How to: Throw a party for your trash guys
Happy Trash Day!!!! started out as a video/performance-art project, but the artist ended up getting addressing City Council on behalf of sanitation workers. While dressed as an insane clown.
The first time Anthony Quail Jr. met Jenny Drumgoole, June, he was near the end of his usual Thursday trash-collection route, driving driving down a narrow side street in Kensington near the El. She was dressed in a flowing aqua dance costume, smeared with glittery clown makeup, and she was frantically flagging down his trash truck.
“I thought maybe something was going on in the street, or someone was hurting her, or she's just going crazy —” Quail laughs. “We thought she maybe took the wrong drugs or something. I mean, you know. I was gonna help her, but I wasn't sure what was going on.”
Drumgoole is more blunt: “They locked the doors at first, because they thought I was a crackhead.” She laughs.
It’s not surprising that Quail and the rest of the crew locked their doors. There’s video — a series of videos of Happy Trash Days from all over the city, actually — and even discounting the costume, Drumgoole looks childlike and mildly unhinged, skipping, jumping up and down, waving, shouting.
She’s trying to call their attention to the card-table party she’d set up outside her house for them, complete with a HAPPY TRASH DAY banner, balloons, streamers, centerpiece and refreshments. She’d set it all up for the benefit of the crew of sanitation workers who’d helped her out with a video she’d been filming the previous week. However, that crew, the one that had seen her dressed this way before, had been substitutes. Quail’s crew usually had this route, and they had no idea what the hell was going on.
After a while, Drumgoole says, “they came out because they had to pick up the trash, and I kept pointing, like, ‘Look at this!'”
“She had the whole setup and everything, and she asked us to, you know, take some hors d'oeuvres,” says Quail. “I said OK! I mean, I like to eat, so I went for it.” He laughs.
At that first Happy Trash Day in June 2013, Drumgoole had no idea who her regular trash crew was. Now, she can ID their truck from the third floor of her house by the sound of a distinctive squeaky wheel. She didn’t need to this morning — Quail forgot to text when they were close (“Tony’s not so great at texting sometimes”), but the truck did honk a cheerful greeting as it turned down the street. Quail greeted Drumgoole by removing his gloves, picking her up in a bear hug and swinging her around like a little kid.
Drumgoole had intended Happy Trash Day to be a silly, one-time party, but it became kind of a big thing. She recently finished a monthlong blitz of Happy Trash Day parties around the city in support of the municipal union’s ongoing contract negotiations with the city. Multiple City Council members have attended Happy Trash Days. Drumgoole has even addressed City Council multiple times. While dressed as a sparkly clown.
That first Happy Trash Day was meant to be a surprise thank-you party. Drumgoole is an artist who teaches photography at Rowan University, but lately her work has been mainly videos. The week before, she’d been out on the street in front of her house filming one when city trash collectors started coming down her street. They agreed to help with her video for a minute, and she filmed them tossing her a trash bag full of costumes, then lifting her in the air in a dance move.
“So the next week, I was like 'That was so nice of them to help me! How would Soxx thank them?' And it would be: Happy Trash Day!!!!!”
Let’s pause to explain Soxx. Drumgoole’s videos often involve her dressing up in costume as a character. It’s not quite Sacha Baron Cohen — the draw of Ali G is random people’s reactions to him, whereas Drumgoole’s characters only sometimes interact with the public — but, roughly, Borat is to Cohen what Soxx is to Drumgoole.
Drumgoole’s characters are also usually modified or exaggerated versions of herself. In 2005, she drove down from Connecticut, where she was in Yale’s graduate photography program, to attend Wing Bowl as a Wingette for Sonya Thomas. Drumgoole had been photographing Thomas on the competitive eating circuit, but decided to bring a videocamera to Wing Bowl after meeting legendary underground filmmaker George Kuchar, who’d been a visiting artist at Yale.
