This morning, I stepped outside my apartment on Williamsburg’s busy Metropolitan Avenue to find my worst nightmare come true: my discarded bra, t-shirt, gym shorts, empty CD cases and other bits of garbage I’d carefully placed in a plastic bag were strewn across the grate in front of my building, apparently not even worthy of being collected by New York City’s sanitation department. I’m not sure what I did to violate the rules, considering that I discarded dozens of CD cases and only a few were lying there, displayed like some bizarre conceptual art piece, but it’s precisely the fear of this scenario that’s turned me into a woman I jokingly call “crazy garbage lady.”
First let me tell you that there’s a laminated sign in my small five-apartment building stating the labyrinthine rules regarding which items we’re allowed to toss out on which days. Although it’s written in English, its specifics confound me every time I read them. There are separate cans for paper, metal/plastic and household garbage. While this seems straightforward, in practice they are not always clearly distinguished. There’s a single day, Wednesday, allotted for bulk items and recycling (but we should bring those items outside on Tuesday); cardboard must be broken down and banded together. I think even plastic trash bags are supposed to be color-coded depending on their contents. Yet it’s the stern warning at the end of the notice that started me on my path to garbage mania: “Failure to follow these guidelines will result in the fine being passed directly to the violator.”
My twin fears of being fined and getting in trouble have led me to extreme avoidance tactics by bringing my garbage with me on my daily comings and goings. I’ve tossed unwanted perfume bottles on street corner bins (hoping the “No Household Trash $100 Fine” warning wouldn’t apply to me) and chucked mangled books in subway station trashcans. When I travel, I make full use of my hotel rooms to clear out stray papers from my purse. Unsure whether an old unopened jam jar should be emptied, rinsed and recycled (and, frankly, not feeling like dealing with the sticky substance), I popped it in my purse and dumped it in the trash in the women’s locker room at New York Sports Club. Pretty much the only trash sin I haven’t committed is using a neighbor’s garbage bin; the fear of karmic retribution weighs too heavily.
When I read that the MTA is removing garbage cans from subway stations, I cringed. Was it my fault? Had I contributed to this decision by overtly flouting the rules? And, more importantly, what would I do once these underground vessels weren’t available to me?
I want to follow the rules, but I don’t want to have to ask dozens of questions every time I need to ditch an unusual item. I’m clearing out my kitchen, since the only things I’ve used in it in the last two years are my microwave, utensils and soy sauce bottle. Quickly, I’ve faced even more dilemmas: kitchen knives seem too dangerous to simply throw out, not to mention the logistical dilemma of their ability to easily slice through plastic. What about unwanted dishes, pots, baking pans and my old Brita water filter? Are these “bulk items” or “household trash?” The city has some guidelines on their website, but they don’t answer all my questions. Some of their examples of what counts as a “large metal item,” such as “Bathtubs made of porcelain-coated metal” and “Water heaters under 50 gallons,” lead me to wonder what to do with items not specifically mentioned. I understand their reasoning; for instance, to fight bedbugs, mattresses have to be sealed in a plastic bag before being discarded (there’s a $100 fine for disobeying). But procuring one requires a special shopping trip; they don’t sell these jumbo bags at my local Key Food or bodega. Trying to follow these guidelines often leaves me paralyzed with fear, so rather than taking action, I wait, hoping the answer will somehow appear in front of me. Short of packing a suitcase full of garbage to discard in another town, though, I’m not sure what to do. I try my best, but sometimes that means seeing my efforts, not to mention my underwear, on display for any and all passersby.
The earth loving good citizen in me is glad that New York has recycling laws in place. While working at a Midtown office at the height of my six-liter-a-day Diet Coke addiction, I was horrified to find out that the bottles I so diligently separated were simply being tossed in with the regular trash (same with the copious amounts of paper we generated). I want to be a good citizen and minimize the damage I’m doing to the earth. In practice, however, my urge to do the right thing leads to over-analysis and inaction. Do I rinse and recycle my hummus and takeout containers? What about olive oil and shampoo bottles?
I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone. A friend related a horror story about a friend of hers who tossed some unwanted mail in a public garbage can and was duly fined for their misdeed. I just purchased my first shredder to make sure I don’t face a similar fate.
Perhaps I’ve inherited some of my garbage rituals. I come from a family of women with similar issues. When I used to visit my grandmother in Danbury, Connecticut, I’d inevitably be tasked with stowing a plastic bag of garbage in a dumpster on our way to lunch (or occasionally using the restaurant’s facilities, which she presumably considered part of their services). She refused to pay for garbage pickup and thought nothing of going out of her way to do it herself. I only recently learned that her sister did the same thing in my hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey.
For me, it’s not about money (though if I could afford to pay someone to be my personal trash sorter, I would). I’m a hoarder (or packrat, whichever you prefer), and throwing out anything is a multistep process. I can’t simply scoop a pile of items into a garbage bag; it’s fundamentally not in my nature. I have to hold up each item, whether it’s as small as a pair of tweezers or as large as a lamp, and ask myself whether I will use or want it in the future. If the answer even hints at yes, saying goodbye to the object is a challenge. I don’t have some deep attachment to empty plastic containers, but they still pose a challenge.
Some of my issues are specific to me—namely, for seven years I was an editor at Penthouse Variations, which means I own a lot of porn magazines, not to mention videos and DVDs. I want to get rid of most of them, but in addition to the embarrassment I felt at seeing my garbage lying in the street, I worry that a giant XXX cardboard box cover I’ve bundled with my other paper recycling might wind up in a minor’s hands and I could face far worse than a $100 fine. Is that paranoid? Perhaps, but I side with Joseph Heller’s famous maxim, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
I recognize both my own privilege in owning so much stuff it’s become a burden and the knowledge that were I to toss out something I later realized I needed, I have enough money to buy a replacement. But that actually makes the sorting and purging process harder. Because I know there are people who don’t have such privileges, if I am going to give something away, I prefer to pass my discards seamlessly on to someone who will want them. This is why I’ve lugged hundreds of books by subway from Williamsburg to the charity bookstore Housing Works in SoHo. As a writer, books are the hardest items to part with; knowing someone else might appreciate them as much as I did (or thought I would when I purchased them) makes the process a tiny bit easier. A few times, I’ve posted on Facebook asking if someone would like a copy of a Sonic Youth biography or Screenwriting for Dummies; sending them to good homes feels like good bookworm karma.
I will never be like the masseuse who told me she keeps a shelf deliberately clear, a feng shui symbol of being open to new things, much as I admire her detachment from material goods. Hard as I try to follow John Lennon’s urging to “imagine no possessions,” I can’t. The problem is I’m too open to new things, without being open enough to getting rid of them. I feel thwarted when I do try to purge on a mass scale, afraid that I’m doing something as basic as taking out the garbage wrong.
In my recycling utopia, I live in a home and town with precisely labeled bins for each type of item I might want to discard. I don’t feel guilty for my People magazine subscription because I dutifully place my copy in the paper recycling bin after getting my weekly gossip fix. If a jar of food goes bad, I empty and rinse it and place it with its glass mates. I don’t live in fear of making some grave garbage error, nor do I cart around questionable items, going out of my way to find a home for them where I won’t be breaking the law.
As I get ready to move, I’ll be buying a plastic bag for my mattress and shredding those porn boxes, just in case. To my fellow L Train riders: apologies in advance if you pass by some of my trash on the way to the subway. I’m working on it.