February 2008

Talking trash

By David Feela

Some people complain when others talk trash. I hope I don’t offend any of them, because what I have to say is trash and more than likely unethical, immoral, and almost certainly illegal, since it involves crossing state lines.

We were heading to Arizona for Thanksgiving break and our kitchen garbage can, though not full, contained certain odorous discarded catfood cans as well as a clutch of bones from an early feast honoring the first proposed symbol of America’s freedom, the turkey. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone from Arizona launches a campaign to impeach the American eagle, since our current involvement in the world more resembles the behavior of turkeys, but I digress.

This particular road trip would last about 5 hours, a holiday getaway along with millions of other travelers. We’d planned to be gone for three days and I knew I didn’t want to leave the garbage inside the house, so I bagged it up and put it in the car trunk, intending to drop the bag into a dumpster on the way out of town.

I know I can’t plead ignorance, that dumpsters are posted with signs that read “No illegal dumping,” as if putting trash in its proper place were a crime. I know it’s a law, and laws are designed to protect us, right? If we eliminate the illegality associated with the proper disposal of trash, people might not hesitate to collectively put their trash in appropriate receptacles like dumpsters, and we wouldn’t have tons of trash along our highways and public lands, would we?

Then, if our roadsides were pristine, how would county prisoners occupy their public-service time? Who would adopt a road for the sake of just parking beside it to admire the view? What would the highway department do with all the extra money it saved from not having to pick up road trash? It’s a complicated business, this garbage thing.

Anyway, the story I was trying to tell involved a 13-gallon plastic garbage sack with a yellow cinch draw string. It was all trussed up, a bit like a turkey really, ready to be furtively tossed into a dumpster on my way, except I got so excited about leaving I forgot I’d placed my trash in the trunk. I passed beyond the city limits without thinking about my little sack of garbage. And then I passed beyond the Colorado state border before I remembered that I forgot. I was faced with a legal dilemma: Either return to Colorado to dump my trash, settling for the lesser crime of acting like one of the locals, or look for a dumpster in Arizona and escalate my misdemeanor into the more serious crime of transporting illegal substances across state lines.

Surely dumpster regulations exist in Arizona. I rationalized that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be illegal to dump my trash in one of its trash containers. Maybe Arizona has an out-of-state guest clause, an immigrant amnesty provision, or a trash cop that turns away when an out-of-state license plate pulls up beside a dumpster. Tourist dollars are, after all, essential revenue these days. I also suspected that people just don’t care about trash. I’ve seen bags of diapers beside highways, fast-food wrappers tossed out the windows of moving vehicles or simply dropped on the pavement as a door closes and the vehicle pulls away. I guess trash doesn’t inspire much integrity.

In Kayenta I pulled over for gas and remembered my trash. I glanced around the parking lot and skulked toward the rear of the building where two immense industrial-sized dumpsters welcomed me with open lids. Both were surrounded by chain-link fence and a padlocked gate, as if someone might be sneaking in after the sunset to steal garbage, but I’d practiced enough hook shots on the basketball court to know I could sink this one. I glanced toward the store as the bag arched through the air. A man with two dogs stood watching me. He just shook his head.

Like Arlo Guthrie, writer and singer of the famous Alice’s Restaurant Massacre, I know garbage can get you in trouble. But the older I get, the more it sounds like a philosophical question: If a pound of litter falls in the forest where no one sees it tossed, does it make any difference? I’m predisposed to say yes, it makes a habitable world of difference.

David Feela teaches at Montezuma- Cortez High School in Cortez, Colo.