Drumgoole went as a Wingette “because there aren't really women that go to it. Because it's terrifying! I think that year was the year the fans beat up the cops?” She says she and Thomas were pelted with food (“We got a block of cheese thrown at us!”) and, more frighteningly, with full and unopened cans of beer. But walking through the parking lot to the entrance in a low-cut top felt even more dangerous.
The video includes Drumgoole chatting on-air with leering WIP morning-radio hosts at her audition, then attempting to get her waifish frame to look more Wingette-ish with a push-up bra, a leopard-print unitard and a roll of duct tape. “First of all, I don't have cleavage, and you gotta play it a little bit like you’re seriously a Wingette. … But then it's also, like—” she crosses her arms over her chest defensively. “No way! It's like armor.” She laughs.
“Wing Bowl 13” was well received at Yale, and Drumgoole started doing more videos, in more personas. For “Husky,” she had a friend give her a real black eye to portray a raging-id version of herself. “You can’t fake a black eye like that. It looked crazy,” she says. “I had it for months and months and months, the blood eyeball and everything. I looked like Mike Tyson."
Drumgoole’s previous project involved “The Real Women of Philadelphia,” a Paula Deen-sponsored, eight-week-long online contest/social media campaign in which women uploaded weekly videos of themselves making recipes using Philadelphia cream cheese. (As absurd as this concept sounds, The Real Women of Philadelphia was hugely popular and won big social-media awards.) Deen posted instructions for how ladies should dress and do their hair and makeup in the videos. Drumgoole posted video recipe entries (like sculpting a stop-motion-animated talking bust of Rambo out of cream cheese) as a slightly drunker, glassier, more desperate version of herself. Deen posted dressing and grooming instructions for entrants; Drumgoole wore Stepford Wife hair and makeup on top of dirty T-shirts, punctuated bythough the character has occasional makeup-smearing Tammy Faye Bakker breakdowns.
And then there's Soxx. Drumgoole describes her character for the Happy Trash Day videos as a "sort of tweaked-out clown" with makeup smeared all over her face — but in a little-kid way.
“Soxx would be me when I was maybe 10 or 11, as if the self-consciousness that hits every girl had never happened,” says Drumgoole. Soxx is from the Garden of Eden before the apple. She loves everyone, and has a huge smile, often inexpertly framed with glitter makeup. When Drumgoole sends bright-yellow emails as Soxx, the exclamation points come by the dozens; when Soxx speaks, you can practically hear the thick clusters of punctuation marks.
Soxx’s fashion sense tends toward sequins. In fact, says Drumgoole, “A lot of those [costumes] are things I actually had when I was growing up — my mom saved everything. And she gave me that stuff, so it’s, like, my actual dance costume when I was 11.”
They still fit. “I was one of those girls who got really tall and ‘became a woman’ oddly fast — I was always the biggest kid. By second grade, I was the height I am now.” To recreate this vibe of awkward over-maturity in her videos, Drumgoole digitally nudges Soxx’s voice down a few steps, until it sounds a bit draggy. “I thought the voice was a good way of noting, like, feeling like you have a monster body — but that it's OK, like,” she shrugs. “That's my voice! It’s great!”
Drumgoole was an abnormally tall 11-year-old in a small town in Maryland. “I went to Catholic school in the country growing up, we never had art classes,” she says. “So I would just do all those Make and Do crafts.” Make and Do is part of the multivolume set of Childcraft books. The series originated in the ’30s, and its crafts have a Depression-era ethos of using low- or no-cost materials that might be otherwise thrown in the trash — cigar-box puppets, papier-mâché masks, etc. — though the series has had aesthetic updates. Drumgoole’s set of books is “from the ’70s … so, everything’s beans and macaroni,” she says.
Drumgoole got into the grad photography program at Yale before she’d had much formal art schooling. “For undergrad, I was just taking photography as an elective, but never really studying, you know, ‘Art.’” Going from zero to grad school was a bit of a culture shock, though she caught up quickly and loved Yale. But when she was exhausted after The Real Women of Philadelphia (it's too long and crazy of a story to get into here — just know that the statement "After the cream cheese contest, I had sort of lost faith in the world" is only kind of a joke), Drumgoole wanted to return to the un-self-conscious pleasure she’d gotten from Make and Do as a kid: “For this next project, I’m going back to beans and macaroni. I’ll create this character that makes these trash crafts, see what happens.”
