When I was a senior in college I played basketball with a famous movie actor and encountered a woman who both lived in a tree for two years and carried her garbage on her back. Both in the same day. The actor was Woody Harrelson and despite what the movie would tell you, white men can jump. Pretty high actually. Likely because he was pretty high on something other than new Nike smell. The woman was the activist Julia Butterfly Hill, also capable of jumping very high, mostly from endangered Redwoods. Also likely pretty high on something other than the smell of tree sap. Both personalities came to my college as part of a speaking engagement to discuss free thinking about global affairs. Julia Butterfly Hill gave an impassioned speech about becoming conscientious stewards of the planet, seeking ways to minimize materialism and waste. To clarify her point she showed the audience photos of herself toting around her own trash for an entire summer. We’ve all seen a street dwelling person pushing around a rusted grocery cart filled with multi-colored hefty bags. You can’t even really call them homeless because their luggage has more square feet than your house. You find your mind consumed with curiosity over what could possibly be in those bags. Not with Miss Hill. Hers were obviously filled with trash. Orange peels, burritos, maxi pads, fallen members of Lilith Fair.
I was ready to heap trash upon my shoulders and fell opponents with my lofty ethics and potent smell of sulfur. Metaphorically, of course, because carrying burdensome loads could cause curvature of the spine and no one is going to marry the trash-toting girl with a hunchback who failed Organic Chemistry. So I spent the next decade putting my refuse down a chute or in the can.
We moved from the bustling New York City metro to a small harbor town in Maine (the state at the top of the arm of the U.S. You probably went to summer camp here and then promptly forgot about it once you passed puberty). As we were unpacking boxes our realtor delivered a memo with some important numbers and contacts for local services, among them trash removal. “We have to hire someone to pick up our trash?” I said in a tone that was surely off-putting to the natives. It was wickedoff-putting if spoken in the local parlance. “Well, you don’t have to,” he said. “You could drive your stuff to the dump, like most of us do.” Clearly he’d not understood me. I wasn’t balking at the notion of paying another to deal with my waste. I was astonished that trash wasn’t simply taken away on a Monday by men clinging to the back of a city dump truck, like they’d done in every place I’d ever lived.
I smiled, nodded, and then waited till he was out of view before I whipped out my cell phone and dialed the number of the only private trash removal company in town. I did not want to interact with my garbage. The part of my brain influenced by Julia Butterfly died when my children were born and my home became a 2,000 square foot Diaper Genie.
As I watched cardboard boxes and moving materials mount in our home, I told my husband, G, of the convenience I’d assured us. I expected praise for my expedient reaction and for ensuring we wouldn’t find our car bathed in fermented poultry juice. He looked at me with disgust. “Cancel it. We’ll go to the dump, like everyone else in town.” Everyone else in town must be a serial killer, or an Enron executive, or alcoholics who can’t have their bottles be found, or pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
So I did what any good partner does when a dispute arises: I told him one thing and did another. I wasn’t going to cancel the service.
The garbage began to pile quickly and it became clear that a trip to the dump was in order. G loaded up the back of his pickup with boxes and bags and took the maiden voyage of filth. I figured his first trip would be his last, that he’d return begging me to reinstate the garbage service he believed I’d cancelled. Unfortunately, he happened upon some discarded Y chromosomes at the dump. He did a little dumpster diving in the Testosterone Recycling bin. He returned invigorated. Proud. He’d driven a truck that hauled heavy stuff that he got to heave into steel containers. He got a little sweaty and a little dirty. This is the stuff men are made of.
I held tight to my plan to have garbage collected, believing he’d tire of the dump, but the garbage men never came. They missed the first pick up. Then they missed the second pickup. When I called, the man who’d previously seemed overjoyed to take my trash said gruffly, “I’d heard you all were going to the dump.” Such is life in a small town. Everyone knows your dirty laundry. Or your rancid refuse.
We continue to go to the dump. I’ve had to pick up the majority of the garbage runs since my husband is away on business much of the time. The dump is a strange wasteland filled with disposal rituals I have yet to understand. I first check through a security gate. I’ve noticed the old-timers pass right through with a simple wave. The man in head-to-toe yellow rubber eyes my car suspiciously as if the three babies in the back are certainly looking to rifle through soiled diapers, lick the residue off the cans of wax beans, or order up some products from discarded catalogs. Once granted access to the grounds, one is met with towering steel cages, categorized in ways that only a PhD in Waste Management could decipher. I start with the simple stuff: Milk and water jugs. Why does the sign read “Gray Unpigmented”? My hair is turning gray and my skin is rather unpigmented. Toss the jars in this dumpster. Oh, those should not have had caps nor labels on them. Next time, next time. Dispose of the plastic bags that were holding my non-gray, non-pigmented jugs and the jars that shouldn’t have had caps and lids but did. Ah, Plastics! Wait, Colored Plastics only. No Clear Plastics. My bag is clear but there’s a grocery store logo in red. Hmmm. Get wild, toss it in. Now to the paper goods. This bin accepts Boxboard & Mixed Paper. My stuff is all mixed up! Throw it in! Oh no, this was just for egg cartons from organic farms in Ohio. Next time, next time. Now to get rid of the newspapers and magazines in the – what do you know? – Newspapers & Magazines bin. Terror ensues as I dump 45 magazines with my name and address emblazoned on the covers. Is the rubber-clad security man going to protect me against someone ordering 25 Horse & Hound subscriptions in my name? Too late now. I must rip my address label off the covers. Next time, next time.
The final stop on the dump tour is the trash hopper. This is a pit that burrows straight down to Hell. I pull the car up to the rail. I swing the bag out of the back of my car, only to gash my leg open on a shard of glass protruding from the bag. As my femoral artery bleeds out, I lug the bag to the edge of the hopper. I pick it up and use all of my strength to heave it over the edge. Much like standing on the precipice of the Grand Canyon, looking into the abyss, there is a moment of panic that I’ll forget to release my grasp and be pulled right down into the gorge. The kids cheer and I do a few Stallone air punches for flair.
As I close the door to the car, I see something I’ve missed. A wooden crate from the oranges I’d bought. I glance left and right, scanning the barren landscape for the “Wooden Crates Used to Hold Citrus” bin. Eh, what the heck, and I chuck it into the garbage pit. The alarm sounds and a different rubber-clad man runs out to lecture me on the importance of trash sorting. Next time, next time. But, just so I’m clear, where is the bin for “Husbands Who Work Out of Town, Forcing Their Wife to Take The Garbage to the Dump Rather Than Pay for Private Waste Removal?” Yeah, I think smugly. You don’t have it all figured out. I stumped you on that one.
After toting around my own garbage for the past six months, I know why Julia Butterfly Hill is high all the time. And it’s not on life.