Transcript

249:

Garbage
Transcript

Originally aired 10.31.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/249

Prologue.

Ira Glass

It's like uncovering a vast secret conspiracy, but one that is right there in front of your eyes.

5:30 in the morning. It's still dark outside. And I'm on my way to record some New York City garbage men on their morning route. And the person I'm with, this anthropologist from New York University named Robin Nagle, who's spent years studying how New York City moves its trash. She points to a set of buildings-- these huge, corrugated metal barns-- right on the waterfront at 59th street. This is where the garbage trucks for the island of Manhattan come to dump paper onto barges to be taken away.

Robin Nagle

I've seen photographs of this as a dumping point-- this exact location-- back dating to the 1890s, when it was wooden planks and horse-drawn carts, dumping directly into scows, where men were waiting with rakes to rake the garbage, which was usually steaming, because it often included ashes and things. And men died by falling off the scows, or getting kicked in the head by the horses, or falling through rotten boards in the planks.

Ira Glass

There are no signs-- nothing to indicate that this is part of city government-- except for one city seal that is actually too faded to read. Which is not unusual.

Robin Nagle

You'll see a lot of sanitation facilities-- there's no name over the door, there's nothing telling you it's a sanitation facility. The perception of sanitation in the public's eye is generally not great, and so it's easier if they can go below radar.

Ira Glass

On maps of the city, you can see these piers, but it's not labeled what they are. Just like Fresh Kills on Staten Island, the largest landfill on the planet, for years has appeared on maps as a public park.

People want everything having to do with garbage to be invisible. We want it out of sight. We don't want to think about it, don't want to be associated with it.

One guy who I interviewed for today's radio program has a kind of high up job in the department of sanitation. Makes tons of money, lots of responsibility. And he got in contact after the interview to ask that I not use his name. His neighbors didn't know that he worked for the sanitation department, and he didn't want them to know.

One sanitation worker told Robin that one day he was picking up a bag of trash and a lady's walking a poodle. And the lady lets the poodle start peeing on the bag as he's grabbing it. Like he's not even there.

Robin Nagle

Sanitation workers will tell you that they're invisible. How can a pedestrian let her dog pee on a bag where a man is reaching for that bag and has his face not 18 inches from the dog who then lefts his leg to take a leak? That man must be invisible to that woman, that she would let that happen without giving it a second thought.

Ira Glass

Today on our radio show, we take what's invisible and we make it visible. Stories of garbage, yours and mine. We live in a way that produces more waste than any people have in the history of civilization. We come here today not to feel bad about that, not to condemn that-- I know this is a public radio show, but I make a guarantee to you right now that this is not a radio program today about feeling bad about the immense volume of trash poking around the edges of all of our lives. No, no, no. This is a radio program about understanding the actual fact of it, finally.

Our program today in three acts. Act One. Oh, Mr. San Man. In which we get our hands on your trash, yours, with the men who do it every day. Act Two. Except For the Smell, I Think I Have a Crush On You. There are squatters who build entire neighborhoods on top of rotting garbage heaps in Mexico. They scavenge in the trash piles for their living. We go there for a little love story. Act Three. I am a Legitimate Businessman... Waste Management. In that act, the secret recordings that ended mob control of New York garbage. We got them. Stay with us.

[ACT 1]

Act One. Oh, Mr. San Man.

The government has a number where they take the amount of waste-- residential, commercial, industrial waste-- created in this country, and they divide it by how many of us there are to tell us how much garbage is produced per person by all of us just living our normal lives in this country. That number? 4.8 pounds per person per day.

One rainy morning I wanted to see exactly what that means on the ground.

Robin Nagle

We're doing this block, right?

Andre Ramos

No, the next block.

Robin Nagle

I'll get on the running board.

Andre Ramos

OK. You sit there. I get on the other side.

Ira Glass

For more than a year, Robin Nagle-- who you just heard from-- has been riding around with New York City sanitation workers, doing the job alongside them, as part of her research. She wears the green uniform. She slings trash.

I went out with with her and two guys. Andre Ramos-- who reminds me a little bit of a Latino Billy Crystal-- in his early 40s, goatee, turning a little gray, chatty and outgoing. And his partner, an older, rather dignified man.

Roger Patton

My name is Roger Patton. But because my name is Patton, everyone on the job calls me General. But I'm not a general. I don't behave as one.

Ira Glass

The General drives. Ramos rides the running board. And when they tell me the amount of trash that the two of them lift and throw into the back of the truck on their morning route, Ramos gives me the number in tons.

Andre Ramos

14.4 is our target weight, or better. 14.4.

Ira Glass

So that means that you're personally picking up seven tons of garbage a day?

Andre Ramos

More or less, yes.

Ira Glass

That seems crazy.

Andre Ramos

Really? Why?

Ira Glass

Because it just doesn't seem like a person can even pick up--

Andre Ramos

After a while, all you see is black bags, and you just keep throwing it in there, throwing it in there. Until you fill this truck up.

Ira Glass

The sheer athleticism that this requires is something that most of us don't think about, usually. When Ramos talks about what it was like to first do this job, throw trash all day for a living, he sighs.

Andre Ramos

It was hard. It really hard. Because you're not used to the lifting, the dragging, the pulling. Everything is different.

Roger Patton

Because on this job, everyone hurts. Your back, your shoulders, your legs.

Andre Ramos

My body, we saw plenty of Tiger Balm, plenty of Ben-Gay.

