Finding Love at the Sanitation Department


After it snows, I prowl the streets for Department of Sanitation (DSNY) plow trucks. DSNY has plowing down to an art.  The salt fans out the back of its trucks as if from an ornamental fountain. Their drivers make synchronized turns that would score well in Sochi. I’m becoming fast friends with DSNY this winter. 

My district has four parking lots that would take hours to clear with our one plow that affixes to the front of a pick-up truck. While my workers focus on plowing park perimeters and paths, I go in search of help for the lots. Happiness is finding a DSNY truck sitting idle next to one of my parks with a friendly driver inside willing to help.

Sometimes, it’s not so easy and I have to literally hunt down the DSNY truck. If I’m driving and I pass a truck going the other way, I will pull a U-turn and follow in hot pursuit.  When the driver sees me following too close, he will pull over and motion me to pass, at which point I pull up, roll down my window, and ask for help. A couple of times, I’ve had to get out of my car and make a run on foot for the DSNY truck when it’s stopped at a red light.

Chasing Trucks

Chasing Trucks

My plea takes a couple forms:

“Hey, how ya doin’? I’m the Park Manager for this area. Our plow is broken and we have no way to get our parking lots done today. Can you help us out?”

“We are short on staff, any chance you could do us a solid and do our parking lot today?”

I have yet to be rejected.

A DSNY truck plowing one of my parking lots

A DSNY truck plowing one of my parking lots

Last week, fatigued by chasing trucks, I called District Superintendant Williams from DSNY and asked if I could stop by to introduce myself. I wanted to establish a face-to-face connection and see if he would agree to incorporate our parking lots as part of his drivers’ normal routes.

I visited Williams’ office the day after a big snow and expected a frenzied atmosphere akin to the New York Stock Exchange. Instead, a jovial air pervaded that felt like bingo night. A pack of workers greeted me and showed me to Williams’ office. I saw another group of workers lounging in back awaiting assignments.

There would be no agendas or PowerPoints for this meeting. No pecking at Blackberrys around a conference table.  I figured it would follow the usual arc that I had become accustomed to during my eight months in the field.

  1. Start with chit-chat about a New York sports team, the weather, pensions, or years left until retirement
  2. Touch briefly on the “ask”/reason for the meeting
  3. Go back to step 1
  4. End with a quick summary about what either side would commit to doing.

“Superintendent Williams?” I greeted, struggling with the mouthful of syllables.  I didn’t know his first name and even if I did, wouldn’t that be rude to use it? I heard someone else refer to him as “ the supe” but I didn’t think we were buddies enough for that either.

Williams was perched behind his desk in a black tie and crisp white button down shirt with a gold  badge attached to his breast pocket.

“Yeahsss?” he responded, seeming confused as to who I was and why I had just marched into his office.

“Dave Barker, Park Manager.”

“Yes, what can I do for you?” Williams spoke in a soft, almost hoarse tone. He had a weary demeanor, no doubt the result of the winter’s onslaught of snow storms.

He rose to greet me.

I gave him a Parks hat to warm him up. I carry around a box in my Toyota Prius and hand them out to everyone from a worker who fixes a fence to regular volunteers. He responded with a quick “thanks” as if he was embarrassed by the generosity.

“I called earlier, I want to talk about our parking lots.”

His phone rang and he returned to his desk. I remained standing, unsure about whether to sit on the empty couch adjacent to his desk. I wanted to sit on the couch, to draw this out and get to step 2.

Williams hung up the phone and motioned to the couch. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“So, are we not doing the lot up top?” he asked. The lot up top referred to the parking lot for the Alley Pond Picnic area that the DSNY trucks used for turning around between routes. If they didn’t clear that lot, I had no chance with the others in more distant parts of my district.

“No, you guys are doing a great job there. We have a few more lots.”

Williams’ phone interrupted again. And then one of his drivers gave him paperwork to sign. I began to sweat, to feel like I was intruding and taking up his time.  When he was done he looked at me and I got to the point.

“I’m new to this district –”

“Me too, I just started in November,” he cut me off.

“I understand there used to be an agreement between our agencies where you would do our parking lots for us.”

“Ok, the one up top?”

“Well there are more. We have the Alley Athletic, Alley Springfield, and Crocheron lots too.”

He rummaged for a piece of paper and started scribbling as I listed the cross streets for each lot. I had made the ask.

A guy with the name last name of Cerroni stenciled on his uniform who had been sitting in the corner of the office decided to jump into the conversation.  He dropped some names of Parks employees, seeing if I knew them. I did. Cerroni had been there 29 years, a number he announced with pride in a thick New York accent when I told him about my six years.

He cracked a joke, something about “the Parks Department hiring kids.” I laughed nervously, not knowing how to respond to someone who had worked for the city for as long as I had been alive. I heard far too many versions of that joke. The weekend before, a firefighter had asked if my mom had given me permission to come to work that day.

Williams, again on the phone, covered the mouthpiece and said to me, “Just give us a call, in the morning or at the end of the day. Whatever you need. We will get to it.”

I wanted to push to see if the plowing could be automatic but I felt this was good enough for this initial meeting. It was February and how many more snow storms could there be? Williams resumed his phone call and we exchanged an awkward farewell handshake.

The 12th measurable snow fall of the year blanketed our parks two days later. I had been wearing snow boots to work almost every day for a month.

I started my inspections, visiting park entrances and perimeters first before arriving at Alley Springfield, one of the lots that Williams had noted during the meeting. A nervous feeling crept up in my throat. I ached for it be cleared. This would indicate whether I had been successful.

Looking out toward the lot, through the oak trees caked with snow, I saw barren asphalt and parking spaces, catching the first rays of morning light.

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An Owl in Queens

Photo by Steve Walter

Photo by Steve Walter

We had a Snowy Owl-in-residence this past week behind my office at Fort Totten Park. From its perch, the owl could look out toward the Civil War-era fort and the expanse of Long Island Sound – not a bad place to spend a few days.

New York City has seen a larger than usual migration of Snowy Owls this winter, mainly around the runways of JFK airport, which mimic tundra. Snowy Owls depend on lemmings for food, often consuming more than 1,600 a year during the Arctic summer. Rumor has it that there may not be enough lemmings to go around, hence the migration south. The menu around Fort Totten is far more diverse. Our Snowy Owl could feast on a buffet of rodents, squirrels, wading birds, seabirds, ducks, grebes, and geese.

I have seen various types of raptors, including hawks, condors, vultures, and eagles. From afar it can be hard to ID a brown or black blob on a tree limb or in the air without binoculars.  Not so with the white-feathered snowy owl. As I approached, the only question was whether I was coming upon a bird or a mammal. They are massive. I later learned that the snowy owl is the largest owl by weight in North America.  I am looking forward to more sightings this winter before the Snowy Owls return to the Arctic Circle.

Photo by Edward Mertz

Photo by Edward Mertz

Thank you to Queens naturalists Edward Mertz and Steve Walter for sharing these photos of the Fort Totten owl.

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Out of the Jungle

First came the oak acorns, raining down from above. Squirrels would lob the half-eaten ones from their perch – the first salvo of fall. They bounced off the pathways and a few pelted me in the head.  After the acorns came the leaves, which have blanketed the lawns and sent park goers scurrying indoors.

A calm has crept across the landscape. Spring and summer allowed little time to catch my breath. The little league games, picnics, and tennis players have vanished like a trail of BBQ smoke. Just when I thought the jungle of mugwort and knotweed were going to overwhelm every path and park sign, they beat a retreat. Hollow stalks remain that break and whither under my hiking boots. The soccer field grass remains at the perfect height.

In the absence of people and foliage, I see the parks anew. The forest at Alley Pond behind the adventure course doesn’t seem so massive and dense anymore. The kettle ponds once hidden are revealed.  Stands of Eastern White Pine assert themselves next to their deciduous neighbors. I can see Little Neck Bay from the bluffs at Crocheron Park.

