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
    Aug 2006, 336 pages

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The truck was about two-thirds full now. Inside, brown gunk dripped off the packing blade into a nest of ratty clothing. Rounding the corner onto Seventh Avenue, Sullivan and Murphy pulled over to gulp from water bottles and wipe the sweat from their foreheads. I felt chilly in a rain jacket over a fleece pullover. Their cotton shirts had bibs of sweat. On 95-degree days, Sullivan said, he went through three T-shirts in one shift. In the rain, he didn't even bother with a slicker. "You're soaked from the inside anyway, water running down your neck," said Sullivan. "It's awful."

I asked how close they were to finishing today. "We'll do it all in three and a half hours," said Sullivan. "That's without a coffee break or lunch."

"Why do you work so fast?"

"To get it over with," said Murphy.

That didn't exactly explain the panic to finish early. San men couldn't go home when their job was done; they had to stay in the garage until their shift ended, at 2:00 p.m. The men would pass the time eating lunch, watching videos or TV in the break room, playing cards, and working out on exercise equipment rescued from the jaws of the hopper. "We used to have a pool table, but it wore out," Sullivan said. Now the men napped on white leather couches, relics from another era. (From garage to garage, break room decor varied enormously, constrained by the availability of local mongo, the super's aesthetic sensibilities, and the culture of the particular garage. Now and then, a call from "downtown" resulted in a clean sweep, and all the bad paintings, ceramic kitsch, macramé wall hangings, tin signs, plastic flowers, hula hoops, and velvet Elvises went into the garbageman's garbage pail.)

"The time passes quickly," said Sullivan. "You're coming down from a big high afterward. It's like an athletic event." He screwed the cap onto his water bottle. "I figure it's the length of a marathon, every day. You just try to get through it. You can't think about it. It's a state of mind."

In 1993, Italo Calvino published an essay about his daily transfer of trash from the kitchen's small container to a larger container, called a poubelle, on the street. "[T]hrough this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough or chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have." He equated his satisfaction with tossing things away to his satisfaction with defecation, "the sensation at least for a moment that my body contains nothing but myself."

I felt a kinship with Calvino, for I was obsessed with throwing things away. Transferring objects—whether food scraps, the daily newspaper, or a lamp—from my house to the street made me feel lighter and cleaner, peaceful even. My apartment wasn't large, and so everything I subtracted gave me more of what I craved: emptiness.

Eventually, Calvino came to realize that so long as he was contributing to the municipality's waste heap, he knew he was alive. To toss garbage, in his view, was to know that one was not garbage: the act confirmed that "for one more day I have been a producer of detritus and not detritus myself." Riffing on death and identity, Calvino referred to the men who collected his garbage as "heralds of a possible salvation beyond the destruction inherent in all production and consumption, liberators from the weight of time's detritus, ponderous dark angels of lightness and clarity." In a similar vein, Ivan Klima, in his novel Love and Garbage, noted that street sweepers regard themselves as "healers of a world in danger of choking." My san men, while not obviously self-reflective, knew exactly how the public viewed what they did: "People think there's a garbage fairy," one worker told me. "You put your trash on the curb, and then pffft, it's gone. They don't have a clue."

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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