by Glen Draeger
When Harry Robins returned from work his bathroom faucet was running full force. This surprised him only momentarily because the truth of why the water had continued its even flow for the last fourteen hours descended upon him as swiftly as dung from a passing pigeon: he had never turned it off. Why the simple task had been forgotten became as quickly evident to him as if there had been a second pigeon: he consistently walked out of a bathroom to the sound of running water. He did it half a dozen times a day after his habitual trips to the company can to urinate, defecate and read the paper. The faulty automatic faucets never turned off until Harry Robins had exited the rest room and walked down the hall to the mail room where he worked.
Harry was the head mail room clerk. At twenty-seven, with a B.S. in Biology, he had five people working under him after four years at The Hedlen Insurance Company. It was his responsibility to get the mail sorted as early as possible, deliver it, order supplies, send out the overnight mail and make sure Hedlen employees’ stockpiles overflowed with paper clips, pens, pencils, markers and whatever else they needed to stave off irritability.
Harry’s boss, Millie Neson, an attractive, overweight, ambitious woman provided Harry with more supervision than he wanted or needed, but Millie believed the office would cease operation if she did not provide continuous instructions for those under her supervision. “It might be faster if you had your people sort the boxes first,” she told Harry who hid his irritation well. “You should probably think about making an order from Business Office Supply,” she said the day before he had planned to do so. Harry tried to ignore her, though not successfully. In her presence he acquiesced whenever she told him something and in her absence did it the way he always had. Millie Neson gave instructions so habitually that from her perspective she caused every effect. Harry believed that before sunrise she said, “Let their be light,” and credited herself with the inevitable.
Now, however, it angered Harry that he imagined her telling him he should have fixed the slow drain immediately, that he should have had a plumber providing him with preventive care. He had thought about fixing it each time the sink filled with cloudy water while he shaved and brushed his teeth each morning, but work made it easy to procrastinate. “Damn! Damn, damn, damn!” he said, as the athletic socks on his shoeless feet soaked up water from the carpet in his hallway. He removed them. His chosen, frequently used, curse words seemed appropriate for the amount of water that had spilled over the edge of the sink, into the bathroom, out into the hall, into both carpeted bedrooms, into half the living room and finally into the kitchen past the cat dish where it ran under the back door and onto the small, concrete patio where it puddled around Harry’s rarely used portable, gas barbecue just before running into the backyard and on to the lawn that needed mowing.
Harry could not afford a plumbing bill. Before he moved into the 60 year-old three-bedroom, two-bath house two years ago, he knew sacrifices would be necessary in order to keep it. Expenditures had to be eliminated in order to make the house, insurance and tax payments. Harry used a magnet to attach the following to his refrigerator:
Movies(at the theater)
This “elimination list” was only an initial list, because six months later Harry stared at the water from his washer as it flowed up through the bathtub drain. Somewhere between the house and the street the main sewer had clogged. Harry knew this because the tub was the last drain on the line. He rented an electric plumber’s snake on the weekend– everything happened on the weekend because that was essentially the only time Harry was at home when he wasn’t sleeping.
An old, surprisingly articulate man in a dull red, button-up shirt asked, “Have you used one of these before, Mr. Robins?”
“No,” Harry said self-consciously stuffing his credit card back into his wallet. He disliked the professional construction worker, plumber and handyman fraternity. They seemed to him to be laughing inside at the novice, the do-it-yourselfer, the homeowner hoping to save a little money. “What should I watch out for?” Harry asked stiffly.
“Take it slow. Turn the motor off before you push the line down the pipe. Wear gloves. Always wear gloves. We provide you with three cutting heads. This one,” he said, pointing to four, sharp, twisted blades that looked more like a medieval torture instrument than a plumber’s tool, “is most likely too aggressive since this is your first time using an electric snake. If the pipes are old, I would not recommend it. The other two should be adequate.”
Using a less aggressive head, Harry pushed the long, silvery hundred foot cable down the clean-out hole of the four-inch pipe as the electric motor twisted it through the black scum. Then slowly and not too carefully he dragged it out as it squirmed like a muddy earthworm suddenly exposed to the light.
Eliminating the need to hire a plumber was a grand achievement for any homeowner, particularly a relatively new one. The plumbing worked without incident until the following weekend when the tub filled with cloudy water and bits of decomposing toilet paper after Harry washed his queen-sized bedspread. For 50 dollars he rented the snake again(one hundred was cheaper than any plumber) and this time used the aggressive head which snagged the ficus root that blocked the drain with such force that it broke the sewer pipe. The plumber charged $789.23. The list on the refrigerator grew:
No Red Meat
A month later the water pump on Harry’s 1994 Mustang went out. $280.00. Except for the house, Harry had no debts, but his savings dwindled rapidly. Again he added to his list:
Bicycle to Work(Except When it Rains)
New water-heater, $189.00.
Repair leaky roof, $139.50.
No Junk Food.
Car Registration, $56.00.
