I had never talked ecology with a trash collector until I lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That’s when I met Joe and Pablo, who came around every Tuesday morning to haul our trash to the city incinerator about two miles away. For several years, Joe and Pablo’s visit was the highlight of our son’s week. As soon as he’d hear the truck in the distance he’d rush to a door, any door, and demand to be carried outside. We became a predictable vision on their Tuesday morning route, a bleary-eyed mother holding a baby in blue pajamas, standing on our front porch or at the gate to the back alley.
Before long we moved from smiles and waves to snatches of conversation. Joe and Pablo were always happy to talk, and our conversations soon ranged from theology to raising kids to a disposable culture. They would shake their heads as they told me about a recent find, one of the many brand-new items they found in people’s garbage—coffee tables, chairs, picture frames with the price tags still on. When they saw that I shared their critique of throw-away America, Joe and Pablo began bringing our son things they’d found along their route—lopsided teddy bears, a plastic tree with Winnie the Pooh characters popping crazily out from its trunk, monster trucks orphaned from their remote controls. I tried not to dwell on the toys’ storied pasts in the trash cans of my neighbors, but also took warped pleasure in casually announcing to friends and family the ancestry of various toys scattered around our house.
I was pleased by Joe and Pablo’s gesture, their obvious joy in sharing their loot with my son, and I was happy to be included in their conspiracy of recycling. I think they saw their scavenging as a calling of sorts, to be practiced alongside of making a living. I never asked them, but I wonder whether they ever thought of it as separating the wheat from the tares, a way to rescue the good before it was tossed into the flames.