The Garbage Man
Last week's reflection ended promising a story to enflesh it. Here is a parable-story written years ago. I suggest you observe the classic rule of all parables: Consume slowly, chew well and ponder deeply:
Once there was a garbage man who worked in the little Midwestern town of Pleasant Hill. He drove a battered, blue Ford pickup truck with makeshift sideboards that rose twelve feet or more above the truck bed. He worked alone except for his ever-present companion, Spot, a white and brown dog with a ring around its eye. Spot was the friendliest dog in town and barked only at the other dogs that set up a racket whenever the garbage man appeared.
He was a familiar town character, and the only name people called him was "the Garbage Man." The ladies who sat on their porches, wearing white linen dresses, said he was of "mixed blood." He wasn't black and he wasn't brown. He seldom spoke or was spoken to by those whose garbage and trash he hauled away. He was dirty and he smelled; it was, shall we say, a by-product of his profession. The only unique thing about the Garbage Man was the tattoo on the back of his weathered right hand —a red heart inscribed with the words, "I LOVE YOU."
The Garbage Man drove daily up and down the alleys of the town, with Spot sitting next to him in the cab of the old pickup. He took an unusual interest in his work —not only did he empty the stinking and overflowing garbage cans that stood at the back gates and garages of homes, but he also picked up trash that people had dumped along the roadsides and in dry creek beds.
The Garbage Man had made the town of Pleasant Hill not only pleasant but beautiful. While this was reason to admire his unique profession, the townsfolk thought he was not as admirable as he was "simple." Apparently he could not read or write, for he never sent a monthly bill for his work. He would graciously accept any payment from a customer, but some didn't think to pay him for months at a time. Others simply thought the removal of trash was one of the services provided by City Hall. And this voluntary pickup of trash along the roadway? Well, it was just another sign that he wasn't too bright.
The Garbage Man and Spot lived alone, somewhere north of town. The gossip was that he was divorced or that his wife had left him. Small wonder—who would want to be married to a garbage collector? People did see him with a few friends at the end of the day before he headed out of town with his truckload of garbage. They were, well, the white trash of town—men and women that hung out around the bar and pool hall down by the railroad tracks.
The Garbage Man was a mystery that aroused little curiosity, except from little children. As he drove down the alley with Spot's head hanging out the side window, the children would ask their mothers, "Where does that man take the garbage?" And their mothers, shooing their children out of the kitchen, would answer, "To the dump, dear. Now run outside and play." And that was the extent of the curiosity about the man of "mixed blood" with the heart tattooed on his right hand.
The Garbage Man was reliable—most of the time. Sometimes he would fail to appear for several days. It was rumored that he went on drinking binges. But who wouldn't be tempted to get drunk, handling stinking garbage all day long? One day he failed to appear; that day grew into two, then four, then seven. The garbage cans of Pleasant Hill overflowed as trash, litter and junk spilled over into the alleys. The stink was terrible, and the complaints rose like high tide under a full moon.
The part-time mayor—and full-time owner of the hardware store—and the town's police chief decided that they should go and see what had happened. They headed north out of town to find the Garbage Man. No one knew for sure where he lived, since no one had visited his small farm. The road ran through a timber of tall cottonwoods, and soon they saw a battered mailbox, half-falling off its post. Painted in crude, childlike letters on its side was "GARBAGE PICKUP." They turned off the county road on to a deeply rutted dirt track that led back into the timber. As they drove along, they could see pieces of paper and tin cans scattered along the side of the road.
The road grew narrower and more rutted as they traveled back into the hills. Cresting a hilltop, the mayor slammed on the brakes of his car. He and the police chief gasped in disbelief! Before them was a little valley with a tumble-down, unpainted shack and a rickety, swaybacked barn in the center. But what held them in wordless shock was that the entire valley was filled with garbage—mountains of trash, cans and bottles, rusted bodies of old cars and broken-down furniture! The stench was breathtaking.
As they drove down into the valley, between the towering mounds of garbage, the mayor kept repeating, "My God, my God—he took all the garbage home with him!" As their car came out of the end of the tunnel of trash, they saw Spot in front of the run-down house, sitting beside a giant pile of garbage. They got out of the car, but Spot didn't move or bark. She just sat and looked at them. When the two men came close, they saw it. Next to her paw, sticking out of a landslide of garbage, was a hand tattooed with a red heart and the words, "I LOVE YOU."