I live in one of the oldest neighborhoods in my city. Big, solid oaks sit like rocks; majestic pines stretch into clouds. The streets are two-laned with barely room for two modern vehicles to share the same but opposite path. Bungalows like my own are on the state’s historic structures list, built in the boom days of the 1920s. There’s a cozy charm, a quietude that hides the families of wild raccoons and opossum surviving for generations in the old trees and backyard brambles. I like it. More than that, I love this neighborhood and consider myself a protector of all that makes it distinct.
There are days when I feel like Lessing’s window-drawn narrator in “The Memoirs of a Survivor,” watching the exterior world dully, then hyperagitated into action. Today was one of those.
I heard something. I couldn’t distinguish the sound and so pulled myself from the laptop in my sunny kitchen to the front window. There at the street was a fellow rummaging through my neighbor’s trash. I watched as he gingerly picked up small boxes and shook them for secret contents, moved the innards out of a cardboard box, rearranged bottles while at the same time, holding one or two prized finds in his non-working hand. He was intent, bending into the job and filtering like a pro.
I quickly decided he wasn’t looking for recyclables. There was no black garbage bag or box attached to his bike, as I’ve seen with other vagrants. No, his search was more refined. He was looking for castaways that held value at the pawn shop. I noticed the watch on his one wrist, the bracelet on the other. Then he reached for a sealed plastic bag. He began thumbing its side. That’s the moment I stepped onto my front porch.
“Don’t make a mess,” I called to him.
I didn’t care that he rummaged through the trash. It’s a cottage industry nowadays. More and more of the homeless and poor people are shedding the usual hands-out begging routine and turning to more resourceful acts of survival. I can guarantee that any piece of furniture or cast-off electronic dragged to my curb will be gone within hours. The economy of recycled trash is in full swing.
But I didn’t want a mess at the roadside. So I called out to him just before he shredded the guts of that bulging plastic bag.
He looked up at me and said: “This isn’t your yard. This belongs to the City.”
His voice was filled with what I can only call bitter malice. Angry at my interference and sure of his rights, he’d just told me to go blow it. In the next few seconds, I recalled a similar encounter two years ago when I got in the way of a uncaring tree surgeon and thwarted him from cutting down a century-old oak. The base of that same oak is seen in the photo (above). I won that war but at a steep price. The vindictive tree cutter then reported me to the City for a lurching sweet maple. I paid $900 for tree trimming before the saga ended but I saved the ancient water oak. That tree cutter had uttered the same words when I injected myself into his intentions: “This isn’t your property.”
I suppose this makes me a busy body, hurtling myself into territory in which I have no legal claim. I suffered the consequences two years ago but I’d do it again. So I did it again. Because I have no problem with folks making money by reselling other people’s trash. But I do have a problem with my neighborhood stained with the ugly innards of sealed plastic bags. I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
“You’re not the trash man,” I yelled back at the rummager. Of course, my retort made perfect sense to me. If the property was owned by the City, then only the City and its agents had a right to pick up the garbage on City property.
“Yes I am. I’m The Trash Man.”
I was outdone. I couldn’t argue with him. I stood around a few minutes longer, hoping to project some air of … something … before slipping back into my home and reattaching to the laptop.
Yes. He was The Trash Man. And I was a comfortable homeowner who did not need to dirty my hands to survive. The logic of his answer and the silliness of my complaint were in stark contrast. I know when to back off. At least I have learned that. For now.