And so it was that Drumgoole ended up throwing elaborate parties for her trash guys.
“The last section of [Make and Do] is ‘Come to My Party!’ It's got this whole aesthetic — centerpieces and balloons and streamers and party favors," says Drumgoole. She tried to stick to the book's directions as closely as possible.
Anthony Quail Jr. and Dawson Boller say they’d never encountered anything like it. Quail’s worked for the Sanitation Department for nearly 14 years, Boller 10 years. When they got back to the station, Quail says, they told everybody what had happened. “I said there's this lady on our route, and she appreciates us and she's letting us know that we do a great job.” He laughs. “They said, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”
“They didn't believe us!” says Boller in mock outrage. “They thought we was crazy,” says Quail. “Yeah, or telling them a story,” says Boller. “They thought it was a joke!” says Quail.
This was, in part, because they're known for loving jokes. Drumgoole probably couldn’t have found more receptive guests if she’d tried, but it took a while for anyone else at Sanitation to buy that Happy Trash Day was a real thing, though Quail and Boller took a ton of photos and even brought back physical evidence.
“They actually took the banner and put it on the truck," says Drumgoole. "I was, like, ‘Do you guys want the balloons?’ And Tony's, like, ‘Yeah!’” She says that the huge kick Quail and Dawson got out of Happy Trash Day made her want to do more. She cites a specific moment: “I'm dancing around, and then Tony starts skipping and running with the balloons, and I'm, like, ‘OK, this is on.’”
She did another one with even more balloons the next week, then another. After a few, Quail and Dawson are in videos yelling “HAPPY TRASH DAY!” with nearly as much enthusiasm as Soxx, and accompanying her in choreographed dances. Then there’s different faces in the videos as Drumgoole expanded to doing Happy Trash Day in other neighborhoods.
“I’ve been to almost all of them — I might have missed two,” says Quail. “Now we keep track of it on Instagram and Facebook. And texts.” He says that co-workers started believing him “after they had the big event, and then the City Council and everybody else came down.”
Drumgoole had invited them, per the "Come to my party!" chapter of Make and Do. “If you follow the instructions in the book, it says you have to invite your guests,” Drumgoole says, so she decided to go to City Hall to extend a formal invitation. “In the beginning, it was just absurd. The first time I went to City Council, Soxx was just going to invite them to her party. I had Soxx wearing her businesswear,” i.e., toned down enough to not get her immediately thrown out of the public comment portion of a City Council meeting. “So it's my turn, and I was, like” — she affects a dippy voice — “‘Hi, guys! I do Happy Trash Day, we put streamers and balloons out for trash collectors.’ They all turn around, like, ‘Oh, my God.’ … They're usually all on their phones!”
If you’ve ever been to one, you know that Council meetings can be dull, and often involve covert smartphone use by nearly everyone — journalists, staffers, even council members. Drumgoole says that because she was so bizarre, a lot of people at least put their iPhones down for a minute as she issued an invitation to attend the next Happy Trash Day. (Or not — she saw one councilman take her photo as she was speaking, “then I see him scrolling through, adding the filters to put onto Instagram.”) More than a few journalists contacted her afterward, as did the offices of councilmen Mark Squilla and David Oh, both of whom eventually came — though not to the next one.
That one turned out to plenty crowded regardless.
“The Sanitation Department got wind of it, and that next Happy Trash Day we had a bunch of people here. I was just waiting for my crew; I'd told them, 'Next week we're gonna have a good one.'” That morning, Drumgoole had prepared for a bit bigger party than usual, and had ordered a bunch of pizzas. But not enough. She’d been puzzled by a lot of people she didn’t know buzzing around her street, who later turned out to be high-ranking people from the Streets Department and AFSCME District Council 33, the union that represents more than 8800 blue-collar municipal workers like Quail and Boller in Philadelphia.
