Garbage Karma

Once her garbage had a name. Now she fears it as a spirit.

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As a child I feared garbage. Out comes a memory from the wastebasket of my soul: me, age 6, a solitary, skinny Irish Catholic girl dashing through the dark tunnel that runs beneath our San Francisco flat. I am clutching a soggy bag of trash and running for a black, chthonic alcove reeking of earth and mold. In this foul corner squats, like an idol, a scrofulous metal can. My awe-full duty: to offer it our trash.

The worst moment is the blind lifting of the lid, for always I feel sure that, this time, something will leap out. Not a rat or a cockroach, but a being sprung of the garbage itself: some creature that has assembled itself out of our leavings, wild with rage at being imprisoned in a dungeon-dark metal can. Breathless with panic, I ram the bag into the can, jam down the lid, and run back down the tunnel—fleeing our angry trash.

And so it went for the next two years. By the age of 8 I had developed freckled arms and a tendency to hide after school in Golden Gate Park. One frigid March afternoon found me wandering in the foggy pines behind the botanical gardens. The wind from the Pacific, a quarter mile west, kicked up, and something blew across my feet. Garbage: an empty potato chip bag. Frito-Lay’s Barbecued Potato Chips, as I recall. The orange plastic-coated bag clung with a kind of desperation to my saddle shoes, as if pleading for mercy. I found myself imagining this bag blowing around later that night, lost and frightened in the darkness of the damp, gothic park. Suddenly, I saw garbage in another way—it was lonely. Overwhelmed by pity, I picked up the bag and took it home, to rest under my bed. I even named it: George.

Kids see the world animistically. In a limited way, we tolerate it. How cute if baby Ashley tries to feed that head-shaped hunk of basalt her applesauce; how sweet that little Jonathan imagines the elm is talking to him. Even adults believe that great buildings or paintings or statues have a kind of soul. We semi-jokingly admit the possibility of consciousness in favorite cars or old teddy bears. And pagans are in favor of wood nymphs, wind sprites, and spirits living in rock formations.

But in scraps of PVC piping? Ripped-up sofas? Dove Bar wrappers?

My mother found the potato chip bag under the bed and tried to discard it.

“Don’t throw him out!”

“What? Why?”

“He’s sad.”

My mother gaped. “Sad? The bag?” She was a patient woman, but the drudgery of impoverished single motherhood had left her as worn down as an old tire.

“What in God’s name are you talking about?”

I couldn’t explain; I just knew that he—the bag—was pitiful. Though I, like little Ashley and Jonathan, also felt that basalt and elms had souls, I didn’t feel sorry for those sorts of things. They didn’t seem bereft to me. They didn’t seem solitary and pathetic, didn’t seem like orphans, like riders on the storm. They lived in their own world, the world of rocks and elms. But what world did the potato chip bag belong to? It belonged to us, the world of people. The bag had been created by us like parents create children. And then, abandoned. The way parents sometimes abandon children. The potato chip bag blowing forlornly around the dark park—it was like seeing a lost child. It scared me.

“I’m not throwing him out!”

My mother shrugged wearily and put George back under the bed.

My newfound compassion for garbage didn’t go away; it grew, like a landfill. I began to pick up all sorts of refuse. Soon I was developing a trash collection. But collection isn’t really the right word. It was an orphanage stuffed into cardboard boxes underneath my bed: a scrap of foil from a chocolate bar, an exploded foam-rubber cushion, an unspooled Petula Clark tape, a fraying, rubber-coated coil of electrical wiring. I gave names to them all: Fred, Marie, José, Deirdre. My mother started to get seriously upset.

“Get rid of this frigging garbage!”

“It’s not garbage!” I countered. But it was, of course, and I knew it; I didn’t have a (gnawed-up, thrown-out chicken) leg to stand on.

The word garbage comes from the Middle English word for chicken guts, but nowadays garbage is the inorganic, what cannot rot: broken circuit boards, old mascara wands, empty orange juice cartons, plastic shrink wrap from a CD. When we call cities “dirty” we no longer mean they are heaped with decomposing animal entrails, smashed-up clay pottery, and flea-ridden woven mats. Or, for that matter, dirt. No. We mean that a lot of discarded machine-made objects are lying around. When you think about it, this is strange.