Ira Glass

So how many months did it take before you were able to lift comfortably, and at the end of the day, you weren't wiped out?

Andre Ramos

I tell you, it took more than a few months. It took the years. It really did. Yes. Because this is something, you know, you've got to tailor your body into. It's not something that you get used to overnight, no matter if you were a hard worker all your life.

Ira Glass

As with a lot of physically demanding jobs, it's all about pacing yourself, conserving your energy where you can.

A typical stop. The General pulls up the truck to 30 trash bags set out in front of an apartment building on the Upper West Side. He tries to get the truck close to the bags.

Most of the bags are at 60, maybe 70 pounds. Small enough for Ramos or the General or Robin to carry alone. Some buildings use these big, black sausage bags packed by compactors. They do those together.

Andre Ramos

This one is heavy. What would you say, like what?

Roger Patton

It's about 120 pounds. That's about 120 pounds.

Andre Ramos

This bag is heavy. In this case, we try to get as close to the truck as possible, and we both lift at the same time.

Ira Glass

The General, by the way, is doing this-- lifting seven tons a day-- at 58 years old.

Andre Ramos

Come around on this side.

Roger Patton

Come over here.

Ira Glass

They wave me away from the back of the truck to the side.

Roger Patton

Never stand behind the hopper while it's running. It will come spewing out on you. So it's best to stand to the side.

Andre Ramos

And the reason for that is that, odds this is compressed. It can go to 3,000 pounds per square inch. And it's crushing these bags, 3,000 pounds per square inch. An object can come flying out of there. It's like somebody is literally shooting a bullet at you. It could be a nail, glass or something. It can do damage.

Ira Glass

There are all sorts of ways to get hurt on this job. Guys ding their legs into car bumpers. They get scraped or cut by glass or metal that slices through the trash bags. Guys get hit by cars.

At one stop, Robin and the General dragged over this rust-colored couch and they placed it in the hopper. It's so big that half of it sticks out the end of the truck. Ramos makes the blade of the compactor come down, and-- and I have to say this-- but one moment, there's a couch there, and the next moment, it is completely flat. Snapped from three dimensions to two. Then the blade cycles around slowly crushes this big, rust-colored rectangle in with the kitchen garbage and the other trash-- and it's gone.

In just a couple of hours we smash a TV, and a couple of futon frames, and a bookcase.

Andre Ramos

I've seen refrigerators crushed to nothing. It's able to crush almost anything. Almost anything.

Ira Glass

Given how it's just one of the unquestioned facts of modern life that somebody's going to come and pick up almost anything, almost anything today, it's amazing to think just how recent an innovation garbage collection is. Cities have been around for thousands of years. And for most of that time, spoiled food and household waste was just left outside, on the street, just to rot. And Robin, who studies this, says that's what New York was like.

Robin Nagle

The city was, compared to today, unimaginably filthy. Gunk and mud in the streets, ankle-deep with rotting horse carcasses and piles of animal dung. Just really unimaginably dirty.

Ira Glass

This finally changed in the late 1800s. New York created a sanitation department first in 1881, but it didn't actually accomplish anything until 1896, when a civil engineer slash Civil War vet took over.

Robin Nagle

In 1896, a guy was appointed commissioner named Colonel George Wearing. And he came in and he turned it around. He had some very savvy ideas. He put the men in white uniforms to suggest cleanliness, and he gave them pith helmets, like the local cops of the day wore, to suggest power-- enforcement power. And he set out the routes. He gave them standards they had to meet each day. He organized, he bureaucratized the job, but he also made the men accountable.

So there are before and after pictures of streets around the city that were this ankle-deep muck before he came. And then after he came, they're pristine. You can see the curbs very nicely defined. There's no garbage anywhere. And they got the nickname White Wings because of their uniform.

And the men had an interesting status now that they have since lost. There were parades down Fifth Avenue every year for a long time. And the White Wings were heralded as the heroes who had cleaned the streets effectively for the first time in the city's history.

Roger Patton

See how this is put out, with the nails standing up? They're supposed to drive the nails down or take them out.

Ira Glass

On 103rd street, the General shows me these boards left with the trash-- maybe eight feet long, maybe ten feet long-- with nails sticking out, like a medieval weapon. From the same stop, Ramos shows me a piece of metal eight inches long sticking out of a bag, ready to slice into your leg if you don't spot it. It's like Russian roulette, he says.

Andre Ramos

They throw everything in here. They throw all kinds of-- this is garbage, after all. They don't think that another human being has to come and pick this up, that has responsibility, that has loved ones, just here for eight hours, just wants to do his job out here, safe as possible, and make it through the day. People don't consider the fact there's another human being's got to pick up this. So don't just throw it in there. After all, it's just garbage.

So yeah. One time this truck, about a year and a half ago, we went to a Jersey dump and came up radioactive. Yeah. They took us off the scale, and they had one of the personnel come with, I believe it's a Geiger counter? And they went around the truck and took a reading. And it came up radioactive. We had radioactive material in there. Where we picked it up, we got no idea. Only we know it was in one of the black bags.

Ira Glass

One of the most famous stories among New York City san men is the story of Michael Hanley, a san man on the last stop of the day in November 1996 who was standing behind the truck when a jog of hydrofluoric acid in the trash exploded, shooting out of the hopper and killing him.