2013Nov20 OaklandLake bird RedTailedHawk bV 900

Photo by Ed Mertz

Wildlife – mainly birds – fill the spaces left by people. Their colors and movements bring life to the dormant landscape. This past week I saw a Northern Cardinal in a Tulip Tree, a Green-winged Teal splashing in Oakland Lake, and a Red-Tailed Hawk. The hawk bobbed its a few times as I approached. I’m not sure if it was courting me or asking me to get lost. I can hear squirrels bounding through the leaves to the side of a trail or make out a Hermit Thrush hopping from branch to branch.

I dream of projects for the spring upon this clean canvas.  That awkward triangle in the middle of a path that was once a snarl of weeds could be a planting bed. Should I plant tulips below the entrance sign to Golden Pond? We could reconfigure the picnic areas at Upper Alley. Seeing the landscape in its entirety, I feel an ownership emerge.

Photo by Ed Mertz

Photo by Ed Mertz

We still have some cleaning left; leaf removal will keep us occupied for another month at least. But leaves are not candy bar wrappers. I feel as if I’m interrupting a cycle by removing them. I’m clearing the buffet before the decomposers can feast and I’m robbing the landscape of needed nutrients that will leach as the leaves break down. So I will be a little more patient with the leaves than I was with the weeds and the high grass.

The frenzy of summer seems like a distant memory.


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How to Snap a Tree Limb

There are 2.5 million trees on city parkland and not enough foresters. As a park manager in a district dominated by trees, I could easily spend every working hour wandering with my neck craned upward, looking for dead and dangling limbs.

Graffiti on the side of a bathroom or a jagged bench slat scream for my attention. The problem tree limbs whisper and sway from above but pose the greatest threat.

So I walk looking up, like a tourist in midtown gawking at some architectural flourish on a skyscraper. The past few months have been prime time for dead limb spotting. In a tree with a full canopy of leaves, dead limbs stick out as barren, scraggly appendages. They often have no bark and their wood looks mushy and rotten. Now that the leaves have passed their peak and are coating our lawns, the task of dead limb identification will become far more difficult.

photo 5

When I come across dead limbs, I have to decide whether I’m going to snap it myself (more on that in a bit) or snap a photo, which will eventually make it onto the computer screen of an employee in the Queens Forestry Division at the edge of Flushing Meadows Park as a work order.

If I decide to tackle the limb myself, I reach for a spool of florescent orange cord in my trunk. The cord has a weighted bean bag attached to the end. This device is called a throw bag and was passed on to me by the previous manager in the district. While holding the spool in my left hand, I launch the bag over the limb in question with my right arm and wait for a the bag to hit the ground on the other side. I then retrieve the bag, walk away from the potential fall zone of the limb, and start tugging and yanking.

photo 1

The sound of a limb snapping and thud of impact never fails to inspire awe.

photo 2
The trick is knowing which limbs to tackle. Here’s how I decide:

1. Is the limb low enough that I won’t need Michael Vick to throw the bag? My range is about 40 feet up. I’ve heard there are sling shots to help get the weight high enough. For now, I’m happy to recreate my glory days as a little league center fielder. I learned recently that the ideal method actually involves an underhand, pendulum swing instead of the overhand throw. It often takes a few throws to corral the right limb.

2. Does it pass the wife test? Meaning, is the diameter of the limb small enough that I won’t need to call my wife before tugging? If not, I’ll snap the photo and let the forestry division take on the limb.

3. Are there people around? There have been some tragic accidents involving falling tree limbs in recent years in city parks. The throw bag helps prevent accidents by weeding out the hazards, but I don’t want to take any chances when I’m removing limbs. When people see me doing battle with the limbs, they often steer clear of me and walk with a hurried, nervous gait.

