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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Waste Collectors by Charulata Sinha

OBJECT: Tons of Silt

BODY OF WATER: Hudson River


 

No one thought much of it when the garbage men went on strike. They had a list of twenty demands pinned to every signpost and streetlamp. Later I would learn that it was a city-wide effort, but at the time, I thought it was only local. One demand was bolded and italicized: We prefer to be called waste collectors. I supposed this was valid in the same way prostitutes prefer to be called sex workers. Both groups wanted to do away with euphemisms and get down to the nitty-gritty: we collect waste; we have sex. I thought this was only fair enough. Everyone in my building figured it all would be resolved quickly. My landlord assured us these man-babies would cave for the right number. Mostly, people didn’t care about the waste collectors and their fledgling revolution. Evidently their demands weren’t met, because the flyers started multiplying on stoops and doorsteps, escaping their paperweights ten-fold and fluttering in the breeze like many-winged birds. And then there was the trash.

Piles of trash, abandoned on every street corner. Big, black-tar garbage bags down to tiny takeout boxes littered the sidewalk, spilling out of bulging bins. All manner of filth, strewn across the concrete, baked in the summer sun: fish heads, milk jugs, moldy bread, tampons, cheese rind, toilet paper, plastic coffee stirrers, socks, water bottles, beer cans, old sponges, mattresses, an entire toilet, prescription painkiller bottles, curtains, empty soap dispensers. Odd things. Things that used to be whisked away and sunk. After, I thought a lot about what a comforting bit of sorcery that was. What charitable magic the garbage men used to make of the trash, to disappear it. Now the trash sat gross and naked in the accusing light. Every piece was a tiny ghost. It was impossible to escape these reminders of what you had used or not used, but, in any case, had thrown away.

That first week, it was summer. The sun was insistent. The light would glint off the garbage, sparkling and burning. It hurt to look at it. The smell alone; street hawkers began selling nose-plugs. People walked around with scarves wrapped around their faces or else balaclavas, so you could only see eyes, scanning for trash heaps, watering from the fumes. I wore a surgical mask for a few days, then ripped it off in frustration. It didn’t matter. Think about if your smelliest pair of socks or shorts or whatever was large enough to cradle an entire island in its girth. Now, think about going grocery shopping in that clammy, yeasty biodome. Think about three million people and think about that insistent sun and also the sweat. This is what it smelled like.

The mayor released a spineless statement. Something about the concerns of the garbage men being heard, some plan in place for city-workers to sweep up the trash. Soon after his office was swarmed with garbage. Protestors stormed city hall, heaving their Glad bags and Amazon boxes with Styrofoam peanuts through the heavy windows, blocking the entry and exit-ways, setting off the fire alarms, which then set off the sprinklers, which then sprayed tinny water on the trash, which made it soggy and solidified and even more impossible to circumnavigate. Those poor civil servants in that building. This was probably when the first undocumented death occurred. We didn’t hear from the mayor after that. The remaining city-workers quietly quit their jobs. No one wanted to take care of the trash. It was already filling the streets, pouring into parks and highways and every inch of public space. It became impossible to drive a car. People deserted them in the streets, and they too would fill with garbage, stale noodles decorating the headlights, plastic cups pressed up against windows.

The garbage men were somewhere laughing. Think about the profession that we value most. Neurosurgeon, maybe. But what do we stand to lose if neurosurgeons stop doing their job? A couple thousand lives, tops. Probably your grandmother. Sad, but workable. What we stood to lose if the garbage men stopped doing their jobs—this is what we found out.

People tried staying indoors, holed up in their apartments, faces turned resolutely towards the hum of tired fans. Then we lost power. The trash had toppled the wires, destroying the electrical exoskeleton of the city, phone lines curving artfully out of their posts. The Internet disappeared not long after. Still, like children, we curled up in our tiny rooms high above the streets, which were, by this time, completely covered with a brown-red mass of filth, hardened, mold-like. But the garbage soon forced its way into every building, knocking down doors, squeezing people out of windows and onto fire escapes. The sheer force of the trash cannot be overstated. The garbage flood flung us out of our rooms and back into the streets. Those that didn’t escape their apartments were buried alive in the garbage, limbs sticking out of the plastic-cardboard-glass mishmash. This is how my brother died.