After all, a mere empty potato chip bag is an object of marvelous technical and industrial complexity, in some sense more rare than any diamond. And here it is, lying on the street. And over there, four inches away, a half-inch screw; and there, beneath the tires of that parked car, a flattened tube of children’s paint; and next to it, the glitter of an aluminum can; and here, under my feet, the soggy latex conundrum of a condom.

My mother and I argued about my trash collection for the next several years; I eventually began hiding it. Finally, at 12, I lost my empathy for garbage and stopped taking it home. The next seven years are an existential teenage blur: I took to reading Nietzsche and seldom left the house.

In my 20s I left behind the self-absorption of adolescence, went to San Francisco State University as a film student, and once again became emotional about rubbish. I was in the usual bohemian phase—shaved head, illegal pharmaceuticals, artistic pretensions—but my own personal idiosyncrasy flowered anew. I began to collect trash again, but now I called it Dumpster diving.

I hunted up and down the streets and gutters for the leavings of civilization—a thrown-out mattress, a chipped Blue Willow teacup, holey sweaters and shirts and shoes, a waffle iron with a frayed cord. I slept on the mattress, wore the clothes and shoes, made grilled cheese sandwiches in the waffle iron and washed them down with red wine I drank out of the blue teacup. In all this, I was as tensely alert, as primed to opportunity, as any Pleistocene hunter-gatherer. I could spot on the sidewalk a cast-off black bookcase at 50 yards, a broken accordion at three blocks. Once, while I was passing the foyer of an apartment building, I saw a drunken man pleading into the intercom for his ex-girlfriend to take him back. She hung up, and he despairingly dropped his box of candy on the sidewalk and took off, weeping. I ran over while the pavement was still warm from his boots and scooped up this brand-new garbage. Standing on the street corner, I wolfed down the cast-off chocolates—junk food, indeed. Finally, garbage was friendly, not bathetic; now garbage was doing me the favor.

In my late 20s I moved to Los Angeles and became a screenwriter. There, garbage again became alien and threatening. It had something to do with driving: Viewed from a car, refuse on the streets looked black and distant, dark piles of matter hunched underneath freeway overpasses that I whizzed by at 70 miles an hour. To stop my car and scavenge street-corner junk seemed inconceivable. I had more money—for a few years, a lot of it—and I bought things. I ordered stuff brand-new from catalogs: chiffon dresses, vibrating toys, midnight-blue towel sets. I began to think back with astonishment and horror on the stained mattress I’d slept on, the battered sweater I’d worn, the rusted cast-iron pan in which I had fried my huevos rancheros. It was like guys you can no longer believe you were fool enough to sleep with. Me? I actually touched that trash?

In my mid 30s I moved back to San Francisco. It was much dirtier now, and the city was filled with homeless men and women—garbage people. Some of the more energetic of these dregs of society managed to eke out a living from the nonhuman dregs of society: They stole recyclables. Vietnam vets with shopping carts and Vietnamese families in decrepit trucks hit the streets at 4 a.m. to beat the garbagemen to the bottles, newspapers, and Coke cans other people put out on the sidewalk. My grandmother, Zorka ‘4E’ Asten (elderly, ethnic, extremely eccentric), took personal umbrage at the garbage stealers and became obsessed with defeating them: She disguised her garbage, took it out at odd hours, mixed the bottles and cans up with cold oatmeal and feces from her whippet, Twerpy. The garbage thieves retaliated by flinging her trash all over her driveway. Zorka got up at three to sit in the living room in the dark, waiting to shout out the window things like “You no-good bums!” and “You damned dirty Chinamen!” But they were too tenacious for her; like an army of carpenter ants scavenging a corpse, they just kept on coming. Defeated, Zorka gave up and let the resolute garbage stealers have their way.

