An Interview with Robin Nagle

“Every single thing you see is future trash. EVERYTHING.”
Obstacles faced by the modern sanitation worker:
Fourteen thousand tons of household waste per day
Constant reminders of their inherent mortality
The stench
Arthur, the cartoon aardvark

An Interview with Robin Nagle

“Every single thing you see is future trash. EVERYTHING.”
Obstacles faced by the modern sanitation worker:
Fourteen thousand tons of household waste per day
Constant reminders of their inherent mortality
The stench
Arthur, the cartoon aardvark

An Interview with Robin Nagle

Alex Carp
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Since 2006, Robin Nagle has been the anthropologist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). She is the first to hold this title (though DSNY has had an artist-in-residence since 1977), which, the department claims, makes it the city’s “sole uniformed force… with its own social scientist.” As an anthropologist, she trained in fieldwork and the tools of social science; as a sanitation worker, she had a route in the Bronx.

One of Professor Nagle’s largest current projects has been the attempt to build support for a Museum of Sanitation in New York. In a city that has museums for each of its other uniformed services, as well as for sex and skyscrapers, this project has been met by a derision analogous to the invisibility many individual sanitation workers find in their interactions with citizens when on the job. Reviews of a preliminary museum exhibit Nagle staged last year treated it largely as a curiosity, not really a surprise in a city that wants its garbage out of sight and out of mind. It is often when focusing on the paradoxes of this attitude that Professor Nagle’s work is at its richest: many of her insights come from exploring the social energy and meaning of an accelerated elimination process that, in the effort to make a city’s garbage invisible, has created Fresh Kills, one of the only man-made structures massive enough to be visible from earth’s orbit.

Most commentary on the impact of garbage and consumerism treats waste either as material or as metaphor, but Professor Nagle’s analyses explore the tension between the two. One example: in a short history of New York’s first street cleaners—who organized as the germ theory of disease reshaped ideas of public health—Nagle noted not only that their work resulted in massive decreases in infant and child mortality, but that the workers’ uniform of a clean white coat reflected the era’s focus on hygiene and public cleanliness as markers of civilization and a healthy citizenry. One challenge of writing such a history is conveying what Nagle has called “the ripeness, the stench” of cities that was an everyday part of urban life for all but the most recent generations, a fact that has been so widely excluded from stories of the past and forgotten today.

Her next book, Picking Up, asks the question “What is it like to be a sanitation worker in New York City today?” Robin Nagle directs the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought at NYU.

—Alex Carp


THE BELIEVER: You’ve said that “garbage is very scary to us culturally, and it is also… one of the single most fascinating things you could ever study.” And, at least back when you started, garbage was a “cognitive problem” that you didn’t fully understand. Why do you think most people, at least overtly, don’t react to garbage with such a complicated fascination?

ROBIN NAGLE: It’s a complicated answer because it points in so many directions at one time. Garbage is generally overlooked because we create so much of it so casually and so constantly that it’s a little bit like paying attention to, I don’t know, to your spit, or something else you just don’t think about. You—we—get to take it for granted that, yeah, we’re going to create it, and, yeah, somebody’s going to take care of it, take it away. It’s also very intimate. There’s very little we do in twenty-four hours except sleeping, and not always even sleeping, when we don’t create some form of trash. Even just now, waiting for you, I pulled out a Kleenex and I blew my nose and I threw it out, in not even fifteen seconds. There’s a little intimate gesture that I don’t think about, you don’t think about, and yet there’s a remnant, there’s a piece of debris, there’s a trace.

There’s a scholar at Stanford, his name is Bill Rathje. He wrote a book called Rubbish! and he’s an archaeologist of contemporary household waste. He trained classically at Harvard as a traditional archaeologist and did work among the ancient Mayan ruins. He says garbage is a highly visible problem that we choose to make invisible.

BLVR: You, and William Rathje also, see it as also a cognitive problem.

RN: Well, it’s cognitive in that exact way: that it is quite highly visible, and constant, and invisibilized. So from the perspective of an anthropologist, or a psychologist, or someone trying to understand humanness: What is that thing? What is that mental process where we invisibilize something that’s present all the time?

The other cognitive problem is: Why have we developed, or, rather, why have we found ourselves implicated in a system that not only generates so much trash, but relies upon the accelerating production of waste for its own perpetuation? Why is that OK?

And a third cognitive problem is: Every single thing you see is future trash. Everything. So we are surrounded by ephemera, but we can’t acknowledge that, because it’s kind of scary, because I think ultimately it points to our own temporariness, to thoughts that we’re all going to die.

