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Why We Love to Hate San Men

San men and their work suggest that anything, any object, no matter how laden with what kinds of meaning, can become trash.
Robin Nagle

Issue #55, May 2001

Give 'em Your Agita

New York City hosts the largest force of sanitation workers in the world. Though significantly reduced from its former strength of about 15,000 men (and they were almost exclusively male) to today's smaller operation of approximately 6,000 workers, the city depends on them more than ever to haul trash and recycling and to clear the streets of snow. This past New Year's Day, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani met them in Times Square and gave them cookies to show his appreciation for their herculean efforts in cleaning up after the excesses of the previous night's festivities.

The cookies were a small but appreciated gesture. New York's sanitation workers, or san men (they are still mostly men, though now include some women), are like most people whose responsibilities include taking away the debris of their culture, whether material or human. Neither they nor their work are much celebrated. In fact, both are usually ignored, or when that's not possible, scorned.

There are three distinct reasons for this, all connected to the troubling social space that san men occupy. First, they mediate between private and public, though without the public's blessing. Second, they betray the fantasy of the "away" while insisting on the uncomfortable reality of the here-and-now. And finally, san men and their work suggest that anything, any object, no matter how laden with what kinds of meaning, can become trash.

This last is the most difficult to accept. The very need for san men, garbage trucks, landfills, and incinerators seems to mock the idea that material traces of humankind can have real permanence. While economic forces and lifestyle choices, among other factors, helped create the quantity and quality of waste now moldering in the monumental landfills of the twentieth century, such causes are impersonal. If contemporary western culture must have a scapegoat for its extravagant garbage practices and for the existential terror that those practices inspire, it's more practical (if less logical) to heap disdain upon the individuals who mediate between us and our dross.

Scapegoating, of course, serves a purpose: a convenient victim can be blamed for a problem that is actually rooted in much larger and more distant causes. Using san men as scapegoats by ignoring or sneering at their work gives them an expiatory role for a world choking on immoderate material consumption. Here's how.

Falling under Casual Gazes

Many of today's major urban centers, with economic bases resting on consumption more than on manufacturing for the first time in history, rely on sanitation workers as bedrock guarantors of an ever-faster pace of commodity consumption. If we could not discard that which we consume, we could not continue to consume and so the prime engines of global capitalism would sputter. More intimately, if we could not discard that which we consume, we could not maintain our most elemental sense of self. "Only by throwing something away," insists Italo Calvino in his essay "La Poubelle Agréé," "can I be sure that something of myself has not yet been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future."

Throwing out the trash, then, represents a rite of clarification. It also represents the subtle but continuous rhythm by which we assign and re-assign value or worthlessness to the commodities we bring into our homes. This is particularly true of the categories of things we purchase at supermarkets, convenience stores, and drugstores, places that provide us with many of the intimately mundane objects of daily life. Shifting assignments of value for this category of material culture point to the sometimes nebulous divide between private and public.

Though the owner of a supermarket or grocery or drugstore may argue that his store is a private place into which the public is allowed, such shops are used as if they are public. Commodities on a supermarket shelf are in the public domain, even though their brand names are copyrighted and the contents unavailable to a shopper until they are purchased. The process of buying groceries, while carried out in the public space of the store, begins the transformation of those products from public signs of well-being and success — at least according to advertisements on their behalf — to private attempts at transferring those alleged qualities to the user.

Trying to understand and predict what brands attract which shoppers in what volume and price and pattern of repetition has long occupied marketing analysts, behaviorial psychologists, and more recently, corporate anthropologists, but no one can yet predict these variables with any consistent accuracy. In fact, there are only two sources of insight about the exact nature of a supermarket shopper's purchases over time: the shopper herself, and the sanitation worker who takes away the leftovers of those purchases.

A legal battle erupted in the 1970s when a voyeur obsessed with Bob Dylan absconded with the singer's curbside garbage, inspiring a rash of other celebrity trash-nabbings. Many of those whose trash was swiped sued, asserting privacy violation. The suits were resolved differently in different states. In New York, the city argued that once it was on the curb, garbage belonged to the city and was the purview of no one but the Department of Sanitation. It did not belong to the curious garbage comber, but it also no longer belonged to the person who created it and who put it on the curb for pick-up. The ruling confirmed that san men, almost uniquely, have the right to know what products a household consumes and discards, what food is brought into the house and not eaten, what hygiene products address what collection of physical woes or wants. San men, then, have implicit legal permission to know the business of a household better than anyone but the household members.

There has never been explicit public approval of this. San men comprise an anonymous presence that punctuates the rhythms of a city block, yet there is no acknowledgement of them in their accidental role as observers of purchase choices, medical conditions, eating disorders, sexual habits, and other intimate knowledge. It's no accident that garbage bags are opaque, but the plastic is not impermeable. One can consider san men inadvertant anthropologists watching the early creation of future archaeological deposits. This may not delight the residents whose trash passes under the casual gaze of the san worker. Our garbage must be anonymous to be safe. San men might know that it's not anonymous. That makes them dangerous.

sink or swim

Here or Away, Bad Garbage

San men trouble us for other reasons. Inherent in trash as a category of material culture and as a problematic in our cultural imagination is our need to separate it from ourselves, preferably without having to think too much about where it goes, how it gets there, or what happens to it next. It is paradoxical: there are few activities in which we engage during a 24-hour period, except perhaps sleeping, that do not generate trash, so trash is an intimate category of material object. But it is simultaneously refused. Consider that we have had to invent a non-existent place for trash so that we can comfortably not deal with it. We throw garbage away or out. What does this mean, exactly? Where is the "away"? The "throwing" is emphatic, making even more adamant our insistence on the "out." Out where? Out of immediate circulation or confrontation, out of the house, out of the city. Literally out of sight and so, mostly, out of mind. If we find garbage bad to smell and bad to look at, it is most importantly bad to think about.

