Words by John Campo & Ben Rekhi
Photos by Alex Rhee
Anything you can think of, I’ve probably seen it. I’ve been down the darkest alleyways, the meanest streets, in the coldest nights, in the most sun-burnt, maggot-infested days.
You don’t know me and you probably don’t give two shits about me, but I see it all in the trash. I’m that guy that makes your garbage disappear every morning. But whether you love me or hate me, you’ve got to respect me. You try picking up 12 tons of trash a night, every day, for 20 years, tell me this ain’t the hardest work out there. I’ve seen guys crush their backs on this job; I mean their vertebrates just turn to powder. Guys get cancer on this job. Guys get burned by acid on this job. I’ve been caught in the middle of gunfire picking up trash. I was once stuck in the stomach with a hypodermic needle that someone left in a taped up coffee can, all just to get the shit off the streets. If it weren’t for me, this city would come to a halt, buried in its own trash. Everything you own will one day pass through my hands. But you know what? After 20 years of picking up garbage in this dirty-ass-city, you can take this job and kiss my big fat New York fucking ass.
I remember the first time I sat in a garbage truck; I was 5 years old. My family and I lived in Canarsie, it was the Little Italy of Brooklyn. This truck pulled up outside, and man it could’ve been 100 miles long, I’d never seen anything so big. My father, Salvatore Campo, the truest of New York city workers, jumped out of the truck in full uniform. It was like watching General Patton leaping down from his tank. He was in his late-20s and had already been on the job for a couple of years. “C’mon Johnny, get in the truck, I’ll give you a ride.”
He threw me in the cab right next to his partner Goomba Sammy. We cruised down the streets in that tank, watching the world pass us by. Not too long into the ride, this foreman pulls up behind us and motions for my dad to pull over. They told me to lay down on the seat and threw a bunch of coats on me. They told me not to move. My dad walked over to deal with the boss while I sat there holding my breath. The foreman was asking them a bunch of questions, just busting their balls, and I heard my dad throwing it right back at him. “We’re just finishing up our lunch break, what’s your problem?” he said. When my dad came back he and Goomba Sammy were laughing their asses off. “Foreman never saw you. You did good, Johnny, you did good. You wasn’t a rat!” That was my dad, Sally the Stitch. I had no idea that 25 years later I would be watching the world pass me by through the same windows that my dad sat behind. I always wanted to go to college. I had ambitions; I wanted to be a writer. But I came from a working class family and my father just couldn’t afford it. Plus, everyone around me was shooting up and eating sheets of acid, and even though I smoke pot to this day, I sure as hell wasn’t getting mixed up in no chemicals. I didn’t have too many choices, stay in my neighborhood and die or get the fuck out. So I stumbled from a bar to the recruitment office and eight days later I was in the Navy, traveling the world. I smoked hash in Pakistan, hung out with the PLO in Jordan, got shot at on the coast of Vietnam; sometimes you don’t know where life is going to take you. There I was, on this spy ship with the highest tech equipment, and the crew was high as shit the whole time. I was playing harmonica when I met my friend Steve, who would become my bro for life. He and I became like blood, and no matter what happened before or since then, he’s been there for me. We grew up real quick on that boat. I became a real human being.
When I finally came back to New York, I couldn’t find a job to make me happy. I had stints as a cook, a taxi driver, a factory worker, a construction worker, you name it. One morning my dad threw me out of bed and made me take the civil service exam. “Ain’t no better job for the working man than the sanitation,” was his logic. And he was right, city jobs offer the best benefits in the world. Full pension, dental, medical; you put in your 20 years and you’re set for the rest of your life. But picking up garbage? That was the last thing I wanted to do with my life. I was a musician. I was happy playing my harmonica in the village, working as a cook, blowing up the street for money. But none of that had a future in it. City job was a career. So I started working for the man.
Garbagemen, in a way, they’ve got it better than other civil servants. Cops get shot at. Firemen gotta run into burning buildings every day. Sanitation was the only civil service job where you could get the benefits without putting your life at risk every time you go to the office. But I learned pretty quickly that when you’re working for the city you cease to be a person. You become just a number to them. As a sanitation worker, the city has one objective for you: get the garbage off the streets. It doesn’t matter if there is 20 in. of snow or 100 degrees of heat. You maybe have to battle your way through an army of rats, or pick up a 2000 lbs. dead horse, but whatever it takes, just get it off the streets. Period. If you told me I was going to see half the shit I ended up getting involved in on that truck, I would have told you, “Fuck no, no thanks.” The dirt comes with the territory. When you’re working sanitation you see all the people’s trash.
I remember this one time, when I was a foreman, I was listening to the radio one day and I heard the story of this guy that drove a small truck to drop off some plastic barrels at the dump. The foreman on the other end of the radio had opened the barrels up and saw that this guy had killed his wife and cut her in half, one half in each barrel. Over the radio waves this foreman was yelling, “Oh shit, get cops over here! This guys running! He’s running!” Nothing like a police hunt through the trash heaps at Fresh Kills.