It's a coveted job to be a New York City san man. When they last gave the qualifying test, 30,000 people took it. The General waited five years after passing the exam before a job came open, which is typical. And though the work is grueling, the pay-- if you're actually on a truck-- starts at $40,000 and can go to $60 after just five years. A good winter, meaning one with lots of overtime for clearing snow-- they clear snow, too-- can make for a $90,000 year for a senior guy.

Today everything goes smoothly. The trash is usually put out neatly for us, in bags, because we're in pretty good neighborhoods. We block traffic for ten minutes at a time. We get rained on until we're soaked. The rain actually never lets up all morning.

At some point, I finish a take out coffee that I'd been drinking, and I start looking around the street for a garbage can to throw the cup in. And then I remember-- I have a garbage truck right here. I walk around to the back and I toss the cup right into the hopper. It feels good, tossing it straight into the truck. Like the feeling that you get driving to a farm, picking apples off the trees yourself.

Mostly the thing that hits you as you ride around on a garbage truck is just how much stuff we throw out each day. One bag after another, block after block, all smashed together in the hopper, where everything merges into a disgusting, liquidy sludge.

Robin teaches a class on the anthropology of garbage. She's writing a book about garbage men. So needless to say, she has thought about this quite a lot-- about the sheer volume of waste that we create today.

Robin Nagle

Trash today-- the meaning of trash today, in part, is about a different kind of relationship to time that we have now. We depend on disposability, to move at a certain kind of speed.

You and I had a cup of coffee this morning. It wouldn't occur to us to save the cup, rinse it out, use it again. It wasn't a ceramic cup. If it were a ceramic cup, I've got to keep it somewhere it's not going to get knocked around in my backpack and broken. I've got to bring it home and wash it, carry it out again. I have to remember it the next day.

There's even a whole way in which our mental life is organized that depends on disposability. I don't have to pay attention to-- when I go to the grocery store, once in a while, I remember to take a cloth sack, but usually I don't, because they'll give me a plastic one. I know that.

Ira Glass

I know, but it's nice to not have to think about those things.

Robin Nagle

Of course, of course. One of the things I used to do was save things to use again. And I've stopped doing that. Because it is much easier and much more-- I don't know. I'm not saying-- I mean, I would be the first person to have a very, very hard time slowing down-- I don't know, it's just simpler. The way we live now.

But again, this is how we organize this socially. That's new. We didn't live like that before. It's new with industrialization. It's new with plastics technologies and plastic sciences that make light-- I mean, it's now cheaper to buy a new VCR than to fix a VCR, to buy a new pair of shoes than to get them repaired, to buy it rather than repair it.

Ira Glass

After two hours on the street-- it's 8 AM-- time for the union-mandated 15 minute break.

Roger Patton

I call a 15 minutes of fame. You can eat what you want in 15 minutes. You can relieve yourself for 15 minutes. You could sign autographs for 15 minutes. It's our break and the union fought hard for it, and why shouldn't we take it?

Ira Glass

The General parks the truck and we duck into a diner on Broadway. Ramos gets a vitamin water. Somebody gets a bagel. There are coffees. And I ask the guys if they ever get overwhelmed or disgusted by all the trash. They mostly shrug this off.

Roger Patton

Yes, we do. But we know it's a job, so therefore, somebody has to do it. And it's part of our job.

Andre Ramos

It's part of the job. And you don't think too much of it. You just see it as what it is-- waste.

Ira Glass

I know. But just riding around with you, just this little bit, I just feel like, God, people have a lot of crap.

Roger Patton

We do try to treat it with the utmost respect and-- [LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

15 minutes goes fast and we stand up to leave. After a morning of picking up other people's trash, Ramos leaves his empty vitamin water bottle at the table. He doesn't say anything about it. He doesn't look back. Throwing that out is somebody else's job.

[MUSIC - "MR SANDMAN" BY GOB]

Coming up. Taking your teenage kid to the garbage heap where you spent your youth. Literally, the garbage heap. In Tijuana, how one American teenager reacts to his dad's trash-filled past. This in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

[ACT 2]

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Garbage. We make the world of garbage, a world that's usually invisible to us, visible. Here on the radio where, I guess, everything is invisible. We've arrived at act two of our program.

Act Two. Except For the Smell, I Think I Have a Crush On You.

Luis Alberto Urrea was born in Tijuana and grew up moving back and forth between Tijuana and San Diego. When he got older, he moved away from the border and all its poverty. Now he lives in the Chicago suburbs. And recently, he headed back to Tijuana, to the border, for the first time in years.

Luis Urrea

I used to work with the garbage pickers of Tijuana's municipal garbage dump. People who survived by scavenging through the trash. They'd recycle glass and aluminum for cash, find food and clothes they kept for themselves, all just minutes from downtown San Diego, which was not far from the border fence. I was translator for an American missionary group that brought them food, clothing, medical attention.

In the years since I'd left, many things had changed. The trash pickers had taken over the dump, squatting on the land and building homes atop the garbage. And I had gotten married and started a family.

My wife and I decided to return to the dump so my old friends living there could meet my new family. In particular, we were going to find Negra. When I first met Negra, she was seven. She was a skinny little dark girl with bare feet in a sack dress, one pair of panties. That was all she had. Her family lived in a one-room shack with two beds inside, a little wood-burning stove. We kept in touch for decades. I'm godfather to one of her kids.

I had lost Negra seven years ago. Where she lives, without a phone or a street address, it's impossible to stay in contact. Letters can never be delivered except to a nearby grocery store, and then you hope the store owners will give her the letter.

