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One of the important duties of a city's Department of Public Works is to maintain the cleanliness of city streets. In most U.S. (and some European) cities, this involves a detailed schedule which covers both sides of every street in the city. At the specified hour, a steet cleaning machine (sometimes called a street sweeper) sweeps and vacuums up refuse and sometimes lays down a disinfectant solution as it passes.

Cleaning a city's streets is Herculean task: take the moderately sized city of Cambridge, MA: 925 curb miles are cleaned each month (excluding winter), collecting, over the course of a year, 5,000 tons of garbage. If your city looks clean, at least part of the credit is due to the DPW for its work and coordination.

Aside from the benefits of cleanliness, street cleaning affects us in two ways:

  • A moment's joy whenever we see one of the ridiculous oversized Zamboni-like contraptions sweeping up plastic bags from the street, clumsily rounding a corner.
  • The persistent, maddening irritation of having to move your car. In Brooklyn, as in most of New York City, each side of every street is cleaned twice a week. In our neighborhood one side is cleaned Monday and Thursday, the other side is cleaned Tuesday and Friday. We don't use the car that often, but thanks to the zeal of the street cleaners, we need to move the car at least four times a week. Of couse, if we wait too long, the "safe" side of the street may be taken, and we may have to park half a mile away. Somehow the city still looks like a dump. Sigh.
Source for City of Cambridge stats: http://www.ci.cambridge.ma.us/~TheWorks/streetcleaning.html
In the UK, things are a little different. In the outer reaches of Nottingham, there seems to be no schedule, no organisation. A wagon comes seemingly when the City Council feel like sending one, and the street is cleaned all in one go. If a car is parked, the cleaners go round it. If one side of a street is cluttered with vehicles, the gutters are still as foul as they were in the morning, whereas the middle of the road may be pristine.

There is no "Tuesday I can't park here" - only a couple of blokes with brooms who will attempt to shift the clutter from the roadside underneath the cars into the maw of the sweeper.

The worst of it is that the drains, which invariably are filled with sludge, rarely get cleaned - the wagons have a 'sludge gulper' - a kind of super-vacuum attachment to clear the residue from storm drains, to allow rainwater to clear. The lack of clearance means that each time it rains, the puddles build up, and passing drivers then exercise their 'right' to drive through them and soak the poor pedestrian with the filth built up in the gutters.

Please, don't talk to me about the benefits of street cleaning, we seem to live in the Augean stables.

Let's all belly up to the bar for a rousing chorus of the State Song of Massachusetts:


Welcome to Cambridge, asshole.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the streets are very clean, but there's a hideous cost: From April to October, each side of each street in the city is cleaned once a month. That means there can't be any cars parked on it. Every street has signs at intervals on each side, telling you on which morning that side of the street will be cleaned. One side of Waterhouse Street (just for a purely arbitrary goddamn example) is cleaned on the third Friday of every month; the other, on the fourth Wednesday.

On each of those grim mornings, the cops drive around with megaphones around 7:00 AM, saying "PLRMPH RRMPH ULRLR MPH RMPHL NRMPH! PLRMPH RRMPH ULRLR MPH RMPHL NRMPH!" This means "Move your goddamn car before we tow it". They're not kidding: A fleet of tow trucks1 and flatbeds comes and whisks away the stragglers. Each car gets a parking ticket2, too. They stick it to the window by one end, and the adhesive clings like a limpet.

If the megaphone wakes you up, or if you're one of those lunatics who wakes up early anyway, you can pull some clothes on and stagger outside to move your car. You see others doing the same, stumbling groggily along with their hair sticking up and car keys in their hands. You see them driving around looking for another place to park, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

Sometimes you forget about the whole deal and park in a death zone on the wrong night. Sometimes you park your car on Thursday night, look up at the sign that says "Friday morning", and it doesn't quite register. Sometimes you sleep through the megaphone routine. Sometimes you walk out of your building to the street where you parked your car last night, and the whole street is empty. It's very surreal: Your car is no longer there. It's just gone, and so are all the others. Once I got to my car just as they were winching up the one ahead of it; mine and that poor bastard were the last two cars on the street. I waved to the cop and popped the clutch.

The towing is done by private operators. If they tow your car, you call the Cambridge police and ask them who has it. You'll need to remember your license plate number, or else you'll spend ten miserable minutes calling one tow lot after another and describing the car. When you locate it, you find an ATM, because the tow business deals only in cash. You take a cab to East Cambridge, because that's where all the tow lots seem to be. You pay up and drive to work. When they ask you why you're so late, you bug your eyes out and say,


In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace borrows our street cleaning ritual and turns it into a genuine nightmare: In his Boston of the future, only one side of each street is legal to park on at any given moment, and the legal side switches every midnight. There's a window of only a few minutes when it's legal to be on either side, so you can't move the car ahead of time. I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Wallace has spent at least one groggy morning in Cambridge moving his car.

I assume that the rest of Metro Boston does the same, and I may have the start and end dates wrong. Corrections are welcome on both points.

1 The state bird of Massachusetts.

2 US$15.00 as of July, 2001.

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