The Tales of Trash

“Jerome Bernard Parent, I’m gonna shoot you!” my mother yelled from the laundry room.

I hesitated and then left my room to face her wrath. Things usually went better if I faced her instead of trying to hide.

“What’s the matter, Momma?” I asked.

“How many times do I have to tell you to empty out your pockets before putting your clothes in the laundry?”

“I’m sorry,” I said as I peaked at what she held in her hand. It was the remains of several flashlight bulbs. Fortunately, they were professional bulbs used by newspaper photographers and were coated in plastic which prevented glass from distributing itself throughout the washer. My dad had taken me to see the Minnesota Lakers and their newest player, Elgin Baylor (no the Lakers haven’t always been in L.A.). I was too young to enjoy the game however, which was played in a local high school gymnasium. Watching men run back and forth throwing a ball through a hoop didn’t impress me. Besides which, unknown to anyone, I badly needed glasses so I couldn’t see much of the action anyway. So, I, and several other boys, patrolled under the bleachers looking for dropped change. But we especially prized the flashlight bulbs from the photographers’ cameras. Probably because they were so pretty with their plastic casings distorted by the heat. Occasionally a defective bulb would come down, still intact with its bluish interior spider web of tungsten. These we liked best of all.

Kids, especially little boys, seem to appreciate trash more than most adults. Except for maybe archaeologists. These scientists spend most of their field work carefully sifting through the garbage pits of previous civilizations. You can learn a lot about people from their garbage. Exhibit A is that the first known use of condoms was discovered by a scientist digging through a 2000 year-old latrine of Roman soldiers. Police regularly sift through garbage for evidence, and crooks find credit card and social security numbers in dumpsters and trash cans.

I am reminded of all of these things by my lunchtime walks through a nearby industrial park. When I first started this job ten years ago, I walked regularly around the building (three times was a mile) until security banned me from doing so. Then I discovered the industrial area. The walk is a half mile each way so it was a good substitute to get fresh air and sunshine after being cooped up in the windowless basement of a prison. However, for a variety of reasons, I stopped after a couple of years. But at the insistence of my doctor, friends, and family, I’m back at it. Part of the area I walk through is occupied by a cement plant and a paving materials storage area. This means lots of truck traffic, with drivers eating their lunches, securing their loads, or waiting their turn to enter the facility. And that means garbage and untold stories. Some of the stories are easy to figure out; driver gets coffee from 7/11 and tosses the cup out the window. Then there’s the pair of women’s panties, small size I would guess. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first thing I noticed after not walking for a couple of years, was a change in the type of garbage. During the recession, there was a lot of homemade lunches and snacks. The soda cans were often generic. Now, it is fast food containers and specialty name brand beverages. And not just any fast food. Instead of McDonald’s bags, I see evidence of visits to Chipotle, Applebee’s, and Red Robin. The economy is obviously doing better. I’m sure it is odd to many of these blue collar workers seeing me, badge and Jerry Garcia tie tangled together and bouncing off of my chest as I walk down the street dodging their behemoth machines. Mostly they ignored me until I started wearing my Vietnam veteran’s hat. That seemed to make them become friendlier and now they wave to me, especially while they sit in line waiting for the front end loader to fill their empty trailers.

Another thing I noticed was a change in music delivery systems. When I started walking in 2008, I occasionally found a tangled cassette tape, then damaged CD’s, now it’s broken USB cords. I can relate to the frustration and anger defective musical devices can create. When you spend ten hours a day in a vehicle, you gotta have good jams. I also find the same kinds of treasures that excited me as child. Over the years I have found screwdrivers, wrenches, nuts, bolts, and lots of spare change which falls out of the driver’s pockets as they climb in and out of their rigs. Once, when I was picking up trash, instead of merely observing it, I found $150. Four brand new crisp bills folded flat and hidden under a McDonald’s bag.

I made an unsuccessful attempt to find the owner, and then I donated most of the money to the Humane Society. I didn’t want whatever karma was associated with the cash. But I can’t help wondering about the story behind the money. Industrial parks like this one, are often used at night for clandestine purposes. Socks, underwear, and condoms tell stories that are fairly straight forward. Still, one wonders at the specifics. Are the small size women’s panties the result of horny teenagers, or an illicit love affair? How do people explain coming home without underwear or with only one sock? Drug deals and other transactions also take place there at night. Was the money part of some illegal activity or was it the only funds of a resident from the halfway house nearby? Did the loss of the money cause that person to end up back in prison because they couldn’t pay their rent? I have all of these questions.

The last remaining category of human debris I find is that of drug and alcohol usage. Before marijuana became legal, I found a lot of empty spice and synthetic marijuana bottles. I eagerly picked those up because they make good holders for small screws and fishing lures. I also used to find evidence of meth and bath salt use. Now it’s cigarettes, alcohol, and the occasional needle. The empty pints of vodka and one hitter bottles tossed by the truckers, speak of great pain. Addiction, self-medication, or both?

Some of my coworkers and wife think I’m weird for monitoring and collecting trash. The writer in me makes up stories to go along with the objects I find. The scientist in me ascribes my habit to being a good amateur archaeologist. And this is my report.