Chasing Sanitation


What you don’t know about Eric Morales is what he knows about you.

He knows you throw out a lot of nice furniture.  He knows that you’re big wine drinkers and faithful recyclers. He knows that your household goes through New Yorkers and W Magazine about as fast as you go through wine and/or diapers. He knows that you’re trendsetters. But what bugs him is how you bicycle around the neighborhood.

“Yeh, like how they squeeze between the trucks and parked cars! Like it’s not dangerous? And then some of them with their kids on a seat on the back – anything could happen!” He reminds me of the story a Sanitation Worker told us both about being sent to the emergency room after a bag full of glass and other debris exploded from the back of the collection truck in his face as he was working.  “Anything could go wrong,” and it bugs him out.
But during the Blizzard of 2010 and 40 days of straight snow and trash removal, the residents of Park Slope had his back.

“They were all good to us – telling us they knew we were working, and that it wasn’t our fault.  They took a lot of pictures too. A lot!  But for good reasons, you know?”  This was not the story for other SanMen and Women working in Staten Island, Sheepshead Bay, Canarsie, Jackson Heights, who daily fielded the insults of a cabin-fevered general public.

Eric Morales was raised on Strong Place in Cobble Hill and is now one of New York’s Strongest. He likes the recycling route. He has three daughters – 21, 15, 17 – and the face of a 28-year-old.  He walks to work in Park Slope every morning. His favorite music is freestyle.  He won’t let me tell you who his favorite singer is as he hasn’t been able to live it down with his fellow SanWorkers since the last time he let the cat out of that bag. Don’t matter – he’ll still rearrange his schedule for her. He’s tall and slim, sports the five o’clock shadow. He has a quiet way about him that hides behind a natural smirk of a smile.    When he wakes, he asks God to just get him through the day.

This is Eric.

Eric Morales.

He’s one of your Sanitation Workers, and he loves his job because of the people.

Eric is your people.


It’s because of Park Slope that we know Eric. It’s because of Park Slope’s respite demands that I walked home from the Tea Lounge to my apartment in Sunset Park one night at midnight and collided with the first Sanitation Worker, that set this whole thing into motion.  And it’s the stories of personal choice, daily decision and an irrepressible gentle humanity moving in the photos of them that keep this project going.

Chasing Sanitation: Falling in Love with New York’s Strongest is the collaboration of photographer Liz Ligon and myself – writer/producer – to capture the strength and personal stories of the Sanitation Workers of New York.   For 2 ½ years, Liz and I have Chased Sanitation Workers in all five boroughs, photographing them as they work and then interviewing them later, off duty, asking everyone the same 25 questions.  The result is a photo book website and winter public exhibition that was generously covered by Marie Claire and Glamour magazines, the New York Daily News, the New York Times, NY1 and NBC’s Nightly News with Chuck Scarborough.

And we met here in these pages of the Park Slope Reader in the summer of 2007 – when Liz was the managing editor and hired me as the New Wave columnist.  Her energy and talent were compatible with mine and I had been looking for a photographer for this SanProject I’d been researching. I took her out for fried chicken at Sidecar restaurant on 5th to pitch it to her.  “It’s a BIG project,” she said enthusiastically but couldn’t commit for a couple of months.  Then I get an excited email from her a couple of months later, we went on one shoot in Sunset Park and it was over – we knew we’d be shooting and writing for a while together.

In the summer of 2010, we went public – launching our website and Kickstarter campaign in order to produce a public exhibit in Noho for New Yorkers and all of Sanitation. Sponsored by the Local 831, DSNY Columbia Association, Duggal Visual Solutions, Himmel + Meringoff Properties, Todd Strier – Sanitation Lawyer, and 172 Kickstarter Backers nationwide, the Exhibition attracted 650 passersby, Sanitation families, local artists and families, current and former Sanitation Commissioners, one entire Union board and one Oscar-winning screenwriter – John Patrick Shanley – in its two week run.

We opened on Valentine’s weekend, in the middle of the snowiest season in recent memory to bring back some love into the press and back into Sanitation.  Survivors from the 9/11 recovery effort drove in from the boroughs and upstate New York and told us their little known stories. Wives and children saw their breadwinners in a whole new light.   Passersby found themselves in conversation with Sanitation Workers about myths around recycling and the dangers inherent to the work.  Big men and small women broke down in tears in front of the photos and stories.