We decided to take our boy, Eric. Eric is 14. He has a pierced ear. He wears an MTV Jackass cap. He's entering his first year of high school and he plays the drums.

[DRUMMING]

Eric. Eric. Eric!

Eric

Well, before I went down there, I was scared. I actually thought against going. And I have to admit, I cried because I was scared.

Luis Urrea

We live in Chicago, and nothing there could have prepared Eric for Tijuana.

I showed him the neighborhood where I'd been born and the tumbling dirt hill where my grandmother's house had been. And then we headed to the municipal dump.

Eric

It starts out normal, like just a regular city. And then it starts getting weirder and weirder. And then you end up in dirt.

Luis Urrea

This was all a dirt road where the garbage trucks would come up to bring trash when I worked here. So this whole hillside is now full of auto repair shops and little houses and little restaurants. And we're just getting to where the-- the road just ended, and we hit the rocks.

Eric

I saw this one donkey-- burnt. He was all--

Luis Urrea

That's mange. It's called mange.

Eric

No, I mean he had like little patches where there wasn't any fur--

Luis Urrea

That's called mange. That's what I'm telling you. It's a disease they get.

Eric

Oh.

Luis Urrea

At this point, Negra's barrio looks a lot like any other Tijuana neighborhood. Stucco here, cement brick there, mixed in with tumbledown shacks made of plywood, dirt streets. The only sign that it's built on a massive garbage heap is that when it rains, the ground cracks open and gas escapes through small volcanoes. There are garbage mines where neighbors dig shafts in their yards and pull out buried bottles and cans to recycle for money. Street dogs still roam the alleys there. The houses are jury rigged, fences made from bed springs, old mattresses the people pulled from the trash and set afire. Eric had never seen anything like it except in Mad Max movies.

I was worried about Negra. I didn't know what we would find. When I had last seen her, her house was a wooden thing back off the dirt alley. We had built it out of scrap garage doors.

We drove up the hill and turned down her little street and it looked alien. No one lives in a cardboard box houses anymore. Now there are power poles and telephone lines, lights. Cement walls line the street, built right to the roadway. I stopped a boy and I asked, where does Negra live? He pointed. Right there.

When I pounded on the door, the children let me in, and Negra came running. We were both adults now. As we embraced, she seemed small to me, and I seemed gigantic to her. But as soon as we were together, the intervening years disappeared.

Negra

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I remember the first time my sister introduced him to me. I grabbed Luis's hand and we went to walk in the dump. And I was really happy because I had him by the hand, because I could show him off to all my little friends. "Look! He's my friend! He's my friend!" I was very proud. I began to show him all this stuff-- how to [? order ?] trash, how to collect boxes and sort out bottles, aluminum. I show him how to do it. And I said to my friends, "Look! Luis come to help me!"

Luis Urrea

Negra used to come running when we showed up, calling my name from far out in the trash. I would come to this apocalyptic scene on a hillside above Tijuana amidst wrecked cars, piles of trash, paper shacks, and sometimes towers of dead animals set afire. I would hear this little voice in the racket, calling me. "Luis! Luis! Luis!" She would leap out of the trash and fly like a little bird and land against my chest, small-boned and tough and sinewy. And she would say, "Give me a piggyback ride." And I'd carry her through the garbage.

So now here's the situation that her man, Jaime, my compadre, has apparently been sort of macho and bad, and gotten a girlfriend or two or three or four. And Negra has sent him packing. So now she's got a house full of women in a very tough neighborhood. Girls.

Her sister was beaten by her husband in a drug frenzy and sustained some brain damage that ultimately killed her. So her sister Maria has died. And Negra has now inherited Maria's three daughters.

So Negra has gone from having three girls on her own to having six girls on her own. So at the age of 31, she's suddenly the mom of girls ranging from eight years old to 19 years old.

As it turned out, we had shown up just in time for the graduation of Negra's niece, Blanca. Negra called me upstairs and I ascended into a world of lace and perfume and clouds of Mexican hair. I said, Eric is going to faint. Somehow this comment began the miracle.

I went back down and sat with him. He looked lost in the scrap couch, all alone, blushing with fear. Then the angels began to descend, and they did it with a kind of natural drama our Latina women know. They came down by age, youngest first, and they walked with grace, as if they were all in the graduation ceremony.

In Eric's world, the chicks flounce into a room and toss off a nod and mutter, "What's up?" In Negra's house, each girl came downstairs, walked to Eric, and kissed him. Whoa, dude. His ears were bright red.

Eric

Yes, they kissed me on the cheek. I probably was blood red. I know I was red. For sure I was red. And I didn't know what to expect, you know? It was-- I don't know how to describe it.

Luis Urrea

"Nayeli" is a word that means "flower of the household." When I last saw her, she was a tiny seven year old. She was Negra's eldest daughter, now a somber and beautiful young woman of 16.

Nayeli

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Eric arrived, and I was like, ay, he seems so timid, so serious. He was stuck like glue to Luis, just stuck to him. So if Luis moved over there, Eric went too.

Luis Urrea

The 10-year-old kissed him. The 11-year-old kissed him. Then-- uh oh. The 14-year-old kissed him. The redness spread from his ears to his cheeks. The gorgeous 15-year-old graduate, in her lavender gown, descended and kissed him. He started to giggle. She sat on the arm of the couch near him and he sat up straight.

Nayeli

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

It was probably his first experience like that, with those kisses we gave him. And that's why he got so embarrassed.

