When I grew up, the amount of people in our household varied with attrition. The five of us kids were spaced out anywhere from four to five years, so as one fell off the cliff, a new one was always bringing up the rear. By all accounts, one would think that we generated a lot of garbage in those years, but I don’t think we did.
Under our kitchen sink, next to the cleaning products and the potatoes, my mom kept a basket that was no larger than one you might find in an office. She lined it perfectly with a brown paper grocery bag, which was folded up and over the lip, and this is where everything went. We also had a tiny basket in the bathroom, which was emptied once every blue moon since it was hardly ever used. Nobody threw away garbage in the bathroom. That was like getting a glass of water out of the bathroom sink and who in their right mind does that?
When the kitchen basket was full, the entire thing would be taken outside and emptied. On those occasions when the paper bag full of garbage was removed from the basket, it was a race against time and common sense to get it outside before the bottom fell out. Naturally, I viewed this as a challenge. It was a quick run from the kitchen, through the family room and out the side door so the chances of the thing exploding was based on a delicate balance of speed (x) liquidity of the garbage (÷) the amount of bacon grease. Failure wasn’t an option.
Our two small, galvanized steel garbage cans were on the side yard, on the other side of a chain link gate, sitting up on a pair of two by fours. Once each week, a guy would roll a gigantic plastic barrel on a dolly up to our house, dump the cans, replace the lids, and close the gate on the way out. He would then do the same thing at our neighbors’ houses until his barrel was full.
The driver of the truck was parked a few houses up and doing the same thing at his group of houses, and they would somehow choreograph their trips so they ended up at the truck together. When that happened, the two of them would heft up the barrel and dump it into the pungent maw in the rear of the truck. As kids, we would sit cross-legged on the sidewalk and watch slack-jawed as the truck started chomping all manner of garbage.
As if this wasn’t spectacular enough, once in a special while, somebody would toss out a washer or maybe a sofa. This would warrant a double or even triple amount of amazement as we watched the destruction. When it was all done, one guy would jump up on a little platform on the back of the truck and hold on with one hand while the other man drove away. It made me want to be a garbage man.
Man, who wouldn’t want to use hydraulics and levers to chew up a sofa and then ride around hanging in the breeze on the back of a moving truck? These larger than life men would hoist ridiculously heavy things, crunch them to pieces and then hop up on a moving platform like Gene Kelly on a lamppost. Was this the coolest job in the world or what?
Those were the days.
A few weeks ago, I wheeled our half-empty ninety-six-gallon trash toter down to the curb, followed by not one but two recycling tubs. I also had a large cardboard box, which I crushed and placed between the tubs and the toter. I honestly wasn’t sure who would pick up the cardboard. Technically speaking, it was paper so the recycling truck should’ve grabbed that, but I hedged my bet. Besides, it was a big box and I wasn’t going to cut it up into magazine sized bits just to stack it all in the recycling tub. I figured they would sort this out at the curb.
Later that afternoon, the trash toter was empty and the recycling tubs were upside down, skittered across the driveway, but the cardboard remained. “Huh,” I thought to myself, so I called the trash company to see what I was supposed to do next.
“Was the cardboard in the toter?” she asked. “Nope. It was a big box that I crushed flat. It wouldn’t fit in the toter,” I explained. “It’s bigger than the toter.”
“Well, that’s why,” she said, which didn’t really answer the “why” part of my question at all. She may as well have said, “Well, that’s pineapples,” but I figured it out.
The days of big burly men lifting up containers full of garbage have gone the way of milkmen bringing a quart of buttermilk up to the front porch. Those carefree guys have been replaced by one apathetic guy, who drives the truck and uses an articulated, mechanical arm to lift the toter twenty feet into the air, where it’s shaken a few times into a large open bin and then placed back on the driveway. The man never leaves the truck. Ever. If it’s not in the toter, it doesn’t leave the curb.
“So now what? I asked.
“Well, the recycling driver should have picked it up. Was it in the paper tub?”
“No … it’s a large, crushed box,” I said again. Right about then, I was wishing I would have curled it up and crammed it into the tub, like a gigantic cardboard flower in a blue box vase.
“OK then, you should have called us so we could send out a special truck for large objects.” She said this matter-of-factly as if I was trying to throw away a side-by-side refrigerator or an old power boat.
“So I have to call for a special truck with two special guys to drive out from wherever it is that you park your special trucks to pick up a cardboard box? It’s an empty cardboard box. A toddler can lift it.”
“Yes, that’s how we do it,” she said as if this was as normal as standing on your head to put on your shoes. I was stunned and more than anything else that has happened of late, I was starting to feel my age. Why has something so elegantly simple as picking up garbage become so bogged down with complications?
I dragged the toter back up to the garage, and then went down and plucked all of the stray milk jugs, newspaper bits, plastic carry-out trays and the other crumbs of neighborhood detritus that blows out of overflowing recycling tubs, and put them into my blue box. This little garbage co-op explains modern day recycling in a nutshell. Half of the overflowing crap in these tubs will blow out if nothing more significant than a passing bird fart hits it and then roll down the street like little suburban tumbleweeds. Eventually, it gets stuck in my shrubs for a while before blowing from my shrubs into some other shrubs until finally ending up in the nearby creek. From there, it all washes over to Canada. I believe it eventually ends up somewhere in the Arctic.
The following week, I spent about fifteen minutes with a utility knife slicing up the cardboard box into bite-sized pieces, which were then stacked into the garbage can. By rights, it all should have gone into the recycling tub, but I was so annoyed at the entire process that I didn’t care where any of it went.
I happened to be home when the garbage truck came by on Monday, and I watched as the robotic arm unfolded and grabbed the toter. As it lifted the can up into the clouds and tipped it, the lid fell open and one stray piece of cardboard caught the wind and flew away. “Well, that’s a defiant little bugger. Say hi to Canada for me,” I said.
When I was a kid, we would have made a fort out of that box and played in it for a week, and when that was over, we would have used what was left for a bow and arrow target. In the end, it would have been dragged out into a corner of the yard and set on fire. That’s how we used to recycle.
I sure do miss those days.