It’s not only working with Liz and the Sanitation Family that made this project successful and salient. It’s the what-you-don’t-know-by-looking-at-them that lurks in every interview and photo. It’s the people – the choices they make and they live by, thereby validating our choices – Liz and Lisa, as Brooklyn artists – in shedding a little light on this essential part of New York City.


It’s because of its current wealth that Liz and I found each other, a project and happiness here.  It fits our groove for our personal and professional lives.  We both wanted to know our neighbors.  We both wanted to tell personal stories with our skills. Here, we found a good fit for our need for access to the Gritty City as well as to Sesame Street.  We had the accessibility to each other to keep our rapport strong, our production costs low and our creative energy high as we juggled all of our part-time and freelance gigs.

Gentrification always will leave any of us natives or transplants confounded by its ultimate misgivings and unifications.  But this one story of a couple of Tennessean ex-pat transplants and a couple of thousand Sanitation Workers is one story made good.


Because they’re everywhere! They’re gorgeous! They’re a racial microcosm of the City! And Gotham’s Green Nation stands tall as a role model for public works nationwide.

This past April, the Daily Beast published a photo gallery listing Sanitation Worker as seventh most dangerous job in America.  Wedged between Roofer with a salary of $41K and Public Transportation Operator at $35K, Sanitation Workers are at it every day for up to eight hours on 6,000 miles of New York streets. That’s 16 tons of garbage per truck of thrown out glass, needles, paint, bricks, blood, guts, road kill and spoiling food, not to mention all the radioactive tech that becomes obsolete the minute you get it home from Best Buy.

So I asked former Sanitation Commissioner and Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel, a long time Park Slope resident, out to Fornino to get the real deal on how these contract talks might go down in this charged climate.

Collective bargaining is being irrefutably threatened.  Steisel tells me it’s going to be a lousy year for labor unions.  “The City will undergo its own round of difficult talks.  The Local 831 has been historically generous in granting the City tremendous amounts of productivity advancements,” he offers.  Many state governments are looking at the bottom line and making individual decisions on keeping an open dialogue with them or not.  Having served as Deputy Mayor under Dinkins from 1990-94 and Sanitation Commissioner from 1979-86, and currently helming up a management consulting firm for government-regulated industries, he’s been there when Sanitation wasn’t as proud or as regimented as it is now.

He’s confident, even now, in his City’s ability to overcome the current financial hiccups.  “They’re a pretty inventive lot,” he says of the Local 831 Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, “I’m sure they’ll work it out.”

Meanwhile, unions across the country are organizing voice-of-the-people rallies in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Memphis, New York – trying to keep workers rights loud and alive.  It’s the middle class that’s getting pitted against each other – private sector vs. union member. Meanwhile, the slow and steady destabilization of a municipality begins – a glance of which we saw this past winter when a snowstorm was mismanaged from the top down.  No one calls the Post when you don’t get your mail for a couple of days, but the snow and garbage start piling up – out come the politico and bottom-feeders.

Our project turned out to be a timely antidote for the political snowstorm that raged last winter and the current national debate.  And now that Irene has passed through New York, and New York’s many leaders pulled up its bootstraps and looked her right in the eye, maybe our municipal employees won’t have to fight so hard to prove their value.  It’s right there – on the streets.


There are a few more chases and a few more shoots and interviews that need to get done.  And a book proposal. And a book deal.  You know the drill.
In the meantime, I interview SanMen and Women when I can, update the photo site, and write the story of the Chase.  I just can’t sit still on the Love of Labor that makes me cry, laugh, think and love. More. Than I did the day before.  So much work – theirs, Liz’s, mine – an amazing journey filled with the most raucous jokes and the most sentimental of histories. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of.

When I ask Eric what’s your worst day on the job, he’s reluctant.  “I love my job, you know?  You wake up trying to have a perfect day and then things happen and then you get to the end of your day and look back and think, ‘That wasn’t so bad.’   Ninety percent of your day is your partner.”

True for Chasing Sanitation, too. I found my partner in grime in a dress sporting a camera in Park Slope.    You never know when your best day is going to hit you until you’ve had it. I’ve had a few in Park Slope.

You’d never know by looking at me.

Want to Chase Sanitation yourself?


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