Stop Using Electric Bathroom Heater
So, a few days after Harry had gotten the drain fixed and his carpets dried and the same day both bills arrived for those services Harry Robins added one more thing to his list:
No Trash Pick-up
He studied this on the white piece of paper on the refrigerator door, then crossed it out. Even the dump cost 10 dollars for a carload and twenty-five for a truck, money he did not have. If he did use the dump, he’d have to consider the time wasted and the inconvenience of driving to it twice a month. It was not worth it.
But Harry’s decision faced a problem when he read that the Renford City council planned to vote on a ten dollar a month increase for trash pick-up, raising the total to 37.50 a month, one of the highest fees in the nation. Harry believed his ten dollars would help purchase the gold-plated shovel to break first ground at the construction site for the new multi-million dollar city administration building on Lincoln Avenue, so Harry went to his first city council meeting.
Mayor Clifford Will had been a successful CEO for INDEED! a large title company in Renford City, retired at age 55 and entered politics, first becoming a Renford City council member and finally, at 58 the mayor. Dark suits, gray hair and a huge vocabulary of corporate clichés characterized Mr. Will, who believed his last name characterized the reason for his success in the world and hence he was little concerned or interested in any alternate explanations. Successful men of the corporate kind consider “fortune” and “luck” misnomers for hard work, discipline and intelligence.
“Our schools need this money,” Mayor Will said. “The future of our children is at stake and we have the opportunity to make their future a bright one. I intend to fulfill that obligation.”
Harry Robins talked very little at work, rarely asserted himself or argued for the way he thought things should be done. Consequences always loomed behind such actions and Harry needed his job and his future raises. Harry wanted to move up and if he had learned one thing at Hedlen it was this: conformity, real or feigned, made one a player in business. All that endless talk about creativity, innovation, originality and revolution was for show. It was internal Public Relations. Taking any of it literally would only get you in trouble. Harry’s colleagues would have been stunned to hear him at the City Council meeting speaking passionately into the microphone as the council members listened disinterestedly.
“Mayor Will, why do we pay property taxes? Why do we pay a city sales tax? It doesn’t seem to me that this pays for anything. We still have to pay for building permits which can include the repositioning of an electrical outlet, for God’s sake. You tell us this is just one small increase, but you’ve been telling us that for every increase. If you had to earn money like the rest of us, you wouldn’t be so quick to dig into our pockets.”
“Thank you, Mr. Robins.”
After sitting down Harry said, “I hate the government.” He said it loud enough for 83 year-old Lucy Yearn to hear. She had attended every city council meeting for the last 18 years.
“It hates you, too, Harry. It hates us all,” she said.
Twenty minutes later they passed the resolution to increase the cost of trash pick-up.
Harry Robins discontinued his service. The city picked up his trash cans the same day in a display of bureaucratic expediency rarely witnessed in Renford City, its surrounding counties or the nation as a whole. He had no intention of using the dump. The trash that had accumulated he carefully placed in a plastic grocery bag, stuffed it into his brief case and took it to work. In the solitude of the mail room he stuffed the bag into the wastebasket.
This process worked fine until Christmas. Harry received clothes, shirts from his mother and grandmother, a pair of slacks from his sister and wrapping paper and boxes. His father bought him a pruning sheers. The first weekday after Christmas Harry’s father, who always sought activities to fill his retirement, drove to Harry’s house and pruned the entire yard while Harry worked under the fluorescent lights in the windowless mail room. The pile of leaves and branches was barely smaller than his car. Little by little he took it to work, but it was impossible to catch up. He started riding home for lunch(it was only two miles) explaining to his colleagues that he needed the exercise. With his briefcase empty of all work material he filled it completely with trash, but he still couldn’t catch up. Junk-mail increased, his dad pruned again and his birthday was only a week away. It was a dismal future.
A few days after his birthday Harry walked west from his house with a backpack his father had given him. In the main compartment he packed as much trash as possible. He left the house a little anxious, but he calmed himself with this thought: I’m just checking today. He looked for dumpsters. The condo complex just around the corner had one, but there was a lock on the gate to get to it. Harry walked mostly down alleys. About a half-mile from his house a small two story office building faced Bradley Avenue, but in the back, in the alley, an unguarded, gray dumpster sat both lonely and empty. Harry unloaded his trash. He returned home, filled his backpack again, then left heading east. Broadway Market provided the next dumpster. Going north two dumpsters, one at a large apartment building and another at the Renford City Building, provided perfect places to stash his trash. Since Harry lived in Renford he considered the latter one of his own.
After a week Harry had perfected his technique. As he approached the dumpster, he took his back pack off, extracted the trash from it which he packed in a plastic grocery bag and as he passed the dumpster threw the bag in or if it was closed, opened the lid just high enough to slide the bag in then let it close gently without making enough noise to alert even the most trained, practiced busy-body.
Trash pick-up day was always a big day for Harry. He rose at 4:30 a.m., all his trash had been collected the night before in plastic grocery bags which he tied securely, then walked the streets disposing of them in other people’s trash cans that sat by the side of the street or in the alley. He was home by five-thirty having also accomplished his exercise for the day and all this before work.
At Hedlen Harry helped his underlings sort the mail, nodded his head impotently when Millie commanded and planned his trash disposal. Millie could not tell him how to organize his trash. Trash was completely his.
