2013 winner of the Robert Whittington Award for Exceptional Reporting, awarded by the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
The idea for this story started with a single line in an article on SFGate: “The Department of Public Works has a policy to respond promptly to calls about hazardous waste such as feces and hypodermic needles.”
Immediately I wanted to embed with a hazardous waste crew from the Department of Public Works. I wanted to clean up the Mission with the people who are out there scouring the neighborhood every day. I wanted to work. I wanted to pick up trash and throw it in the back of a truck. I wanted to catch a glimpse of what it’s like to work, day after day, just to keep this city from devouring itself in a sea of hazardous waste.
What I got was a ride along with DPW’s Mario Montoya Jr., supervisor II of Zone D. Montoya is not a crew. Montoya supervises a crew. Hesitantly, I agreed, trusting the universe that there would be something to learn from this. That I would see something, experience something, worth writing about.
We met at 7 a.m. at the DPW headquarters off Cesar Chavez. Montoya had already been at work for an hour. He met me with a genuine smile, which won me over pretty much right away. Montoya is 53 and is from San Francisco. He lives near MacLaren Park with his two sons, who are both in their 20s, and his wife, who is retired. He tells me that she lived next to Carlos Santana for a time while growing up in San Francisco. His wife sounds cool. She likes to write, too, he says.
We’re in a Ford Super Duty truck that weighs 6,700 pounds with a full tank of unleaded, according to little placard mounted on the dashboard. Atop the antenna is an American flag Mickey Mouse ornament, made in China. It’s hard to write in a moving truck.
“Basically what I do is oversee the areas, see that the big stuff gets picked up,” Montoya says. He oversees 10 people; someone from his crew is working seven days a week. His zone includes supervisorial districts 8 and 9, meaning the Mission and stretching into parts of Bernal Heights, the Castro, Outer Mission and Potrero Hill. He’s been supervising the Mission for going on seven years.
“It’s exciting, you know, there’s always something going on,” he says.
Montoya has worked for DPW for 25 years. He started as a sidewalk sweeper on Haight Street, on foot patrol with a broom and a bag. This, I gather, gives him perspective about the jobs his crew members are doing. He’s done nearly every job a DPW cleaner can do.
We head toward Civic Center, where crews from the various zones around the city converge first thing every morning to get the areas around City Hall and the Tenderloin looking sparkly and clean. I ask if this is for political reasons — like, does DPW make a point of keeping City Hall clean so the decision makers know they’re doing their jobs? Montoya says no.
“All the tour buses are lined up around here first thing in the morning,” he says. He seems genuinely concerned that a bus full of tourists would see San Francisco’s City Hall as anything but well cared for.
Montoya is happy with what he’s seeing from the cleaning crews. He waves to a couple of his crew members as we drive around the area, checking things out. He says he drives 40 to 60 miles per day just around his zone. My mind swims. He logs countless hours in this truck.
We head toward Mission Street so Montoya can make sure that what is supposed to be getting done is getting done. Sidewalks should be clear of cardboard and trash, any large items should be called in and removed. He says Mission Street and 24th Street are his top priorities at this time of day. “By 9 a.m., Mission Street should be clean from 16th to Cesar Chavez,” he says.
The sidewalks on Mission Street are looking pretty debris-free as we drive south, with the exception of three shopping carts, piled so high they defy physics, that are blocking a large portion of the sidewalk on the east side of the street. Montoya says they all belong to the same guy. “We’ve gotta do something about him,” he says with a timbre of sympathy.
“Do you want to take pictures of the street before the sweeper comes? You can do before and after pictures,” he says. We are stopped on Folsom Avenue. One side of the street is mostly cleared of parked cars. The cars that remain are being ticketed for failure to move for the twice-weekly street sweeping. I take the “before” pic.
The “after” pictures are more difficult, because we’re in the Mission and there are cars lying in wait for parking spaces. As soon as the sweeper goes by, the curb spaces fill up. People who had been waiting with their cars illegally stopped on the sidewalk pull out into oncoming traffic to snag cherry parking places. The street quickly turns into a conflict zone.
Next up is the “packer” truck.
Every week Montoya’s crew alone hauls 30 to 40 tons of illegally dumped garbage to the dump — and that’s just from the pickup trucks that drive around collecting small items. A big packer truck picks up the large items — couches, mattresses, furniture — which can add another five tons per day to the equation, meaning that up to 70 tons of refuse per week is picked up from the streets and sidewalks of districts 8 and 9 by Montoya’s staff. That’s upwards of 3,600 tons of crap each year. San Francisco is a city teeming with trash. I cannot fathom what it would look like if DPW went on strike for a month.
Montoya wants to show me everything his crew does, even how the street sweeper works.
