It happened in a round-about way. This morning we woke up early. “I can’t sleep.” “Me neither. Let’s go to the flea market.” It would have been the first time I had been there before ten. Prime time. But today there was no flea market. The cold has finally driven even the hardcore boothers away.
We walked on, to the grocery store. Even though I’m really excited to try out what I just learned from Hobo Stripper about making a toothbrush out of a small stick, we needed new toothbrushes and bread. The usual Saturday morning errands, preparations for Everything’s Closed Sunday. At the store I eyed the marked down fruits and vegetables and holiday chocolate. “If we get our asses out of bed tonight, we know what will be waiting for us…”
We walk this path often. Maybe four, five times a week. Maybe ten. It’s the way to the grocery stores, to the dumpsters, and to the post office. The sidewalk fringes rows of unpleasant-looking stucco houses. Quick post-war rebuilds, I imagine without knowing for sure.
Every time I walk this path I imagine the houses empty—apocalypse, emergency, plague—windows broken, ivy slowly stretching up the walls. I imagine that one or two of the houses are inhabited, and that the rest have been marked for plundering the building supplies needed elsewhere.
In a small black trash can next to the sidewalk was a wooden cassette rack, filled with cassettes. I walked into the driveway, lifted the lid and pulled it out. Out of habit. Below it was a bag with what I thought was an enormous candle, and some LPs. “There’s a lady looking at you from the window.” Oh. I took the cassette rack and the bag and let the lid fall closed behind me.
There were five Bruce Springsteen cassettes, a Madonna album that I’ll give away, and a Ghost Busters radio play. The rest I could record over. I looked in the bag. Nope, not a candle, but a huge pot-shaped mass of fat. “Sweet! Now I can try out candle making.” I think of the homemakers I’ve been reading about, making soap and candles from fat scrapped from pans and cut from meat. Had this bit been saved out of habit, because that’s what mom and grandma always did, but tossed for lack of an idea of what to do next?
“Did you see the lady’s face?”
“No, just her head.” I wondered how she had felt, seeing me in her driveway, in her trashcan. Perhaps she had felt annoyed, possessive. Maybe she was kicking herself for not getting that table at the flea market after all.
Later, I walked across the street to use the toilet. (The water in our bathroom wagon has been turned off for over a month. At first because several pipes froze and exploded, now because we don’t want them to explode again. “Little business” as the Germans euphemize peeing happens outside and “big business” across the street.) On the way back I cut through the trash collection corral. Holy shit. There was a big pile of blankets, witty little shirts in my size, unprinted shirts that I will screen print and sell, two fitted sheets (for the longest time we only had one and now we are teetering on exuberance), a fall jacket, and a sweet black velor jacket that has The Mad Scientist’s name written all over it. All piled dejected on the pavement. I boxed them up and took them home.
Last week someone threw out another kitchen, spices still full, leftovers from the previous night’s dinner still clinging to pan bottoms. I had just written a grocery list for the three-course dinner I made on Saturday night. I wasn’t sure where I was going to find algae flakes, but there was the obvious answer: in the dumpster across the street is where you’ll find them (as well as two bags of beans, rice paper, baking powder, and pudding mix).
But the winner of this week’s most curious find was the bag of dried lilies. What do you even do with dried lilies? Usually I complain when I find flowers in the trash. (Although they came in handy for the bridal bouquet.) “You can’t eat flowers!” I bitterly tell anyone who tries to tell me that at least they’re pretty. And now dried lily petals among the remnants of someone’s kitchen cabinets. I guess you can eat flowers after all.
In the morning I wake to the sound of the chickens outside of my bedroom window. The rooster doesn’t crow at dawn, not our rooster. He crows around 10 or 11 pm, and at 3 or 4 am, and we joke that he’s just dimmed the lights and poured the drinks and is cawing “Paaa-rty!”
Outside of my bedroom window (my wagon window? my bed window? the window in my wagon next to my bed?) the chickens are pecking at an old block of Styrofoam. Little white balls litter the ground around it, and every morning their tracks in the snow run straight from the compost heap behind the house to the Styrofoam block. Dessert?
I looked it up and according to People On the Internet this is normal chicken behavior, and it doesn’t hurt them. I hope that chickens are one of those species of animals that could evolve to digest all the horrible things we (humans) are leaving behind. All the same I wish the stuff didn’t exist, that I wasn’t insulating my wagon with it (the red wagon is insulated with expensive organic flax that I wish I could afford for the green wagon), and that the chickens weren’t slowly pecking it into smaller and smaller pieces.
Since the “congratulations, you’re allergic to soy!” bomb dropped and I gave up soy milk, I’ve been craving cheese. I woke up thinking about cheese. Not once, not twice, but for an entire week. So, since I always give my body whatever it tells me that it needs, I have spent the last two days gorging on dairy and wondering how the hell I will be able to afford the beautiful, delicious, local farmer’s market products that I would like to limit my gorging to. But I look at the chickens and think, perhaps their eggs are the answer. However, the last time I checked, eggs made my stomach wax volcanic. Oh glorious omlette, send me a sign!
Dear Readers: This is part of a part of a draft for my book about trash, eating trash, and trash as a huge in-your-face way of thinking about this moment in time. Be kind to it, and if you steal any of it, I will come to your house and eat your big toes.
Once upon a time there was no trash. There was chicken food and soap-making fat (translate today: leftovers from dinner). There were patches for holes and remade dresses (old clothing and flour sacks). There were supplies to make lye (wood ash, which was then used to make soap). There were makeshift funnels and bowls (occasionally born of a large bottle, broken in half). Food barely even came in a package, and when it did, it was probably (a) useful—such as the purple-ish paper wrapped around soap that could be used to dye fabric—or (b) returnable to the store for some sort of credit or exchange—rags for example, being the main ingredient in paper making for a long, long time and the main currency of trade with the peddlers who sold pots and pans and little tin boxes.
Mending and patching clothing, melting down and re-pouring metal goods, inventing new uses for the broken, feeding chickens and making soap and candles of the old—these were the pegs that held daily life together. People were bound to the objects they used to clothe, feed, and shelter them; they had made them themselves, or knew the person who did. “Hey, Ma, what are we going to do with all these old flour sacks? Well, Pa, I believe I’ll wash out the lettering and make them into a new set of kitchen towels…”
Plastic did not exist. Neither, for that matter, did Kleenex, Kotex, Dixie cups, paper bags, straws, appliances, toilet paper, or indoor plumbing. Items were sold from piles of their kind at the neighborhood general store, metal goods were traded off of peddlers for rags, and nobody had ever heard of germs. A trash can? What the hell is a trash can? (The first time said receptacle was referred to in a magazine, the authors felt that most readers would not know what was meant and explained the term in detail.)
Life was a lot different then, some would say a lot rougher. Disposables, advertising told the world, freed you from work, provided an affordable servant to allow you as much leisure time as the rich who paid real people to do their work. With disposables you paid for resources, not for people, which turned out to be a lot cheaper (in the short term).
“Work is drudgery!” advertisements chanted from the pages of magazines and (much much later) the speakers of radios. “Disposables are freedom!” Hark, heralds of the leisure class! May my feet remain up, my body pleasantly perfumed, and my wardrobe fashionable and untattered! May the leftovers in my Frigidaire go moldy so that I may purchase new groceries tomorrow! In your name we pay…
It started with mass production. Products became easier to obtain, cheaper. Ma and Pa started ordering from the Sears catalog instead of waiting for the peddler to come by (“You know, I always thought there was something queer about that man anyway.”) Mass production took the grunt out of grunt work. Who wanted to sit around all day sewing a shirt? Do you have any idea how long it takes to make one shirt by hand? Why not just order one from Sears and put your feet up for a change? Relax! You deserve it.
Then somebody went and discovered germs. Evil, malicious germs! Those “elfs and gnomes of communicable disease” [1}! No longer was it safe to drink from the community cup on the train or at the town well! No longer was it safe to use a cloth handkerchief! There were Charlies everywhere! The plague, consumption, syphilis, the clap, just waiting to slide down your throat from the cusp of a re-usable paper straw!
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I will admit to you that germs do in fact exist, and they are in fact capable of spreading disease. But were these "germs" as bad as the media claimed? Did industry consider the implications of using this fear to sell disposable products? Do disposables really make our lives better, more free? Or do they fill our habitat with items we've learned to understand as useless and that will not become soil (or anything even remotely life giving) in our lifetimes?
A good product for business is a product that can only be used once. Today we hear rumors of products designed to fail after a certain period of time, to keep consumers at the troughs and companies out of the red. With disposables you don't have to bother covering up the fact that your product has a pre-ordained "death date." Advertising was the snake in everybody's garden: "This product will increase your social status, this product will provide more leisure time and less work, this product will save your soul and dare your spirit to move. Buy this product, or despair."
People bought them—oh how they bought them!—because there was a tangible easing of the pains of life through them. No more cloth menstrual pads and no more cloth hankies meant one less load of laundry. Paper plates and cups meant less time behind the sink. Sweat shop produced T-shirts mean that you don't have to sit around all day losing your eye sight over teeny tiny stitches. Buy a destroyed resource to do it for you! Buy a "third-world-country" inhabitant to do it for you! The slavery of the old south was abolished and replaced with a new kind of slave, the ghost slave .
