Not many trash men make the Fulbright Commission’s study awards programs, but Ed Shevlin is not your ordinary sanitation worker. Tattooed biker, bin man, fluent speaker of Irish and now NYU master’s in Irish American studies student, the lifelong resident of the Irish stronghold of Far Rockaway, Queens has a resume that is as rich and varied as his life story. He tells CAHIR O’DOHERTY about the dramatic turning point that led him away from self-destruction toward a new life and a master’s degree.
In Irish, in which he’s become a native speaker, Ed Shevlin, 53, is called a “fear bruscar.” In Irish English that translates to a bin man, or in American English a trash man.
It’s a line of work that leaves you with few illusions but Shevlin, who has been working for the New York City Department of Sanitation for over two decades, has learned to let nothing stand in his way.
Growing up in the Irish stronghold of Far Rockaway, Queens, his childhood was spent in one of the indisputable American golden ages, the 1960s. It was a simpler time, and life at the beach was a non-stop party.
“Swimming and surfing is how everyone grew up there,” he tells the Irish Voice. “I was born in the Peninsula Hospital in Rockaway Beach in 1960, so I was growing up through the 1960s and the ‘70s. I was allowed to go to the beach on my own from the age of eight.
“It was a great time. All the kids walked to school, parents didn’t drop you off there. As a matter of fact if they did you probably got a hard time from the rest of the kids. It didn’t go over too well.”
A first generation American, Shevlin’s mother was from Cork city and arrived in New York 10 years before his birth in 1950. Shevlin’s house was representative of all the other Irish households in the neighborhood, he says.
“We had family parties where they’d put five or six record albums on the record player. We’d play the Clancy Brothers and other traditional bands. The albums would get stacked and one would drop and play until the next one took its place,” Shevlin recalled.
Weekdays his father, who hailed from Scotland, worked for Chase Manhattan Bank and also worked on Wall Street counting stocks.
“I don’t know what that involved, but he did it to ensure we could have a big vacation to Ireland back in 1970. Because he was able to save up money from two jobs he took us to Ireland, England and Scotland that summer.”
Shevlin’s mother was a stay at home mom who looked after him and his two younger brothers, Shaun and Clifford. “She stayed home to take care of us until she determined we were old enough to look after ourselves, and then she got a job working in a nursing home as a nurse’s aid. That paid the tuition to Catholic school,” he says.
But Shevlin wasn’t a very committed student when he finally got to high school. “I got thrown out of Xavier High School [the famous Jesuit run school in the West Village] after a year and then I went to a public high school here in Rockaway.”
But how do you get thrown out of such a top-flight school like Xavier?
“For drinking,” he replies. “When we left grade school all the parents were having keg parties for 13 year olds. They had this ridiculous attitude that as long as they drink here under our supervision everything will be okay. But what if your kid is going to turn out to be an alcoholic, like I did?”
The Irish community has a horror of hearing themselves criticized, even mildly, in print. Is Shevlin certain he wants to remind them of some poor parenting choices?
“I have no qualms about putting this out there because it might just save someone if they hear this,” Shevlin replies. “Kids at 13 and 14 years of age shouldn’t be encouraged to drink beer, whether it’s in someone’s backyard or out in the pub or anywhere else.”
Rather than focusing on his school assignments, Shevlin was focusing on having fun. “I was not unusual in Rockaway and Breezy Point. Back in the 1970s it was completely nuts. Beer was cheap, my buddies and I all had side jobs – I washed dishes in a restaurant – we always had money in our pockets and a six-pack was $1.75,” he remembers.
“When I started drinking I spent the summer between the eight and ninth grade having parties with my friends. I wasn’t the only Irish Catholic kid who got thrown out of high school after the ninth grade. It was because we all lived our lives waiting for the weekend and planning the party we would have.”
Eventually he dropped out of high school completely, and in fact finally secured his GED when he was 30 years old.