Those first few days without power, without Internet, and without roofs over our heads were terrifying. Crowds of people gathered in the streets, dumbfounded, all of us walking aimlessly on top of the trash, which was piled on the concrete about 15-feet deep, forming a squishy but stable ground. I roamed for hours, unsure of what to do with myself. In most places, the trash had completely coagulated, so that you could walk on it like you would a beach or marsh. In some areas, though, the garbage melted into something more liquid than solid. In these cases, you had to swim, holding your breath, hoping a piece of plastic didn’t lodge in your throat. Enterprising young men built makeshift boats out of old bed frames and cardboard boxes and maneuver them through these tricky spots like gondoliers in some terrible Venice.

I met Henry while scavenging for a pair of shoes. I lost mine to a trash rivulet. He handed me a pair of men’s dress shoes, fancy with soft interiors. For a time, we sat wordlessly on a pile of old picture frames, fishing spare goods out of the rubble. It could have been two hours or three days. A middle-aged Slovakian woman named Bubba joined us. She didn’t speak English and this absolved us of small talk. We slept in a row, curled like question marks around each other.

People constructed tiny forts out of sheet metal and cloth, families huddled inside. In this way tent cities popped up in the more populated of areas. They were no match for the angry rain that beat against us as summer slumped into fall. The rain filled even the most solid of trash heaps, so they wept a strange pus if stepped on. Children began to get sick, the babies crying loudly and angrily as the storm grew deeper and more Biblical. Thunder struck a particularly oily spot of old Chinese food and electrocuted everyone within a block radius. Eventually the babies stopped crying. I saw a toddler who had forgotten what food was chewing contentedly on a flip-flop.

Food was everywhere and nowhere. Mold grew on every surface. Each potential meal was covered in the stuff. Fruits and vegetables were long gone, disintegrated into soupy sludge. Eggs lay cracked open, bleeding yolk onto old TVs and heaps of office paper. Bread was unrecognizable, radioactive. Our best hope was nonperishables—cans of preserved corn, chewy crackers in bulk boxes. But even those were overrun with roaches. The roaches, I think, had undergone some sort of rapid Darwinian transformation, discovering that this was indeed the environment to which they were most aptly suited. They grew wilier, smarter, scarier. They developed huge pincers, and would hide in boxes of cereal and wait for us, daring. When they bit, they drew blood, and did not run away but simply hung on, lodged indefinitely, their glassy black backs hard and smooth against our skin. The rats grew to the size of house cats. They lounged liberally in the middle of the street, stomachs distended and veiny, exhausted and satiated.

Neighborhood lines faded away. Each area was defined only by its trash. You could tell the higher-income districts by their specific garbage—organic linen instead of two-ply, artisanal jars of sundried tomatoes and wheatgrass concentrate. But high-class trash was still trash. This was at least an equalizer, which was comforting for some of us. We navigated the island by newly formed landmarks—the mountain of staplers and chip bags south of the waterfall of margarita mixer. It was quicker and easier to move by swinging from the sides of buildings using the high-fiber cable-wire Bubba had discovered by the heap of coffee stirrers. This was not as graceful, or as fun, as you might imagine. It was a complicated, fiddly piece of business, hooking the wire into our belt loops, securing it onto a fire-escape ladder. Henry nearly tumbled to his death trying to navigate off a high-rise which had no neighboring building because, as we later figured out, it bordered a park.

A new world order emerged from the trash. Tribes formed and warred. A favorite tactic was setting the garbage piles on fire. Sulfurous pillars of smoke marked the contested spots. Gormless, we stumbled headfirst into danger and each time extracted ourselves, sticky and panting. Henry once set up camp for the night, only to discover the next morning that his cable-wire had been stolen by guerilla fighters. A barter economy developed. One could trade a piece of cloth for a bag of gummy worms, but one couldn’t trade a bag of gummy worms for a toothbrush, because toothbrushes were now useless. These were the types of unspoken rules that we all had no trouble learning. Bubba was particularly adept at trading for food. She would leave with a single metal shower rod and come back beaming, arms stuffed with cans of sweet potatoes.

