Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Oceanside has finally made the great transition to automated trash bins. Grey for trash, blue for recycling, green for yard trimmings -in case no one is yet clear on the concept. Why it took so long to make the migration I have no idea, but here we are, finally. I love the trash man. I love what he does and am so grateful for it, and I would lavish high praise on him in other ways, if I could. It's been said that the trash man has done more for public health in the past hundred years than every doctor in the world, and, if it's even slightly true, I admire it. The trash men are heroes, and they deserve our admiration, respect, and good pay. But, as in any relationship, change is inevitable.

Last week, a large moving van arrived in our cul-de-sac and four men in bright yellow safety vests got out and marched the new bins to our curbside, in what seemed a colorful spontaneous parade. They also handed out a pile of fluorescent yellow stickers to every house. Stickers which read "TAKE ME" in bold, black letters. These are not the affectionate Valentines you might expect, but rather the thoughtful method by which the old trash cans will be hauled off. It solves the age-old problem I had presented many years ago in a play I wrote called... -okay, I can't remember the title. But in the play there was a minor character: a belligerent old woman who couldn't get the trash man to dispose of her old trash cans. I had in mind a sweeping metaphor and cautionary life lesson about throwing out "trash", and sometimes having to get rid of the entire "trash can", and then encountering a system whereby it was impossible to do so. Something about a life, and the waste we create, and how on some sore days I regrettably wished the trash man would just haul me off with the cans. In the end, it was an inartful metaphor, made little sense, and the script ended up in the garbage.

But I can't bring myself to throwing away my old trash cans, which still work perfectly as simple tools, the way a good, reliable hammer or screwdriver never wears out. I was rather fond of the old, traditional way of dragging the trash cans down the driveway to the curb every Tuesday night. I can't explain it, but I liked the tactile connection it gave me to my refuse, the way I like mowing my own lawn and reading an actual newspaper. And then the garbage man would arrive early morning, mid-week, in his greasy overalls and dirty gloves. He'd pull up to my house, hop out, and hoist the cans one by one, dumping them into his bin. I admired the strength it must take to clean up the whole neighborhood, and I imagine he had a deep knowledge of the lives of every family who lived near me, just by looking at their trash. He knew, (I presume, from the exhausted containers) what everyone ate, what everyone bought, what ailment they suffered and what luxury they valued. And I admit, in my embarrassment, to burying personal relics from time to time. Any evidence of my suburban improprieties I would hide beneath fruit rinds, egg shells, and rotted chicken grease to keep my life private, and off of some bureaucratic report the garbage man's assiduous supervisor no doubt demanded at the end of every work day.

Now, the truck just pulls up to the curb, the big robot arm unfurls, and the container is grabbed, lifted, dumped, and slammed back down, empty, in a dusty little tornado with a plastic bag blowing out of it. And the garbage man moves the vehicle down to the next house. He never has to get out of the cab anymore. Just sits there, operating the armature, gloveless, in headphones, and sucking down Starbucks. Becoming less of an icon, and more like every other boring, automated, mechanized thing that builds the future. But I am no less grateful that my garbage is hauled off to the memory hole every week. What a grand pleasure of modern, civilized life. Worth nearly any price.

I am equally thankful for our sewage system, but the human drama is not as compelling.