The Nuisance Grounds

“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.

Photo Credit: D'Arcy Norman 2009 Spy Hill Landfill

Photo Credit: D’Arcy Norman 2009 Spy Hill Landfill


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.

May 10, 2014 Frank's Flats

May 10, 2014 Frank’s Flats

May 16, 2014

May 16, 2014


Amazed about the orange bag filled with litter…someone else picked today!

P1160719 P1160775



I have the day off.  I woke with a dream…I’d say that it was a dream from God, meant to comfort.  Maybe you haven’t had one of those, but our Lord gives them to me on a not-so-regular basis.  Today I know that my dream was a gift.  So, there you go.  I felt as though I had a particular kind of courage for the day as I rolled out of bed and placed my feet on the floor.  Think about it.  Isn’t that such a powerful symbol when you put those feet down in the morning?  There starts the gratitude.

I shuffled to the yellow chair.  That’s where I get my grounding in the morning…lift up my day…ask for help…pet Max…give thanks…be.  Usually I make my coffee before plunking there, but today I didn’t.  Once up and at the counter, I stood there long enough to enjoy the aroma of those first drips of coffee into the pot and then I heard it!

…the revving on and off again, plunking and bumping of the garbage truck in the back alley and shocked, went into a panic mode about the absolutely filled-to-the-top black bin that cradled my garden clean-up leftovers!  YIKES!!  “WAIT!!!” I shouted to absolutely no one and tore to the back door, slipping on summer sandals along the way!

He was two doors down…his truck rolling along…his robot arms reaching out and embracing each black receptacle along the way!  I waved my arms while simultaneously looking into the bin that I knew was stinking and pouring over with garden materials and last week’s bag of refuse from the kitchen.  HEH!  WAIT!  I ran across the alley to see if the neighbours’ bins had been gathered up!  They had!  Like some sort of lunatic with a shopping cart, I spun the bin onto its back wheels and started running!

Did I even consider what this might look like to others?  Absolutely not!  Did I continue to wave my arms in the case that someone in that truck looked into a rearview mirror?  You betcha!  Were there any witnesses to this early morning event?  Of course!  One woman, bound for work and perfectly coiffed, was returning her emptied bin to its perfect spot by her perfect curb as I made eye contact, but flew past her.

I was gaining on the garbage truck!  By this time I was two thirds of the way down the length of the alley.  Within two lengths of his truck, he put on the brakes…came around…looked at me.  And he smiled.  Is it possible to fall in love with the garbage man…in a moment…a flash???  (just kidding).  I begged him, “Would you please take my garbage?  PLEASE!”  Now…how pathetic does that sound?  Would you please take my garbage?  That is just a pathetic opening line!  But…he smiled again…and said, “Move aside.”  I happily watched the container lift into the air and empty itself into the opened mouth of the truck.

He said, “Have a great day.”

I said, “You too.”

And pushing my cart, I headed back to my back gate.  By now, I was finally aware of my cold arms.  I looked down at my pink leopard print pajama bottoms.  I looked at the thin worn t shirt that barely covered me.  I flashed back to the face of the witness.  All of a sudden her body language made perfect sense.  Becoming fully conscious, I hoped that I would make the return without meeting up with anyone.

The question came to mind, as I neared the house, “I wonder if I slammed the gate shut.”  You got it!  In fact, the gate WAS slammed shut in the initial frenzy.  What about the shoelace that I had attached for such situations?  Yes, you got that also!  The latch and the shoelace were no longer one entity!

Reflecting back on Outward Bound days, I rammed the guilty bin up against the gate and without thinking, braced it and climbed up on top in order to break through to my own property.  I’d be darned if I was going to walk back the length of the alley, freezing now, and in such dress, and then back up via the front street to my locked house, with yet another back yard gate that was standing in similar circumstances.  The latch gave way and in I fell to the backyard, Max sitting at the back window staring at the calamity.

Here I sit…sipping coffee…waiting for my son to call.  I could not help but write.  I only wish you could experience the face of the witness…the warm humour of the garbage man (sorry, I think there is a more politically correct term for one of these, these days) and I certainly would like my ascent to the top of the garbage bin captured in film…but, instead…here are my words.  Enjoy.

The pajama bottoms…thrift store…and not all that attractive.

The random t-shirt…unfortunately transparent (if you get my meaning).

The sandals at the back door…unfortunately it had snowed night before last.

The latch…the shoelace.

The bin.

The alley: Count six black bins down on the right, you will see my target location. I know…you can’t count six black bins down on the right. My point.

Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe. Truman Capote