Robin Nagle:

You mention that we’ve created ways of recognizing the dangers that members of the fire or police department put themselves through. We don’t do that with sanitation workers. Did you get a sense of why?

I think it’s connected to the mundane and regular nature of the work. I don’t mean “mundane” in a critical way. I just mean that when it is that normal and that much a part of the daily patterns of life, it’s one of the things that we get to overlook — along with other structures that are essential to a community’s well-being, like running water and water treatment systems that take away the sewage so it doesn’t kill us.

Urban infrastructure, when it works well, is nearly invisible. Buddhists call housework “invisible work” because you only notice it when it’s not done. You notice sanitation workers, for example, if they’ve been diverted to clean up a snowstorm and the labor that would be used to collect garbage has to be used to plow. The garbage lingers and people put it out every day and the piles can grow kind of tall. But as soon as it’s taken away, the whole structure is “invisibilized” again, because it’s done well.

The beginning of the interview is funny. I’m sure she didn’t mean for it to sound condescending, but the earnest surprise she expressed at the realization that other people don’t get to choose to work at their convenience was almost facepalm-worthy. Anyway, yes, I remember reading a lawyer candidly admitting that half the members of his profession could disappear without society being any worse off, but if the garbagemen were to go on strike, we’d all be dead of cholera in a couple weeks.

Howard: What do you think happens to the rubbish when you throw it out into the street?
Vince: I don’t know. Does it dissolve in the rain like a giant Berocca?
Howard: No, no it doesn’t. The bin men take it away.
Vince: Who?
Howard: The bin men.
Vince: Oh, come off it, as if they exist. They’re the stuff of legends, like unicorns!
Howard: Just because you don’t get up before twelve doesn’t mean they don’t exist, okay? They’ve done a whole day’s work before you’ve even put your straighteners on.
Vince: Why don’t they just pop around the back?
Howard: They can’t just ‘pop around the back’.
Vince: Why not?
Howard: ‘Cause they can’t fit down the alleyway, can they. Too narrow for them.
Vince: Oh, come off it. I can fit, that’s just an excuse.
Howard: Well, you can, yeah. You’re not a real man, are you, you’re like a poppet in an outfit. Bin men are real men. Tall as they are wide. With big hands. Big necks. Big dreams.
Vince: They sound awful.
Howard: Can’t all be models, can’t all be in a band, Vince. Some people have to do real jobs, you know? What do you think happens to stocky, short people with wide backs?
Vince: I don’t know. Do they lie down to sad music and die like the Elephant Man?
Howard: What do you think would happen in a world without bin men?
Vince: Would it be the same, but…with a few more Kit-Kat wrappers on the floor?
Howard: It would be vermin running riot around this town…urban foxes terrorizing the neighborhood…
Vince: Urban foxes are nice, aren’t they, they’re all red and cute.
Howard: Uh, no, they’re not. They’re vicious, they are the scourge of the bin men. His nemesis, if you like.
Vince: Why do you care so much about the plight of the bin men? What is this?
Howard: Do you wanna know why?
Vince: Yeah!
Howard: Because I used to be a bin man.