We're talking trash at the library today. Specifically, the story of a 3,000-ton garbage barge that made a scene in Brooklyn in the 1980s… and, we ask what happens to library books when they get too old. Finally, we take a trip to East Harlem, where one sanitation worker spent 30 years creating an archive of New Yorkers' trash.

Want to read more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

  • Click here for a link to Katya Schapiro's BookMatch list curated especially for this episode.
  • Visit "Treasures in the Trash" at the Department of Sanitation's Manhattan 11 East's garage.
  • Read Charlie Rudoy's post about the infamous garbage barge
  • Listen to another podcast episode about weeding in the library from 99% Invisible

Episode Transcript

Adwoa Adusei Every so often in the library, you come across something strange. Something that leads you down a rabbit hole.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For Charlie Rudoy, who works on Brooklyn Connection, BPL’s Brooklyn Collection school outreach and education team, it was a garbage barge. He came across the barge when his co-worker was going through old files.

Charlie Rudoy And it kind of is the type of story that fits my sense of humor, so they were like I think you’d get a kick out of this garbage barge…

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Charlie opened the folder, and found himself in the middle of what turned out to be a surprisingly passionate war over three thousand tons of trash.

Charlie Rudoy So for me it was these headlines like, “Wretched Refuse Moors Off Our Teeming Shores” that lured me in and then from there picked up the narrative.

Adwoa Adusei Okay wait up, wretched refuse?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah. You like the Emma Lazarus call back there? [LAUGH] So all of this happened in Islip in Long Island in 1987. And there’s a dump there and it’s getting really full, as a lot of dumps in the New York area would. So this business man in Alabama gets the idea to ship the rash from Long Island to the south where the landfills have more room. 

Charlie Rudoy This was a trial run for what he hoped would be an empire for big city garbage being barged all over the place.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So from Islip, the garbage barge sails out of the New York City waters and down the southeastern coast…

Charlie Rudoy When it was docked off of North Carolina, I think a local news team spotted a bed pan and then from there it was like, “It’s medical waste!”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, as these news stories tend to be, it was pretty inflammatory, whether or not it was accurate. People in North Carolina are starting to get upset. Essentially, their attitude was, why are we going to allow New York City trash that sounds pretty hazardous into our landfill? So, North Carolina rejected it, and the barge traveled further south.

Five garbage trucks at base of Brooklyn Bridge dumping refuse into waiting barge in 1942.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Charlie Rudoy It went down to Florida, it went around Florida, tried to unload in Texas, they wouldn’t have it there, and then ended up around Belize, around Central America. You know, it became a media circus.

Reporter The barge has been chased away by the warplanes of two nations. And now it’s anchored here, five miles off the the coast of Key West, Florida, still loaded with tons of garbage, still unwanted.

Charlie Rudoy I think Johnny Carson did many bits about it.

Johnny Carson You know they’re selling garbage from that garbage scow that left Long Island? And went around for months and ended up in Islip New York? Some guy apparently made a deal…

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, it turns into a punch line. The world is watching on TV as dock after dock is rejecting this big city garbage barge. So if you can believe it, these 3,000 tons of trash traveled about 6,000 miles round trip. Nobody wants it. At some point they finally just come back to the New York harbor. And the drama is not over with this garbage. 

Charlie Rudoy What’s interesting is that the solution they came to pretty early on, I think even before it got back to New York harbor was that eventually it could go back to Islip. But then, the problem was how do you get it to Islip? Because there was only one dock in New York that was licensed to ‘barge garbage,’ as they say. So, it had to go to Long Island City, Queens which is where this guy Tommy Gusuele had the dock where you could do it. So the borough president of Queens was the first to say you cannot dock that in Queens, because then it would have to be trucked through Queens to get to Long Island. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know, I know this happened in 1987 but it really does feel like one of those stories that media Twitter would have been having a field day with.

Adwoa Adusei Absolutely. I feel like the hashtag would have been “GarbageBarge."

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Exactly! So you know, these NYC politicians are going back and forth on this. Queens doesn’t want this supposedly toxic waste zooming through their borough on trucks… so eventually it gets decided that the trash could be incinerated and then trucked to Islip. And this is where Brooklyn gets involved, because we have an incinerator on the waterfront.

Charlie Rudoy And so the borough president of Brooklyn, Howard Golden, was concerned about the fact that the people in his community would be exposed to the burning of all of this trash. So then it was back in court. It became toxic for any politician from North Carolina, where it was originally was supposed to go, to Florida to Mexico… it just became politically toxic to be the person who accepted this trash.

