Jennifer Ashton: The Bag and I

I’m currently playing a game with the garbage man. It goes like this: I put a recyclable frozen asparagus package in the recycle bin, he throws it out on the ground, I pick it up and place it in the recycle bin for the following week.

I didn’t know I was playing this game until I dumbly picked up on the repetition – like when you realize in grade two that those games the teacher was playing with you in grade one were actually meant to teach you something and you go ‘aha!’ and then think how naive you were back when you were six.

My part of this game also includes me trying to understand why the garbage man has chosen this particular frozen asparagus packaging, when quite often in our bin there are two, and not only asparagus, but the same brand of frozen blueberries or mixed peppers. All the packaging is the same, and all deemed of the correct type for our local bins to be picked up for recycling. I have looked it up three times and checked with my mother, just to be sure.

I have come up with many scenarios: A) he is trying to direct my attention towards a larger problem, for example the plight of the asparagus farmers or some other issue he feels strongly about; B) at some later date he will use it as an ice-breaker e.g. you don’t know me but we have something in common – the asparagus package, and we’ll have a laugh; or C) he has a screw loose and really hates/loves that asparagus package and does not want to see it made into a park bench or shopping bags. To solve this puzzle, I plan to stand by the gate and spy on the garbage man so I can assess his actions or the look on his face. Does he stomp on the bag, shaking his head at it? Does he curse it as he chucks it into the road?

On Monday at a quarter past seven, I put the bins out on the curb, ensuring everything is done correctly: One blue bin, one grey glass bin, one yellow bag for paper, and on the other side of the drive, three large bear bins with clips, one for garbage, and two for yard waste. I stand back and am satisfied. Then I do a quick scan up and down the street.

This is one of the few times I see so many neighbours on our road, and they’re all in their pajamas. The dawn is just breaking, but I can make them all out and, like me, they are half asleep and tottering with their big heavy bins. I also scan for animals, but the coast is clear. It’s still February, and the bears won’t be back for nearly a month. Then out of the mist to my left I hear the familiar wheels of a heavy shopping cart coming down the road, and out of the night emerges the old Asian lady who comes regularly on this day to gather the pop cans and wine bottles from the neighbourhood bins. I read somewhere that she has made enough money doing this to put her kid through college and donate 50k to the local SPCA! I always wave and say ‘hello’ and, if by chance I do have anything with a return deposit, I make sure it’s extra clean and near the top of the bin for her.

Once I have done my duty, I sneak back through the gate. Not sure why I am sneaking at this point, but I guess I feel I should get into character, and by ‘character’ I mean a sleepy girl in dark green dancing polar bear pajama pants with her husband’s too-big wellies and a bright orange teddy bear coat, the one I had been saving up for for two years then bought on sale and given to myself from my non-shopping husband for Christmas. I position myself just inside the dip of the front door frame where I can see the blue bin inside which the asparagus wrapper lies, hidden by a similar frozen blueberry wrapper – same company, same wrapper, but with huge blueberries on the front.

At 7:35 a.m., the big blue recycling truck comes along and I can see the driver in the tall seat and another guy hanging onto the side. He’s wearing dark green or blue coveralls and an orange safety vest, and his face is hidden by a ball cap. He swings down and grabs the yellow bag containing cardboard and dumps it into an opening on the side of the truck. The gray bin, he tips into another opening and I hear the crackle of the glass. Finally, he grabs the blue box and my heart stops. I walk out of my hiding place by two full steps so I can see his actions but, just as he lifts the blue bin to tip it into the truck, there is a loud beeping noise and our porch light goes on, illuminating me in my big orange coat. My husband opens the door with a sleepy ‘wharyoudoingouthere?’ I glance ahead just in time to see the driver’s hat move a few inches in my direction and I scramble to the side of the house, ostensibly to inspect the yellow paint. I nod a few times, touching the siding, and say, more loudly than necessary, ‘Hmm yes maybe you’re right.’ Then I hear the truck drive away.

‘Oh Roger!’ I seethe under my breath, ‘I was trying to see if that was the guy!’

‘What guy?’ Roger’s bed-hair is starting to relax in the outside damp and he pushes it out of his eyes.

‘Ugh, the garbage man who always leaves the asparagus bag!’ I say, but by then Roger has lost interest and is heading for the coffee pot.

The District where we live is pretty small and, judging by how relaxed all the workers are, there may not be a lot to do on any given day. If we need the District Arborist to come and check a tree, he shows up either half asleep or stoned, and if we need the Roads guy, he also shows up looking very relaxed, cheeks damp and rosy like those of a toddler who has just woken up. They all have a cheery serenity about them like six of the seven dwarves, and I often wonder if the District Hall looks like the Keebler Elves tree. But my point is, our District is small enough that when you email or call them, you get a result within a few hours. They are so customer-oriented that they have email-responders for all of their departments, so you never feel like your mail has just gone off into the void. And if you connect to the wrong department, somebody always writes back right away, saying that they have redirected your mail to the correct department – they even give you the person’s name and number and state when they will get back to you. In the eight years that we have been here, we have never had anything but over, above and beyond excellent service with the District and that is why this one rogue garbage man is such a huge mystery to me.