The days slid into months, which slid into years, and I discovered a slimy film developing over my skin, the result of hundreds of grease fires and the collective chemical oil of the island. I wondered if I would turn green, like a slice of supermarket sheet cake. Henry developed a hacking cough. Bubba and I worried for him. There was no time for sickness. We were always moving. We had to be smart and mean. If someone asked me for food, begging on the ground, crying, I turned away, eyes slanted towards my destination. Which is how I moved through the world before all of this happened.

One morning I heard a voice, ringing clear and true as a bell through the usual ruckus of the dawn. I crept up carefully, so as not to wake up Bubba and Henry. I followed the voice.

“You are good, you are motivated, you are helpful.”

I stepped around a corner, dodging a rolling ball of crusted-up underwear.

“Try to think of one positive change you can enact today.”

I discovered an old man in a lavender beanie, crouched with his knees pressed to his chest.

“You are a shining light of goodwill. Pass along a kind act.”

He was listening to a self-help book. Everyone’s electronics had run out of battery years ago. It had been so long since I had heard a voice from a machine.

“You are more than the sum of your parts.”

I slunk closer, and accidentally stepped on his coat. He flinched, drawing back to look up at me. He looked angry, as if I had stolen something that was intimately his.

“Fuck off,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

That morning the sun rose like fire over the grainy horizon. Sunrises were beautiful here, it had to be said. The greasy air bent the orange into prisms of hollow, pure light. I nudged Bubba awake. We were moving further uptown that day. We each hooked an arm under Henry’s armpits, hoisting him up. By this point, he was too weak to stand. The sludge had found its way into his lungs, breaking apart cilia like matchsticks. We found a quiet spot underneath an old signpost. Caution: Slow Down, Children Crossing. Time unspooled, and the sky remained a fickle grey as weeks flickered past. It was impossible to tell whether it was night or day, the air so thick and opaque that Henry simply lay down and never got up.

About a year later, Bubba and I were scavenging for Nilla Wafers, since we had heard there was a box underneath a pile of child-size sneakers. This was when we heard the shouting. A monstrous ferry was nearing the island, the kind of big boat that seems like an affront to the laws of physics. A man in a hazmat suit motioned us towards the onboarding line, and, unquestioning, we shuffled into place. It was winter, and the snow crunched beneath our feet. It was a yellow-green color. We were careful not to sniff it or get the watery residue on our hands.

I hadn’t considered leaving the island before this. The rich had been air-lifted out of the city within the first week of the disaster, but the rest of us had stayed, through the garbage and the death. It’s not that we rejected the idea of leaving, only that we had never sought escape. It was part of an unwritten social contract that we had all signed upon moving to the island all those years ago, blithely unaware of what was to come. You move to this wretched place from your small towns, from your boring flyover states, determined to thrive, no matter what the stupid, unbearable cost. Once you get here, there is slim chance you will leave, because wherever you came from was decidedly worse than this, which is, after all, why you are still here, miserable, fishing spare change out of Swiss-holed-pockets to buy a twelve-pack of ramen at the bodega.

I stood with the rest of the exodus, pressed against the railings of the ferry, sailing across the river slick with silt. I looked out at the trash city, and mostly I was sad. Living inside the muck had flattened me, made me part of a collective, sinewy whole. For years, we had crouched in the heart of a massive and terrible organism and every breath we took, it took also. The city was the trash was us was the trash was the city. There was a poetry to it that I couldn’t name. I knew that I couldn’t go back now that I had left, that to do so was to violate something sacred. I peeled my fingernails clean from their nail beds and yielded each to the water below. For every fingernail, a navy funeral.


Charulata Sinha is a student at New York University. Her work has been featured in Mcsweeney'sThe RumpusAfropop WorldwideVice, and Write Bloody Publishing