The rules of the sweep

The six-man street-cleaning team sweeps by summer and plows snow by winter.
The six-man street-cleaning team sweeps by summer and plows snow by winter. Photo by Joseph Breen.

The hot summer months did not mean vacation for the city’s snowplow team. Instead, they took to the streets with a different task: sweeping.

“I think I caught a tan today, man,” joked street-sweeper Glen Lyles in June.

Police and tow trucks first ticket and tow illegally parked cars, followed by water-spraying trucks sweepers, which clear the streets of debris.
Police and tow trucks first ticket and tow illegally parked cars, followed by water-spraying trucks sweepers, which clear the streets of debris.
Police and tow trucks first ticket and tow illegally parked cars, followed by water-spraying trucks sweepers, which clear the streets of debris.
Police and tow trucks first ticket and tow illegally parked cars, followed by water-spraying trucks sweepers, which clear the streets of debris.

Lyles is one of six men responsible for ensuring all the streets of New Haven are swept each summer month. Lyle’s workday began at 7 a.m. when he reported to the New Haven Department of Public Works, climbed into one of the city’s eight street-sweeping machines and headed off to begin cleaning his route, as he has done for 22 years.

“My job is come in, get in my truck, go where they call me,” Lyles said. “I like everything about it. You’re in control. You do your route, knock your route out. You do what you gotta do.”

The group begins their route by 7:45 each morning, ready to conquer the dirt and debris on the roads. They are part of a squadron: First come the police truck and a fleet of tow trucks, which quickly ticket and clear away improperly parked cars; a truck spraying water follows, helping to settle the dust in the street. Then come the stars of the show: One or two sweepers follow just a few blocks away, bouncing down the street at a surprising clip. They announce their arrival with the grumble of three whirling brooms, which suck up everything from dirt to juice cans to potato chip bags. (Big sticks and boulders, they advised, are to be avoided.) All this must take place while the traffic hurtles around them.

Though the residents along each roughly 10-mile route have been warned by paper signs — posted at least a day in advance on weekdays or eight hours on weekends — not to park their cars on the streets between 7:30 and 3:30, anywhere between 20 and 50 cars are towed during this process each day, though the total can reach up to 100, said foreman John Savino.

Some days the street sweepers, if they are feeling sympathetic, may honk their sweeper horn as a warning that a car is about to be towed. Or, if the car owner comes outside after their car has been taken, they will tell him or her which company towed it.

“But then you got some of them come out screaming and yelling,” said Albert Miller, another member of New Haven’s street sweeping team.

His colleague, Dairwood Vereen, interjected: “Our job is to sweep, traffic and parking’s job is to ticket, and the tow truck’s job is to get the cars out of our way.”

In their defense, sweeper Robert Robert keeps photos on his phone of cars parked in front of “No Parking” signs before they get towed.

The group finishes their route by 3 p.m., then returns the next day to complete the other side of the streets. Though some routes used to be swept twice a month, about three years ago the frequency was reduced (during a review of overall services) to once a month.

Having gone through a 90-day training process, each member of the sweeping team knows how to scan the entire view he drives, looking for items that could potentially jam the machine, as well as paying attention to other traffic. Asked if the team ever hit anything, Lyles simply responded: “Have you ever hit anything when you were driving a car?”

Still, the group faces many more obstacles and questions than the average driver. For example, in addition to worrying about the action on the street, each street sweeper must monitor the level of trash as it is collected and jockey between several different brooms.

The six take turns assuming responsibility for the night shifts on Friday, Saturday and Monday. From 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., they sweep routes downtown —mostly, they said, for the benefit of club owners. Three of them drink tea and two drink coffee (with two sugars and cream).

Robert Roberts said the worst part of the job is breathing in the dust kicked up by the truck. The best part? Getting around the city to see new places and new faces, Miller said.

The group also counts on their companionship.

“We have fun when we’re together!” Lyles said.

“We have to have humor in this job,” Miller added.

“Otherwise you gon’ die,” Lyles picked up. “But it’s not boring. I got AC in my sweeper. I got a radio in my sweeper. I got a CD player in my sweeper. What’s to be boring?”

“I don’t love it, but I like it,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t say I love it.”

Lylels responded: “You don’t want to say you love it, because … a supervisor position could be coming up.”

“So we’re going to say we like it,” Miller concluded.

As the season comes to an end, the sweepers looks forward to conquering the soon-approaching leaf season and then, finally, plowing through the much anticipated snowstorms. Though they said the constant litter provides street sweeping job security, the cold weather is even better because it comes with a likely bonus for overtime shifts.

Comments