Adwoa Adusei Okay, politically toxic. But was the trash actually medical waste?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras No, it was mostly paper. And in fact it should have been recycled, by today’s standards. This whole garbage barge debacle became a bit of a catalyst for the recycling movement in the early 90s … and that’s a whole other story though. But to New Yorkers, it also became a tourist attraction! We’ve got all of these pictures of the barge with the Verrazzano bridge and the World Trade Center in the background. It also became a little bit of a symbol for the dark side of consumerism. 

Charlie Rudoy You know, the day it went up in smoke in Bensonhurst, no one considered that a victory. People I think really looked inward at society having really failed.  We all live in a place, especially as a New Yorker, we live in a place with millions of people that would not work if people didn’t remove your trash. And it feels like magic, you get to put it on the curb and then it’s gone, or you get to throw something away and you don’t have to think about it. 

Adwoa Adusei So today, we’re going to think about it. Why do we throw so much stuff away? Where does it all go? And what does it say about us when we do throw it out? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. 

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed. 

[MUSIC]

Avigail Najjar Hello, I’m Avigail. I’m a custodian at Central Library. Usually I get here, check all the public restrooms, make sure nobody pooped in any interesting places, replace paper towels and toilet paper. Keep doing that until the library closes, and then make sure the art and music section looks shiny for the next day. I’ve always liked coming to the library since I was a little kid, and checking out all the interesting Sci Fi and Fantasy and comic books. I grew up Orthodox Jewish, so that stuff was kind of taboo. We were only supposed to be reading religious texts, so it was kind of fun sneaking in here and reading all these things that I thought were badass but were actually really benign. So when I was looking for something real to do with my life that wasn’t capitalist nonsense, I decided to look on the library employment page.  I want to be a children’s librarian at some point. I think it’s important to start with the way institutions work and then build you way up to different sections. And buildings are very important, when it comes to libraries, that we have a physical space. And if the physical space isn’t working properly, if the HVAC isn’t working, if the toilets aren’t working, it kind of sends the whole things spiraling.

Adwoa Adusei That was Avigail Najjar, a custodian at Central Library. We were able to catch her at the end of the day, as she was taking out the trash.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Which is a  big important job at Central Library. We produce 1.2 tons of waste every week. It’s a lot of paper, it’s people’s lunches, it’s all the other refuse of the day.

Adwoa Adusei And, listeners, it might shock you to hear it… we do throw away books.

Norman Eriksen In terms of weeding, History is difficult to decide what to keep and what to not keep. Where it’s like, in the sciences … if it’s not current … good-bye.

Adwoa Adusei This is librarian Norman Eriksen. 

Norman Eriksen I am the division manager of the Arts and History Department here in the Central Library. I've been weeding these decks on and off for the last 30 years.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So what does he mean by weeding?

Norman Eriksen Weeding means going through a collection of materials and making a decision a retention decision ... Should we keep this book or not? Do we need it? Why do we need it? Is it useful? Is it current? What's the condition it's in?

Adwoa Adusei Weeding! We do it all the time ... I feel like there’s a librarian joke in there.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras There is, do you want to hear it. 

Adwoa Adusei I do … ?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras “Weeding is fundamental.” Yeah, we’re good at puns.

Adwoa Adusei So good. 

Norman Eriksen … so we’re now taking them off the shelves. 

Adwoa Adusei Norman took us down to the decks to look at all the books that the library will throw away.

Norman Eriksen Problems in the Pacific, 1931. The Kingdom of Oil: The Middle East, Its People and Its Power ... that was published in 1974. They’re fascinating things, but not what we need now.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So this always controversial for our patrons who are always book lovers. But we are libraries and we do have to discard books.

A woman sorts through books in Brooklyn Heights Library in 1962.
(Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Adwoa Adusei Yes. One of the main reasons we do this is to get rid of outdated information. Old books in a public library can be dangerous. We want to keep the information that we give to you relevant and useful. And what is relevant and useful is always changing…

Norman Eriksen Brooklyn evolves. My great grandmother, the books that she would have read in the early part of the 20th century, she spoke a language that’s dead. It's preserved somewhat in a form of the Icelandic language, it’s the closest thing to the Old Norse that my grandmother spoke. Most likely, she came to this library. She lived in Bay Ridge. But the books that she read are useless. They would be a curiosity, but for a public library today these are books that we really don't need. So I need Chinese, I need Creole, I need Russian.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, perhaps it was too drastic to say that we throw the books away. 

Adwoa Adusei Right, a lot of the old books that our patrons probably aren’t interested in go to academic libraries. And the vast majority of books we get rid of go to a company which sells them online. A portion of that money goes to the library and can be used to buy newer, more relevant books. And the rest, well …

Norman Eriksen The stuff thats in very bad shape, that’s disintegrating, gets recycled. 

