Garbage Karma

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


| March-April 2000



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.