‘He doesn’t fit in,’ I say, fuming to myself as I wander out to put the bins away, inevitably ending up in the middle of the road, blue bin in one hand and asparagus wrapper in the other, scanning the street for a sign of anything else left behind. But there is nothing there, save the crow hopping around a few doors down, picking up what is probably a bit of our neighbor John and Margie’s food waste. What I can see though, is the blue garbage truck down at the very end of the street, and I wonder if the garbage man is watching me.

I soon realize that I am caught out. The sun is starting to peek through the trees and I’m getting warm in my coat and flannel pjs. People are starting to drive their kids to school and they’re pointing and looking at me. I head back in once I’ve returned the asparagus wrapper to the bin and replaced it in the little wooden shed with the bear lock on the outside of the door.

Rather than wait for another week to go by, I decide to contact somebody at the District. I google the District office and scroll through the Department contact numbers. Roger is bustling in the kitchen with his cereal and blueberries, giving a frozen blueberry to each dog. I look at the blueberry bag and wonder if there are any differences at all to the asparagus bag, apart from the picture. Roger catches me staring and laughs and shakes his head.

The District website has had a recent upgrade. I know because I beta-tested it. It now has bright pops of colour, a new font and everything is really easy to find. I click on a little blue box that says ‘Get your garbage schedule!’, which I know should take me to the correct department. I have been on this page before, and also the one that says what they will pick up and what they won’t, and where there is a long list of what can and can’t go into each bin and box. There is also a search engine, where you can type in whatever you have to toss, and a message will come up with the information: a peach pit can go into your brown food waste bag, which can then be placed, on collection day, into your yard waste bin.

I scroll around the page, unsure what to look for. Where can I find out about the people behind the scenes? I Google Smithright which is the name on the side of the trucks. I’m in stealth mode now, head down, a crick in my neck that I’m ignoring. Hours go by and I realize that it’s lunch time and Roger has left to take the dogs for a walk.

Our District is a little place in between many roads. It could almost be said that everything here is near a highway. We’re also in the middle of a forest which makes it the perfect place for dog walking and witnessing wildlife. Even though we are only minutes outside of a major metropolis (via highway), we’ve often had a family of racoons or skunks nearby, including under our shed, bears on the bear-trail that runs alongside our house, and the odd bobcat, coyote, rat, Lyme tick and various large raptors, some big enough to pluck up a small cat or a dog the size of ours and wing them away to a tree top for a snack. I am wondering whether a racoon might be involved in the bag mystery as I begin to doze off.

The screaming Stellar Jays wake me. Roger has returned with the dogs and he has something white in his hand. It’s the asparagus bag!

‘No,’ he says, ‘it’s a frozen mixed vegetable bag that I found on the next block.’

‘Where?’ I ask.

‘On Hoskins about half way down the block in the middle of the road.’

We turn the bag over. There is nothing remarkable about it. It’s been washed out and smells like plastic and dishwashing liquid, its previous owners having done their civic duty. I make up my mind.

‘I’m going for a walk,’ I say.

Roger laughs at what must be my Sherlock-face, determined yet good-looking. I trade my orange teddy coat for a slicker because it’s started to rain.

I start by casing our block, then walk the entire length of the crescent and back again. No bags. As I turn the corner onto Clarke, I spot something white glistening up ahead. I break into a run. Catching my breath, I see a shimmering in the light rain. It is indeed a plastic frozen vegetable bag: /Mexican Mix, Red and Green Peppers with Slivered Onions’. Eureka! I hold it up like it’s an Oscar and it drips water into my eye. I walk home triumphant, sure that I am onto something big.

The following week, I wait behind the car outside our gate. I’m standing about 15 feet away from the bin which contains the asparagus bag and the shiny clean pepper bag which I’ve placed right on top and have a clear line of sight.

At 7:35 a.m., the blue truck rounds the corner. The garbage man jumps off the truck and goes through the row of bins. Finally, the moment I’ve been waiting for. He grabs the blue bin, swings it up and tips it over into the truck. He doesn’t even look at the contents. In fact, he isn’t even looking at what he is doing! I stand with my mouth open. I step out from behind the car, surprising him while he still has the empty blue bin in his hand. The noise from the truck is loud so he smiles, mouthing hi and nodding. The next moment is a slow motion blur as I watch the garbage truck pull away, the garbage man throw down the bin, run a step, and hop up onto the truck. I see the asparagus bag appearing out of nowhere, tumbling and turning a few times, end over end, cartwheeling down the road, caught in some kind of current as the recycle truck drives away.

Later I tell Roger that it’s a scenario I had already imagined. I mean, it’s only logical that, as the bag is the first thing into the damp bin it will stick to the bottom and then come out after the garbage man has dumped the bin’s contents out. Like a limp piece of baloney it’s stuck and then gravity simply does its work.

So here we are, the bag and I, alone on the road again.

Jennifer Ashton. Image by Melissa Newbery.

Jenn Ashton is an Award-winning author and visual artist living in North Vancouver, B.C. She is currently completing a book about the history of her First Nations family in Vancouver and is a Teaching Assistant in The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University.

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