Adwoa Adusei So the good news is that this isn’t getting barged around the ocean in a 6,000 mile loop.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Well, there’s an upside …

[MUSIC]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, listening to these two stories about trash is making me think about what I throw away and what I am hesitant to throw away. I went through an exercise a few years ago where I took all of the disintegrating mass market paperbacks off of my shelves, a lot of them are Sci Fi and Dorothy Sayers and these books weren’t designed to last 40 years, the pages are yellowing, the covers are crumbling … so I made a list of all of the ones that I loved, and as I walk into a used book store, I sort of scan the shelves for a better, maybe a hard back, maybe a better quality copy and then I buy it again. Meanwhile, those disintegrating mass market paperbacks, you know unfortunately, they probably ended up in a landfill.

Adwoa Adusei But what if they didn’t end up in a landfill?

Nelson Molina What you’re going to see here is things New Yorkers throw out every single day and me and my coworkers go out and we pick these things up, and we don’t want to throw them away because they can be used again, so we just bring them to the garage.

Adwoa Adusei One of the places your trash could end up is on East 99th Street, in one of the Department of Sanitation’s garages, with Nelson Molina.

Nelson Molina And I would also go out, like nine, ten years old, I would go out like a week before Christmas and I know people are throwing all the old toys away because the kids are getting new toys. So I would go, like I had a three block radius, and I would just go and look in all the garbage and pick up … even if the toys were broken…

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Nelson is retired now, but he worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation for 34 years. And, picking things up is kind of a calling for him. 

Nelson Molina If I found a car and it’s missing a wheel, I go into my mother’s sewing kit and take a button out and glue the button onto the wheels so we can play with the car. So I always had a passion for collecting and not throwing out because my mother always told me: never throw anything out if someone else can use it.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras When Nelson started working for the Department of Sanitation, he began to see how much usable stuff people were throwing away every day. And, he did what he had always done … he picked it up.

Adwoa Adusei And the things that he picked up, instead of putting it into the back of the garbage truck, he put it into the cab. He saved it, and stored the items in his locker back at the garage.

Nelson Molina This is the men's locker room is. Yeah. 

Virginia Marshall Hi, how are you? Nice to meet you.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Nelson took our producer on a tour of the locker room where sanitation workers get ready for their shifts.

A snapshot from Nelson Molina's "Treasures in the Trash" exhibit. (Maggie Lee, DSNY)

Nelson Molina So, this room I built first. So what’s in here, it's been here since 1982. 

Virginia Marshall Wow! 

Nelson Molina Yeah. … This is all the small stuff. I had three—there was me and two other guys here. And then I started putting up shelves, so one guy left because he didn’t fit here, then I kept putting more shelves up. Then the other guy left so it just ended up being me by myself and all this stuff in here. [LAUGHS] This has been here since 1982.

Adwoa Adusei On every surface of the cubby, there were little trinkets. Bobble head people, tiny cups and spoons, old perfume bottles … I mean, everywhere you look, it’s just fascinating! 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So pretty soon, this locker room got too full, and Nelson’s bosses let him put the stuff in the warehouse storage cages, and then there was too much stuff for the cages, so he arranged items by type on tables … kind of like a library.

Adwoa Adusei Yes, and it’s an amazing variety of things, stuff that you wouldn’t really find in a library, we have a wall of Tamagotchis, a whole Christmas section with trees and decorations, and toys. 

Nelson Molina Well, when we first started I think we had 500 pieces and now it’s up to 45,000 pieces. So over here you got a lot of stuff from India, stuff from Japan, China, swords and all kind of stuff. This is all my white glass, so everything here is white glass. Furnitures and chairs…

Virginia Marshall Wow… that looks like a real turkey? 

Nelson Molina Yeah, it’s a real turkey, it’s like a taxidermist, they say they do?

Adwoa Adusei As you can imagine, after decades of experience, Nelson got really good at picking out treasures. 

Nelson Molina I developed these sensors from doing it so long. So I would just pick up the bag and I would know there’s something in there. And I would tell the guy, “give me that bag there’s something in there, you didn’t hear that?” He goes, “No I didn’t hear anything.” I open it up. He said, “Nelson, how did you know there’s something in there?” I said, “I just can hear .. the noise that the bag makes when you pick it up and the way it feels and everything.”

Adwoa Adusei And he got to be pretty well known in the neighborhood as a sort of trash connoisseur. And if people had something special, they left it for him.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And if you are a little disconcerted at the idea of somebody going through your trash, you should know, once you take it to the curb, it’s not yours anymore. It belongs to the Department of Sanitation.