4. What is the species of the tree? In a torrential rain storm in August, I fought a dead Pin Oak limb that wasn’t ready to give and was probably big enough to fail the wife test. I attacked it from every angle, until my palms were red and blistered, and as a last-ditch effort, tied the cord to the back of my Prius and drove off (the cord snapped). I learned later from a friend in the Forestry Division that I should stick to the brittle-limbed London Plane trees.

Or maybe I should just stick to my camera.

photo 3

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How to Bury a Dead Body in a Park


A man named Patrick came to Alley Pond Park in August to find a place to bury a body.

“Here’s the scene,” Patrick started, describing his vision. We stood in the middle of a soccer field below the hum of cars on the Grand Central Parkway.

“A woman is led out into a field at night blindfolded and told to dig her own grave. After digging the hole, she is told to kneel. Just when she thinks she is about to be shot, she hears a thud and another person’s body is thrown into the grave. The woman kneeling nonetheless has to bury this other body.”

Patrick was a location scout for the CBS television show Hostages.

It was hard to imagine the grisly act standing in the sun watching tennis players and kids scrambling on play equipment.

Then again, I had dealt with a fair amount of dead bodies – all animals – in four months on the job. I had come across two dead squirrels, a mouse, a raccoon, a bird, and a white dog in various states of decay. And with all of the corpses, it never crossed my mind to dig a hole. I stuffed them into garbage bags for the night crew to collect.

In the case of the dog, I learned from a worker that digging a hole would have been the easiest method. Instead, I had strained to fit the dog into a garbage bag and then carried the bag 100 feet to a trash can. With a hole, I could have just rolled the pet a few feet and covered it with soil. In this job, you learn by doing. There is no field guide to animal disposal.

Dead bodies in parks are more rare than animal corpses, but most of my colleagues have a grisly story. One manager told me about how he was once trimming with a weed wacker. The plastic string of the trimmer nicked a garbage bag. Out popped a human foot.

Just last week, contractors working on repairs near the seawall in Fort Totten Park found a plastic bag floating in the water that contained a human leg.

A park supervisor in Forest Park told me he went 12 for 12; 12 bodies in 12 years, including a dead woman found rolled up in a carpet.

I felt relieved that my first dead body would be a mere prop on a film set.

“So, you need a field?” I asked Patrick, hoping to get a little more information from him. Take away the athletic fields in my district, and there are plenty of meadows that could qualify as well.

“Yeah, something a little more secluded than this soccer field though given the noise from the highway. They are going to film at night but it would help to have less noise.”

When I usually approve permits, I’m thinking in terms of space for relay races, hot dog cooking, tents, and softball games. Now I felt like a real estate agent for a mafia hitman.

I led Patrick on a drive to the Upper Alley Pond picnic area where little grassy fields, more like clearings, back up against a deciduous forest. It’s a popular spot for picnicking; each spot feels like a rustic campsite and there are little hearths for grilling. The crew from Hostages would have far more privacy here and yet the paths were wide enough to accommodate the fleet of trailers and equipment that accompany a film shoot.

As an added bonus, he would be away from the fields used by sports leagues. I was nervous about the impact of digging a grave on a baseball or soccer field even if Patrick assured me the film crew would clean up. A couple months before, the crew for the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie had left all sorts of debris where they had been filming, including fake snow. Patrick dropped the “CBS is my employer” a few times, hinting at deep coffers.

There’s a poignancy when comparing the resources for a film set and that for maintaining a city park. The catering staff alone outnumbers our staff for maintaining 900 acres. We do receive donations from the film companies and they pay for staff overtime. And if we are lucky, the catering staff invites us for a lunchtime swing through the buffet line.

I was interrupted by a call from one of my supervisors who was meeting me nearby for a drive-along. Patrick seemed content to take photos of the various clearings and fields at Upper Alley and I gave him directions for another spot with more secluded fields.

“Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it,” he said.

I never was able to approve the Hostages Permit. Patrick must have found a better spot. He mentioned as we said goodbye that Highland Park to the west was the go-to spot for film set body burial.

