Trash Talking


Vinny Rienzo (Sanitation Worker/Personal Trainer)

Income: $60,500 (1998)

Health Insurance: $60/mo. copay

Rent: $650/mo.

Utilities: included in rent

Phone: $50/mo.

Food: $450/mo.

Transportation: $150/mo.

Hardly a moment goes by that Vinny Rienzo is not interrupting the earth’s gravitational pull.

Either he is lifting 10 tons of garbage a day in his job at the New York Department of Sanitation or he is curling 150 pounds of weights at his gym in Queens where he goes immediately after his shift.

As for the garbage, the more he lifts with his two arms that are covered with red, green, and blue tattoos, the richer he gets.

According to the union contract signed last spring, garbage collectors get an $8-a-day bonus for bringing in an extra ton of trash and an extra 1.8 tons of recyclables. “With all the overtime involved with the recycling,” Rienzo, 43, estimated that he made an extra $5500 last year, bringing his city salary to around $53,500. He earned another $7000 advising others about how to lift: when he is done garbage collecting, he has another life as a $50-an-hour personal trainer at the New York Sports Club in Whitestone.

Rienzo’s working day begins at 7:00 a.m. With one diamond and two gold earrings in his ear and a gold chain on his wrist, Rienzo and his partner hit the road in their double-wheel white rear-loader collection truck to remove the garbage from 1500 homes. They do not take their three meal breaks until the end of the day, preferring to work straight through so they can be back at the dumping site in College Point by early afternoon, where they line up to unload the garbage onto barges and watch it float off to Staten Island. Then they adjourn to the lunch room and laugh a lot. Rienzo also eats a lot.

He has to so he can keep lifting so he can earn more money to pay $450 a month for food and another $200 at GNC for protein supplements so he can lift even more. When Rienzo applied in 1974, “the standards to qualify were very high. The maximum age was 35. Today you could come on at 70. My friend Paulie at the garage just came on at 48. The entry test now is just qualifying, pass or fail. When I took it, there were guys passing out, vomiting. I had to lift a 60-pound can out of a box without touching the walls, run with the can 20 feet, scale a 12-foot wall, lift 60-to-100­pound cans from the floor flat to a table in 59 seconds. You try it.

“I passed, but there was a layoff in ’75 so they didn’t hire anybody for a long time.” For the next eight years, Rienzo fixed cars at a gas station.

Rienzo went to Automotive High School. “I thought I’d be a body fender specialist. I was an artist as a child.” The son of a cab driver, Rienzo grew up in Williamsburg— “very, very rough street life. The sanitation workers were so nice to us, buying us ice cream. I looked up to them.”

NYDS called him in 1981. “The first six months I was ready to quit. On hot days, every can you grab is full of maggots. The stench!” Rienzo has had rats jump on him. “I thought one was a cat. It went up my arm to my shoulder.

“But there are pros and cons to everything in life— five weeks’ vacation, unlimited sick days, retirement after 20 years with half-pay.” About four years ago, Rienzo went bankrupt. “My wife was knocked down by a cab. She was working as a landscaper. She couldn’t lift the plants.” Six months ago, they separated, though they remain friends. “It’s partly an age difference. She’s 10 years older than me. We have a handshake agreement. She lives in the condo in Brooklyn. I pay $150 a week support for our 14-year-old daughter.” Rienzo also pays 9 1/2 percent of his gross salary toward retirement and $8000 a year to his 401(k). He has been out of bankruptcy for three years. He dreams of retiring in two years and becoming a personal trainer full-time. “Lifting garbage cans, you’re just throwing things around. With weights, you’re moving in a controlled, rhythmic fashion. There’s more precision.”

Either way, Rienzo is working for a cleaner, trimmer world.