Heroes or Sopranos?

By now, most people with a television set know about Tony Soprano. The main character in the popular HBO series "The Sopranos," Tony is a New Jersey gangster who is bewildered by the combined stresses of managing his Mob business, raising his two teenagers and dealing with the fact that his mother is trying to kill him. So he is seeing a shrink to try and resolve his feelings.

"The Sopranos'" writers decided to make Tony's "legitimate" business a trash hauling company in New Jersey. One of the more recent episodes even spends a good deal of time at Tony's company, Barone Brothers Sanitation, as he tries to prove to the world that he is just an ordinary businessman.

I started thinking about this stereotype recently when I saw a book about the making of the TV series.

Earlier that day, I attended a meeting where a state legislator praised the solid waste industry as "heroes" because of the hard, often thankless, work we do to protect the public health and the environment. He felt we weren't getting fair credit for helping to keep America's streets and the environment clean.

As I looked at the book, I thought to myself, which is it? Are we heroes or Sopranos?

Why is it so easy for the writers of this show to label garbagemen as crooks, albeit in the case of Tony Soprano, a thug suffering anxiety attacks?

We all know that in some places the solid waste industry was plagued by corruption. But the reality is that most garbagemen are hardworking businessmen who run honest companies and are angry and tired at being placed in the same category with thugs.

Some time ago, courageous prosecutors, cops and haulers helped drive the cartel out of business in New York City. After decades of fleecing New York City businesses out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, cartel leaders now are in prison.

The same happened in New Jersey, home to the Soprano family. Yet the caricature is dredged up, probably because the show's writers are too lazy to do their homework.

So I have a suggestion for HBO. In the third series of "The Sopranos" episodes, let's introduce a whole new anxiety attack for Tony. He could be sitting in his office at Barone Brothers when he receives notice that federal and state officials have started proceedings to strip his company of its operating license.

Then, Tony would have a dream where he is visiting the prison cell of one of the New York City cartel leaders. To his horror, he realizes that he, too, will be living in the very same building. His mother may not get to him, but state prosecutors will.

I realize that "The Sopranos" television series is fiction. However, by taking the easy way out and giving mobsters jobs as garbagemen, the show's writers spit in the faces of hundreds of thousands of honest garbagemen. HBO owes this industry an apology.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Waste Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org