We're on the backside of Brooklyn at Floyd Bennett Field, where the rising sun is red as blood and the air is gauzy with the smell of the sea. Above us is that rarest of city sights, an uninterrupted basin of sky.
The man Floyd Bennett was once world-famous; he piloted Admiral Richard Byrd over the North Pole in 1926. The field Floyd Bennett, located on the edge of Jamaica Bay, was inaugurated in 1930 as the city's first municipal airport. Charles Lindbergh flew from here. So did Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, and Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan. Now it is home to, among other curiosities, the NYPD Aviation Unit, the Fuji blimp, and the Department of Sanitation Training Center, where new hires are taught how to work various vehicles and equipment.
Though it is an obscure corner of the city, many of us already know Floyd Bennett Field because we were here earlier in the summer to learn the fine art of truck driving, a prerequisite to becoming a sanitation worker. Perhaps the long-past navigations of newfangled aeroplanes were more glamorous, but 30-ton, 30-foot dump trucks—or cut-downs, as we call them—hold their own satisfactions.
Sitting high off the ground in the driver's seat, my hands at nine and three on the wide wheel, I felt the truck's power from the first moment I brought it rumbling to life. I hunched my shoulders forward, snugged my hat a little lower, then put myself and my instructor, Pat O'Brien, in motion. After he taught me some basics, I was nailing tight turns on narrow streets, rolling effortlessly along highways and through toll plazas, and backing up without trouble. I felt invincible—not much out there was bigger than I was.
"F___in' A. This is f___in' fantastic." I don't indulge my inner potty-mouthed broad very often, and O'Brien was taken aback, but he soon adjusted, for which I was grateful. He was one of the best instructors at Floyd Bennett. A fortysomething man with salt-and-pepper hair and warm brown eyes, he stocked the dashboard with packs of gum for nervous students and kept a list of every would-be "san worker" he had ever trained. On road-test days, I watched him await news of his students' results like an anxious mother.
When we weren't on defunct runways trying to parallel park or on streets trying to look like we knew what we were doing, we were in a large lot (another weed-pocked runway) being drilled on vehicle inspections, called "pre-trips." A central part of the road test, pre-trips involved mastering a lot of knowledge about the exterior and interior of the truck. We got to know the steering arm, brake chambers, slack adjusters, suspension, fluid levels, tire-tread depths. We did mandatory brake tests—there are five different ones—over and over and over. "Bust out the front," an instructor might demand, which meant we were to go through the inspection points of the front of the truck. By the end of the week, we could rattle off the required detail (lights, mirrors, guide bars, hanging debris, truck tilt, etc.) in a single breath. We worked so often on pre-trips that we started doing them on our children's Hess trucks, on our own cars, in our sleep.
At my road test, I was prepared to be supremely confident. I imagined saying to the examiner, "Welcome to my vehicle."
On a hot morning in July, eight of us were chauffeured from Brooklyn to the Bronx. The first to drive was Sheldon, a lanky Trinidadian with a soft voice and ample dreadlocks tucked under a nylon cap. He passed easily and was free to leave. He'd have been home well before noon, but he stayed. He said he wanted to make sure we all got through.
One by one, the rest of us climbed into the cut-down and disappeared around the corner with an unsmiling DMV examiner buckled into the passenger seat. When it was my turn, I was distracted by a bad case of the shakes. Too cottonmouthed to speak, I at first didn't call out overpass clearances, school-zone signs, or potential hazards, all of which are required observations. I lost 35 points (50 is failing) and was thoroughly irked with myself, but the Sanitation instructors finally told me to quit bitching; I'd passed, hadn't I?
None of us failed that day, and when I phoned O'Brien with the news, he breathed an audible sigh of relief. We passed because we had been well-trained, but I think maybe Sheldon had something to do with it, too.