“I was raised with strong morals so I didn’t cheat and I didn’t steal. I just liked to party a lot. But I developed the disease of alcoholism,” Shevlin says.
“I drank because I wanted to get out of myself, to get that feeling that comes with drinking. Then after a while it just becomes the thing you do. That’s the way it was for most of the kids, for my crowd for sure.”
He didn’t come to the realization that booze had taken over his life until he was a grown man, he says.
“I bought a pub. It was like a diabetic owning a bakery. I never woke up with the shakes. I never opened a beer first thing in the morning. I never drank every day and all day,” Shevlin says.
“But when I did pick up a drink there was a very good chance that I would keep going for too long. That happened in my teens, in my twenties and my thirties.”
Shevlin had started working in pubs as a bartender when he was 18. “In the ‘80s I worked in a pub called the Blackwater Inn here in Rockaway. It’s an institution. I was making $1,400 a week for four nights work.
“Everywhere I went I had free and unfettered access to drink. It was the 80s and everyone had money. Those were fun times.”
But his best buddies were firemen and he noticed they had a salary; they had pensions and health insurance.
“There was no future in pubs. The retirement plan was cirrhosis of the liver. I wasn’t optimistic about it.”
A good city job was the answer. “I got hired by the Department of Sanitation to be a sanitation man when I was 32,” Shevlin says.
But soon his hard drinking made him late for work, and sometimes he didn’t show at all. Because Shevlin had Irish American friends who were highly placed he managed not to get fired, but his life felt directionless and his drinking hadn’t stopped.
It was the attack on 9/11 that saw Shevlin turn his life turn around.
“I got very angry. I went to a very dark place after the attack. I wanted to get revenge on the people who had killed so many of my friends and neighbors,” he recalls.
Seventy people from the Rockaways were killed on that tragic day. Many were well known to Shevlin; some were among his closest friends.
“I felt like I wanted to take revenge on the people who had done this. I was feeling very violent, so I checked myself into rehab. It worked. This year in October I’ll be 13 years sober,” he says.
They say an alcoholic stops drinking when they hit rock bottom. For a lot of people that would mean the loss of their job, their home or their family, but Shevlin kept all those things.
“What happened to me was I wanted something good to come out of this horrible time. I didn’t want to go on being this angry, sad and vengeful person,” he says.
“So I dedicated my future sobriety to two of my buddies who were killed: Vinnie (Vincent) Kane, a fire marshal, and Steve (Stephen) Belson, a firefighter. They were two of my dearest friends. It’s not like they weren’t fond of a drink themselves sometimes. I was just dedicating my sobriety to two people I loved.”
After five years of sober living Shevlin “cleared the cobwebs,” he says.
“A friend of mine said he wanted me to go to college and I’d already been thinking about it. I applied to Empire State College, a state university school. I love history and I started getting straight A’s,” he says.
“At one point I brought my report over to my parents and had them sign it. It was a joke but it made them happy signing their 45-year-old son’s report card.”
His study had a foreign language requirement, which meant two semesters studying any foreign language. Listening to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams speak bilingually in English and Irish had intrigued Shevlin.
“I realized that if I could speak Irish it would advance my cause. I could get interviews with Irish politicians and intellectuals and it would be great for my research.”
That led him to an Irish language immersion program run by Lehman College through the National University of Galway.
“You live with an Irish speaking family for a month. I applied and I thought it was fabulous. When I came home I learned I had gotten a B plus,” says Shevlin.
“Then the Fulbright Commission announced they were doing an Irish language summer study award and my teacher encouraged me to apply.”
Shevlin was one of the first 20 people to be selected to receive the award. And now, this week, he begins his master’s degree in Irish American studies at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House.
“Now I think of most things through the prism of scholarship. I have 21 years at the Department of Sanitation. I love my job there, but I’ll be moving on when I complete my master’s. I feel my next job will be as a college professor.”