BLVR: And the fear, the way you’ve described garbage as being scary, it’s an avoidance of addressing mortality and ephemerality and things like that?

RN: It’s an avoidance of addressing mortality, ephemerality, the deeper cost of the way we live. We generate as much trash as we do in part because we move at a speed that requires it. I don’t have time to take care of the stuff that surrounds me every day that is disposable, like coffee cups and diapers and tea bags and things that if I slowed down and paid attention to and shepherded, husbanded, nurtured, would last a lot longer. I wouldn’t have to replace them as often as I do. But who has time for that? We keep it cognitively and physically on the edges as much as we possibly can, and when we look at it head-on, it betrays the illusion that everything is clean and fine and humming along without any kind of hidden cost. And that’s just not true.

BLVR: You’ve written that a sanitation department that does its job well will make itself invisible, and, more generally but along the same lines, there is a sense in which garbage is the negation of culture. And William Rathje, whom you mentioned just before, has noted that humans are the only animal species not drawn in by garbage’s smells and colors. And yet, sanitation is such a gigantic component of city budgets and urban life, and, in New York at least, has created a landfill that can be seen from the earth’s orbit. That suggests that this blind spot is doing a lot of ideological work.

RN: Yes. There’s a Buddhist saying about housework, that it’s invisible labor because you see it only when it’s not done. That’s sanitation’s mission writ large, and in fact a hundred years ago it was understood to be municipal housekeeping.

BLVR: In New York, the shape of the city and the topography have changed as things get built on landfills and former landfills. Even what has been considered street level has risen six to fifteen feet since the area was first settled. Once you start digging, garbage really seems to be almost everywhere you look, a fundamental part of the urban experience.

RN: Everywhere all the time.

BLVR: When you say, of New York, that the job of sanitation is to keep the garbage flowing, I imagine there’s an endpoint to the flow somewhere. It’s not just a complete circulation.

RN: Well, it is and it isn’t. Once it goes to a landfill, it is settled there, but anything made of carbon will continue to decay, depending on the condition. Older landfills did not have mechanisms built in so that oxygen or even anaerobic digestion could happen in the real deep layers. Some of the stuff down there is pretty much preserved. That’s how Rathje was able to do core samples of monumental landfills and pull up stuff from the ’50s that looked like you could throw it on the grill. He dated them with layers of newspaper. Now a technologically engineered landfill will have its digestive mechanisms built in so that the garbage continues to decay, and methane will then be retrieved and used as fuel.

BLVR: The anthropologist Mary Douglas is famous for writing about dirt as a shifting category for everything that is out of place: shoes on the floor aren’t dirty, but shoes on the dinner table are; it isn’t dirty to have cooking utensils in the kitchen, but it is to have them in your bedsheets. She sees what counts as dirt as a gateway to the bigger systems that judgments like this are caught up in, and a way to figure out how commonsense judgments become that way.

RN: Well, her argument is partly that you can understand the entire cosmos of a culture by looking at its definitions of dirty and clean, and acceptable versus unacceptable, the profane and the sacred. You can start with something as humble as dirt and read it out to an entire worldview.

As a scholar, you can start anywhere. And that’s the beauty and the challenge, the frustration and the terror and the lifetime obsession of a scholarly bent. I start with this set of questions because I just can’t figure it out.

The goal of a scholar is to reveal things that otherwise might never be seen or studied or considered or understood or debated. But that’s an infinite list! It’s also in many ways the job of an artist, to show us things about ourselves. The scholarship of anthropology sometimes gets trapped in its own lofty language…. If I can help illuminate some facet of us as a species that makes culture, as a species that tells stories, as a species that plays in ways that connect us to each other, then I’ve done my job. My entry point is through things we decide are no longer worth keeping.


BLVR: It seems garbage collection might present this weird moment where, on one hand, you have all of these metaphors and figurative meanings that people react to when they think of garbage, but you also have this very real person, driving the truck and collecting the bins—you, when you’ve been out working with DSNY—just doing her job.

RN: Very much so. One of the categories of garbage has its own word in New York City, but it’s a category found everywhere that there is trash. There are things people will put out for discard: they’re done with it, they don’t want to see it again. Somebody else looks at that same object and says, “Whoa, wait a minute. That’s pretty nice. I want to keep that.” Those two chairs you’re sitting in were on the curb to be thrown out. They’re pretty nice chairs. I’m happy to have them. In New York, that’s called mongo. It’s a noun and a verb: those are mongo. People who take things from the trash to keep are mongoing.

Which, by the way, is illegal. You’re not supposed to do it, just for the record.

