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Trash talk

Would rescuing the neighbors' tumbling garbage cans take the chill off relations?

By Stefanie Wass / July 27, 2009



Faster than a whirling tornado, five gray garbage cans roll down the cul-de-sac, rumbling as they make their escape from my neighbors' front curb.

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"Quick, grab that lid," I instruct my 6-year-old daughter. I dash after the blowing bins, determined to corral them to their proper location.

"I got one, Mama," my daughter grins, sprinting my way with a blue Rubbermaid lid. "But why are you getting those cans? Don't they belong to those funny people who never talk to us?"

I stop in my tracks, right in front of my neighbors' spacious Tudor. The three-car garage, home to a sleek black Mercedes and a red Porsche convertible, seems to sneer at the basic Chevy sedan parked in my driveway. Though just across the street, my neighbors' life seems far removed from my reality. Every week, I peer out my dining room window, envy creeping forward with every housecleaner, doggy groomer, or landscaper that pulls up the driveway.

"Their boys must go to the academy," I remarked one day to my husband, raising my eyebrows as two boys walked out of the house clad in clothing that screamed "exclusive private school": crisply pressed khaki pants and blue sport coats emblazoned with diamond-shaped crests.

Perhaps my face, green with envy, has kept my neighbors from crossing the street and introducing themselves. Though we have lived in the neighborhood for three years, jealousy has stolen my usual outgoing nature, keeping me from stretching out my hand in greeting.

"Those people don't even answer the door," my 10-year-old complained, coming home empty-handed from a Girl Scout cookie sales call.

"Maybe they aren't home," I rationalized, trying to hide the crack in my voice. (I secretly wondered if my neighbors were "above" eating Trefoils or Thin Mints.)

"Yeah, right," my daughter replied, rolling her eyes. "I could hear their TV blaring."

Sarcasm has a way of bouncing from mother to daughter. I grimaced, badly wanting to reverse my fourth-grader's jaded worldview. Here I was, judging a family I didn't even know. Maybe they weren't even happy with their material possessions. Maybe they longed for the "things" that filled our yard: laughter, love, and family.

Today, I feel the warm winds of change blowing right down the cul-de-sac. I chase this second chance, grabbing hold of a tumbling trash pail and setting it upright.

"It's just the right thing to do," I tell my 6-year-old as I stop to catch my breath. "If our cans were blowing down the street, I bet they'd do the same thing for us."

My kindergartner's eyes sparkle, her eyebrows not yet furrowed with her older sister's doubt. "They'd help us, too," she repeats, skipping off to gather the fifth and final lid.

Although I am tempted to test this theory by "accidentally" pushing our cans down the street, I refrain. The next morning at the bus stop, I wave and smile as a familiar red Porsche revs its engine and pulls out of the cul-de-sac. In return, I receive a friendly nod.

"Wave good morning," I instruct my daughters. But they are more concerned with the wiggly worms on the sidewalk than my outreach efforts.

"Where's the bus?" they ask, ignoring my request.

"It's running late," I answer. Just like my attempt to teach basic human kindness. Why should I expect a simple wave or retrieved garbage can to make an impact?

That afternoon, I volunteer to read "Frog and Toad" to my daughter's kindergarten reading group. The story of two unlikely friends' foibles – Frog trying to help Toad secure a melting ice-cream cone on a sultry summer day – makes me laugh. I now wonder if the author was trying to send me a message about unselfish giving.

"Thanks for helping today," the teacher says as I collect the books from the children.

"Sure," I answer, pausing in the hallway to admire a collage of colorful crayon drawings.

"You have to see this one." The teacher points to a picture of two black bins lying on their side like roadkill. "That was really great how you helped your neighbors."

"She told you about that?" I ask, trying hard to read my daughter's "invented" spelling and downhill uppercase printing: "WE RAN AFTR THE CANS."

"Yeah, I had a neighbor like that once," the teacher winks. "He never talked to me, either."

Long after the classroom door closes, I linger, admiring the drawing of two smudgy-black bins tipped on their sides in the middle of a charcoal gray street. Though empty, their message of kindness and basic respect overflows, softening my heart.

This afternoon, I stand at the bus stop, smiling and waving at passersby like a princess in a parade. Although I don't have throngs of neighborly admirers (my waves are lost in a cloud of Porsche exhaust fumes), I know two little girls are watching my every move.

Be positive, I tell myself. Never stop reaching out.

"I'll watch your son after school," I say to the lady who lives next door. Making sure my daughters are within earshot, I greet a new couple down the street. "I'd be happy to drive your kids to choir," I smile.

A crayon drawing of two garbage pails reminds me that even the smallest steps can leave indelible imprints.

"WE RAN AFTR THE CANS," I read for the hundredth time.

Now that's trash talk even a mother can be proud of.

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