Luis Urrea

Then Nayeli, all in black, looking 25 in a belly button Shakira outfit, came down and stared at him, then kissed him.

Finally the 19-year-old, in Shakira's other outfit, with blue eyelids, came down and said things in Spanish that he didn't understand, and kissed him, and put her hand on his face. He says he didn't wet his pants.

Eric

They started playing-- I think it was Eminem. They started playing Eminem, and they're like, you know this? And then, well, I'd rather not talk about it.

Well, I was with my mom, and my mom was standing next to me. And Martha, the 19-year-old, she starts pointing at me, and I'm like, what's going on here? I have my bear claw necklace on and I hold it up, and I'm like, this? And she's like, no. And she grabs her belt buckle and says, "belt buckle, belt buckle." And then her and Nayeli start giggling. And my mom's, like, looking at my shirt. And then she says-- Martha says-- "I don't know how to say it!"

And then my mom looks down. And my fly was open! You know, I'm standing there, like, hey, check out my bear claw! Is this what you're talking about? Yeah, this is cool, huh? And then my fly was open!

Luis Urrea

The girls laughed, but it wasn't cruel. His haplessness won them all over at once, and he became the cheerful fiance to the entire crowd. They began to fight for his attention.

Nayeli

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

What did I think of Eric? I thought, he's still just a kid. He's just a kid. That was my first reaction. A kid. And it's not every day that he's surrounded by girls who are hugging him, and grabbing his hand, and giving him kisses on the cheek.

Luis Urrea

If he didn't flirt with the 16-year-old, she'd pout, while the 14-year-old fumed because the 19-year-old put her arm through his. "Daddy," he said, "nobody back home is going to believe this." There was a pause. "Please, take some pictures."

Luis Urrea

Now, were the girls holding you and hugging you and stuff? I seem to remember, they were holding onto you pretty tight.

Eric

Yep. I guess I was like-- a Teddy bear.

It was weird. Because you know, if I had met those people in nicer conditions, I would never have guessed they were poor at all. I don't know how to describe it. I guess they could still maintain their dignity. It was just so weird how they could do that. Like, if I were them, I couldn't do that at all.

Luis Urrea

We were all together, and in classic Mexican fashion, it was time to eat. Eric was nervous about the meal, since he's a picky eater at the best of times. And here we were in this neighborhood that's not terribly hygienic. He had no way of knowing that everything around him-- the couch, the table, the plates and silverware and pans-- had all been scavenged out of the garbage. I decided not to share that information at the moment.

They were going to cook us carne asada. I told him it was safe to eat the cooked meat and the tortillas, but the boiled beans or the salsa might make him sick. He nodded. His eyes were huge, but he smiled at Nayeli as if he couldn't wait to dig in.

The girls had to go to the store to buy charcoal. They refused to go without Eric. They snagged his arms and vanished.

At the store, they didn't have enough money to buy a bag of charcoal. They bought six briquettes. The woman in the store had the bag cut open, and they counted out six and wrapped them in a piece of newspaper.

It was such a gift those girls gave Eric. They held him, but more importantly, they held him publicly. They made a show of him.

When I was a boy, unloved and unlovely, unpopular and scared to walk in the neighborhood, my teenaged cousin Margarita came to live with us. And when we walked down the street, she would hold my hand so everyone could see us. And when my enemies came in sight, she would lace her fingers through mine as if she were my girlfriend. As if she loved me so much, she needed to hold me even tighter.

Announcer

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Luis Urrea

The graduation was at the John F. Kennedy and Juan [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Academy. Our car became the shuttle running 100 people up and down the hill. The faculty of the school sat an old record player on a folding chair.

All the kids were in their uniforms, and the girls were in their inexpensive taffeta gowns. The theme was lilac. Each girl also had a small cotton stole. They all had hairdos, and they wore really painful-looking high heels, looking as beautiful as possible. The small kids were in their uniforms, and the kindergarten kids were dressed in cowboy suits.

The school principal first led everyone in applause for the teachers who heroically talked and the guests of honor, who were teachers from other schools, stood and got rounds of ferocious applause.

And they started playing, if I remember right, really bad old Stevie Wonder records. Each class did dances to Stevie Wonder, and all the ninth graders did a waltz to it. Each group marched out and did a dance in the rubble.

Luis Urrea

Did San Diego and the United States look different to you after this experience? When we came back, did you feel like you were seeing it through new eyes? Because didn't we go right to Disneyland after that?

Eric

Yeah, we did go to Disneyland after that. Once we got back there, you know, the whole trip there seemed unreal. Like it never really happened. You know? It felt like a dream to me, because it was just so unbelievably strange. Never in a million years would I have guessed I'd be going there.

Luis Urrea

Would you go back?

Eric

Yeah.

Luis Urrea

You would go back?

Eric

Yes. That would be a definite yes. I would go back.

Ira Glass

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including By the Lake of the Sleeping Children, The Secret Life of the Mexican Border, and Across the Wire. This story was produced by Barbara Ferry with help from Sandy Tolan, Alan Weisman, and Deborah Begel. It's part of the series "Border Stories" from Homelands Productions, which gets funds from the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

[MUSIC - "TRASH" BY THE NEW YORK DOLLS]

[ACT 3]

Act Three. I'm a Legitimate Businessman... In Waste Management.

