Years ago, I read that those who worked in ice-cream parlours knew an awful lot about their customers. Apparently, the kind of ice cream and number of scoops chosen gave insight into an individual ice cream consumer’s career. I don’t remember what the links were, but these scoopers were clearly able to associate certain flavours with certain professions.
Autobiography emerges in the most curious of spaces.
I thought of this as I walked to school this morning. It was 7:30. A wonderful, sunny day. And the streets were far more active than they’d been throughout the summer. It’s garbage pick up day in my neighbourhood, which meant that I had to be careful to walk around garbage bags along the route.
I’ve always wondered if garbage collectors have the same kind of insider knowledge as ice cream scoopers. I wonder what stories our garbage tells and I wonder if those stories are at all reflective of who I consider myself to be. To my neighbours, these stories remain shrouded in mystery, buried behind the black “walls” of our garbage bags. This is, I suspect, as it is meant to be: a garbage bag is a covenant of privacy. If you can’t see mine, I also can’t see yours. Your stories, your secrets are safe.
Of course, those covenants are, sometimes, broken. When we lived in The Hague, the garbage police (well, that’s what we called them) had no qualms about pawing through garbage if they discovered that you had put your garbage out improperly.
Garbage, too, has been a most useful source of insight for archaeologists. Privies – and their contents – can be treasure troves. In this case, one person’s junk is, quite literally, another person’s treasure.
But let’s get back to our own world. And our demure black garbage bags filled with hidden mysteries, hidden treasures. They don’t tell me much. They just tell me how much garbage, on average, a given household produces in a week.
But today isn’t just garbage day, it’s also recycling day. Unlike garbage, recycling only gets picked up every other week. And unlike garbage, it’s placed in transparent blue bags; one for paper and one for plastics and metals.
Suddenly, my walk to work becomes an exercise in illicit voyeurism. Suddenly, my neighbours’ stories are visible. Suddenly they are right there in front of me. And just as suddenly, I’ve become an ice cream scooper, parsing people’s identities through the traces of products and selves they leave behind.
If I wanted to, I could tell you who drinks 1% milk or 3.25% milk. I could also tell you who doesn’t drink milk at all. In the next block, I see tissue boxes, flour bags, cans of dog food, and a bar fridge box. Down the road, I see orange boxes, the plastic containers that washed spinach comes in. I see newspapers, magazines and cans of Pepsi. Across the street, I spot juice boxes. And I can tell if you use the store brand or the name brand. I can tell your shoe size. And when you pass me by, you, too, have read my story in the cans, bottles, papers and boxes that I have left behind.
Do I know you by what you consume? Do you know me?