needs a two-dollar belt. We throw it in the side of the truck to bring home." Silk blouses and designer skirts billowed from the trash of upscale buildings. Tools and toys, books and bric-a-brac were there for the taking. Officially, mongo didn't exist. Sanitation workers weren't allowed to keep stuff they found on the curb. But everyone did, and no one complained.
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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