Starting in the mid-1950s, private trash collection in New York was controlled by the mob. Private trash collection, you should understand, means anything that the city won't pick up, which in New York, means any trash that is generated by any business. A restaurant, an office building, a car shop, anything at all.

As you might expect, in New York, that is a lot of money. $1.5 billion a year back in 1995, which is when this next story takes place. For 50 years, everybody, including city officials, knew that the mob was running a garbage cartel, driving up prices all over the city. But in the mid-1990s, the entire operation was brought down more or less by one man-- an NYPD detective named Rick Cowan who went undercover for three years, making hundreds of hours of secret recordings.

Now before this, Cowen had gone undercover in the narcotics division, but never for more than two weeks. And he had no intention of starting a historic, city-wide undercover sting operation when our story begins. When our story begins, he's a guy in the NYPD Organized Crime division. He's investigating mafia loan sharking in the garbage business. And he just catches a lucky break.

It's a truck explosion. A truck owned by a recycling company called Chambers Paper Fiber, was blown up underneath the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn. When Detective Cowen gets there, the owner of the company-- a guy named Sal Benedetto-- tells him that he'd been having trouble with the mob. That the second largest trash company in the city, a mob-run company, had taken his biggest customer, so he turned around and took one of the mob's customers. Ever since then, his drivers had been threatened, and now this truck was blown up.

Detective Cowen remembers meeting Sal Benedetto this way.

Rick Cowen

Very personable guy. And 15 minutes into the interview, his shop foreman interrupted us and said, Sal, the guy that burned the truck just drove by. So we thought that maybe we could get outside and follow the car, or see the car, and get the license plate, you know, we'd have possibly information and evidence that we could lead for an arrest.

So unbeknownst to us, as I was rushing out-- I was the first one to run out the door-- these two guys were coming in. You know, I startled them, they startled me, and I stopped right in my tracks. This one guy was built like a big football player. The second guy had his hand in his pocket and pointed as if he had a gun. The larger of the two was doing all the talking. He asked who I was, and with no rhyme or reason, the owner, Sal Benedetto, says, "That's cousin Dan. He works here." Or something to that effect.

Ira Glass

So Sal just instinctively just gives you a cover.

Rick Cowen

Yeah. Calling the cops in this business is a death sentence. It's just not done.

Ira Glass

Mob guys want to know if the Benedettos are going to give up the customer that they just stole from the mob. And Detective Cowen, aka their brand new cousin Danny, finds himself in the middle of this discussion.

Rick Cowen

And this guy said that there was going to be a sit down over this, and he demand to know, by two o'clock, what our intentions were. And he gave me a business card with a phone number on the back and wanted to be called at that number. And that's what we did.

Raymond

Hello?

Rick Cowen

Hello. Are you the Raymond?

Raymond

Yeah, this is Raymond.

Rick Cowen

This is Danny of Chambers Paper.

Raymond

Yeah. I saw you.

Rick Cowen

I saw you today with Sal.

Raymond

Right.

Rick Cowen

Yeah.

Raymond

And then you guys started getting stupid and started following me.

Rick Cowen

No, we were leaving. We saw you backing up the [UNINTELLIGIBLE] down the street--

Raymond

I'm not stupid.

Rick Cowen

Listen. I'm not stupid either. Listen--

Ira Glass

Now he's accusing you of following him. Did you guys follow him after you left the place?

Raymond

Yeah. We followed him-- and they obviously saw us, and they looped around, and we let them go at that point.

Rick Cowen

We would like to sit down and get together.

Raymond

Next week?

Rick Cowen

Yes. Next week.

Raymond

All right.

Rick Cowen

You know, can you come over here?

Raymond

When?

Rick Cowen

No, I mean-- no, next week.

Raymond

Next week you want to do it?

Rick Cowen

Right.

Ira Glass

In this tape, you sound a little bit nervous. You can hear your voice shaking. You can hear you breathing while he's talking.

Rick Cowen

Well, I was very nervous making this phone call, no doubt about it. I knew nothing about the garbage business other than what I was told since I was a little kid, that it was all mob-controlled.

We will sit down like gentlemen, and we--

Raymond

No problem. That's what I want. That's what I want.

Rick Cowen

But you know, I mean, I'll meet you halfway. I mean--

Raymond

I'll meet you halfway if you meet me halfway. The only thing I want is for us to sit down and discuss this like men.

Rick Cowen

We weren't assuming that this was going to lead to a big undercover operation. This was just some thug that came down to Chambers that day.

Ira Glass

At best, the cops thought this guy might name some higher up in the mob who they could then drag in. But one conversation with the mobsters led to a second, and third, and pretty soon, the cops decided to turn the Irish Rick Cowen into the Italian Danny Benedetto, cousin Danny from Staten Island, full time, to see just how far it could go.

The NYPD set him up with a fake ID, an SUV like the SUVs that guys in the garbage business drove, and a dummy apartment in a high rise building on Staten Island where a lot of Italians lived. Every day, Rick would drive from his real home, sneak into that building, get the SUV, and then drive to work at the Benedetto family recycling business, Chambers Papers, where Sal Benedetto gave him a full time job.

Because some of the mob guys knew the Benedetto family going back generations-- some of them had actually come from the same town in Italy-- Rick had to learn the entire family tree of this huge family, which was kind of a nightmare, actually. He also had to learn from Sal everything about the recycled paper business. The processes, the grades of paper.

Rick Cowen

The paper recycling business had 25 different paper grades. Single white ledgers, soft color ledger, mixed office waste, CPO groundwood, CPO laser free. Things like this.

