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Archive for October, 2010

“I want to wear my green glubs,” insisted my son the other day, before he and his sister sat down in front of the TV. I’m never exactly crazy about plopping them there, but the psychologists who warn us against the television-as-babysitter probably don’t have two kids to supervise while working from home. Anyway, I don’t “plop” them on the couch, they rush to it of their own accord, and furthermore, I don’t allow anything violent or egregiously eye-popping. The line-up usually consists of selected Mr. Rogers DVDs, with frequent detours into Curious George, Bob the Builder, or Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

And then there’s something called I Stink. In case you’re not familiar with it, I Stink tells the story of municipal solid-waste collection from the garbage truck’s point of view. The protagonist emerges from his dimly-lit garage at dawn and, in a growly, nail-chewing voice (courtesy of comedian Andy Richter) beckons the viewer through the highs and lows of his bad-ass existence. Clearly, he loves his job. He loves eating and digesting trash. And why shouldn’t he?

My son is particularly fond of the video, especially when he can wear his “glubs.” He is also very fond of watching the real-life version of I Stink rumble down our street every Tuesday morning. In this case, he sees a human operator running the show, a driver who waves to the kids in an exchange that’s played out in neighborhoods across America every day. I have vague uncertainties about it, of course—the driver shouldn’t feel obligated to wave if he doesn’t want to. He may not have time to put on an act. He’s a professional like anybody else, with a serious job to do.

On the other hand, I like the fact that my kids admire the driver and are excited about his work. I have no problem with them growing up to do something like that, and why should I? Is it a crime for them to aspire to helping a community in a concrete way? The last thing I want is for them to end up grinding their fingers into computer keyboards while their asses fall asleep and they wait in agonizing dread for meetings in which their senses of humor disappear into the faux wood veneers of conference tables. Still, I have to ask: what’s the waste collector’s secret? What makes him the star attraction?

I know, I know, the truck is hulking and soupy-green with flashing lights and deliciously noisy hydraulics. But there’s something about the driver himself, his aesthetic, his mission. It’s taken me months, or maybe years, to develop a theory—even though one important clue is plain as day every time the guy waves.

I believe my son, without fully knowing it, sees in the driver’s “glubs” a sign of vitality and danger-tinged engagement, as if the man were manipulating fire or molten metals or an untamed animal. And the three-year-old imagination isn’t far off base. There’s plenty of risk involved in the solid waste business. Plenty of reasons for suspicion and vigilance.

If you don’t agree, take a glance up and down the sidewalk in the post-dawn of garbage pick-up. Put yourself in the shoes—or the gloves—of the person who has to open every shadowy canister. Who knows what lurks inside those monoliths lining the curb like Easter Island statues? Who knows what the first rays of the sun will trigger? People are slobs, they throw away noxious and explosive chemicals all the time. I once had a housemate who wanted to dump bullets into the trash can, for crying out loud. Maybe I’m being melodramatic, but it’s not exactly a hallucination to say that waste collection should be entrusted to a front-line professional.

So I’m proud as hell when my son shouts “I stink!” after I ask him what he wants to watch on TV, and I smile like a king at my prince every time he puts on his glubs—even if they’re knitted, Michigan-shaped, and striped mint-green. Covering his hands means he’s arming for a good fight, readying his best weapons for righteous action. Covering them makes them no less luminous than they were on the day he was born.

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