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At Occupy Wall Street, the Sanitation Crew Fights Cigarette Butts and Apathy

As Occupy Wall Street begins its second month, the Voice is mapping out the way things work at Zuccotti Park. Meet the Occupiers is a new series that profiles the who's who of Zuccotti: the key characters and working groups that keep the occupation going.

The night before Occupy Wall Street protesters thought they'd be evicted from Zuccotti Park, the Sanitation Working Group went into overdrive. The message, announced at that evening's General Assembly and repeated throughout the night: "Everyone is Sanitation." According to Sanitation member James Molenda, 32, the whole park spent the night feverishly cleaning as the clock ticked towards morning.

"We had people cleaning the cracks between bricks with toothbrushes," he said. "A 65-year-old man was cleaning out every single crease with a narrow broom, getting all the cigarette butts."

Molenda, who usually wears a piece of duct tape on his sweater that says "Sanitation Cru: Hi, I'm James," and pulls back his long hair with a bandana when cleaning, struggled to keep everyone involved. Over at the western edge of the park (a.k.a. "Crustyville"), some rogue elements gave up around 1 a.m. and decided to "party down," he said.

"Their rationale was, if cops are gonna come in and bust heads anyway, let's enjoy the last night of this," he said.

As it turned out, that wasn't Occupy Wall Street's last night; the next morning, Brookfield and the city backed down from their "cleaning" order and allowed the protesters to stay. According to Molenda, "everyone from Sanitation found a place to sleep for 14 hours at that point." Sanitation's star turn probably didn't have anything to do with the decision not to give OWS the boot. But the cleaning was -- and continues to be -- probably the most visible effort to distance OWS from its extended camping trip image and make it livable.

The Sanitation crew has a core group of around 10 people, give or take. Apart from the die-hards, turnover is high. "Somebody will come in, take on responsibility for sanitation, and then disappear," Sanitation crew member Max Hodes, 28, said.

The challenges grow in proportion to the size of the swelling Zuccotti crowd. According to Molenda, there's the endless problem of cigarette butts, which people toss wherever they're sitting and which must be collected and thrown away. There's the dust that has accumulated during the protesters' stay, making everyone's noses stuffed up. The problem of trying to clean around people sitting, sleeping, and hanging out everywhere in the park (last week we witnessed Molenda unwittingly pick up someone in a sleeping bag by the legs to sweep under them). The occasional rain, which, according to 26-year-old Sanitation crew member Lauren Digioia, makes "a lot of people act like a bunch of babies" and the cleaning process that much harder. And of course, the huge amounts of trash and recycling that build up each day.

Although the city never sent in its own sanitation crews, the Department of Sanitation does come and pick up OWS garbage at the four corners of the park every day. As for recycling, Sanitation collects it by 1 a.m., when a truck comes to pick it up. The city still won't let the protesters have Porta-Potties, an issue that Sanitation can't control but that puts even more of a strain on OWS's relations with the neighborhood and the community board, as a woman named Naomi from the Community Affairs Working Group announced two nights ago on the people's mic during a GA: She asked everyone to respect the Good Neighbor Policy and "not pee or poop in public doorways."

It's an uphill and constant battle. OWS Sanitation seems to call for a certain kind of personality, like that of the young man with shoulder-length brown hair attacking a single cigarette butt with a large broom last night. Or that of the fiercely eyelinered and purple-haired Lauren Digioia, who was handing out latex gloves and directing troops in the recycling removal process. She only complained about her strep throat a little bit.

"The hipster movement is over," she said. "Apathy is over. The hippies are back."

Even celebrities aren't exempt. When Alec Baldwin showed up at Zuccotti last night, James Molenda saw an opportunity: "I told him to grab a broom and pan and get to work."

[rgray@villagevoice.com] [@_rosiegray]

Go to Runnin' Scared for more Voice news coverage.


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