“WELCOME TO OUR NUISANCE GROUNDS”, as Margaret Laurence, writer of The Diviners, aptly named that hidden place where garbage is tossed, shoveled, moved around and buried.
There is no judgment in writing this piece because I contribute generously, as well, to the dump (now, politically-labeled the landfill), it’s just that every spring, I seem to churn the soil and dig our communal secrets up again. They present themselves on the surface in the form of litter. The story of winter refuse surrounds us. We drive by it, step over it, complain about it and then wait for someone else to pick it up.
I met a homeless gentleman named Frank, three years ago, when I started picking up litter at a location where I walked my dog, Max, daily (still do). Frank was one of five people who thanked me during that period of time. I had been picking up a full heaping bag of litter every day for three months and he would sit and drink a beer, roosting on one of the slopes, gazing over the whole of the pond at the center of the flats. He would place his beer can in a a plastic grocery bag and tuck it under a tree and after the sixth day, his neatly tied package would be offered up for pennies, nickles and dimes. He said good-bye to me on his last day, after months of watching me pick. He was heading for Vancouver for the winter and he thanked me for ‘making the place look good’. I told him that the place was going to be named after him, Frank’s Flats. The name has stuck.
A jogger thanked me. She put down her plastic water bottle while doing her laps around the pond and asked if I would please not throw it away. She told me that she would be picking it up after her run. She said that the place looked great, because of me.
A man, getting up in years, thanked me. He was walking his old pooch on the trail. He asked, “You’re not from the city, are you?” I said…”I live here. I’m a teacher.” He thanked me.
A high school student thanked me. A couple had been sitting on a bench that over looks the pond. It was after school and they were curled up and smooching. As I approached, they reorganized themselves and while I picked up plastic slurpee cups and chip bags and straws and fast food packages, they observed. As I stepped past their bench, the boy called out, “Heh, thank you.”
Debbie thanked me. She even told me that when she walked her dog, Rosie, she was going to start bringing a little bag with her and do the same. This was such a warm and wonderful offering, one of the best things that happened to me that first spring and summer.
And so it went…for three months; I was observed by many and because I was observed so closely, I became interested in reactions and fascinated by the isolation that became my experience. User group members of the facilities above the flats and my encounters with them became a social experiment. I became fascinated in the huge chasm that came between me and ‘the others’, more than the distance between two complete strangers…bigger than that!
To this day, when I pick garbage, it’s as though I become invisible. I am, all of a sudden, from a different social status. If I was a city worker, I would be given higher status. But, I am not a city worker. That’s why I began thinking that the ‘garbage man’ must fit into one of Carl Jung’s archetypes, most likely a part of ‘the Shadow’.
There are all kinds of volunteers operating in the City of Calgary, picking up that packaging and advertisement that we unleash on to the wind, not giving a care about where it all blows, as long as it’s out of our sight. If my readers are familiar with Christie in Laurence’s The Diviners or Mr. Jonas, the junkman in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, you will realize the greater archetype that lives with the ‘garbage man’ or even the ‘janitor’, now labeled a caretaker. Below, a spark note excerpt about Mr. Jonas, Chapter 35, Dandelion Wine.
“Mr. Jonas, the junkman, comes into town with his horse Ned and his wagon. He sings as he rides, and people line the streets to look at his goods. No ordinary junkman, Mr. Jonas had lived as a businessman in Chicago but decided to spend the rest of his life making sure that one area of town got a chance to take what the other side considered junk. He traveled through the town and only asked that people took something that they truly wanted, something they would use. Then the adults of children would put something of their own that they no longer had any use for in the wagon, and Mr. Jonas would be on his way, singing.”
From Christie, in The Diviners,
“By their garbage shall ye know them,”…The ones who have to wrap the rye bottles in old newspapers to try to hide the fact that there are so goddamn many of them. The ones who have fourteen thousand pill bottles the week, now. The ones who will be chucking out the family albums the moment the grandmother goes to her ancestors. The ones who’re afraid to flush the safes down the john, them with flush johns, in case it plugs the plumbing and Melrose Maclaren has to come and get it unstuck and might see, as if Mel would give the hundredth part of a damn. I tell you, girl, they’re close as clams and twice as brainless. I see what they throw out, and I don’t care a shit, but they think I do, so that’s why they cannot look at me….”
Similarly, Father Kevin Tumback used to tell a story on Ash Wednesday about a Rag Man…a metaphor for Jesus who traded parts of himself for the wounded parts of others.
I was just thinking, as another season of litter-picking faces the volunteers in our Calgary communities, it would be an awesome thing if we all became a bit more conscious…aware of our communications with those who are picking up our communal waste. It would be a wondrous thing if the ‘garbage men’ were valued and appreciated. It would also be a spectacular thing if we elevated ourselves as a collective, more conscious consumers, more attentive stewards.
You are welcome to join me at Frank’s Flats. You only need to bring gloves. Be in touch.