IN between jaunty appearances on the TV talk-show circuit as author of the nation's latest No. 1 best seller, ''Mayor,'' Ed Koch has been wrestling, in his usual no-holds-barred style, with the messy problem of garbage. New York City garbage. The world's foremost garbage.
A couple of years ago the mayor got a whiff, as it were, of the sweet smell of success. By switching from three-man garbage trucks to two-man flotillas, he promised the voters, trundling their black plastic bags to every curb in sight, that he could save New York City $37 million a year.
Make that man governor! Well not quite, as it turned out. So the mayor settled down to write his memoirs of How I Lost Albany But Won the War Against Garbage, and a lot of other matters.
Alas, the troops of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association have not been exactly shouting ''Author! Author!''
We take you now to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the Red Hook section in Brooklyn - areas somewhat less spotless lately than your proverbial Dutch doorstep. Here the two-man squads have had to be demobilized because, according to city hall, ''large pockets of worker resistance'' developed against the mayor's garbage game-plan - to the extent that the new arrangement began to cost more than the old arrangement. About $13,000 more per week, just on the Upper West Side.
The president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association has countered the dirty charge that his members are trashing the trash system. ''It's not the fault of the working man,'' he said, adding (and we wouldn't kid you): ''Dumping on the sanitationmen isn't fair.''
We certainly don't want to dump on anybody. We feel humble about even discussing garbage in an ordinary layman's way. After all, garbage has become an academic subject, taught by urban archaeologists, as they are known, who take their students on field trips to the dump to sift through all that ripe social data with rubber gloves. The catchy term for it is ''garbology.''
The world changes, friends of garbage and students of garbology. That's the message we get from the dump.
But what dump? Even before he scaled down his garbage crews, Mayor Koch announced he would simultaneously cope with the ''garbage crisis'' and the energy crisis by building plants that could convert garbage into a ''powder-like fuel'' to substitute for oil in the manufacture of electricity.
A trash-watcher easily can make a metaphor out of the vanishing sanitationman. As garbage goes high-tech, the garbage truck may become as quaint a relic by the end of the century as the milk wagon is today.
You won't find us starting a cult of nostalgia at the nearest town dump. But, on the other hand, you'll never hear us say, ''Good riddance to bad rubbish'' - at least not in the presence of a member of the family who wanted to be a sanitationman until he was seven. On pickup day the boy waited by the window until those big, noisy, very off-white trucks came down the street. Then he puckered his lips and made his own engine-and-trash-compactor sound - an oom that came straight from the heart. His first spoken word was ''truck.'' His second was ''bigtruck.''
In a world prone to become the sum of its litter, people who clean up are underestimated. That's our first conclusion.
Our second conclusion is this. A community that can't clean itself up is, in some profound way, ungovernable. The cleanup may end with acid rain and radioactive waste, but surely it goes back to those who, in the name of civilization, kept a tidy path to the cave.
When our resident sanitationman grew a little older, he discovered Hercules. As one of his 12 labors, Hercules cleaned out the Augean stables. Hercules was the first famous sanitationman. Like all sanitationmen since, he resolved chaos in its most literal form. The Greeks called him a hero for that.