Dr Robin Nagle is not your typical anthropologist. I hope she will excuse us for exposing her, but she keeps boxes of toys underneath her desk. And she is not embarrassed to take them out for a little afternoon romp.
Of course, she has a fabulous cover story for the whole thing – they are a part of her project to create a museum of sanitation for New York City.
We met with Robin at her office in the Department of Anthropology at NYU. We first read about her in Elizabeth Royte’s Garbage Land as Nagle was teaching an urban anthropology course called ‘Garbage in Gotham.’ More recently she taught a course in which students compiled oral histories of sanitation workers at the DSNY (Department of Sanitation of New York).
Robin herself worked as a sanitation worker in Manhattan, getting up early, running her garbage route, and then heading to her ‘real’ job at NYU. Earlier this year she published Picking Up, a book about her experiences on the job. In all the interviews I read that she did to promote the book, Robin was interviewed as a professor – there was no question that she was really an anthropologist doing research, and not a true ‘san man.’ Besides the obvious lines between ethnographers and their subjects, I wonder if there is something deeper going on here – does it makes us uncomfortable that a PhD might handle our trash? Does that cross too many boundaries for us about who ‘garbage men’ are supposed to be? Not surprisingly Robin has thought a lot about these questions.
What struck me most about our conversation was how defensive Robin seemed to be of her coworkers. She writes that NY’s san men are the most essential city employees – without them the city would become uninhabitable in a matter of days. And yet they are the most invisible. When we put our trash on the curb, we act as if that’s the end of the line. Robin recounts nearly daily encounters on the job with dangerous items that could have seriously injured her or her coworkers: glass shards, nails, acid. It reminded me a lot of our visit with the recycle workers in Alameda County back in CA.
So as I said, she has toys because she is trying to start a museum of sanitation (I think the toys will be sold in the gift shop…?). Not surprisingly the Big Apple has good claims to be the museum’s home. Not only does it have the world’s largest force of sanitation workers, but the city has also been home to early innovators in the field of sanitation, landfills visible from space (Fresh Kills), and wandering barge’s of unwanted garbage (Mobro 4000). It’s not just that it’s fashionable in our culture to hide garbage from ourselves, nor is it that we like to think people who touch garbage are infected with some dirty garbage taint. Robin believes that there is skill, craft, and wisdom in garbage.