There were people on the streets selling garbage, too. Entrepreneurial homeless people set up little illegal “shops,” as defined by discarded squares of carpeting on the sidewalk, and sold, for a quarter or 50 cents, scavenged trash: ’70s Matt Helm paperbacks with a page or two missing, flaking patent-leather platform boots, chipped ballerina statuettes, kind-of-broken toasters. One day my friend Jeanine and I walked by a woman with no legs, a wild shock of white hair, and a face like a wasted Beata Virgo Maria who was sitting on the corner of 20th and Capp Streets trying to sell little bits of broken glass.

“How offal,” I heard myself joke. I immediately felt ashamed, but my friend hadn’t even noticed; she was worrying aloud how she was going to make ends meet that month. She kept complaining that she couldn’t afford to pay the garbage bill. We walked by a half-burned rowing machine someone had tossed in the gutter, but I felt no greed, no curiosity, nothing. Trash wasn’t fun anymore. It was too serious.

Now I’m in my late 30s and, owing to the flotsam of events, I live in a desert resort town. It is very clean here. A platoon of Hispanic men in large brown trucks spend their days under the fiery Sonoran sun, sweeping, blowing, and carrying away any stray bit of refuse that manages to make it onto the white, blazing streets. Sometimes, like a prisoner breaking free, a brown, twiggy ball of Russian thistle—tumbleweed—will blow onto the road. The men quickly take it away. Occasionally I hear them singing a snatch of some Mexican rock-n-roll song, but mostly they are subdued and silent, as if they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.

I also have an 8-month-old child now, and we seem unable to teach him the difference between toys and garbage. As far as he is concerned, they are of equal interest. Yesterday, I pried out of his mouth a scrap of discarded newspaper; he was chewing it with exactly the same quiet pleasure with which he mouths his nice new plastic rattle. The soggy piece of paper, I saw, was the tail end of an article from the local paper: The state wants to build a giant landfill nearby, it said, at a place called Eagle Mountain. Environmentalists are trying to stop the landfill, since the decaying garbage will leach heavy metals and petrochemicals directly into our aquifer, and it will damage the habitat of a local tortoise. But the state wants to go ahead. The garbage must go somewhere, officials say.

Someone else once said there is a great weight of sadness on the world. Maybe there is. Maybe it consists of millions upon millions of tons of trash, inside of which, perhaps, is trapped a flicker of consciousness. Is it possible our garbage is suffering?

As are we, of course. It’s commonplace, but worth repeating: We are drowning in the urban bilge of civilization, suffocating under the rags and bones of technoindustrialism. The air is heavy with cast-off carbon particles, the water scummy with discarded oil; plants and animals groan under the chemical grime of estrogen disruptors and PCBs. In the pesticide-and herbicide-drenched cornfields, even the dirt has become dirty.

I look at my baby boy, chortling with pleasure in his bath, and think: My son, what if I were to discard you on the street as if you were nothing, as if you meant nothing to me, as if I myself had not created you? Wouldn’t such wickedness demand punishment? And so if our rubbish does indeed have a spirit, do not we, a stinkard civilization that has trashed its trash, soon have to prepare to suffer some very bad garbage karma?

But back to the rotting compost of memory and my trash-terrified, 6-year-old self: On Wednesday mornings at 5 a.m., when it was still very dark, the garbagemen of the San Francisco Scavenger Company would come and take away our fearsome refuse. They were cheery, burly Italian men with green uniforms, and they loudly sang opera as they picked up the cans. They always woke me up. I would lie in my narrow bed in my dark bedroom, massaging my jumpy stomach (I was worrying about school, where a little girl said I was white trash) and listening to the men yell out riotous songs from Carmen and Rigoletto. People in San Francisco had romantic theories of esprit de corps to explain the opera singing, but as it happened, my mother had a family friend who was a garbageman, a large, balding man named Frank Vucci. He said they sang so that no one would think they were burglars, and shoot them. But I thought they sang because they were alone in the darkness of the trash tunnels and because they, too, feared the garbage.

Cynthia Williams, a screenwriter, lives in Southern California. Her upcoming book, Personal Ad , is a tragicomic memoir about deep ecology and dating. From Northern Lights (Spring 1999). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from Box 8084, Missoula, MT 598077.