Now we have plastics and polymers and traffic jams and helicopters. Now we have central heating and plumbing and three-ply toilet paper. We have synthetic fibers and H&M and DVDs and mp3s. We have plastic wrap and garbage bags (made to be thrown away), vegan shoes and laptop computers. Now we have environmentalists and corporations and international trade. Is life better? Of course it’s fucking better! I don’t have to grow any of my own food, sew any of my own clothes, light a wood stove, or look at or even acknowledge the existence of my own piss and shit. All those unpleasantries, gone! All of those unpleasant body odors, deodorized! Yes, farm work is hard, so is sewing and patching your entire family’s clothes, slaughtering a chicken, dealing with the compost toilet, and milking the cows. But whether or not this is really better or worse than the situation we find ourselves in today depends on your perspective, on your priorities.
If your top priority is doing as little physical labor as possible, this is all fantastic, and you can return to your desk now. If your top priority is selling a lot of disposable cups, this is your pockets stuffed with money as you skip happily down the street whistling do-da. If your top priority is being “fashionable” then the marketers have you right where they want you. And if your top priority is living in a healthy habitat that sustains life, where your body is not full of pesticides and carcinogens and dioxin, a place where your having been born makes the world a better, healthier, more diverse place, then you’re going to hell on a plastic island of trash.
 Waste and Want by Susan Strasser, page 178. This tidbit is a quote she has taken from a druggists’ trade journal from the 1920s.
 Thanks to Derrick Jensen who, as far as I know, coined this term. It refers to the trees and rocks and fossil fuels that are made to do your work for you. Update: Since posting this I have learned that Derrick Jensen did not coin this term and that he learned it from someone named William Catton, Jr.
Rain has melted the snow, has left icy mud and puddles that finger their way inside of my boots relentlessly. The tips of forgotten aluminum cans are exposed now, rusty icebergs.
The sun came back for an entire day and then left us again among the lonesome shades of gray. I lay in bed a long time that morning, thinking. I didn’t know the sun had come back, and sometimes there is so much to think about that I have to sit somewhere quiet to let the thoughts thump out their chaotic rhythm, for hours, until they finally leave me alone with the present.
When, around noon, I stumbled into clothes and out of the wagon I was startled by the light. A defensive hand flew to my eyes, and I yelped, then pleaded, “Vitamin D, Vitamin D, Vitamin D!” In two months we’ll be sitting outside again. It won’t be warm, but we won’t have to light the wood stove anymore, and people will stubbornly strip down to T-shirts over coffee. In the morning we’ll meet around a small table outside, and one by one the entire platz will awaken and join the circle, hot beverage in hand.
I started writing about my former life as an au pair without giving it much thought, and—whoops!—the serial has already grown fat and enormous, with no end in sight. I, on the other hand, grow wearing of listing the previous posts in each entry, but want everyone to be able to follow along. And a index is born.
For those of you just tuning in, once upon a time I was an au pair (read: nanny, read: live-in babysitter) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany for a rather rich, rather eccentric family of seven. Fresh from the proofreader’s desk and into a rather awkward trial-by-fire initiation into German culture of about ten months. (At which point I called wedding and fled for earth in the escape pod.) Below you’ll find links to each post, as they are posted and each post will have a link to the index. Guten Apetit.
We got married on a Friday. A coincidence born of a tightly booked Standesamt (marriage office) and an upcoming visit from long-lost American friends, it did not, as it so easily could have, lead to excessive playing of The Cure. “Our song,” if we had bothered to choose one, would have likely been something like Godspeed’s Dead Flag Blues or a track from Wolves in the Throne Room.
My dress fulfilled every requirement dictated by that old tome of American wedding superstition: it was borrowed, blue, old (as in vintage), and new (as in to me). But that particular superstition doesn’t mean shit in Germany. (Though in an ironic twist, the word “blue” also means “drunk.”) In Germany, you break dishes in front of your house for good luck the night before the wedding, and then your friends make you sweep them up with your partner while videotaping everything.
This is called Polterabend, and I am arbitrarily certain that Polter‘s close resemblance to the word Folter (that means torture folks) is no coincidence. Breaking the plates was amusing. If I had had my way the shards would still be laying on the pavement in a hundred brilliant colors and pieces. If I had my way we’d smash dishes outside of the house every day.