The discomfort with and vagueness about garbage extends to those who confront trash for their daily living. They are also bad to think about, a fact not lost on the men. Some san men will not hang their uniforms on their backyard clotheslines to dry because they don't want their neighbors to know what they do for a living. Some teach their children to say merely that their father works for the city or handles recycling, avoiding any job description that reflects daily dealings with rubbish.

San men are also difficult to think in part because they give time to things we have decided do not merit time. Garbage can only be generated on the scale it is today because we don't have time for an extended relationship with the stuff of our daily life. Either we would have to become ascetics, or we would go mad with the details of shepherding and relating to it all. The structure of time in social life is such that we have a finite, and perhaps ever-shrinking, capacity for material responsibility, even as the volume of our material life continues to escalate. It is a signature characteristic of the twentieth century. Alvin Toffler wrote thirty years ago in Future Shock, "We face a rising flood of throw-away items, impermanent architecture, mobile and modular products, rented goods and commodities designed for instant death. From all these directions, strong pressures converge toward the same end: the inescapable ephemeralization of the man-thing relationship." Such ephemeralization is felt most acutely in what geographer and historian David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity, labels "time-space compression," which, he notes, "always exacts its toll on our capacity to grapple with the realities unfolding around us."

One of those realities with which it is difficult to grapple is the illusory nature of the "away" of throw-away culture. We have created this space in our imaginations and it is a necessary fantasy if we are to continue our current consumption habits. But a san worker on the job contradicts the fantasy. Instead of an "away," there are only specific geographies — rural counties, small municipalities, ghetto neighborhoods — that are becoming the new and often ambivalent hosts to the New York City's trash.

Nothing Lasts Forever

A san man can have intimate knowledge about us as individuals and as households, even though we shudder at the thought. His work mocks our desire for a safe, fantasy non-place for our garbage. But we resent him for a deeper reason. He betrays the possibility of permanent existence for every and any material object ever created, and thus he betrays the illusion that we can impose enduring meaning on our material lives. San men reverse a category of object that anthropologist Annette Weiner called "inalienable possessions," in a book by the same title. Something qualifies as inalienable, she argues, through "its exclusive and cumulative identity with a particular series of owners through time. ... In this way, inalienable possessions are transcendent treasures to be guarded against all the exigencies that might force their loss." Inalienable possessions stand against the ravages of time and change. They are meant to endure.

Central to inalienability is an object's transferability, since it must succeed its original owners across time. Younger family members learn songs, stories, and other forms of oral history. Particular pieces of jewelry are passed down, as are land, family legends, and sometimes furniture, often for generations. Weiner calls this transferability "keeping-while-giving." An inalienable possession may leave the hand of the original owner, but that owner's claim to it is not diminished. Thus, even though it is given away, it is simultaneously kept. She argues that keeping-while-giving is key to understanding everything from the exchange of women in small-scale societies, the construction of lineage and power in places as diverse as pre-contact Samoa and feudal Europe, and the basic structure of any effort to guard history against change, time, and decay.

If an inalienable possession stands against time and for constancy in the face of continual change, then the ultimate socially alienable possession is garbage, though it is more accidentally inalienable as a category of material object than any purposefully inalienable good. The debris strewn about ancient Troy, renaissance Paris, or colonial New York becomes archaeological artifact and speaks, even if sometimes only in whispers, about the lives of those who did the strewing. A contemporary landfill reveals precise and surprising information about the town or city that creates it, as William Rathje, an Arizona archaeologist, has spent a career demonstrating. While our relationship with most of our material life is ephemeral, the discards of that life will last forever.

Just as garbage turns the notion of inalienability inside-out, it also reverses the movement of keeping-while-giving. Garbage is given-while-kept. An object classified as trash must be removed by the san men who take it to the "away," a very specific place where it will endure, albeit buried and anonymous. We give it away, but it never really goes away. On the contrary: it is kept for generations.

The paradox is more than just the durability of our trash. An inalienable possession that is kept-while-given authenticates the position, history, and future of its owner. It validates family, creates heritage, and anchors people in a place and across a time. An alienable possession that is given-while-kept does the opposite. If, as many claim, consumption has become our primary marker of identity, then the objects we consume and discard represent more than merely the loss of a thing; they also represent the dispossession of some element of ourselves. Calvino defines himself by taking stock of what's still with him after he takes out the trash, but what self-definitions has he denied by assigning them to the rubbish? What pieces of our identities are so malleable that we can toss them and, presumably, replace them at will?

Alienable possessions and the process of giving-while-keeping speak to the inevitability of decay, the absurdity of endurance, the lie of continuity. Our consumption patterns and garbage creation habits mock the possibility that being can endure, particularly when consumption is equated with identity. In that equation, being becomes just one more category of disposability.

How, then, can we be comfortable with the men who make this disposability possible? The men who take away of that which we feel we must shed? The very existence of the san man betrays the difficulty of establishing the inalienable against the seeming infinity of contemporary disposability. In a culture that segregates human death to final resting places on the margins of built space, we are taught not to contemplate the possibility that all being is ephemeral — including our own. But san men remind us of it every day: as our trash goes, so, one day, go we. No wonder we need to hate them.

Robin Nagle is an anthropologist at New York University who dreams of riding garbage trucks.

Copyright © 2001 by Robin Nagle. Drawing 2001 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.