08/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Give Your Sanitation Worker a Sweaty Hug

Every couple of days, I witness the same disheartening scene in my Brooklyn neighborhood when a garbage truck stops on my street. While the sanitation men momentarily block traffic, scurrying to toss bags of trash into the truck, there is always some putz in a waiting car who will blast his horn and scream curses at the workers.

This makes me apoplectic with rage. It is no way to treat New York's Strongest, the men - and a few women - who, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a recent press conference, "pick up over 11,000 tons of garbage and recycling per day, and helps keep this city clean and safe." In New York City, it is firemen - a.k.a. New York's Bravest - who get all the love. My local fire department regularly receives from its grateful citizenry pizza, coffee cakes, homemade cards from children - you name it. They pose for pictures. They flirt with female passerby. And while New York's Finest - the cops - get their fair share of abuse, plenty of other people are mighty glad to see them. But New York's Strongest are treated as if they are invisible. When they're on the job, I notice that people on the street avert their eyes, as if the act of collecting our trash is somehow shameful. Far from it!

And please don't tell me, as a friend did recently, that sanitation workers are on 'easy street' because they're paid well and retire early. The journey to early retirement is a long, fetid slog through maggots, broken glass, your baby's feces-marinated diapers, rats, assorted dead pets, and used needles. In New York, sanitation workers die on the job with distressing regularity. In March, worker Stephen Dixon was the latest to lose his life. In a statement, the president of the Uniformed Sanitation Men's Association Harry Nespoli said, "New York City sanitation workers have one of the most strenuous and dangerous jobs in the country. This is the eighth death of a sanitation worker on the job in less than six years."

Last week I was visiting my family in the New Jersey suburbs and found myself behind a garbage truck. Traffic was stopped for maybe two minutes, but a guy in front of me lost his mind and leaned angrily on his horn the entire time. When the truck finally moved, I happened to follow the guy into a shopping center, and watched as he got out and ambled into Dunkin' Donuts. Ah, I thought. That was the crisis: that he was kept from his Coffee Coolatta for an extra minute while the men were picking up his trash.

I know I sound like my father when he writes in to his community newspaper, but I don't care: on this sweat-soaked holiday weekend, we should be thanking our sanitation workers profusely. You need only witness the grim photos from Naples, Italy last year during the garbage strike to know where we would be without them. I always stop the ones in my neighborhood and commend them for a job well done. I don't care if I look like a crazy person. The last time I expressed my gratitude, a worker shook his head. "Ten years, I've been on the job," he told me, "and this is the first time someone has said 'thank you.'"