Then I’m also looking at—when I’m on the street wearing my uniform, for example, and when I’m working with people who have worn that uniform for a decade or two decades or longer… What do they put on with the uniform that they don’t necessarily choose to wear, but that the public puts on them? Because there is the stigma of being a sanitation worker and picking up garbage every day.

And I’ve collected countless examples where the cultural expression is one of embarrassment or shame. There is a child’s cartoon that my son used to watch, called Arthur. One of the characters—they’re all third-graders—one of the characters, in her class, is talking about what her parents do for a living. Her father is a sanitation worker. And she’s so embarrassed. She doesn’t want anybody to know about it.

And so I listened very closely and I wrote it down as it went along. Why was it even OK to create this scenario? And of course the character’s father is not only proud to be a sanitation worker, and he explains very clearly how important his work is, but he also shows them the machinery and how he can help take what would be discards and create a park with tire swings and that kind of thing. The kids in the class are all impressed, and he’s their favorite parent. And she becomes the hero, of course. But just that as one example of the problem: of course a character in a children’s cartoon is embarrassed by her father’s work with sanitation. That sort of embarrassment is directed at people on the job every day on the street, driving the truck and picking up the trash.

People assume they have low IQs; people assume they’re fake mafiosi, wannabe gangsters; people assume they’re disrespectable. Unlike, say, a cop or a firefighter. And I do believe very strongly it’s the most important uniformed force on the street, because New York City couldn’t be what we are if sanitation wasn’t out there every day doing the job pretty well.

And the health problems that sanitation’s solved by being out there are very, very real, and we get to forget about them. We don’t live with dysentery and yellow fever and scarlet fever and smallpox and cholera, those horrific diseases that came through in waves. People were out of their minds with terror when these things came through. And one of the ways that the problem was solved—there were several—but one of the most important was to clean the streets. Instances of communicable and preventable diseases dropped precipitously once the streets were cleaned. Childhood diseases that didn’t need to kill children, but did. New York had the highest infant mortality rates in the world for a long time in the middle of the nineteenth century. Those rates dropped. Life expectancy rose. When we cleaned the streets! It seems so simple, but it was never well done until the 1890s, when there was this very dramatic transformation.

BLVR: Can you tell me about some of the things you envision putting in the Museum of Sanitation in New York? What do you want it to look like?

RN: I want people to come through the museum, and when they get to the other side, they will understand the importance and the difficulty of the labor and the people who do it. I want them to have a sense of who is doing this work now and who has done it in the past, what it’s been like. Who literally shoulders the burden? Because it is still a bluntly physical responsibility in many regards. I also want people to understand how we are all implicated in the process of creating garbage, which is why you need a well-run sanitation department. I would also like, and this may or may not come to pass, for people to understand why it’s better that it be public rather than private. That’s been a debate since the Dutch: should it be a public responsibility or privately contracted? I want people to see the machinery and how it works and why it makes so much noise and what happens when you put twenty-two hundred pounds per square inch of pressure on a bag and it explodes back at you. I want a mongo collection.

I want people to understand what you and I talked about earlier: the actual topography of New York is garbage-based. Cities all over the world, that’s what was done with garbage for centuries. There could also be—I don’t know if this would be a permanent exhibit or something that would be a show—but how have other cultures and times dealt with this problem? You talked about how we’re now at fifteen feet, and we used to be at six feet. Well, ancient Troy, ancient Rome, Babylon, Jerusalem, Paris, all these old cities, it’s the same: you’re standing on centuries of the physical detritus of those who preceded you. So we’re walking on history all the time. Wouldn’t it be cool to know that?


BLVR: Getting back to what we were talking about before, about the stigma around working for the Department of Sanitation…

RN: Not everyone feels it, by the way. I should be careful to say that plenty of people are very proud to have the job. If the public looks down on them or applauds them, they don’t care. They’re going to do the job, they’re going to do it well, and they’re going to raise their families, and, you know, live a good life.

BLVR: Were there any of these sorts of barriers that were hard for you to overcome when you joined, as an anthropologist and, I guess, in many ways, an outsider to the sanitation staff?

RN: People questioned me. Before they knew about the anthropology or the book research or the fieldwork, but they saw me in uniform on the job, they just thought I stuck out. I don’t look like a sanitation worker. But then I throw that question back out, you know, and say: survey the entire uniformed force, and find me one person in civilian clothes who looks like a sanitation worker. But there are assumptions about class and education.

BLVR: You’ve also written about how sanitation workers commented on how they get to know a block’s trash on their route over time, down to the specific households. I was wondering if this was at all surprising, or useful, for you in regard to your training in anthropology and social science, which aim to coax out subtle information but in very different ways.