He radios the packer truck. We meet up with it as Brenda Sgamba, the driver, and Randy Price, a general laborer, or “lumper,” who rides with Sgamba, are loading a mattress into the back. The packer looks like a small garbage truck. Hydraulics in the back move a tailgate that folds the mattress like a stick of gum and compresses it behind a retainer plate.
We follow Sgamba and Price to their next scheduled destination. On the way they stop and Price jumps out to drag a derelict dresser from the sidewalk and toss it in the hopper. It appears to be from Ikea. This item wasn’t called in; they just saw it and picked it up. The truck chews it up, breaking it apart in no time. Crunching sounds mix with traffic noise, and the scene is over quickly. The main show comes a few minutes later, as we watch the packer truck chew apart and eat a Crate and Barrel couch and loveseat set someone had left outside overnight.
We drive and drive and drive, then drive some more, a slow roll that lasts for five hours. Montoya radios his packer crew to pick up some crates dumped on 18th Street near Dolores Park. He is an extra set of eyes, trained to look for things that need DPW’s attention, from piles of crap like illegally dumped wood crates to actual piles of crap — dog, bird, human. DPW sprays it all away, keeping the city sidewalks crap-free for the tech geeks, tourists, hipsters and stroller-pushing moms.
The crazy part? They can’t keep up. As soon as they handle a call, another is coming in, often more than one. The city by the Bay is one big well-hidden trash dump and public toilet.
I ask Montoya what is the nastiest thing he’s dealt with.
“I’ve seen clothes with human feces mixed in, roaches, just nasty stuff,” he says. “You’ll see turds with a needle just sitting there on top of it.”
Over the radio we hear a call about a large homeless encampment at 13th and Mission. The voice on the radio asks for help from a homeless outreach team and the police department. “Gonna need backup,” the radio cracks.
We make our way. As we drive north on Mission, Montoya talks about the homelessness his crews deal with on a daily basis. “With the homeless we try to be as professional as we can. Not harass folks, but we get complaints every day and we have to take care of it,” he says.
Montoya points out a DPW worker painting over some graffiti on one of the bridge supports. “They have a computer that helps match the paint,” he says.
We arrive at the encampment and are greeted by a handful of DPW trucks already on the scene and some tweekers looking severely tweeked. One guy swings a 2×4. North of 13th Street there’s an alley I don’t think even has a name. A guy with a dog is piling a tent into a shopping cart, leaving behind a huge mess of trash and a plastic bag of dog food spilled out onto the ground, with a few hypodermic needles strangely mixed in. DPW guys are waiting for him to leave so they can clean up. I meet Kenny Bruce, a supervisor from another zone who has been working for DPW for 23 years. He has a goatee. He explains that his crews have been to this same location three times this week.
“We’re like the department of homeless works,” he says. “Instead of handling taxpayer calls, we’re out here three times a week cleaning up after these folks, and they pay no taxes.”
I take pictures of the needles and human excrement that Bruce points out to me, and come back to find the 2×4 guy drinking from a soup container. He throws it in the back of a packer truck, flinging soup all over himself and the vehicle. Some cops are talking to him, prodding him to move along.
“It’s crazy,” Bruce says. “Come back in an hour and they’ll all be back.”
I get back in Montoya’s truck. He never bothered to get out. This is old hat to him; he was just being nice and showing me the excitement they deal with daily. A call comes in over the radio about excrement at Mission Street and Sycamore alley. “That’s an everyday call for human waste,” Montoya says.
This ride-along is making me feel like the neighborhood is one big toilet.
“The calls don’t stop, man. They just keep coming,” Montoya says.
As we’re driving, Montoya tells me about all the big events his crew has cleaned up after. “We do Carnaval every year. We just did the Giants’ parade; hopefully we’ll be doing the 49ers soon.”
Montoya says he helped clean up after the ’89 earthquake. He even got to drive the wrong way atop the Bay Bridge, taking road barriers out to where the damage was.
“Oh, it was wild,” he says. He got to get out and walk on the Bay Bridge.
“That’s something most people will never get to do, no matter how long they live here. The earthquake was pretty intense. There were crushed cars and downed buildings all over here.”
A few minutes later, a call comes over the radio for human feces at 16th and Market. Jesus. This city is swimming in the stuff.
We head that way and stop on 16th near Market. Montoya turns on the yellow flashing lights and we block traffic for a while. One of his crew, Martha Joseph, should be showing up with her steamer truck. Joseph is the one who is handling human waste calls this morning, making her my personal hero for the day. In the bed of her truck is a power washer that sprays hot water.
I stay in the truck while Montoya gets out to go hunting for said feces, so he can point it out to Joseph when she shows up.
It’s started to rain, and Montoya is out looking for human excrement to clean up. It dawns on me: these are San Francisco’s superheroes. The folks who strap on ventilators and light blue waterproof jumpsuits and shovel, sweep and spray sidewalks so you and I don’t have to play dodge-the-poo-hopscotch every time we walk to the bodega to buy tortilla chips.
