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It's a tiring, smelly job, but New Yorkers line up for it. Michael DeCataldo and Peter DiGregorio tell why

Roll call for Michael DeCataldo and Peter DiGregorio is at 7 a.m. in a garage underneath the Williamsburg Bridge on Manhattan's Lower East Side. There they get ready to do a job that is often hazardous, always strenuous, and most likely smelly. The work involves lifting more than five tons on some days -- in rain, snow, or hot sun.

The job title? New York Sanitation worker.

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And 50,000 to 60,000 New Yorkers want a crack at it. They are scheduled to take a physical test sometime this year to try to qualify for the job.

By 7:30 a.m., Mr. DeCataldo and Mr. DiGregorio are driving a lumbering garbage truck toward midtown Manhattan to pick up residential refuse.

``I'm satisfied with what I am doing,'' says DiGregorio, a Staten Islander who points out that when he was a construction worker, he didn't always have work. ``A steady flow fills the pot.''

Salary and pension plans are the reasons most often mentioned when sanitation workers explain their career choice.

The qualifying tests, begun last week, will provide a new list from which to select future sanitation workers, who can expect to start at around $20,000 a year, says Vito Turso, a Sanitation Department spokesman. A typical sanitation worker makes around $30,000 a year, according to a union spokesman.

The pension plan that would apply to the new workers offers up to 50 percent of the average salary of the last three years of work. To qualify, they must work at least 25 years and in some cases as long as 40.

Because of an ample supply of applicants, the city's hasn't had to administer a test for sanitation workers for the last 11 years. This new test is a simulated garbage run, which involves lifting nearly 150 bags ranging in weight from 8 to 65 pounds -- a total of nearly 11/2 tons -- and putting them into hoppers. Each candidate has 27 minutes to complete the route.

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A larger number of minority candidates are scheduled to take the test than ever before, with 29 percent being black and 16 percent Hispanic.

And 2,882 women have qualified. The Sanitation Department is the last uniformed service without female workers. Mr. Turso says that may change soon.

But some sanitation workers speculate that the new test is too easy.

``There are women who are physically fit, and could do the test,'' says DeCataldo, also a Staten Islander. ``But do they have the stamina for [the job]?''

As DiGregorio dumps pails of compacted garbage on 46th Street into the back of the two-man truck, he asks this reporter to give it a try. The can doesn't budge.

``See?'' he says with a smile. ``Can you imagine a woman lifting this?''

But both men agree that women should be allowed to take the test.

``If she passes, she deserves the job,'' DeCataldo says. ``But make the test hard enough.'' Both he and DiGregorio are also skeptical about the removal of the age limit for the physical test.

As they work their midtown route, the men swap stories about the oddities of their job. They talk of seeing valuable furniture or silver thrown away. And there are the stories they can now laugh at.

``I was picking up pails on Avenue C when a rat jumped onto my shoulder,'' says DiGregorio. Now he kicks each can before he hefts it.

But they also note the hazards of the profession. DiGregorio says he was once injured by a board while loading garbage into the truck.

DeCataldo was hit in the leg by a hypodermic needle that was sticking out of a garbage bag.

He also points to an oily, black substance that drips in the hopper of his truck after a stop.

``We don't know if there are hazardous wastes in there,'' DeCataldo says.

But there are pleasant moments.

Along the workers' route, building superintendents, mail carriers, and secretaries say hello. At the delicatessan where the two partners take a 15-minute break at 9 a.m., the waitress guesses their orders.

``We get to know people,'' says DeCataldo as he manuevers the 15-ton truck through busy streets.

But both say they will be more than ready to retire when they are eligible for pensions.

``I feel it at the end of the day,'' says DeCataldo, who began in 1973. ``When I get home, I sit down and turn on the television. But I don't really watch it.''

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