Curbies, Middens and Latrines

photo 2 (6)

This summer, after I wrote the owner of the vacant house for the second time, he texted me. It was a bizarre discussion, and not just for the grammar. I made him a low offer, noting the need for new roof, siding and the long history of pets and children in the house. After some back and forth in which he did not make a counter, he accused me of wanting to take his house, in which he had lived for many years. My “crazy person!” alarm went off and I said simply I’d be in touch.

A week or two later, he (or a man I assume was the owner) appeared next door and mowed the lawn for the first time in the nine months it had been vacant. It was also as far as I can tell the first time he’d done maintenance in the nearly nine years we’ve lived next door. He mowed everything down aggressively and tore out the sunflower and pumpkin I’d planted next to his garage. Oddly enough, he carefully mowed around the cucumber, sunflowers and pumpkins I’d planted against the fence between our two properties. And he left a very large boat parked in the yard.

I took this for a territorial move. He came, he peed on the perimeter of his territory and like a responsive mammal, I dutifully avoided his yard for several weeks. I watered the plants either by spraying under the fence or standing at the very edge of my driveway.

After a couple of weeks though, the boat disappeared. And there was no further activity at the house. Gradually I began wandering back, harvesting cucumbers, tending my flourishing but still bloomless morning glories. I noticed that he had removed the mylar balloon husk in the living room, as well as the spongemop leaning against the fridge. He had not closed the blinds of the sliding door, but he had left the kitchen light on. It has been on continuously in the weeks since. And he did not empty the green curb cart used for the municipal compost program, although he moved it from the front step, where it had been for nine months, to the driveway.

I assume the address no longer had trash service. The tenants lost their trash service well before they left, presumably for failure to pay. I’m not clear what they did, except when they left, they filled the curbie with waste and left it on the front walk.

Then my husband cut down a cedar tree in our side alley (partly because it needed to go, and partly so he could run a chain saw at 8:00 am after some newer neighbors had a raucous late party that kept our children awake. I did not endorse that message). The cedar branches overflowed our curb cart and I eyed the one next door. Compost hauling is no charge, unlike landfill and recycling. So I dismantled the neighbors’ semi-mummified trash.

Archaeologists adore garbage, as I understand it. Finding a dump, a midden or even a latrine from the middle ages, or the stone age, is cause for joy. You can tell more about people from their garbage than you can from ceremonial artifacts. What I found was a lot of fast food wrappers.

There’s plenty of research out there that shows that in this country, eating cheap is eating badly and that the poorer one is, the worse one eats. The reasons are many (price, access, education and stress) and I’ve seen various examples at close hand, but few things give one a more visceral understanding of how people live than looking piece by piece through their daily life. Particularly when it’s discarded life they don’t plan on anyone seeing.

A curbie is roughly 4 feet high and the top is 3×3 feet. It’s a goodly cubic volume. The top layer of this one consisted entirely of paper bags from KFC and McDonald’s, 20 oz paper and plastic cups and vente Starbucks frappucino containers (and those things aren’t cheap!). For all the times I have tried to imagine how anyone could drink as much soft drink volume or eat as much fast food as the nutrition and food security articles say, I saw the answer in that trash. I threw some into my recycling bin, some I tossed some into my fire pit and some I put into my own garbage (as little as possible, because landfill only gets hauled every two weeks). Fortunately another big component was cat food cans, which go in the recycling. We knew they liked to feed feral cats, but I kept thinking, “these folks really cared about their cats. How much does this much canned cat food cost?”

I’ve been up close with garbage of a sort before. I worked in a recycling plant in the early 90s and spent a lot of time with unwashed milk jugs, but I still was a little squeamish about some things I could find in that garbage. But I didn’t find anything truly distressing, as I made my way through the pile (no obvious trash from the bathroom, for example). There was a layer of actual yard debris that is supposed to go in a compost curbie. There were a few discarded t-shirts, bits of broken toys, a sprinkling of energy drink cans. I was surprised that it had so little smell, after nine months. Then I realized there was almost no organic material. I was going through detritus of their meals and there was nothing that actually rotted.

The very bottom layer included quite a few wrappers from Reese’s peanut butter cup three packs. For some reason that made me saddest of all. I don’t think I’ve bought a Reese’s peanut butter cup in my life, much less a three pack. And I’m not sure my children know they exist. On one hand, you could argue that a Trader Joe’s Salted Caramel bar is no different, certainly from a nutrition perspective. It’s not like I’ve never bought a full size candy bar, I just don’t care for Reese’s. But I haven’t bought and eaten one by myself since probably the early 90s. For some reason I felt like I was looking at unbridgeable gap in economic class and life experience, in the bottom of a waste container.

Then I hosed out the curbie, put some of my cedar branches in it and put it out on the curb.

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