My brother Anthony was helping me clean out my basement so we could move the Big Big Design office from the tiny extra room we had been crammed in to the relatively spacious finished basement. In my garage we amassed a huge pile of empty boxes, bags of styrofoam popcorn, shredded paper, non-functioning electronics, random things the cats had peed on, etc.
“Which day is trash day? I’ll help you carry it all out to the curb,” Anthony said.
I told him we couldn’t put it all out at once. The trash men wouldn’t like it.
“So what?” he said.
My heart started to pound. Of all the rules I’ve discovered about city life, “keep your trash men happy” is among the top ten — possibly the top three. The very idea of falling into their disfavor caused me pain.
“Have you had a bad experience with garbage?” he asked.
I had to confess that nothing came to mind. That doesn’t mean nothing has happened. Granted, it was probably in Cambridge or San Francisco, bigger cities where the sanitation workers certainly have tough dealings. I have a loose sense of having left reasonable-seeming garbage items on the curb and found them there still at the end of the day, rank and awful, rejected by even the people tasked with removing them safely from my home. I’ve forgotten the specific incidents but they scarred me all the same.
If you’re in a Freudian frame of mind, you might attribute this terror on my part to some deep-seated neurosis, probably formed during toilet-training days. If you’re into feng shui you may have some other, equally detailed explanation. Fine, whatever. The point is, I want my garbage guys to stay happy with me, or at least to continue taking my trash away promptly.
But then again, maybe Anthony was right. Maybe I was overreacting. After all, hadn’t I noticed the crazy-huge piles of junk other Butler residents leave? Hadn’t I shaken my head as I passed stinking mounds of trash in the mornings, only to see they had vanished by the time I returned home at the end of the day? Maybe trash collecting is an easier job in a small town like this, the trash trucks rarely filled to the brim, the sanitation professionals eager to keep the streets pristine and our houses flowing with chi.
I mentioned my worries to my sister, Kate. She too blanched at the idea of upsetting the garbage men.
“Oh no. I’m always careful to make everything easy for them. I give them a big tip at Christmas,” she said.
A tip! I’d never even thought of tipping the garbage men. The mail girl, my hairstylist, the barista at the coffeeshop, sure. But how do you tip a garbage person? If I left a card with a crisp bill on top of the trash, he might throw it away. If I labelled it in big letters “TIP,” some passerby could take it away.
Not knowing how to leave a tip, I didn’t. A few weeks passed, with me leaving a few more carefully packaged chunks of trash each Monday night. Each Tuesday by the time I woke up, the curb was clear.
By this week I’d cleared away almost all the heap — all that’s left is a few big items like old shower doors and the decrepit vanity from my now renovated bathroom, bulky things that will need to be hauled to a dump. So all I left at the curb Monday night was a single bag of household trash.
Tuesday morning it was still there.
Tuesday evening — still there.
Had the garbage people had enough of me? Maybe they’d felt insulted by the paltry bit of trash I’d generated. “That’s all you got? Heck, that’s not even worth taking.”
No, it wasn’t me. Everyone’s trash was still at the curb — the trash truck hadn’t been out. With temperatures in the 90s it was stinky, awful. Then in late afternoon the long-awaited thunderstorm arrived, so wet and strong it seemed like three storm traveling together Every bit of hot, smelly trash soaked up the water. Now the street was lined with wet, heavy, smelly piles of cardboard and garbage. If ever there were a time for the local garbage men to hold a strike, it was last night.
Normally I hear the trash truck lumbering around Monday nights in the wee hours, but I didn’t hear anything last night. All the same, the trash was magically gone this morning when I awoke. Like a swarm of little trash elves had slipped mystically through the neighborhood and whisked away all the debris.
Maybe Anthony was right all along — there’s no need to fear the garbage men. No doubt they’re hard-working Joes who aren’t thrown by an extra box of trash. Even so, I’m not going to take them for granted. Maybe I could paint a big “thank you” on the inside of the trash can lid.