Sanitation workers pick up trash in Coney Island in 1953.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Adwoa Adusei It doesn’t actually belong to Nelson either. It’s not like he can sell it. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You know this is just like we started the season, talking about the idea of a library of things instead of a library of books. If you look like at the pictures of Nelson’s space it actually feels a little like an archive. There’s this timeline of pop culture history, from Cabbage Patch Kids in the 80s to Marvel action figures now. And, the stuff is actually a little bit like a catalog of life in East Harlem, because it’s mostly collected from the same one square mile in Manhattan. 

Nelson Molina Yeah, 80 percent of what you see here comes from 96 street to 110 from First to Fifth avenue. The other 20 percent comes from the other two sections that we got, from 110 to 145 from First to Fifth Avenue.

Adwoa Adusei It’s easy to be romantic about what this library of unwanted things says about us. But for Nelson, the message is clear and simple…

Virginia Marshall What comes to mind when you look at all of it? 

Nelson Molina Well, all this stuff could have been in a landfill or an incinerator. So I saved it from going to a landfill or incinerator. That’s what people have to do now. We have to waste less and we have to recycle more. Like you see here. I mean, all this could have been given to someone else, donated to a thrift shop, or somebody could have used it or something like that.

Krissa Corbett CavourasYou know, Nelson is kind of a guy ahead of the time because we have this really growing trend of conscious consumerism and being careful with what we buy and own.

Adwoa Adusei It is pretty poignant that for a person whose job it was to take out the trash, Nelson was quite resistant to the idea of throwing things away.

[MUSIC]


Adwoa Adusei And now it’s time for our BookMatch segment. And here to recommend a few books for you all is the librarian Katya Schapiro. Hi, Katya

Katya Schapiro Hi!

Adwoa Adusei So we just spent the episode talking about how libraries and people decide what to throw away and where all that stuff goes. And you’ve put together a list of books on that very topic. So what’s the first one that you have for us?

Katya Schapiro The first one I wanted to talk about is the classic of New York sanitation workers: Picking Up by Robin Nagle. She was the embedded anthropologist at the Department of Sanitation for many years and she does a very deep dive on everything New York City trash from how the trucks work to how the workers operate to where it goes to what happens to it. She worked on a truck for a little while. It’s very funny, it’s very frustrating. And she found it a very closed club to join I think, it took her a really long time to kind of break in and get people to talk to her. 

Adwoa Adusei Yeah we’re actually going to have the author of the book, Robin Nagle, on our next episode in two weeks. So, thank you for bringing that up. 

Katya Schapiro Oh, great.

Adwoa Adusei And what’s the next book you have for us?

Katya Schapiro The next book I wanted to talk about really jumps into this theme of weeding and throwing books away is The Library Book by Susan Orlean. The book is structured around the 1986 fire that devastated the Los Angeles Central Library, which apparently got overshadowed by Chernobyl to the point where a lot of people don’t know about it. But, if you were in LA at the time, it was a very big deal. And I don’t know if you’ve read anything else by Susan Orlean, but she has this very personal brand of journalism where she follows her rabbit holes wherever she wants to go and she’s the right author for a book about the strangeness and weirdness and messiness of libraries and the people who in habit them.

Adwoa Adusei And what is the last book that you have for us? 

Katya Schapiro The last book, which, maybe people are tired of hearing about but it was unavoidable in this context is The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. You know, she now has her Netflix show, she’s a household word, the book is practically a sentient being, it’s attacked all of our consciousness to the point where we fold all our shirts funny, but there’s one chapter of the book that’s spawned a lot of fuss and hatred especially from librarian book people because she at one point recommends if you don’t need all of your books, you could take some pages out of them and put them in a plastic file or something, and that’s caused a lot of people to be up in arms and making memes and shaking their fists. And in all reality, that’s not exactly what she recommends. But it’s a measure of how strongly this funny little book, it’s a little lifestyle guide but it’s really gotten everyone’s gut somehow.

Adwoa Adusei Thank you so much, Katya. Listeners, that was Picking Up by Robin Nagle, The Library Book by Susan Orlean and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. We’ve put a link to the complete BookMatch list on our website, and you can check out all of them right here at Brooklyn Public Library. Again, thank you, Katya.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras You’ve been listening to Borrowed, from Brooklyn Public Library. And we’re not done with trash just yet. We got a little obsessed with the topic, enough to turn it into two episodes. So, check back in in two weeks. We’ve got a bunch more fascinating garbage stories for you.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Adwoa Adusei We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast. Until next time, remember: weeding is fundamental. 

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