Doomed While Collecting Bottles Along Fifth Avenue
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My father retired from the New York City Department of Sanitation once he reached the requisite 20 years of service. He filed his paperwork without hesitation because, as anyone should expect, there aren’t many glory-filled aspects to cleaning up after New York for a living.
He worked the job for financial security, and because it allowed him to provide for a family. Like any adult son should, I respect and admire him for his sacrifices.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t complain every step of the way while reminding us of the beating he received on his mind and body through the years. No need to be graceful after two decades of dragging trash cans. The blizzards, torrential downpours, and heat waves built the foundation he needed for the sturdiest soap box you’ll ever feast your eyes upon.
Witnessing his experiences, however, allows me to connect with sanitation workers in a way most New Yorkers neglect. I even took the test to join their ranks, passing the physical endurance exam in a desolate Long Island City warehouse. That job isn’t for me and never will be, but my understanding of what these men do means “garbageman” will always be a dirty word.
I do my best not to cover my nose when an especially rancid sanitation truck barrels down the street. It’s not pleasant for them, either.
That understanding is also why I’m especially frustrated when I watch someone scavenging through the black trash bags piled alongside the city curbs. Those are knotted for a reason. Don’t tamper with them.
The hardships a man has to have encountered in his life to reach the point where he’s rummaging through filth for bottles is something I hope to never understand. All I can do is sympathize, and be thankful that I have a strong enough grasp on my life to avoid a similar situation. At least, so far I do.
Nonetheless, the arrogance of my privileges disallowed me from feeling sorrow for a man ripping bags open with reckless abandon. The evening rush is the busiest time along a busy Fifth Avenue, and this man looted through filth for plastic bottles he intended to deposit for cash. The conflict of resentment and sorrow.
His perfunctory effort to clean up after himself, leaving the bags an inevitable nightmare for the sanitation workers who’d work the route once the streets cleared, disappointed me. If the bags he searched aren’t lifted carefully, the remaining contents will likely spill onto Fifth Avenue.
That’s not fair for anyone.
I documented a man’s difficult life becoming more complicated in an instant.
My camera was in hand, for no particular reason other than I wanted to occupy my time with something while waiting for an express bus to Staten Island. I figured I’d take pictures of him.
A contrast like this — a man burrowing through garbage against the rush of Midtown’s 9-to-5 office crowd — is no longer unique in New York. We’re all doing the same thing to some degree.
However, his willingness (and hubris) to ride his bike against traffic, while hauling a large bag of bottles for deposit, intrigued me. I hate how pretentious that sounds, but I appreciated the depth of his hustle while consciously resenting him.
For a few moments, he wasn’t only a selfish and obnoxious New Yorker doing whatever he pleased because, fuck everyone else. He was surviving, albeit in the most inconvenient manner possible for the men who will clean up after him.
Disaster was coming, though.
It’s hot in New York, Fifth Avenue is crowded, and traffic is a losing battle between buses, taxi cabs, pedicabs, and New Jersey drivers who don’t believe in NJ Transit. This man, who’s already absorbed some of life’s hardest punches, was going to be kicked while he was down.
I’m still coming to terms with what it means to see a (relatively small) disaster approaching, waiting for and embracing it, and being more interested in timing the picture perfectly. I’m actually more conflicted about my instinctive decision to use still photography instead of video. Ultimately, pictures feel more compelling.
This man’s inevitable dilemma was secondary to me, and even that might be generous.
I already took exception to him creating extra work for men who work hard enough. And I tense up with anger when people ride their bikes against incoming traffic. Mostly, I waited for disaster because I convinced myself that his boorish ways led him to this point in life, making this incident a microcosm of the imprudent decisions that brought him here.
The bag never had a chance. I don’t think he’s ever given himself one, either.