“Then two hours before our regular trash crew is supposed to come, all these trash trucks get funneled down here,” Drumgoole says.
“It was like a big block party,” says Quail. “I don't know why they was down here,” says Boller. They laugh and play at being insulted. “It's a celebration for us, not them! We're the originals!” says Quail. “She's celebrating us, actually,” says Boller.
Happy Trash Day hadn’t been particularly well explained to the crews; all they knew is that they had been instructed to show up for some sort of photo op.
“I mean, what are they going to tell them? They just think it's a citizen trying to thank them, they don’t know it's this tweaked-out clown," says Drumgoole. "I'd made this giant bean dress that took me like a month; it weighs, like, 60 pounds.”
“So all these other sanitation workers are, like, 'What the eff are we doing here with this clown in a giant bean dress?' And we didn't have enough food. I mean, it was a good thing,” she says. They were mostly won over by the pizza and enthusiasm.
“After the supervisors left, one of the workers said to me, ‘You should talk to the Mayor for us — we haven't had a contract or a raise in almost five years,’” says Drumgoole. She was horrified. “Oh my God, you're asking the clown for help? That really broke my heart. I've got smeared makeup and a bean dress. What can I do?
“Then I realized that the spectacle of this is kind of what’s needed. If I were to try to do this as regular Jenny, like,” she adopts an earnest voice, “‘Give your sanitation workers a contract and raise!’ It’s not going to work.” It was clear from all the attention paid to Drumgoole’s first appearance at City Hall that the public was more interested in sanitation workers when a tweaked-out clown was speaking on their behalf.
So she went back to City Council, this time asking them to help the city reach a contract agreement with DC 33. She spoke at more public comment portions of City Council meetings including once this past March when she attempted to explain why she kept coming back dressed like a crazy person: “Most people are jaded with politics. But if people stumble into a happy, circuslike atmosphere … it changes the context. They can realize how hard the sanitation workers’ job really is.”
“It's a hard and thankless job,” says Boller. Quail estimates that they lift more than 15 tons of trash into the truck by hand per shift. “It's strenuous, and there's wear and tear on our bodies. A lot of walking, a lot of lifting, carrying, bending,” says Boller. “Another thing is the weather. Rain, sleet, snow — we gotta be out here,” says the third member of their crew, who’s just subbing in the day we talk. We’ll call him “Ross.”
“We work hard out here, we take a lot of crap from the public. People driving behind us, beeping their horns,” says Quail. Someone He says their co-workers partly didn’t believe some random woman on their route had thrown them a thank-you party because the public rarely shows them much respect or any gratitude. “They figure because they pick up trash, why not treat ’em like it,” says Ross. “They don't think we're human. They think robots come pick this up. But we're trying to keep y'all’s blocks clean, keep the city clean.”
“They don't treat policemen like that; they don’t treat firemen like that. They don't treat any other city employees like that,” says Quail. “Even the Water Department gets some respect,” says Boller.
“We deal with bedbugs, urine — you name it, it goes in there,” he points at the back of the truck. “Tell her what wild rice is!” Drumgoole nudges him. “Wild rice is maggots,” says Quail. “Yeah, maggots,” affirm Boller and Ross, as if it’s no thing.
Summer’s the worst season, says Boller, also gesturing at the back of the truck. “107 degrees in there, sun beating down on my neck —” “I mean winter, too, actually,” interrupts Quail. “But in summer when the trash is cooking” — “and when it's zero degrees out here and ice cold” — “or when it's ice-cold freezing and you can't feel your hands” — “And they disrespect us with this stinking-ass contract?” finishes Boller. “It's ridiculous.”
Because DC 33 finally signed with the city just this August — only 61 months late. Though DC 33 members overwhelmingly voted to approve the contract, Quail, Boller and Ross offer their immediate, unanimous opinions on it: “It stinks!” They sound as frustrated as anyone who’s had his pay frozen for five years would be.