Harry was methodic and spontaneous. If a dumpster was in use or being watched he simply went on to the next one. Compromise was important, he told himself. Not only was he getting rid of his trash, but he lost weight.
Harry had gotten so efficient at trash elimination that he could often take days off. The big pile of branches and debris was gone, Christmas boxes were non-existent and Harry had some spare time to plan his next big project: not merely the elimination of trash, but an eloquent usage of it.
Harry composted. He built a double compost bin out of old two-by fours and plywood. That eliminated all organic waste. He burned paper products and larger tree branches in his fire place(Why hadn’t he thought of that before?) then used those ashes, along with leaves, smaller twigs and grass clippings, for composting. Plastic, glass and metal he recycled.
Within three weeks Harry had completely revolutionized his trash system. He loved it more than his first system and at times was angry at himself for not thinking of it in the first place. It was not long before Harry had planted a garden and was saving the water from his wash to water it. He stopped using his dishwasher and washed by hand to use that water too. Harry had so much produce, particularly tomatoes and green bell peppers, that he sold some of it to a local produce store which allowed him to splurge and see a movie. His flowers, too, were abundant and Harry sold some of his crop to a local florist. He celebrated with dinner at a steak house during Monday Night Football.
“They raised the rates again,” Harry’s neighbor Bob told him. “41.75 a month. And not only that, if they find anything recyclable in your trash you get fined, plus they charge extra to pick up recyclables.”
“Damn! Damn those bastards,” Harry said.
“How do you do it?”
Harry explained his system to Bob, who explained it to his wife and within a week Bob and Carol Jensen had canceled their trash pick-up. Unlike Harry, the Jensen’s were sociable in the neighborhood and within a month every family on Vine Street, except the Murdocks, canceled their trash pick-up. The trend spread. The editorial writer for The Renford Post lived on Vine, six houses up from Harry. He called the rates “oppressive” then explained that their neighborhood had discontinued its service and was creatively getting rid of its trash through other means. Once every couple of weeks Harry took non-recyclable plastics to the dump. Everyone chipped in a buck which more than paid for the 10 dollar dump fee. Harry kept the rest.
More neighborhoods followed.
The city council planned an emergency meeting to talk about lowering the rates which attracted one of the biggest crowds they had had in the last twenty-five years. In the paper a councilman had been quoted as saying: “It’s obvious that we misunderstood the wants of our customers(Renford had been calling its citizens “customers” ever since Mr. Will became mayor). I don’t see any reason not to lower the rates. We’ve looked at the numbers again and with some creative financing we should be able to do what is best for both the city and its people.”
Harry spoke first at the special meeting regarding trash rates. “On behalf of the people from my neighborhood on Vine Street and knowing what the decision will be here tonight, we’d just like to say, we don’t want your rate decrease. We are not going to reinstate trash pick-up. We’re all getting along fine without being harassed by a bunch of idiots.” Harry had never learned to be tactful. “You are no more interested in our wishes today than you were when you raised the rates. We’re going out for pizza and beer.” They left as did the neighborhoods of Pine Hill, Granite Ridge and Jefferson Heights.
Over the course of the next few months close to 25% of Renford discontinued trash pick-up. Compost and recycling bins sold briskly and the dump received more residential customers, but the city continued to lose money.
At the next council meeting a proposal was made to assess private property with an “Incidental Trash Fee.” A study, which cost the city 34,000 dollars, proved that everyone was responsible for a considerable amount of trash regardless of whether they recycled or not by their attendance at public places such as parks, post offices and city buildings. They also proved that people’s presence at private places of business including movie theaters, restaurants, fast-food establishments, gas stations and supermarkets markedly affected the city’s expenditures on trash. The city maintained that though twenty-five percent of Renford had discontinued service there was only a five percent decrease in the amount of trash being dumped at the city’s disposal site. Someone had to pay for it.
This backfired because the people of Renford who paid for trash pick-up service also had to pay the “Incidental Trash Fee” which angered them considerably. Another 25 percent of Renford residents discontinued service and Harry sold 900 copies of his photocopied guide to trash elimination entitled, No Trash Cans Needed, at five dollars each. Harry bought new clothes and took “Books” off his list.
The city, predictably, canceled the tax, but most who had discontinued service kept it that way. There was a considerable jump in the amount of parking tickets issued, but it was impossible to make up the amount of money lost. Twenty-five trash men lost their jobs along with several office personnel.
Then Sixty-Minutes did a story on Renford entitled, “Trash Wars.”
The crew spent three days interviewing both sides, repeating to one side what the other had said, repeating to the other that response and generally exacerbating the tension that already existed. The day after Sixty Minutes left a major publisher, alerted by a Sixty Minutes’ camera man, called Harry and asked to buy his book. The show would air in three months and they wanted the paperback on the market when it did. Harry accepted a fifteen thousand dollar advance and 15% of all retail sales.
The book was a success. Harry quit his job to write a sequel, Dispose Your Garbage Disposal: The Fine Art of Composting and he added one more thing to his list:
When new book comes out burn this list.
The book arrived in bookstores three months later, the same day the City of Renford filed bankruptcy and the same day Harry Robins put a match to his list.