Any equipment that went along with it. I mean, if-- and this happens later on in the case, where a guy would say, hey, what kind of [UNINTELLIGIBLE] are you running in your shop? I mean, I had to know these things.

Ira Glass

Man.

Rick Cowen

But I would have coffee with Sal around 10 or 10:30 in the morning, and when we'd go out, we'd talk about things like this. And Sal knew the business, and it was almost like he could do it in his sleep, but he couldn't articulate it to me very well. But eventually, I learned enough to pull it off like people who had been in the business for generations.

Ira Glass

How much danger was the Benedetto family putting itself in to let you all do this?

Rick Cowen

A considerable amount of danger. Certainly Sal. Sal told people in the industry that I was his second cousin. He could have been killed.

Ira Glass

The way the sting worked was this. While Rick was working at Chambers Papers, he got himself involved in several turf wars with the mob. One of these actually involved the company that produces the number one mob TV series in America, HBO.

HBO headquarters in New York had their paper recycling hauled out by a company that happened to be controlled by the mob-- like most haulers were. Nothing unusual about that. Sal Benedetto's company, Chambers, bid for their garbage collection business. And because their bid was lower than the mob-run company, they got the job, taking it from the mobsters.

The cartel wouldn't stand for that. Never stood for that kind of thing. And mobsters came to shake Rick down, demanding $240,000 as payment for taking the HBO job. Naturally, Rick recorded the shakedown, and the negotiations, and the payoffs. He did this with a bunch of different buildings and garbage contracts.

And eventually, because of all these deals he had going with the mob, the mobsters asked him to join their club-- to be part of the cartel that controlled New York City trash. Which is great for Rick, because now he was completely inside. He went to their meetings and he recorded everything.

As he got deeper and deeper into this world, one of the monsters, Frank Giovenco, became kind of a criminal mentor to Dan Benedetto, teaching him the ins and outs of how you deal with the mob.

Rick Cowen

He was a careful guy. Even though he was young, he was schooling me, and he tended to like me.

Ira Glass

Let me play you a little clip of tape. Now, this is very hard to hear. It's going to be hard to hear over the radio. Let me just play a little clip.

Frank Giovenco

Happens all the time. We always compensate, tell them what's coming up-- [INAUDIBLE].

Ira Glass

And basically, he's just whispering to you.

Rick Cowen

Yes. Because we're in the association. So in the association, this is where a lot of the scheming is done. But they don't want to talk about bids there. Because in case the government is listening--

Frank Giovenco

Don't worry about that. That's what I'm telling you. You follow what I'm saying? We can't worry about that [INAUDIBLE].

Rick Cowen

He liked to get right close to you, right in front of your face, and whisper into your ear. He had a idiosyncrasy. Like, he liked to tap you, tap you at the front of your shirt when he was talking. And I didn't want him to touch the head of the mike, so I put it behind the button, and then all he would feel is the button.

Frank Giovenco

[INAUDIBLE] Manhattan? There's always, always work coming out. Look at-- [INAUDIBLE].

Ira Glass

One of these tapes you got, this guy named Ed Tamley actually names Vincent Chin Gigante. How significant is it for somebody to name the Chin on tape?

Rick Cowen

That was a home run. That was one of the most incriminating conversations. The Chin, just a couple years after that, went on trial with the federal government. The FBI had a case. And even they didn't have direct evidence like that. They did not have conversations like that. This was a home run. Eddie was explaining who was the boss, and the illegal activities of the association.

Ed Tamley

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] No, the Chin.

Rick Cowen

The Chin?

Ed Tamley

You know. Gigante.

Rick Cowen

Gigante?

Ed Tamley

Yeah.

Rick Cowen

He's like the biggest wise guy around.

Ed Tamley

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Rick Cowen

Are you sure?

Ed Tamley

Listen to me. I know what I'm talking about.

Rick Cowen

There was this family rule that he did not want his name talked about, and people should not get caught on tape talking about him. They might point to their chin. That was a code name for the Chin. But here we had Tamley spelling it out.

Ed Tamley

Yeah, he's the boss there. He's always been.

Rick Cowen

He's the boss, but if I don't pay--

Ira Glass

The mobsters were paranoid about being taped, and Rick had many close calls where they nearly found him out. The worst of these happened when one of the mobsters ran into one of Sal Benedetto's cousins from out of town at a waste industry golf outing. Remember, the Benedettos are this big Italian family, and wise guy is talking to this out-of-town cousin, and somehow they get on the subject of Danny Benedetto. Danny, of course, is really Detective Rick Cowen. And the cousin doesn't know about the sting operation, And he tells the mobster, no, no, you got it wrong. There is no Danny Benedetto in our family. No such person exists.

As you might expect, this news spreads like wildfire. Maybe Danny, that is, Rick, was a cop.

Sal hears about this, and he tells Rick about what's happening. And sure enough, one night as Rick is closing up the transfer station, he gets beeped by Joe Francolino himself, one of the bosses. He wants to see Dan Benedetto immediately at a restaurant called Pirino's.

Rick Cowen

So he gave me directions to a restaurant where I've never been, and he even told me where to park. And I went to this pay parking lot. And as I was going to get the ticket and pay, the guy says, "What's your name?" I mean, no one ever asks you your name in these places. You just pull in, you get the ticket, and you go. I told him Dan. He says, oh, park in the back and take your keys with you. So this made me even more nervous.

