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Jack Smith

There Are No Secrets From Garbageman

May 26, 1988|Jack Smith

The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, has ruled that law enforcement officers may inspect our trash for incriminating evidence without violating our right to privacy. As one justice pointed out, our trash is accessible to animals, children, scavengers and snoops--why not cops?

But as one of the two dissenting justices observed, our trash may also reveal the most intimate secrets of our sex practices, personal health and hygiene. "A single bag of trash," he said, "testifies eloquently to the eating, reading and recreational habits of the person who produced it."

Evidently the two justices who dissented have not read "Dunn's Conundrum" (Harper & Row), by Stan Lee, and so do not know how vital the intelligent examination of trash may be to the national security.

Lee's book is a very funny satire about the operations of a national superintelligence agency called the Library. Its 12 members, the Librarians, have access to all intelligence, including film clips taken surreptitiously in the bedrooms of every government official; films shot from satellites of every square foot of the Soviet Union; and, perhaps most important of all, the trash of every citizen.

The man in charge of "trash covers" is Walter Coolidge, the Garbageman. (Technically, he should be called the Trashman, but that sounded too Ivy League.)

"Coolidge believed that garbage was amazingly pristine data. People weren't subjective about their garbage. They didn't listen, as it were, for the sounds of bugging on the line. Garbage was all innocence and unself-consciousness. It wasn't cunning, evasive, false. Garbage was frank and open and refreshing. It was confession without the need for Miranda warnings. It was autobiography, self-portraiture, a voluntary strip search. . . . After all, garbage was the place were the entire GNP ended up sooner or later, the daily mountainous unburdening of that which was used up and that which offended the eye."

His humble expertise eventually becomes critical in preventing a nuclear calamity.

I have been self-conscious about our trash ever since I read the book. What could a clever garbageman like Coolidge find out about us from going through our trash?

He would discover from discarded seed packages that our household shelters a canary, at least one parakeet, and a cockateel, plus two dogs--one young and one old dog (from the sacks for senior dog food and maintenance dog food); and innumerable cats (from the empty cat food cans.)

He would find out that our diet consists of bran and shredded wheat cereals; bananas (I don't put the peels down the disposal); a variety of microwave dinners, an occasional can of no-beans chili; milk, decaffeinated coffee; and assorted breads and crackers. We also eat some vegetables, but, except for corn cobs, the evidence goes down the disposal.

If that residue doesn't exactly suggest a gracious life style, let me confess that in a week's trash the garbageman would also find two or three empty wine bottles--sometimes Champagne--which he should interpret as proof that our life style isn't altogether austere.

He wouldn't find a clue to our literary tastes, since all our newspapers are sold for recycling and all our magazines are given away; but he would find that my wife receives almost every clothing catalogue printed in the United States of America. She is God's gift to the mail-order business.

He would also find that we are on the mailing list of dozens of charitable foundations, covering causes from saving baby seals from extinction to assisting unwed mothers and the homeless. Mailings from the Fourth Marine Division, the Combat Correspondents and the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps associations would tell him that I was a veteran, probably of World War II.

My personal mail, if he had time to read it, would make him wonder how one man could inspire so much approval and so much censure.

Altogether, what could he conclude? Only that we are probably elderly, literate, charitable, malnourished, humane and reasonably affluent; that my wife likes mail-order clothing; that I take pills and shoot insulin: that we often take a glass of wine with our microwave dinners; and that our credit is good.

I don't think the garbageman could nail us on a thing.

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