Blue Collar Intellectuals: The Sanitation Truck Driver

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Planetary Society

Part of “Appetite for the Cosmos,” a five-part blog series.

There’s a scene in Sergio Leone’s epic film Once Upon a Time in America, in which a man who was targeted by the Mafia stands on a street corner at night when a garbage truck drives by. The noisy vehicle slows down as it passes, and then resumes its speed. The truck leaves the scene, and the guy on the street corner is gone.

I’m given no reason to suspect such a fate for myself, but I was not without a spot of anxiety one morning when I was walking my two kids to elementary school. Strolling down the sidewalk, we approached the curb as the traffic light was about to turn green. At that moment, a noisy sanitation truck approached. It cruised through the yellow light, moved broadside to us, and stopped abruptly in the cross walk.

Sanitation trucks simply don’t do this. People in the city, even daydreaming ones, know not to cross in front of these things, so the driver wasn’t stopping for a pedestrian. Nor does Manhattan have suicide squirrels. And nobody would ever stop for a pigeon. So this moment was without precedent in city life.

I heard the airbrakes squeal, as the driver’s door swung open with force. This was the moment when I thought of the movie and briefly felt tense. The driver, a heavy-set, jolly sort of fellow, then leaned his body through the open door, and while straining his seatbelt supports he shouted, Dr. Tyson, how’s the Universe today?

Anything other than a one-word answer would be unrealistic in that setting, so I treated the question as rhetorical, like the currently meaningless How are you today? where nobody but your closest friends and relatives actually expects you to tell them how your really are. So I smiled back to him, nodded my head, and silently offered two thumbs up. This was my way of saying that all is well in the universe. And the driver could not have known that my answer was inspired by the fact that he had asked the question in the first place.