Call Him Broom Boy: Sanitation Saint Is A Very Local Hero

For kicks, others climb Everest or spend $20 million to look back at Earth from outer space. My dream has always been somewhat more modest-to hitch a ride aboard a Department of Sanitation street-sweeper.

There’s something about watching one of these mechanical marvels, barreling along the curb sucking up garbage, that fills me with a sense of well-being. It’s the modest triumph of order over chaos, an especially welcome sensation in today’s cockeyed world.

On the other hand, when a car is illegally parked, mocking the city’s alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations, and the vehicle (or “broom,” as it’s known in the business) is forced to swerve around it, leaving trash behind, my morning and my mood grow glum. I feel personally sullied.

My ambition of seeing the world from the cockpit of an official New York City street-sweeper came true early one recent morning (after two years of on-and-off negotiations with the Sanitation Department’s P.R. office, I might add), when I was told to report to the Sanitation garage at 73rd Street and the East River.

I’d requested the route that passes by my apartment house. Call me self-centered, but as much as I want all of New York to sparkle, I don’t have as much invested in, say, Washington Heights or the Rockaways as I do in my very own block. As fortune would have it, the Department of Sanitation was able to accommodate my wish. So early that morning, I clambered into the jump seat of a broom driven by Diego Martinez, a 13-year veteran of the department, and by 7:30 a.m. we were traveling “coast to coast,” as they say in the trade-picking up garbage from the swank shores of Fifth Avenue all the way to East End Avenue. (Perhaps my proudest moment came when I saluted my wife, out walking our dog, as we soldiered past our building.)

The cab is very clean, and the ride isn’t bad-no Lexus, admittedly, but not a Sherman tank, either. Then again, we were riding in a newer vehicle. “You don’t feel the bumps as much as on the old ones,” Mr. Martinez explained. “You’re not hitting the ceiling.”

It may be an exaggeration to say that you feel like the king of the city from the cockpit of your broom. But you certainly feel like a contributing member of society. Fifty-year-old Mr. Martinez waves to his buddies in garbage trucks, to fellow broom operators whose routes intersect his, and to doormen, porters and street vendors he’s come to know during his six years driving the same streets. On this morning, even though the weather was overcast, the 180-degree vista through the cab’s large, clean windows of New Yorkers industriously heading for work was almost enough to put a lump in your throat. The girl-watching wasn’t bad, either.

My cabmate wasn’t very forthcoming when I broached the subject with him, however. “No comment,” said Mr. Martinez, who’s a family man. His wife is a travel agent, and his daughter will be starting medical school this month. “It wouldn’t hurt for her to take the test,” Mr. Martinez said of his daughter, referring to the Sanitation Department entrance exam. He himself took the exam when his business-school plans didn’t work out. “You don’t know what the future holds,” he noted.

Sanitation may not be the most glamorous city agency, but Mr. Martinez doesn’t let that stereotype interfere with his self-esteem. “I tell people I’m putting my kid through school, and I’m doing it honestly,” he said.

He explained that the solitude of working alone isn’t for everyone. But you don’t feel alone: If anything, you feel like you’re in the Today show studio, the cameras on you. “People stop to watch the brooms-especially tourists,” Mr. Martinez said. “They don’t have it in their country.”

There’s also more than enough to keep the average person occupied: turning the water valves inside the cab on and off (depending on which side of the street you’re spritzing), raising and lowering the broom to adjust for road conditions and obstacles, and-most important of all-using your mirrors to make sure that no garbage gets left behind.

The mechanically minded might be interested to know that the street-sweeper actually has three separate brooms: two gutter brooms, one on either side of the machine, and a pick-up broom in the center to which they direct the garbage. The pick-up broom pushes the trash-everything from Snapple bottles to squashed pigeons (“You can’t leave them behind,” Mr. Martinez explained stoically)-onto “flights,” a conveyor that lifts the garbage into the hopper.

The job approaches art when Mr. Martinez must decide how much pressure to apply to his brooms by flicking a switch on his dashboard. He explains: “How heavy do your want your brooms to press against the street? The newer they are, the less pressure. As the brushes get worn, you start putting more pressure on them. I’m on ‘light’ now. They’re fairly new.”

Another mark of the true street-sweeping pro is being able to hug the curb as you turn a corner. “It’s called ‘sniping’ the corner,” Mr. Martinez explained. “If you go into a pothole or hit the gutter, the broom has a tendency to jump a bit and not pick up as well,” the operator continued as we drove up Third Avenue. “That’s why it’s important for you to be looking at your mirrors all the time.”

Indeed, so attuned is the sanitation worker to his machine that he tries to fill up at the same hydrant each morning-the one at the southeast corner of 68th Street and Park Avenue. “I know the water is going to come out clean,” he explained. “You don’t want the rust to clog up your spraying bar.

“You take care of the broom, the broom takes care of you” he concluded.

I took the opportunity presented by the lull in the action to purchase coffee and a roll from a breakfast cart across the street from Mr. Martinez’s favorite hydrant.

“The other day, he showed me pictures of his family,” Mr. Martinez said of the coffee-cart guy as he purchased a cup himself.

As much as he enjoys the quiet satisfaction of seeing a shining road in his rear-view mirrors, Mr. Martinez confessed that he lives for parades: the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and, especially, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of tooling up Fifth Avenue before an appreciative crowd, 10 deep, the wind throwing copies of Hoy or El Diario into your path, and a mechanical broom on each wing.

“They’re dirty, but it’s enjoyable to work,” he confessed. “The Puerto Rican parade-forget it! Five or 10 brooms in formation. You feel like a celebrity.”

I can see how he would-and not just on holidays. I’m pleased to report that my ride exceeded expectations, if such a thing were possible-if only because Mr. Martinez seemed to share my mania for nabbing garbage and putting it in its proper place.

“By the way, what are you supposed to do with your cup when you’re finished your coffee?” I wondered. “It’s very convenient,” Mr. Martinez responded. “I throw it in front of the broom.”

And so we did.