Montoya finds no human waste at 16th and Market. Onward we travel, to the next giant pile of crap.
“Martha’s at Castro and Market,” Montoya says. He laughs. “She’s found some goodies, maybe right in front of the cookie store.” It’s cool to see someone with a sense of humor about his work.
Someone has defecated in front of the gas station, right on Market Street. My mind implodes wondering how messed up one has to be to just drop trou in plain sight of a busy Market Street intersection.
When we get out of the truck, Joseph looks like she’s responding to an airborne toxic event. She’s in what appears to be full hazmat regalia, not a dot of skin showing. She’s splashing a chemical on the sidewalk that smells like cherry cough syrup. It’s supposed to make the area smell better, but its effectiveness is up for debate. It’s only an improvement if, say, you prefer the aroma of a hospital waiting room in which someone has just vomited cherry candy to that of a neglected gas station bathroom. It’s really up to you.
Joseph starts power-washing the sidewalk. It’s unreal how sticky and stubborn human excrement is. Power washers can strip the paint off a car, but Joseph has to keep the hot water spraying on the crap stains for a full minute before they start to give. The bits that have been stepped on peel off the pavement like scabs.
Joseph sprays the stuff into smaller and smaller pieces, the runoff becoming a disconcerting but understandable auburn sludge. She pushes the mess away from the sidewalk, until there’s no evidence of what has happened here except for a wet sidewalk and a lingering smell of cherry cough syrup. Mission accomplished.
The rain is picking up. Montoya and I say goodbye to Joseph and get back in the truck. Back on 16th Street, headed toward the Mission, we see a catch basin full of leaves. Montoya calls it in to dispatch and tells them who to send out to clear the grate before the rain gets harder.
We pass by another member of Montoya’s crew, his pickup loaded with garbage collected just this morning. Near a garbage can we see that someone has left a half-dozen paint cans. Montoya calls it in.
My time with Montoya is winding down. He’s shown me the various aspects of his crew, the multifarious ways they keep the Mission from being buried alive in its own filth. Montoya has desk work to do — he is a supervisor, after all. I feel disconcerted. Did I truly experience the DPW?
I thought I’d be going out with a crew of cleaners, helping pick up the trash and needles, getting dirty. Maybe I’d encounter a surly street sweeper character, someone who can no longer handle the relentless wastefulness of human civilization, the monotony of picking up the mess our city makes.
But this is what I love about journalism: there are surprises everywhere. Everyone I met seemed genuinely dedicated to his or her job. Everyone was working, with effort and pride.
Montoya and other DPW supervisors drive endless miles, surveying the city to make sure that the sidewalks are clean. That the mattresses some cowardly jerk dumped on the corner in the middle of the night are picked up before the commercial district wakes up and people — real people — have to dodge them on their way to work, or are forced to go another way in their wheelchairs because the curb cut is blocked.
Maybe these DPW folks know a secret — that they comprise a thin blue line that separates the San Francisco we love from the slum that San Francisco’s citizens are constantly trying to turn her into. That they are all that keeps San Francisco’s hills from being covered in garbage and disintegrating Ikea crap.
This is why people like Joseph and Bruce and Sgamba and Price and Montoya are the heroes of San Francisco. These are people who work for a living, people who actually contribute to the collective good. Not grad students or “freelance writers,” but real-deal working folks. Montoya has lived his whole life in San Francisco, worked 25 years for DPW, and doesn’t own a home in this city. These are real 99-percenters, grist for the capitalist mill — the kind of people who keep the city running so the tech kids don’t trip on something when they stumble onto Valencia at 2 a.m.
These are women who drive big-ass trucks and run heavy-ass equipment. These are guys who don’t play at growing a mustache so they can quip smart about it; these are guys with mustaches older than Twitter and Zynga combined. We owe them a great big thank you.
Are there still piles of excrement and dirty, disease-ridden needles to be found? Of course; this is San Francisco. We like to mix grime with our sophistication. What strikes me is that these DPW cats never get to sit back and admire a job well done, because the city is never clean. As soon as a street is swept, a tree dumps a few thousand leaves in the gutter. As soon as a sidewalk is cleaned, some dog is messing on it. As soon as a wall or light post is painted, some clown is tagging it.
It’s like DPW is the parents, trying to clean up after 800,000 messy kids and all their inconsiderate friends who are constantly staying over. There are DPW folks literally working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to keep San Francisco pretty. Could they do more? Probably. Could they drive a little less and save fuel costs and spare our air a little more? Again, probably. But their work is impressive. The folks I met were doing a pretty sturdy job to stem the ceaseless tide of piss, shit and filth that threatens to bury San Francisco.