RN: It’s just archaeology. But it’s archaeology in the moment, very temporary, nothing formal. It’s a folk archaeology of contemporary household trash on the curb.

It takes time, because you don’t get a steady route, necessarily, until you have some seniority. But senior men and women who’ve been on the job for a while, who’ve had the same route for a long time, they know. I’ve heard stories of a guy who watched a family: watched a couple marry, move into this building where he picked up, and they had a child. The child came to know him. He watched her grow up. He watched her go to college. He watched her have children of her own. And they became buddies over time. And then when he retired, she was heartbroken. It was a nice little vignette.

We assume when we put our garbage in the bag—especially if, you know, it’s a black bag, usually, or a green bag, we can’t see what’s inside. We don’t want people to see what’s inside. How embarrassing! But those bags break. Or it’s just in a bin and then it’s tipped and all the contents spill. And sure, you can read it. Over time, if you’re doing that same set of blocks for ten years, you will be able to give a pretty savvy account of what’s happened there across that decade.

BLVR: When you start reading about garbage and waste, especially in cities, you come across some numbers that are almost incomprehensible. For example, I saw a talk where you mentioned that between recycling and solid waste, New York City generates fourteen thousand tons of discards each day.

RN: That was just household waste. There was about the same quantity of commercial waste. Today the numbers are closer to ten thousand tons.

BLVR: Obviously, I can hear that and have this sort of abstract idea of New York as a gigantic city, very full and dense and all that, but I just can’t figure out how to process these sorts of numbers in any way that makes sense to me. Is there anything you do when working with facts like this, day in and day out, to help them make sense on a more human scale?

RN: Well, that’s an interesting question, because no, I haven’t. And I should, because you’re right. They’re kind of abstract numbers. One way to think about it is a full garbage truck will average, more or less, ten tons. So line up a thousand garbage trucks. That’s every day.

BLVR: I recently read a history of urban garbage, which had been reprinted twenty years after it was first published. In the new edition’s preface, the author wrote that during the time between printings—which I guess means since the early 1980s—“garbage has not changed as much as garbage history has.” What’s behind this relatively recent interest in what he called “garbage history”?

RN: If you look at the environmental movement of the ’60s and ’70s, and how concerns about the environment are no longer bracketed as separate, but are increasingly becoming central to our understanding of ourselves, politically and economically, for short term and long term, questions of garbage are inevitable inside those conversations. Therefore, since scholarship is always—well, sometimes—a step or two behind public conversation, of course scholars would come to garbage eventually.

BLVR: Another thing that’s come up a lot in things you’ve written is how easy it is to forget that as cities industrialized and grew quickly, a stench became a part of everyday life. It wasn’t rare to have people leave garbage, or even human waste, under their buildings or throw it out their windows daily. In the book you’re writing now, is this something you try to convey in a visceral way?

RN: It is easily forgotten. And it’s not just with industrialization. Cities stank. There’s a beautiful book by a guy named Terence McLaughlin called Dirt: A Social History. He talks about how Paris was so rank in the 1100s that the king wouldn’t stay there. And how in the 1300s London paved its streets as an attempt to do something about the smell. Because, yes, people would tip their chamber pots, and animals would defecate, and there would be all kinds of waste just thrown into the streets, which were dirt. Then it would become this mud that was apparently redolent with really bad odor.

BLVR: A number of the archaeologists who use their training to dissect landfills make the argument that a landfill, a collection of a community’s garbage, can speak about communities and human behavior in ways that people in those communities can’t. I came across one example by Arizona’s Garbage Project that found—during a beef shortage and then, again, during a sugar shortage—that more wasted food turns up in landfills when that food is known to be scarce. This would seem to be unintentional but is still pretty striking.

They also found, repeatedly, that people are unable to accurately estimate the amounts of things they buy, or eat, or throw out, but that they are pretty reliable when reporting on their neighbors, or at least much more reliable when reporting on their neighbors. So it doesn’t seem like most people lack the ability to make these sorts of estimates, but that they do have some sort of block that prevents them from knowing their own behavior but doesn’t prevent anyone from being perfectly functional in their daily life.

RN: Well, look, my child is always blameless in any altercation, but yours is a damn bully! I mean, that’s very simplistic, but finger-pointing outward is certainly easier than finger-pointing at yourself. And wagging your finger in judgment at your neighbor is as old as the first time two people settled down next to each other. And in fact it’s a pretty powerful social control mechanism. There’s a deep anthropology about exactly that.

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