And I walked up the block, and I went into this place, and at first I saw no one. So I thought I had the wrong address. I stepped back out to the sidewalk, looked at the sign, and sure enough, it was Pirino's. So I went back in. I felt like Luca Brasi, going to that restaurant with those Italians and they gave him that famous Sicilian necktie. I mean, I was-- my knees were weak. I couldn't even feel the ground underneath my feet. I was scared to death.

And I didn't see him. I didn't see the bartender. So I went downstairs. And just as I was getting down from the bottom step, Joe Francolino came around the side, out of the men's room. But it just startled me. I was already nervous, and that really put a scare into me.

And Francolino took me to a table in the back, and we started having dinner. Small chit chat. He was careful. And then he said to me that someone told somebody, secondhand, that a relative, a relation of yours, says there's no Dan Benedetto.

And you know, Joe's a tough guy. He's got this like broken nose-looking kind of look. And he was very, very scary. But I tried to play it off as best I could.

Joe Francolino

Are you actually a Benedetto?

Rick Cowen

Yes.

Joe Francolino

Your last name is Benedetto?

Rick Cowen

Benedetto. I mean, I am-- I'm one of the Benedettos. I'm a Benedetto.

Joe Francolino

Do you have that on your license?

Rick Cowen

Yes.

Joe Francolino

All right. Give me your license and let me go forward.

Rick Cowen

He asks me for my wallet. He wants to see my driver's license, and then we'll go forward.

Rick Cowen

Dan is my name. I mean, my wife is [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Jim, I mean--

Joe Francolino

It's good that you took off that beard. This don't even look like you.

Rick Cowen

He's saying, it's good that you took off that beard, because this don't even look like you. And he laughed. In the picture taken for the license, I had a beard.

Joe Francolino

You know, it's a picture I know. I know the picture.

Rick Cowen

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] than trying to dye it.

Ira Glass

So in the end, what do you say that finally convinces him?

Rick Cowen

I know at one point, I'm not sure if you have the clip of it, but I said, you know, I don't know what else to say to you. What we can do is-- He goes, you know, I have be careful. I said, I know, a man like you, you have to be careful. And you're going to check it out. And when the dust settles, if everything's OK, you give me a call, you know where to find me. Other than that, I don't know what to say.

Ira Glass

In the end, Rick had so many tapes, so much evidence against the mob, that when he testified before a grand jury, it took him three months to tell everything that he knew. When trials began, he was on the witness stand for nine weeks.

In 1997, 72 defendants were charged, including all the principal members of the cartel and their trade associations and companies. Two got probation. Everyone else was convicted, barred from the garbage industry, and imprisoned. All the companies were shut down. Price on garbage removal in New York City dropped 40%.

Rick Cowen

The prices dropped dramatically after this case. It was said by Mayor Giuliani, at the time there was a $600 million dollar reduction throughout the city. It was equivalent to the biggest tax break they ever had.

Ira Glass

In some buildings, the change in price is sort of stunning. 55 Water Street in Manhattan saw its garbage removal costs drop $1 million a year. Blue Cross Blue Shield on Third Avenue saved a half million. The World Trade Center saved $2.5 million.

After everything came down, Sal Benedetto was given the option of the Witness Protection Program, but he declined. He was given police protection until he died of natural causes three years later.

The leaders of the cartel are still in prison, but most of the guys are out now. Rick could actually run into them on the street.

Rick Cowen

I bumped into a couple of guys I knew from the club, but not any of the guys that went to jail.

Ira Glass

And what happens when you bump into guys from the club?

Rick Cowen

The one guy just asked what I was doing. I didn't answer him. I said, what are you doing? He goes, a little of this, a little of that. But he said first, he said, "Hey Dan, or whoever you are." And that was about it. I went on my way. And that was it.

Ira Glass

Detective Rick Cowen. He's written a book with Douglas Century about his life undercover with the mob in the sting operation. It's called to Take Down: The Fall of the Last Mafia Empire.

Before we leave this subject, I should say that in the years since 1997, when the cartel was crushed, things have changed again in the New York Trash industry. And in a sense, the same thing that happened to the trash business in New York has happened to all sorts of businesses all over the country, which is that lots of little companies have been bought up or driven out of business by a handful, a small handful, of big, national companies. And as a result, that 40% savings that happened when the mob was driven out of the garbage business may be gone.

Ben Miller

For a brief period there were price reductions. Those price reductions, my understanding is, have been erased.

Ira Glass

Ben Miller was Director of Policy Planning for New York under Mayor Giuliani. He's written a history of garbage in New York called Fat of the Land.

Ben Miller

Instead of having a few dozen people collecting waste in New York City, we're down to a small handful of national companies. Certainly the prices have gone up significantly recently, and other waste has gone up as well, so that the prices overall, I don't think, are any lower than they were before this change took place. And we see prices continuing to increase.

Ira Glass

Watching the prices go up in this industry after the mob got kicked out, Sal Benedetto said, quote, "Look. The only difference between the majors"-- corporations-- "and the boys"-- the mob-- "is that the majors don't actually kill you."

[ACT 4]

Our program was produced today by Wendy Dorr and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Stacy Tiderington. Bill Rathje's book is called Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

You know you can download audio of our program an audible.com/thisamericanlife.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who calls me into his office every day, lowers the lights, and reminds me--

Rick Cowen

Calling the cops in this business is a death sentence. It's just not done.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.