Trash Talking

Just before dawn this morning I lay awake trying to talk myself into getting up. There would be, I promised myself, a newspaper waiting in the driveway, a choice of toast or bagel. My

favorite coffee mug would be hanging from a hook. I may even turn the heat on. Then I heard it -- the shudder of an old shopping cart being pushed up our hill, its wheels creaking until they momentarily stopped at someone's trash can.

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We hear the noise garbage scavengers make every afternoon the day before the city garbage trucks arrive -- it's become a background soundtrack to urban living. The difference now, though, was that this was the third day in a row I'd heard a cart being pushed up our street. We definitely are in a recession. Forget the economics school definition of two consecutive quarters of declining gross domestic product -- there's no more accurate gauge of hard times than the sound of a shopping cart being pushed uphill so often.

I remember as a kid the mysterious men who drove horse-drawn carts in the alleys of Liverpool.

"Rag'n'bones! Rag'n'bones!" they cried out.

These shadowy characters were always out of sight, yelling on the other side of our home's brick wall. The short, compact Guatemalans and Salvadorans who ply our steep streets in Echo Park, however, are very visible. They remind us of our own good fortune or outline the shape of the local economy. They also become as overlooked as public murals or graffiti -- or, perhaps, like their brethren who solicit money by freeway ramps.

I used to wave off the trash pickers when they came into our carport to get to the newspapers, bottles and cans inside the blue bins, which to them are like ATM machines. Come back when I put the cans in the street, I'd say, never knowing if I was understood. Now I don't bother. Three consecutive days. And two of those come after the city's garbage trucks have picked everything up.

There's a recycling center about a mile or so from our house. I've always assumed that that's where people who fill their shopping carts on trash pickup day go to redeem their haul.

But now the scavengers have had their pay cut. According to the New York Times this week,  "mixed paper" on the West Coast "is selling for $20 to $25 a ton, down from $105 in October . . . . tin is worth about $5 a ton, down from $327 . . ."

What's this got to do with the price of tea in China? Plenty. The same New York Times piece noted, "One reason prices slid so rapidly this time is that demand from China, the biggest export market for recyclables from the United States, quickly drief up as the global economy slowed."

These kind of revelations are supposed to make us appreciate the interconnectiveness of that global economy, as though we're all in this together. But some of us are less in it together than others -- some are being left way out in the cold, even more so than they were before.

Just how much could the scavengers possibly be getting out of those blue bins so soon after pickup day? I wondered.


it occurred to me: They weren't going for the blue bins with

recyclables, but the black "perishables" cans instead -- the people

pushing the carts were after food.

As I lay in bed before dawn I talked myself into getting up. There would be the toast or bagel, the favorite coffee mug, the possibility of turning on the heat -- and that newspaper lying in the driveway, with worsening news of the economy. I lay a little while longer, waiting for the sound of that shopping cart to die away.

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