He always wanted to be a garbage man; now, he's New York's sanitation commissioner

Edward Grayson led the department in clearing snow from New York's 10,139km of streets.
Edward Grayson led the department in clearing snow from New York's 10,139km of streets.PHOTO: NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF SANITATION/FACEBOOK

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - When a teacher asked a classroom of third graders what they wanted to be when they grew up, boys shouted out professions like "baseball player" and "astronaut". But one student declared: "I want to be a garbage man like my father."

The teacher disapproved: "Don't you think he'd want you to be better than that?"

The child, Edward Grayson, was insulted yet undeterred.

This past week, Mr Grayson, now 44, who was appointed acting commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation just three months ago, faced down the biggest snowstorm to hit the city in years. He appeared in front of news cameras as the face of the city's snow removal effort.

He led the department in clearing snow from the city's 10,139km of streets: No small feat during a pandemic.

The department has 400 fewer workers than normal because of cutbacks stemming from the drastic drop in tax revenues this year. The virus crisis has also transformed the streetscape; scores of curbside outdoor dining booths have created obstructions for the ploughs that work to make streets passable.

At a news conference last Thursday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio commended his acting commissioner and the agency for doing an amazing job in tackling a storm that pummelled the city with nearly 30cm of snow.

Mr Grayson, who spent 21 years working his way up through the Sanitation Department's ranks, had left little to chance. He spent last Wednesday night driving behind ploughs and inspecting streets before grabbing a nap on a cot in his office in lower Manhattan and joining Mr de Blasio at the news conference the next day.

Since his first job as a trash collector, Mr Grayson has worked many snowstorms, whether driving a plough-equipped garbage truck or overseeing operations as a supervisor and then a chief.

"Serving as the commissioner, you feel the difference," he said. "There's definitely a lot on the line."

Now, he is working to keep his job. When Mr de Blasio leaves office at the end of next year, the incoming mayor, who gets to appoint new commissioners, will decide Mr Grayson's fate.

A burly man with a Queens accent, Mr Grayson took centrestage at media briefings and news segments all week to assure New Yorkers that he and his fellow trash haulers were there to help protect the city from being crippled by a winter storm.

For the leaders of city agencies, there are few bigger public stages than the kind a snowstorm sets for a sanitation commissioner, a position that comes with the risk of outsized political blowback when ploughing does not go smoothly.

Botched snow removals have wreaked political damage upon city commissioners and mayors over the decades. In 2010, for example, a December storm left City Hall so flat-footed that mayor Michael Bloomberg rushed home in his private jet from Bermuda, and the sanitation commissioner John Doherty was so discouraged he considered resigning.

"People want the streets cleared quick, so it's a tough struggle," said Mr Doherty, 82, who like Mr Grayson also rose through the ranks. "At times, these snowstorms can be more political than anything else, and I think Eddie is sharp enough to know that the public is going to grade you on how well you did."

With Mr Grayson as chief of daily operations, the department has come under criticism this year for picking up trash more sporadically during the pandemic, which the agency attributed to budget cuts.

But snowstorms are a strong suit for Mr Grayson, who himself can mount a plough on a truck or wrap snow chains around tires. For years, he was the department's "snow chief", and in recent years he helped implement the tracking systems that monitor ploughing in real time.

"The GPS will tell you what streets are done, but it can't tell you about the conditions on the ground," said Mr Grayson, adding that when he first began ploughing in Queens, in 1999, he worked off a paper map. "You need live feedback from the driver on the street, and I can understand that because I've been that guy."

Since last winter had little snowfall, he worried that his staff had grown rusty in carrying out the synchronised operation of following ploughing routes. So in October, he helped run training with a mock forecast and practice routes that incorporated outdoor dining locations.

Last Thursday, city officials reported that no dining structures had been struck by ploughs.

Colleagues say Mr Grayson is adept at motivating his workers, known as New York's Strongest, to pivot from collecting 12,000 tonnes of waste a day to ploughing - gruelling work often done in blinding snow for long shifts.

Mr Eric Forster, 45, is a retired sanitation supervisor who has worked with Mr Grayson. "Eddie's like Braveheart - he's the guy you want to be charging behind," he said. "He's a street kid from Queens who had a passion for the job from Day 1 and made it a point to know every aspect, from what grade bolts need to put on plough to how to use a smart board for payroll. The man lives and breathes the job."