We were up early on Friday. 6:45 am and I couldn’t fall back asleep. What’s a bride to do? Light the wood stove and start drinking wheat beer, is what. I put on my dress and within three steps had already ripped open the front seam. I had forgotten that fancy dresses were designed for “ladies” and that ladies aren’t supposed to take big “manly” steps out of their wagon homes. Not that I have been file-able under “lady” for years. I held the ripped pieces of fabric in my hand and giggled, imagining what certain people would have to say about the fact that it was my wedding day and I wasn’t wearing, make-up, hair product, or deodorant.
In the house others were already putting on make-up and costumes. The Clockwork Orange crew was there in all their white-clad, baseball-bat-carrying, jock-strap-sporting glory. Karlsson was in a tight sequin dress that used to belong to somebody’s grandmother, and Scissors had transformed into his blond counterpart Sandy. Frau Doktor was in her best ugly beige business suit, and her date was an American air force pilot in an enormous fur hat. Later there would be silver angel wings and ridiculous hats and a priest from the little-known Christian sect of Thomas. People would throw potatoes and rice (cooked and uncooked), onions and confetti.
We’d been planning on taking the tractor to the ceremony. It would have almost been legal, if we had piled enough vegetables in the back to convince any curious police officers that Natasha was just a farmer transporting her harvest and had coincidentally picked up an entire wedding party on her way into the center of town.
But it was cold, so we decided to take the bus—decided to take the bus, that is, until our platz-mates revealed their wedding gift: the shopping cart carriages of dumpster royalty. Welded to the side of each cart-chair was a little basket for champagne, snacks, and a half liter can of Faxe. We were wheeled to the bus stop, smuggled the carts into the bus (apparently in an attempt to keep homeless people off of public transportation, taking shopping carts on German buses was banned years ago), and landed in front of the Standesamt a half an hour early. Amen.
The Mainz Standesamt is a large concrete block located just behind the train station, and its innards are paneled with dark wood and adorned with fading plastic garlands. Being in charge of one of this culture’s most revered traditions, I had imagined the Standesamt might try to foster an atmosphere and aesthetic almost anyone could enjoy, but it is a dull beige waiting room that awaits each wedding party as they wait for their appointment, and the ceremony room itself feels depressingly, cheaply corporate.
I would have preferred to get married in a dilapidated old building or a forest, anywhere but that concrete block really, but German law is firm: If you don’t get married at the Standesamt, your marriage is not recognized by the government, and you gain no rights to cheaper taxes, inheritances, and hospital visits. Religious ceremonies, if a couple choose to have one, can be held later, but alone are not recognized by the German state. I might consider applauding this successful amputation of church and state, if only the government would start planning the operation to remove state from love.
Every time I finish reading a book I write down the date, the title, and the author on the last page of my journal. It’s fascinating and exciting to look back over the years at all of the things I’ve read and to remember how each affected what I was living and breathing at the time.
Inspired by a lovely friend’s posting of a similar list (and I thought I was the only one who kept lists like this, long live the book punks!) that I thoroughly enjoyed perusing, I have decided to post my own list because I figure it just might spur a few conversations, and I really like conversations about books. Unfortunately I can’t find the journal I used at the start of the year, so the list is incomplete, and begins in April 2009. I’m also pretty sure that I read a mountain of zines that I completely failed to include.
1. Die 13-1/2 Leben des Käpt’n Blaubär by Walter Moers
2. The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving by John Hoffman
3. Declarations of Independence by Howard Zinn
4. Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck
5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
6. Despite Everything by Aaron Cometbus (reread)
7. Empire of Scrounge by Jeff Ferrell
8. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins
9. The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved by Sandor Ellix Katz
10. Double Duce by Aaron Cometbus
11. Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins
12. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimon
13. Eye in the Sky by P.K. Dick
14. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
15. Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict
16. The Bandit Queen of India by Phoolan Devi
17. Bukaka Spat Here by I Forgot to Write Down the Authors’ Names
18. Rocket Queen (zine–anon author I believe)
19. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (reread)
20. Barrel Fever by David Sedaris (reread)
21. Rumo by Walter Moers
22. Die Stadt der Träumende Bücher by Walter Moers
23. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
24. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (reread)
25. Access All Areas by Ninjalicious (reread)
26. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash by Susan Strasser
On New Year’s Eve, it’s German tradition to watch a British comedy called Dinner for One, which is shown a hundred times on television that day. Afterward tradition calls for getting very drunk and throwing fireworks at each other/houses/cars on the streets. There are no big city-sponsored fireworks displays each year, just a couple of burned down houses and deaths in the newspaper.
So if you would like to add a bit of the Teutonic to your New Year’s celebrations this year, watch this video, then go outside and try to blow up your neighbor’s house. Violent as it may sound, I admit that I find German New Year’s traditions more understandable than, say, watching a disco ball drop from a pole on television. Happy 2010.