It was chilly – the sky midnight blue and the streets of northeastern Queens still – as Dennis Vitelli sauntered into the garage sleepy-eyed but smiling.
He exchanged pleasantries with his colleagues – many of whom he has known for years, in a career that has spanned two decades – received a few instructions from a supervisor, and then it was time for work.
Currently on a relatively cushy 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, Vitelli has worked around the clock and across the city as a “San Man” with the New York City Department of Sanitation – a job he described as “simple” and “easy” but, on a “year-round, 24/7” schedule, vital to keeping the city clean of garbage and snow.
“There’s always somebody on midnight to eight in every garage – and four to twelve, eight to four, seven to three, six to two, two to ten,” Vitelli explained, rattling off a list of hours that he, and surely the other San Men climbing into trucks behind him, had worked at one time or another. “We have about eight different shifts on the job, just to cover the city’s operations,” he said.
Nearing retirement, Vitelli’s mile-and-a-half commute to Queens East District 13 garage – servicing neighborhoods from New Hyde Park down to Rosedale – and his routine schedule is a far cry from the notorious “round robins” of three shifts, separated by just eight hours each, that haunt rookies and send them to the city’s farthest reaches.
“It’s tough,” Vitelli said of the erratic assignments that are customary in the early years on the job, “but you bite the bullet.”
At shortly after 6 a.m. on a recent Monday, the first sunlight of the day had just appeared. Its rays bounced off the windows of a row of Queens Village homes as Vitelli and his partner of nine years, John Major, made the first of around 300 pick-ups.
A soft glow illuminated Vitelli’s tan face as he maneuvered his truck toward the trash that he said can weigh up to 11 tons, or 22,000 pounds, after a big holiday. But the veteran had no interest in admiring the sunrise.
“It may look pretty to other people but for me I have to put the sun flap down,” he said wryly.
Vitelli admitted that he appreciates the warmth in the colder months, but in the summer the sun is a nuisance, as it heats up the refuse, creating a putrid caldron of trash swarming with maggots – or, “squiggly rice” in Vitelli-speak.
And, of course, there are the rats and the dog droppings – often inconspicuous in the wee hours of the morning – and the occasional customer angered by the midnight racket.
Yet, with much of Queens still asleep and the roads clear; the summer heat a few weeks behind and the winter nip not yet on the horizon, Vitelli was satisfied.
“Today seems like one of those perfect autumn days,” he said. “It’s not cold, it’s not hot, it’s not too breezy. It’s a good day to collect garbage.”
And, in Vitelli’s book, there really isn’t a bad day to ply his trade; he’s got an open-air job, the benefits of city employment and a great partner.
“It can’t get better than this right now,” he said matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t have traded these 20 years for anything else.”
In honor of The Queens Courier’s 24 years of serving you, our readers, and the communites you live in, we bring you a look at 24-hour Queens. We shadowed some of the people who work in and watch over the borough through the night, and, in addition, we have listed the places that you can go before the sun comes up if you need gas, feel like bowling, or get the munchies.
Read our other 24-Hour Queens Features by clicking below: