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Grease Is the Word


January 4, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

PHOTO: Angel Franco/The New York Times

Axel Arce plying his trade at an Outback Steakhouse. "People gotta eat,'' he says, "and they have to have someone to catch the grease."

AS he steers his snub-nosed truck through Midtown traffic, up to 1,000 gallons of used restaurant grease sloshing in a tank in the back, Axel Arce keeps an eye out for sights that can prompt a bit of New York trivia, like the fact that the statue at Columbus Circle is the traditional distance marker for New York, the point from which mileage between this city and all others are measured. It's an old habit, a holdover from Mr. Arce's days as a tour bus driver.

In his current job as a pumper for Russell Reid, a New Jersey waste management company, however, Mr. Arce focuses on a different New York, one entered through service doors and loading docks, a city most people don't like to think about, especially at mealtimes.

Two days a week, Mr. Arce removes used deep-fry oil from metal drums and cleans grease traps in the kitchens of many of Manhattan's best-known restaurants and corporate cafeterias.

Required by law in all the city's licensed eating establishments, a grease trap is a tank near the sink that separates oil, water and food particles. Without grease traps, oil and food from commercial kitchens would flow into the city's water system, clogging pipes and producing tap water resembling vegetable soup in both substance and texture.

In 1998, the City Council passed an ordinance that required restaurants to recycle used grease, a change that has helped Russell Reid grow from 50 employees in the late 1990's to more than 200 now.

It's a good business to be in, said Mr. Arce (pronounced AR-see), en route to Manhattan on a recent Thursday morning. "People gotta eat, and they have to have someone to catch the grease."

His pursuit of the city's old, fermented grease begins the moment he arrives at Russell Reid's headquarters in Keasbey, N.J., shortly before 5 a.m. Making sure there is a full box of rubber gloves in his truck, he sets out for the city, arriving early enough so that most diners will never know that he has come and gone.

His job, for which he earns $17 an hour, is not for the delicate, but parking in Manhattan, he said, is by far the worst part. At each restaurant, he must find street parking for his custom-fitted Peterbilt truck, which is another reason he likes to beat the commuters and arrive in Manhattan before 6 a.m., finishing the day's stops (usually six to eight locations) by 1 p.m. He also carries a camera, as some restaurant owners, repelled by the smell of the dislodged grease, nevertheless request proof of a job completed.

At Jewel of India on 44th Street near Fifth Avenue, Mr. Arce, who does not eat fried food, prepared for his first stop of the day. Inside the truck, he pressed a button that lowered the back, and flipped a silver toggle switch that sent power to the pump. Putting on his gloves and opening up the back, he climbed in and unrolled about 80 feet of tubing, enough to thread back through the opulent dining room and down the faded green carpeted stairs into the kitchen.

Inside the restaurant, the owner shook Mr. Arce's hand and pressed a tip into his palm as he walked back to the quiet kitchen, where lunch preparations were yet to begin. A 40-gallon grease trap recessed into the floor awaited him, along with two metal drums brimming with rust-colored frying oil. Without much fuss, he lowered the barrel wand into the grease trap. The wand made a muffled, slurping sound as it drew in the thick, grayish grease. As he worked the wand into the corners of the trap, he chatted in Spanish with one of the kitchen workers.

YOU have to have people skills for this job,'' said Mr. Arce, who switches seamlessly from English to Spanish several times in a day as he chats with owners, managers and kitchen helpers, even at restaurants with kitchen staffs he describes as "naughty," meaning that he finds broken plates, platters and rubber gloves in their oil vats.

Mr. Arce, wearing a uniform that was well-worn but clean, worked rapidly and meticulously, careful to avoid spattering or smudges. Slowly and steadily, Jewel of India's grease disappeared. Mr. Arce seemed unaware of the fetid smell of month-old grease dislodged from a trap, a scent so aggressively organic and swampy that it very nearly has a shape and color. After two years on the job, he barely notices anymore.

After driving buses on and off for more than 20 years, Mr. Arce, 44, who was born in Puerto Rico and came to the New York City area as a baby, took this position so he could spend more time with his wife and children, a son, 12, and a daughter, 20.

In addition to his full-time job with Russell Reid, Mr. Arce is a volunteer firefighter in Brick Township and a field artillery commander in his National Guard unit. The unit is to be deployed to Iraq this month to serve as military police, but his boss at Russell Reid has assured him that he will have a job there upon his return.

"Not everyone can do this job," he said. "My military training helps me. I can stand anything." He recalled a former correction officer who was hired as a pumper, rode with him for one day and quit that afternoon.

"Some days the smell gets to me," he said. With no pun intended, he added, "I just suck it up and think of my daughter's college tuition."

Mr. Arce's job has given him another set of landmarks to point out in the city, and for the casual diner, a drive with him can be a harrowing experience, as he comments on kitchens whose conditions he is familiar with. Heading back to the office, he pointed to a K.F.C. he used to service.

"Their drums overflowed, and I'd always have to scrape a path through the grease on the floor to clean up the stuff in the traps," he said, shaking his head at the memory. "Nice folks, though."

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