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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, March 05, 2007

garbage

Monday morning. Rain falls from the sodden, dim sky. I've been out back to the lane for my weekly duty of unlocking the large wooden box that our building uses to store its weekly garbage in. Soon the diesel-powered garbage truck will rumble in reverse up the dead-end lane, then creep forward as the swampers dump this week's refuse into the back. When they're done I will return outside to snap the padlock back on the hasp, preventing unauthorized personnel from making either deposits or withdrawals from the box--both of which have been problems in the past.

I'm interested by garbage. I'm not exactly sure why. Partly it is my interest in economy and good stewardship, and the fact that I dislike waste. Also, the way people, and society in general, handle garbage is very revealing, I think. Just as my mother last week said that she thinks that you can learn a lot about a person by the way he or she handles money (and I agree), I believe that the garbage picture would round out the portrait to near completion.

Certainly garbage is connected with death. Something becomes garbage when its useful life is over and it is sent away for destruction or oblivion. There is a sense of randomness and chaos: heterogeneous things are mixed together promiscuously, almost obscenely: pantyhose piled in with shellfish scraps, broken chair-castors, and used dental-floss. As garbage, things converge that we would never allow contact with each other in life. This early stage of decomposition is the most unsettling, most horrifying, just as a recently living corpse is more disturbing than a clean old skeleton. It reminds us of the relatively subtle phase-change that separates us from that inert state, the dissolution of our precious bodies, when we become mere meat for species we'd rather not spend time with or even think about.

Twenty-odd years ago, when I was a hospital janitor, I liked the garbage-collection part of my detail. As part of the evening crew I wasn't usually involved with ward garbage. I picked it up from the cafeteria, or from pathology and the ICU, as well as the offices off the Heather Pavilion tunnels underground. We threw the bags into large, four-wheeled wagons of galvanized steel (we called them "trucks") and rolled these to the "physical plant"--the place where the hospital's hot water and other utilities came from. The tunnel floors were not level, so you might see us blue-uniformed guys bent like draft animals, sweating in the tropical heat of the tunnel, pulling a heavily loaded truck up a grade.

If there was a shortage of trucks, usually due to problems with staffing or equipment at the physical plant, we would have to dump our own trucks. I liked that job. It meant riding a large freight elevator, an ancient steel cage with a battered wooden floor, up to a higher floor of the plant. You would take your truck to a great door, onto something like an open elevator shaft leading down to a compactor, open the front doors of your garbage truck, and use a broom handle to shove the bags into the abyss. It was always deserted there at night, so there was a strange sense of industrial solitude and decay--a steamy warmth and the smell of vegetables, sweet medicine, and excrement. Then back down, alone in the cool of the elevator, to the infernal realm of the tunnels.

Occasionally too one would have so-called isolation garbage to dispose of: bags marked with crosses of red tape, indicating that they contained infectious waste. These also went to the physical plant, but to a different floor, where the incinerator was. There you opened a steel hatch to the incinerator and poked the bag, again with a broom handle, through the short passage into the roaring amber-white flames, hot on your face. There was something satisfying about this too.

So yes: a lifelong connection with garbage. I'm interested.


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