September is only technically the beginning of fall in Texas, since rain and temperatures will not catch up with the calendar until much closer to Halloween than to Labor Day. From my back porch the newly mowed lawn looks more like a field of straw. I’d half expected to see the three figures from Millet’s painting “The Gleaners” picking their way across the tawny stubble looking for left-behind grain.
There are urban gleaners too, and they are always with us. Every time the City allows us to haul out the useless, broken or forgotten objects in our basements and attics and put them at the curb for mass collection, these late-harvest gatherers appear seemingly out of nowhere. I’ve had the experience, between trips between cellar and curb, of finding the first deposit picked over or entirely missing before I can put another load on top of it.
A glance down the street reveals a convoy of battered pick-up trucks and sedans with trunks lashed with twine to accommodate the booty within. I’m often amazed by the occult economy this represents; where are all the rags, broken mop handles, bottomless chairs and crushed lampshades going, if not to the dump?
Monday mornings at dawn another set of gatherers appears, peering into the giant blue bins that hold a week’s collection of recyclable items, glass jars, metal cans, newspaper, cardboard and landscape-choking plastic bags. These often disappear too, piled into shopping carts and toy wagons bound for reclamation at pennies to the pound.
My father told me that he found my grandfather late one night engaged in a strange ritual at the kitchen table. He was carefully, almost tenderly, wrapping up his razor blades in layers of newsprint, along with cans with jagged edges and glass contains that would be broken in the ash can in the alley behind their house. My father asked what he was doing and my grandfather’s wordless reply was to motion to follow him to the alley. Grandfather put the bundles gently in the galvanized metal can and pointed down the alley where Depression-era homeless men were rummaging for anything of value. I don’t want them to hurt themselves…” was the explanation, and an epiphany for my father.
On one of the occasions when I was acting as tour guide for a group of University of Texas architecture students, an aspiring Chinese city planner asked me what the very large brown bins were that she saw at everyone’s curbside. “They are for trash,” I said with a stunning lack of profundity. “You mean you are all so rich you can throw so much away?” she asked.
The reason I love teaching is that it enables me to spend time with young people at the best time in their lives – everything is new and subject to questioning, even the apparently obvious. Are we so rich we can afford to throw so much away?
The topography of virtually every large city in the U.S. boasts huge new hills, some of them almost mountains. I suppose we could call them Mons Purgamen, but the Latin belies the truth: they are landfills. - Michael Guarino