Every Wednesday night for ten years I have transformed into a barefoot percussionist with a big rolling drum, clunking along my driveway with a black plastic timpani marked “Trash Only.” There are other guys in this far-flung orchestra, adding downbeats and rimshots to the echoing local rhythm line as each hurries to get his stuff to the curb. We do it in as few moves as possible, so that we might get back to whatever has been paused on the television before the pause turns stale.
There is also an unconscious motive for the brisk deposition of the waste created by our households out on the street. The garbage is one thing, and the detritus from our lawns, trees, and flower beds that layers the green drum is another. But in the biggest of the three city-issued containers, the enormous blue kodo chamber with a lid like a pickup truck door, the great prize resides. This one is full of cans still lightly sloshing with rinse water, jars crusted and scented with their original sauce, and the flattened husks of Girl Scout cookie boxes. It glistens like gold and adds the timbale and crash cymbal elements to the drum symphony. These are the recyclables, and it is our — well, my — perverse responsibility to make them presentable for the hard working scavengers who will come along any time now and pilfer them all.
Talk about your suburban dilemmas. We all want to do right by the environment, and as homeowners we’re searching for alternatives to the cycle of conspicuous consumption that has marked the culture for the previous century. Maybe there’s a solar collector up there on the roof, piping a little heat into the pool. Could be we’re reading by the light of 23-watt fluorescents posing as 75-watt incandescent bulbs. Some of us are conscientious enough to compost, introducing yesterday’s asparagus to next month’s tomatoes with biological courtship in mind. And more than a few fellows have figured out that the box of reusable polyester bags in the trunk of the car was put there by the woman in charge, so that the space in the pantry formerly occupied by brown paper or (gasp!) plastic bags can be used for fluorocarbon-free solvent storage.
When the city decided to get into the recycling business, we knew it was doing the right thing, and we became willing partners. In the ideal sense, the city reaches maximum efficiency if it gets the benefit of all the disposable income. A welcome thought, since it forks over more than the average Scott Boras contract to put this gargantuan fleet of bins to work. Paying our property taxes on time makes us, therefore, the micro managers at our individual collection points; hence the Wednesday drum circle.
When I first heard the telltale sounds of people removing the goods, I was bothered by it, but didn’t do anything. Who was I to take food off an immigrant’s table? When was the last time I worked such weird and thankless hours to take a kid to the dentist? The industry of this far-flung, moonlighting labor corps was a thing to behold; you wouldn’t believe that two guys and a 15-year-old mini pickup truck rattling away like the Joad-mobile could strip an entire block of its recyclables so fast, and with such precision. Last time I moved like that, something large was about to fall on me. The guilt fit like a seasoned wet suit.
After a couple of years of listening to bottles clattering on Wednesday nights after 10 p.m. I realized that I was nudging into the realm of pop neurosis. I’d hear the cacophony outside and whatever I was doing, I’d sit up straighter and cut loose with a few choice oaths about budgets and efficiency and the bastardized greening of America. Then I’d go back to what I’d been doing. End of diatribe. Better alternative stillborn.
One night I heard the deep rumble of a V-8 exhaust manifold burbling in front of the house, followed by the familiar clatter of the cans and bottles being repossessed. This inspired me to stick my head out the front door, and there I observed a pair of thirty-something guys in leather jackets tossing my bottles into some bins in the bed of a monstrous, gleaming GMC truck with dealer’s temporary tags still on it. All my previous inertia overcome, I trotted across the lawn and lit into these guys for the larceny that was letting them drive a better vehicle than me. They waved like I had just tipped them twenty dollars, climbed slowly into the cab, and laid a smoking rubber patch as they peeled out and turned the corner into the night.
The next time I heard that old familiar crashing and tinkling, I was ready, and strode out the front door like the new sheriff in Abilene, determined to send a message to any miscreants trying to upset the economic balance of our fine community. I was just getting warmed up when the shorter of the two guys pulled his head out of the blue barrel, placed his hands on its rim, and apologized. He gently lowered the lid so it wouldn’t bang shut, nodded at his partner, and turned toward the rattletrap old Datsun that was collecting the evening’s take. It was such a polished retreat I could tell in an instant that my little speech was something he was quite accustomed to hearing. They were simply cutting their loss at this site and moving on; all in a night’s work. I did some fast calculating, and arrived at the conclusion that if the carbon footprint had just been slightly enlarged at my house with the premature removal of our bottles and cans, it was bound to mushroom if these guys kept driving this oil-belching little truck all through the night. I called them back.
“Sácalo. Está bien,” I said. “I guess it’s all going someplace good.” The shorter guy returned to the blue bin and plunged his arms in deep, coming up with the easiest things to grab from its depths: two hands full of wine bottles. He raised one of those hands slightly in the air, and dipped his head in thanks. It looked like the Toasted Head label facing me there in the weak throw of my driveway light. 2008. A decent year.