There is no denying that what people throw out is interesting. How much they throw out is more interesting; it reflects a social structure, a hierarchy that is clearly readable.
"Rich man's garbage," Alfred and I used to point out to each other as we drove down some of Beverly Hills' more notable streets. The number of cans put out for collection was a clear indication of wealth: More than six big canisters qualified as rich (once we saw nine--a multimillionaire?); fewer than five was merely well-to-do; three was just you and I. (Even counting three for us was cheating; the third one always had the bottom rusted out, so we had really sunk to the monetary nonentity of a two-garbage-can family.)
At one time, I aspired to climb to the heights of social acceptance in Pasadena by acquiring one of those big, rectangular metal bins on wheels, but we never made it; we simply didn't have enough money to buy all the bottles and things that it takes to fill one of those things.
They are very handsome, though--clean-cut, a respectable dark green (wouldn't you know Pasadena would have dark-green bins; none of that newfangled beige), and I still look admiringly at them. They have such neatly slanted hinged tops, some with a city seal.
Another social mark is whether names are on the cans, stenciled or painted. Painted names point to the poorer classes. To be snobbishly truthful, I find even the neatly stenciled ones in Beverly Hills, well, more than a trifle tasteless. Their cans all match each other--square and beige plastic with none of the tradition of tin, the old-line mettle of metal that Pasadena prides itself on. Nor do we find matching garbage cans to be sine qua non.
What's more, in Pasadena you can't just walk or drive along the streets and muse over the prosperity of the residents by judging the garbage cans put out on collection day--not like you can in most cities. My, no--what a crude display, unthinkable in Pasadena. You don't put out garbage cans at all.
Here, on garbage day, the little truck trots up your driveway, right to where you keep the cans (you've remembered to back your car out ahead of time), empties them in situ and runs back with its load to the mother truck. How astonished I was when we first moved to Pasadena. "You mean you don't have to pull your cans out to the curb? They come back there and empty them for you ?" Now that's class, as people who don't live in Pasadena would say. Yes, I take Pasadena's collection system to be uniquely well bred, as it were--as much a proud part of its heritage as any of its Craftsman bungalows or Gamble House.
More commercial garbage has its own charm. Who can resist sorting out those wooden boxes that the liquor store throws out in the alley? Good heavens, some of them may have come from Scotland! Manufacturing plants offer similar garbage treasures: miles and miles of glistening recording tapes; barrels revealing treasures of accidental art on printers' proof sheets; tangles of colored cable wires; mountains of crisp cardboard cartons.
When I got out of my car the other day, some boys were climbing such a mountain, punching holes in cartons with a round stick that made noises like reports from a gun.
"I wouldn't play around there, boys," said a man going into the plant.
"Why not?" I wanted to ask. I was already looking around for a pointed stick myself.