That was fine with me. I’m content that my parks are known for other things.

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The How To’s of Park Management

The seasons dictate the day in the field. During summer, we focus on cutting grass, keeping weeds from covering trails, and cleaning up after the hordes of picnickers and athletes. Summer is known as The Season because that’s by far the busiest time. Our agency’s workforce swells from 3,400 to 10,000.

But the other seasons shouldn’t be discounted. Falling leaves will soon bring their own cleaning challenges. Snow removal looms in winter.

During this seasonal interlude when the smell of lighter fluid on charcoal has not yet given way to the aroma of spiced cider, I offer a few lessons learned in park management. Look for more in the coming weeks.

 How to Clean a Soap Dispenser

photo (11)If you venture into a park bathroom – known euphemistically as a Comfort Station – you should count on a few basic comforts: running water, a hand dryer, single-ply toilet paper, and orange soap.  The latter comes in concentrate, which we mix with 50% water and store in wall-mounted stainless steel dispensers. The soap oozes out of four “nipples” that open when your palm presses up on the nozzle that extends from the dispenser.

Whoever designed these dispensers focused more on their durability than on their ability to dispense soap. They can take a beating from a baseball bat, but there’s no guarantee they will dispense soap. The soap should ooze like honey off a honeycomb. But it often gushes out, creating a mess on the floor. And more often, an internal clog prevents any soap from dispensing at all. The soap hardens into a crust that looks like a science experiment gone awry.

At the end of a recent staff meeting, about 20 park managers and supervisors learned how to unclog a dispenser. Prior to the meeting, I had been told about a couple methods. One involves probing into the orange murk with a stick.  The stick often breaks, worsening the clog. The other method involves adjusting washers and bolts with a wrench. I find this is best left to tradespeople who know what they are doing.

At the meeting, we each were assigned a crusty soap dispenser and a bucket of warm water and told to practice. It turns out the unclogging a soap dispenser is as easy as pouring some hot water through the thing.

How to Kill Poison Ivy

2013-06-27_09-59-20_549Poison ivy races up trees and encroaches on paths throughout our parks, chasing the sun. It clings to the edge between manicured parkland and natural areas. It colonizes “disturbed” areas i.e those places where trees or other cover have recently been cleared, allowing sun to reach the understory.  Toxicodendron radicans invades, but it’s not invasive like other exotic weeds; poison ivy is native to North America. When it crosses the border and comes too close – say underneath a bench or through the chain link of a little league field fence –  we wage war with a few weapons.

There’s weed killer, which our gardener dispenses if the ivy is farther than 150 feet from a water body.  In the days after an application, the poison ivy and everything around it turns the color of dry hay. Too close to water? We send in Allen, a City Park Worker who has a natural tolerance to poison ivy. Allen yanks it right out of the ground.

I prefer the stealth kill, clipping the hairy roots on trees with a pair of garden shears. Picture the hero in the movie defusing a bomb with meticulous precision. I return and watch with a grin as the ivy above the cuts withers away. The ivy has the last laugh with my approach when the itching starts a few days later. I wore a rash most of the summer on my wrists and even had a few red streaks on my face.

This three-pronged arsenal keeps the ivy at bay. However, when I look into the woods, I see this perennial plant preparing to mount a comeback next year.

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The Ball Boy Diaries, Part 2


The third day of the 2002 U.S. Open Tennis Championships, a Wednesday.

I’ve survived the Qualifying Week with no major bloopers. I sit in the Crow’s Nest, a section of bleachers between the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong Stadiums that serves as a ballperson Green Room where we await court assignments.

Kathy, our boss, huddles with her inner circle of staff around the whiteboard, assigning us to each court with the stroke of a marker. The announcing of court assignments makes my heart race. I flashback to the feeling of when the teacher posted the test scores in high school math or when my little league coach called out the batting order. Anticipation segues to joy or disappointment.

