Following the garbage trail

Peering closely at the garbage and recycling bins of one’s neighbors isn’t normally considered acceptable behavior.

Thanks to my dog, I get away with it–and get a strange-yet-personal glimpse into the lives of the people who live in my neighborhood.

The trick, of course, is in not being obvious. If I were to walk down one side of the mobile home park and up the other, stopping to gape at recycle bins and unlidded garbage cans, I would soon become persona non grata, I’m afraid. Come to think of it, I’d be self-conscious if anyone stared too hard at my own discards.

That’s where Lady comes in. She’s a beagle. A scent hound. No smell is too abhorrent to her. The riper the odor, the more enticing she finds it. Our daily walks are punctuated by her frequent stops to sniff more closely, to scratch a surface layer away in order to get closer to something only she can identify. Is it any wonder, then, that garbage cans and recycle bins are an irresistible draw?

So, as we meander down the road every Thursday, which is garbage day, she insists on stopping at the end of every driveway. There’s no dissuading her, either. Despite her meager 32 pounds, when she plants those legs in protest against a suggestion to move on, we don’t move on.

So, I wait patiently while she sniffs up, down, and, when it’s possible for someone as short as she is, in the containers. Taking note of what’s inside those trash and recycle bins isn’t something I ever set out to do. Can I help it if the contents are right there before my eyes? Is it my fault if the husks of my neighbors’ daily lives lie there in plain sight?

Most of the time, no definite conclusions can be drawn from anything I see. Most of the time, I’m simply left wondering.

Some bins are filled with mounds of empty water bottles, as if they know something I don’t know about the city water supply. Others overflow with vegetable, soup and stew cans, or boxes of instant mixes, which hints that the microwave might be used much more than the stove in that house–and that the occupants might spend long hours at work.

Piles of beer cans in one bin, empty Slim-Fast containers in another. Dog food and cat food bags identify the pet owners. Hardware packaging hints at home improvement projects. Cigarette cartons point out the smokers. Cereal boxes indicate who is into junk food, who is into fiber. Overflowing bins suggest those who entertain or are able to spend lavishly. The tiny, two-foot-high garbage can and waste-basket sized bag of recycles by the elderly lady’s home indicates frugality that might come from simple living, or from necessity.

Although I draw conclusions, I make no judgments about what I see. These people are my neighbors. They live their lives with as much hope, happiness and hardship as I do. They deal with their issues while I deal with mine. If anything, I look at those collections of detritus from their lives with affection and even with prayer for whatever their needs might be.

Not Lady, though. She just samples the smells and then, finally, moves on.


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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