The Collector

12,260 tons. 

That’s how much garbage New York City sanitation workers toss in the backs of trucks every day along 6,300 miles of city streets.

Sam and partner

We’ll call him Sam. I spotted Sam around 7am on a chilly December morning in front of the Winter Garden theater on Broadway. I can’t remember what I noticed first - the bright uniform, the red cap, or his classic cigarette pose.

I remember that pose from the 50s. Then it seemed like every man on the street held a cigarette in his mouth that same way. 

At first I passed by. I didn’t say hello or even drop a nod. Why was that? It nagged at me. About twenty steps in I made an about face. 

“Hey guys, how’s it going?”

“It’s going man,” Sam said “It’s going.”

We chatted a bit about what it took to keep the streets clean. Now if you live in or have been to New York, you know what the mounds of bagged trash, cartons, boxes, and everything else that ends up on a New York City street looks like. (And if you haven’t been to the City, picture 12,260 tons of garbage hitting your streets every day. Yeah, it’s a lot.)

While I talked to Sam, his partner tossed bag after bag into a truck. He didn’t say much but kept an ear turned our way to make sure I hadn’t trapped Sam into a long conversation. I knew Sam needed to get back to work so it was time for a few pictures.

As I pressed the shutter, I imagined Sam’s day.

It’s 3:55am. The alarm is set for 4 but Sam always beats it. He doesn’t want the rest of the family rattled by the buzzer. Sam counts on strong hot coffee for a kick-starter. Last year he picked up one of those coffee makers with a timer. It was on sale. Nice thought, but Sam’s routine didn’t budge. 7-11, the one on Fordham Road in the Bronx. He saw the same folks there every morning; each headed in a different direction but starting their day together with strong coffee and an exchange of small talk and smiles. Or grimaces, depending on the weather. There was an unspoken camaraderie among them. Sam moved over to the 6am shift a couple of years ago when his kids - two girls - started middle school. It was important for him to be home when the girls got home. He could do that working the early shift. These were important years for those girls. Sam heard enough stories about kids left to fend for themselves. He knew that drill well. He never talked about it much, but you could read his own childhood story in his eyes. No, that wasn’t going to happen to his girls. They were special. The kind of daughters who give their Dad a hug even when their friends are around.

I like the City. I’ll be there again soon. I’ll look for Sam at the corner of 51st and Broadway. I won’t have to backup to say “hey.”

If you see Sam first, give him a nod. 

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