In Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks of the Sanitation Workers of New York City, writer Robin Nagle signs on as a sanitation worker, riding the garbage trucks and seeing life from the perspective of the “san” men. What she discovers is that virtually all the people they encounter, with the exception of children and some of the elderly, treat them as if they are invisible. Essential to the life of the city, this work force, largely male, are ignored, cursed at, and treated as inhuman objects. Nagle watched the men speak to others, many of whom would simply stare at them, not even acknowledging their existence. She observes that “[i]nvisible laborers are not supposed to make themselves noticed. They are meant to do their work and move along, heads down and mouths shut.”
What Nagle does in this anthropological study is dignify these laborers, bringing them into the light. She cites sociologist Wayne Brekhus, who points to sanitation work as an example of an “unmarked” element of daily life. He makes the case that important truths are lodged within the unmarked and the unseen. I’m only 25 pages in and I can’t stop thinking about it. I went through my day today asking “who are the invisible people in my life?” The custodian at my place of work is not invisible, and yet when I greeted him today I considered how little I knew about him, how little I had bothered to know about him. So I spent a few minutes with him. We talked about the weather and fishing.
Later, I n the check out line after lunch, I looked up and met the eyes of the cashier. I asked her how she was doing today. “I’m learning,” she said. She was new, and the line was long. “You’re doing fine,” I said. Jesus was good at acknowledging the invisible. Lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the woman with the bleeding disorder — all were treated with dignity. He ate with them, touched them, and treated them as equals. So, cashiers, tellers, garbage men, cleaners, repairmen, maids, and fat kids and rejects of junior high school who were cloaked in invisibility, in part, because of me — please forgive me. You matter.