I've been thinking about trash for the last four-five months. In that brief slice of the year when the ground isn't hiding under a foot of snow, our city is ridged with drifts of trash. Plastic bags billowing across intersections or spinning around in alcoves, slurpee cups and drinking boxes rolling around gutters, straws and chip bags and unidentifiable mulch. The trash emerges from under the snow and builds furiously until November or thereabouts, when it goes back into hibernation. Enough of it is biodegrabable and so does not drown us in our homes as we sit and wait for further episodes of Cold Case.
I was out looking at trash today - because raising my eyes means looking at fast-food huts and car dealerships - when I cut through an alleyway and passed an auto junkyard. The sights of the shells of old cars, some blooming with rust, others jacked up on cinderblocks and missing tires, made me realize that there's a useful distinction to be made between trash and junk. Junk is the thing at the end of our repeated use. It's worn, blunted, broken, bleached, chipped, scraped, scuffed, corroded, screwed up and usually kind of dirty. Junk is junk because we've exhausted it, worn out its possibilities and left it somewhere to disintegrate. But even at its most exhausted, junk is infinitely recyclable, useful to someone else. A piece of old furniture or a stained old futon usually disappears in minutes when left next to a dumpster; old scraps of metal end up in a piece of sculpture; a crib belonging to someone's grandparents gets handed down. An object absorbs the history of its use, incarnates in tiny measure the era from which it springs, and as junk it gives back that history, as a stone at evening radiates the heat of the day. Junk is valuable apart from its usefulness, as it takes on the curious aesthetic dimensions of accidental art. Sometimes junk occurs on such a scale that it suggests mystery, as in the abruptly abandoned prairie houses of the Depression, with books still on shelves, mirrors hung on walls and cutlery left in the drawers. At its grandest junk becomes ruins.
Trash is junk's evil twin. Typically, trash isn't stuff - it just contained stuff at some point. Plastic bags, coffee cups, lids and sleeves, straws, slips, receipts, cigarette packs and pinched balls of foil, bubble wrap, styrofoam chunks, cardboard and tape. Trash is almost always branded, the containers carrying the brand for whatever was inside it - a shipping box of diapers, a beaf 'n' bean burrito, a few grams of crushed ketchup chips. Trash is completely transient, meant to attract briefly and then be forgotten. It's strange that something meant to be so impermanent ends up being so persisent. Trash doesn't weather. It just moulders, loses distinctiveness, gathers at curbs and works its way into the sewers. In a city like mine that gets very little rain, it never gets washed away properly, and by autumn the roadsides are lined with a mulch of leaves, plastic and slowly decomposing cardboard. It makes you feel like you're living in a gigantic landfill.
Chip bags are the weirdest trash of all. Are they plastic or metal? They appear to be some kind of high-tech fusion of the two. An open chip bag, all shiny with grease. It's like a robot vagina. Chip bags are the future skins of cyborgs.
So in conclusion I'd like to declare September 27th to be International Robot Vagina Day. With parades, symposia, and a good old pancake breakfast.
*But not one of those patented baby-choking cribs that were all the rage in the early eighties.