The Cliffs Notes version of the dispute: Philadelphia has long offered city workers excellent, expensive pension plans. Politicians from decades past used these as free money — IOUs that they could trade to unions for concessions and support right then, to be paid off by some other mayor in 40 years. But those past politicians didn’t set aside a responsible amount of money to pay off the IOUs they’d written; plus, the IOUs now cost more because of longer lifespans and because the 2008 recession vaporized about a fifth of what had been set aside. Now there’s only enough money for about half of the IOUs, and Philly has had to pour an ever-increasing share of its operating budget into the ever-faster-draining pension vortex. This is partly why the city always seems to be raising taxes and selling off assets, but never seems to have any money.
So when the contracts for DC 33 and its white-collar sister DC 47 expired in 2009, a desperate Mayor Michael Nutter insisted that the new contract change the pension system for new hires. The unions dug in, and rolled over their current contract five times rather than agree to the changes. It’s not an easy situation, and neither side is particularly wrong.
This all doesn’t do much for three sanitation workers who haven’t gotten a raise in five years.
“Everything is going up, our pay is going down,” says Quail. They’d hoped that the new contract would involve back pay for the years their salaries were frozen. What they got was a 3 percent raise now, a 2.5 percent raise in a year and a $2,800 lump sum — and the slate wiped clean on the last five years.
“No back pay, no nothing,” says Boller. “It’s disrespectful to just throw money in our face and say, ‘Here, shut up,’ basically,” says Quail. “It’s hush money,” agrees Boller.
The negotiations took so long that this contract will expire in less than two years, and they hope that the next one will be “a better one than this one! Way better,” says Quail. Drumgoole’s up for a pretty big grant to continue doing Happy Trash Day (which she mostly pays for with her own money); even if she doesn’t get the grant, she says, “I want to do it at least every year on the anniversary of the first one, and save up for when the contract’s up for negotiation again — OK, there’s a D-Day.” But until then, it’s less activism and more throwing a silly party for friends.
Last Thursday morning, Drumgoole held a Happy Trash Day outside Fleisher Art Memorial, where most of the costumes and props she’s used, plus videos, are on exhibit through Nov. 8. She hauled them out for the morning’s party with doughnuts, balloons, coffee, bottles of water, streamers and a life-sized, Childcraft-looking papier-mâché trash collector. If you look closely, the strips of newspaper in the papier-mâché are articles about the union’s contract negotiations. She buries her head in the papier-mache garbageman’s shoulder.
The grant people just called; a DVD she sent had gotten messed up, so “they need, by 2 p.m., my second-round application on a flash drive. I told them I was going to be between performances, so I would have to show up dressed like a clown. They said, ‘That’s OK!’ But I don’t know if they know that I’m… actually coming dressed like a clown, with, like, bottle caps in my hair.” She’s doing another Happy Trash Day on her street later this afternoon. “So it’ll be here, Center City, find parking, make it past the security desk dressed like this, go upstairs to this office, have them let me in, get pizza, then set up back at my house” before Quail and Boller get to her street. Because it’s trash day.
“That’s just what Thursday is,” she says.
Two trucks have already come by this morning, and we’re not expecting more. But when a third truck slows down half a block away, Drumgoole tears off running down the street with a huge smile, waving her arms and shouting, “HEY! COME DOWN HERE! HAPPY TRASH DAY!!!!!!!” But they’re already turning our way. One guy who gets out for a doughnut says that this isn’t on his route, and that he’d never heard of Happy Trash Day before this. “But a couple co-workers, we passed them on the way, said, ‘Come on over, they’re having National Trash Day!’ So we came down, and it was very exciting!” He laughs and gets back in his truck, looking like this small thing — a doughnut, a water bottle, a stranger’s appreciation for the difficult job he does — has legitimately made his day. He waves. “Thank you for having us!”
Make & Do (Happy Trash Day!!) is at Fleisher Art Memorial through Nov. 8, fleisher.org. Drumgoole will give an artist’s talk as Soxx this Sat., Oct. 18, 8 p.m., at Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th St., 215-238-1236, voxpopuligallery.org.