A Lesson Learned from the Garbage Man

We call my dad the garbage man. When I was growing up, he always seemed to favor scraps. We saved him mottled bananas: more brown than yellow. When my mom pulled hunks of cheese out of the refrigerator, fuzzy white mold sprouting up on them like tufts of grass, he would pull out a knife, slash off the rancid bits, and brandish the bare square of cheddar.

“Cheese has mold,” he used to say, and we rolled our eyes every time.

We always knew which cheeses he had rejuvenated. We avoided them, letting him munch on crusty slices while he cooked.

Growing up, I also called my dad cheap. I huffed when he brought home kitchen appliances from the dumpster. He would clean them on the cobwebbed tool bench outside our house late at night after a day at work. He wiped away the stains and scuffs with gray rags that have lived in our house longer than I have. Once the appliances were clean, he brought them up to the kitchen. “These are trash,” I would tell him. He didn’t listen. He plugged them in and flipped a switch, and they would whir to life. He raised his eyebrows at me as if to say, what trash?

I always wondered why my dad insisted on settling for mottled bananas and abandoned appliances. We had money. We could buy new cheese or bananas or toasters. Thrift shops weren’t cool yet, and although my dad’s practices were technically environmentally conscious, he refused to recycle. There was nothing political or moral about this, just a firm belief that nothing should be wasted.

This belief was not hereditary. In my four years at Boston College, I have owned four separate laundry baskets. They have each been the same: plastic, white, with a divot in the side to rest against my hip. I ordered each one in September and guiltlessly left it behind in May, dumping it off with the abandoned mirrors and lamps in the dorm donation piles. Storing bulky laundry baskets costs more than their worth, I would tell my mom. She was reasonable. She agreed. I never told my dad.

Laundry baskets weren’t the only things I shed like ill-fitting snakeskin. I have thrown away stale tortillas, slightly wilted lettuce, cheese, untrendy sweaters, socks, already-read books, and towels. I rationalize this wastefulness by saying I’m in a highly temporary part of my life. Each year I move into a different dorm. Each semester I start new classes. I can’t possibly eat all the lettuce in a standard Trader Joe’s bag before it goes bad. I have become so used to wastefulness that I didn’t notice it until it got pulled apart by cranes.

Last spring I lived in Edmond’s Hall. Today, Edmond’s is a graveyard. Fences surround piles of broken-up cement and metal beams. Some days, construction workers roam the property, moving around piles of rubble with giant excavators and cranes. Most days, the property sits untouched. People like to joke about the trashiness of Edmond’s, but it was built in 1975. My parents have lived longer than Edmond’s. It may have been coated in asbestos, but frankly, the building was too young to go down.

My grandpa once told me: “They don’t make buildings like they used to.” In that moment, I looked down at his 30-year old Cabela’s hiking boots, worn every day since purchase. A layer of dried mud covered their wrinkled surface, and the laces were frayed and colorless. I shrugged off his comment (my shoes are much cuter), but as I stood before the crumpled remains of Edmond’s, I couldn’t stop thinking about my grandpa’s old hiking boots.

We have made everything disposable. Don’t want that bulky laundry basket? Throw it in the trash. Is that cheese looking a little tired? You can trash that too. Need space for a new recreation facility on campus? We’ll get the cranes ready.

As we become more used to waste, we learn to devalue the things around us. We misuse laundry machines, knowing that clothes are easily replaced. We spill drinks on our carpets, knowing that BC housing will replace them each fall. We learn to bulldoze through life, respect be damned. But we cannot bulldoze forever.

We have to unlearn this wastefulness. We have to take stock of the many things we depend on: our groceries, our clothes, the four walls that surround us. We have to treat them with respect, knowing that not everyone has access to these same things. Many people don’t have the privilege of disposability. My grandfather grew up in a poor farming family in France. His boots are a vestige of sacrifice and hard work, and he intends to wear them until they split in the soles or dissolve into thin air.

I hope someday I own something that has been with me for 30 years. I hope I learn to scrape the moldy bits off of hunks of cheddar cheese. I hope, like my dad, I poke around at the things that have been abandoned, noticing the life they have left. I hope I learn to value things as much as I have valued my temporary time here.

We still call my dad the garbage man. He’s the smartest man I know.

Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor