Originally published in The New Yorker.
The A-Vac, on Roosevelt Island, is New York’s only pneumatic garbage collection system. Designed in the late sixties to accompany the island’s Mitchell Lama housing developments, the system works like this:18-inch-wide pipes run under all the high-rises on Roosevelt Island. When people throw their waste down the building’s chutes, it piles up for several hours, until a trap door opens, sucking the garbage into a pipe. While air is blown out one end, valves on the other open to allow the intake of air at selective points. This creates a pressure differential that propels the garbage through the underground pipes at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour.
When the garbage resurfaces, it is at the A-Vac center, a squat three-story building at the island’s north tip. The pipes climb to the building’s ceiling, and dump the trash into two upside down silo shaped cyclones, which spin and then slide it down chutes into container bins. The whole vacuum process takes 10-15 minutes.
On most days, the suction valves in the A-Vac center are run by a team of Sanitation workers who decide when to turn on the machine and “pull a load.” One of these is Ron Marli, a vetereran stationary engineer who has run the machine for over a decade. On a normal day, he pulls 5-7 tons of garbage into the A-Vac Center.
But these days, as 2000 new housing units go in on the south end of Roosevelt Island, the whole venerable behemoth has to be expanded. This is easier said than done: The machine is Swedish, and is maintained by a Swedish company called En-Vac, which advertises itself as “the world’s largest pneumatic garbage systems maintenance company.” Frederick Olsson, the nearest En-Vac repairman, is stationed in Toronto.
Lately, Olsson has been spending quite a lot of time on Roosevelt Island, passing time at the A-Vac center while repairs take place. “It is a strange way to visit America, but oh, well,” he said. A few months ago, after lunch, Olsson and Soren Hallberg, an En-Vac consultant from Stockholm, lounged with Marli in the A-Vac center office, chatting. The whole building heaved slightly with the vaguely digestive thrum of after lunch waste moving through the pipes. Marli, a small paunchy man with a gravelly voice, a pale yellow beard, and a wry expression, seemed vaguely surprised to see a reporter stop by professing to hear an interest in the Roosevelt Island’s garbage. But he lit a cigarette, leaned back in his chair, and began to tell stories.
According to Marli, the system was conceived in the late 60’s when the island, which had been an insane asylum, was being rebuilt as an experiment in social housing. “The idea was no trucks,” he said. “No garbage on the streets.” In 1971, Roosevelt Island received the second pneumatic garbage system in the nation. “The other one is in Disneyland,” Marli said. ” And if I ever loose my job here, I’ll go to that one.”
Mr. Olsson coughed politely. “Magic Kingdom is most problematic,” he interjected.” I visit it very often. It usually breaks because so many sticky things run through it. This one usually breaks down because New Yorkers throw too many big things away.”
The team then offered an impromptu tour of the site. The A-Vac center, perhaps because of its Swedish design, is an almost oddly cheerful mechanical room. All of its equipment is painted primary colors. The pipes and cyclones are fire-truck red, the chutes are blue, and some wiring between them is canary yellow. The office, a glass lined room on the second floor catwalk, is filled with a pleasing array of gears, knobs, and switches. Next to the cyclones, on a third floor window ledge, sits an array of house plants in industrial buckets. “Some of the guys rescue those from the trash and tend them,” Marli said.
When Marli works, usually the afternoon and night shift, he pulls about 4 to 7 tons of waste through the pipes. “The island generates about 10-12 tons of garbage a day,” he said. “Of course, with the new pipes that’s going up, we’re doubling that. It will be twice as much work.”
“We are widening the pipes for the new apartments,” Hallberg said. ” To 23 inches. For smoother run, with tighter valves.” “Do you think this engine can handle it?” Marli asked. “Oh yes,” said Hallberg, patting the control room lightly. “Swedish design is very good. This will keep running for decades.” “But the difficult thing is to convince the city to buy quality materials,” Olsson said. “They cut corners and then their machines are much less effective.”
“The machine doesn’t break down that much,” Marli said. ” But you know, you get a rainy weekend and people clean out their closets. They throw away the weirdest stuff. Stereos, old computers, steel pipes, what have you.” The stuff sometimes clogs the machine: One time a piece of rebar backed up the machine it up for several hours. Another time it was a baking tin. Whenever the machine breaks, Sanitation workers shut the machine down and open the valves to remove the offending item.
In addition to cooking equipment and plants, En-Vac workers have recovered geometry textbooks, tape players, window frames, lumber, and old clothes. Someone once found a copy of a book called American Prose and Poetry, which is on a shelf in the control room next to a repair manual. “It’s mostly for show,” Marli said. Another time, someone brought in a cat, who has lived at the A-Vac center for over a decade. ” Her name is Stinky,” Marli said. “She had kittens once and a bunch of the guys took them home.”
Once, before computerization, the island’s garbage valves were controlled by a punch card. “You had to sit there an feed it,” he said. “That was when we had the fat guy, you know, what’s his name, Joe, you know, and he’d have to sit up here and feed those cards through. But one day, when it was clogged, the punch card holes broke and Joe traced the original card onto a piece of paper and cut it up and tried to run it through. Boy, we had valves opening and closing all over the place.”
Between stories, Marli got up to adjust one of the knobs meant to send a full trash container out to the truck loading dock. Full containers used to be sent by barge to Fresh Kills, on Staten Island. Now they are trucked to Queens, and eventually on to out of state landfills.
“If the mayor ever gets the marine transfer stations up and running, we’ll send the garbage out by barge again,” Marli said over his shoulder. “But god knows where.” Olsson leaned forward. “I think the real problem is that Americans tend to run their machines too fast. They just dispose anything and then poof, want it sucked away. It really adds to the wear and tear on their system.”
Marli sat down again.
This article originally appeared in The Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker on November 17, 2003.