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How garbage collectors thread the fabric of civilization

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In a short film from StoryCorps, sanitation workers Angelo Bruno and Eddie Nieves reflect on their time spent sharing a garbage route in Manhattan’s West Village.

Their story offers a striking portrait of the dignity, meaning, and transcendent value of work done in the service of neighbors.

Although modern society tends to elevate certain jobs or careers above others—garbage collection is typically not high on the list—Bruno and Nieves retain a self-awareness and clear confidence about the immense value they’re providing to their community.

Bruno recounts the moment he first realized the broader significance of his work:

“When I first came on the job, there was one old timer…Gordie Flow, his name was. One day, he stopped the truck. He tells me, “Angelo, look down this block first. See all the sidewalks are all crowded up with garbage?” I didn’t think nothing of it. My father always told me to respect my elders.

I get to the end of the block and he stops me again. “Get out of the truck,” [he says]. “Look Back. Nice and clean, right? People can walk on the sidewalk. Guys can make deliveries. Be proud of yourself.”

But it goes beyond simple acts of service and meeting specific needs. Bruno and Nieves also recognize that work is relational and communal—that we needn’t be limited by job descriptions and various material outputs, and the value we bring isn’t just physical and temporal.

Our work is also an opportunity for us to manifest our social natures and human persons, creating and co-creating alongside and along with God and neighbor.

For Bruno and Nieves, it’s not just about collecting garbage. It’s about their genuine friendship and creative partnership as co-workers. It’s about their relationships with their neighbors and a commitment to the community at large. It’s an opportunity to show love and generosity in spontaneous and surprising ways—whether by pausing to say, “good morning,” or offering to hold someone’s baby as they carry their groceries to their apartment.

In all of our work, there is meaningful, transcendent activity taking place, whether we recognize it or not. Lest we forget, this is the sort of simple and steady work and service that provides the very foundations of civilization and culture.

As Lester DeKoster explains in Work: The Meaning of Your Life, the quietest workers in the most “mundane” occupations often serve the most central needs of society, beginning with the fulfillment of basic physical needs, but stretching into much, much more:

We know, as soon as reminded, that work spins the wheels of the world. No work? Then nothing else either. Culture and civilization don’t just happen. They are made to happen and to keep happening—by God the Holy Spirit, through our work.

Imagine that everyone quits working, right now! What happens? Civilized life quickly melts away. Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around campfires, sleeping in tents, and clothed in rags.

…Civilized living is so closely knit that when any pieces drop out the whole fabric begins to crumple. Let city sanitation workers go out this week, and by next week streets are smothered in garbage. Give homemaking mothers leave, and many of us suddenly go hungry and see our kids running wild. Civilization is so fragile that we either all hang together or, as Ben Franklin warned during the American Revolution, “we shall all hang separately.” …The mosaic of culture, like all mosaics, derives its beauty from the contribution of each tiny bit.

In such a way, garbage collectors like Bruno and Nieves thread the fabric of civilization, serving their community, contributing to the common good, and glorifying God, in turn.

In our everyday encounters and exchanges with everyday workers, we’d do well to recognize that basic significance, engaging in these relationships with love, grace, and gratitude. In learning to reimagine something as seemingly simple as garbage collection and city sanitation, we can more fully honor the contributions of others, making that civilizational fabric all the more strong and sturdy.

So next time the garbage truck rolls around—as we listen to it’s rattle and rumble—let’s not take it for granted. Instead, let’s respond with gratitude and thanksgiving, for the workers themselves, and for the contributions they bring to the rest of civilization.

Image: Trash / Street Sweeper, netkids (CC0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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