Thursday, August 9, 2007

My Refuse-Based Existential Crisis

How does one throw away a garbage can?

This isn't one of those stupid hypothetical questions like "why isn't there another word for 'synonym,'" or "why is the word 'abbreviation' so long;" this is the real thing. I have a garbage can that is so decrepit that it cannot stand right side up, and have had it at the curb for three weeks now. And nothing will work to get the garbage collector to collect it.

Think about it: Can't put the word "trash" on it (or "basura" or "lixo"); that would just be an exercise in self-reference - a modern and somewhat baser version of Magritte's painting captioned ceci n'est pas un pipe, except in reverse (and instead of a pipe, it's raw chicken and well-used kitty litter).

Compounding my crisis is the fact that my garbage man is worldly and philosophical, and was more than willing to engage me in what I'm sure he perceived to be a battle of wits.

"Good morning, Johannes," I said to him early one Monday morning recently. His parents had eight children and named each of them for Romantic-era composers.

"Mr. Jacobs, a pleasant good morning to you as well."

"Johannes, I need to discuss this garbage can with you. I'd like you to take it."

"Thank you most kindly, Mr. Jacobs, but I have no need for a garbage can at this time."

"No, you misunderstand. I'd like you to take this and put it in the back of your truck."

"Well," he mused, "were I to do that, of course, it would disappear forever-treated like garbage itself."

"That's precisely what my wishes are along these lines, Johannes." I always felt a little intellectually intimidated by Johannes, and unconsciously chose my words with great care when speaking with him.

"But Mr. Jacobs," he said, easily parrying my first thrust, "the vessel is not the medium. In fact, can not and can never be the medium. It's not garbage. It's a means for transporting garbage from hither to yon with a fair amount of efficiency."

"Yes, certainly," I said, quick to appear in agreement with my sophist adversary. "But this particular vessel has outlived its life. It no longer performs adequately at its only jobs, which are to transport garbage and allow me to bring it to the curb with a modicum of comfort. See, there are large holes in the bottom, so it doesn't hold garbage to any great degree, and look here: both handles have worn off, so it's a chore to drag it to the sidewalk. It's a garbage can in name only, Johannes, and I'd really like it if you would treat it as garbage and put it on your

(goddamn son of a bitching)


He looked at me for a long moment, carefully considering my argument, weighing each logic point to a nicety in his head. Finally he spoke.

"There's a bigger issue at stake here," said Johannes. "President Lincoln once asked, 'if you consider a tail to be a leg, how many legs does a dog have?'" He paused, clearly expecting me to answer him.

"Five," I said, trying to sound decisive.

"No, sir, that's not the case," he said slowly. "Because considering a tail to be a leg doesn't really make it one. I can't take a garbage can and treat it like garbage itself. I hope, in the fullness of time, you'll come to see my point of view, and perhaps even agree with it. Until then, we must agree to disagree - and I should also remind you that there's a forty pound weight limit on trash cans. Good day, Mr. Jacobs."

"Lookit," I said, losing the last shreds of patience I possessed. "Take this. I want to throw it away. It's trash. It's worse than trash, it's apparently trash that not even the smartest fucking trash man in the world will take. Take the trash can or so help me god I'll report you to the city."

He smiled, a soft smile, more of pity and understanding than humor. He put a gloved hand on my shoulder.

"I hope you find what you're looking for, Mr. Jacobs. You should consider the fact that what truly troubles you lies deeper than this garbage can. Good day."

And with that, he left, leaving me to ponder both his last words and the dawning realization that the last thing his gloved hand touched before my shoulder was apparently a dirty diaper filled with Indian food that had been sitting in the sun for three days.

Until next week, Johannes.

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