I know that my chances for a stadium court are best in the early rounds of the tournament. By the Quarterfinals, I will probably be on a flight home or working Senior mixed doubles. A combination of ballperson seniority, coziness with Kathy, and talent determines the plum assignments as the tournament progresses.

Kathy’s thick New York accent hushes us.

“Ok, listen up!”

“On Ashe (the biggest stadium court, capacity 23,000)…”
Six names. Mine not listed.

“On Armstrong (the second biggest stadium court, capacity 10,000)…”


I stifle the urge to blurt “Yes!” or let out a fist pump in front of the other ballpersons. I turn to my friend Jamie who has shown me the ropes the days before.  My expression mixes shock and disbelief.

“Go get em,” he says.

From the Crow’s Nest I’ve been watching the match on Armstrong where I will soon be headed. The tournament’s third seed Tommy Haas from Germany has been battling a no-name from Spain, David Sanchez in the first round of men’s singles. They split the first two sets. At the end of the third, we will relieve the ballperson crew.

I descend to the bowels of Armstrong, where I wait  just off the court with five others. Darkness pervades under the bleachers, but we can see the court washed with sunshine down a tunnel. We are gladiators about to emerge in the Colosseum.

The moment feels too big to enjoy on my own. If Facebook had existed in 2002, I would have wanted to post a status update: “About to be on national TV!” Instead, I run to my locker in the ball boy lounge and find a few quarters for a phone call. I want my parents to turn on the USA network and watch.

Sanchez takes the third set 6­-3 before I can find a pay phone. I hide the quarters under the bleachers so they won’t fly out of my shorts on the court. We sprint into the sun, and the thousands in the stands appear as a mosaic of summer colors: yellow, pink, white, and turquoise. I go to the back corner on the ad side of the court.

Haas wears a green polo shirt he was forced to change into after warming up for the match in a sleeveless muscle shirt. A tennis referee deemed it too revealing. The sleeveless style would later catch on, popularized by Rafael Nadal. At the 2002 Open in that match, Haas broke the sleeveless barrier.


Haas breaks Sanchez’s serve in the fourth set and wins 6-­4 to push the match to five sets. After that first set, I realize the quality of play on Armstrong doesn’t feel any different than some of the men’s singles matches I worked in qualifying. The serves of some of the qualifying players were just as hard as those I was catching from Haas and Sanchez.

The main difference involves the crowds. On the satellite courts, I stood against a chain link fence with trees behind. Where I’m positioned below the stands on Armstrong, my shoulders are within reach of a massage. A couple teenagers taunt behind me: “How did you get this job?” “Catch it, ball boy!”

Sanchez surges in the fifth, winning the first three games before Haas climbs back and breaks at 5-5. Both players summon trainers to work on cramping legs before Haas serves for the match at 6-5. I run to my standing position behind Haas, ready to open the umbrella to provide shade or grab a sports drink for him.

The trainer rummages through an orange tackle box and pulls out a single dose packet of Advil.

“Can you help me out?” the trainer asks, barely making eye contact as he starts wrapping Haas with tape. “Open this.”

I take the packet without responding. I have been trained to hold an umbrella, retrieve a sweat towel without being asked, and throw the distance of the court. The task of opening the Advil seems daunting with play stopped and the spectators as well as millions around the country on television watching the medical break before the decisive game.

My muscles freeze.  So much depends upon two Ibuprofen. I find the opening in the foil packet and rip.

Oh, no.

Each pill soars through the air in different directions, bouncing off the court.

I wonder if the five­-second rule exists in Germany?

I pick up each pill and plop them into Haas’s outstretched hand.  He swallows them unfazed.  I see him wincing from the cramps and figure he doesn’t care about a little dirt on his Advil.

Play resumes. Haas ekes out a victory despite three double faults in the final game. After the match, no one remarks on my fumbling of the Advil. Not Kathy or the few people from the Northwest who watched on national television. But that was the only men’s singles match I worked in the main draw.

Kathy did call my name again for Louis Armstrong Stadium a few days later. The stadium was a quarter-full. I would be working mixed doubles.

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