Posted Tuesday morning, January 17, 2017.
Why does Trash Day fill me with sadness and dread?
“Road Block” by Norman Rockwell. Courtesy of the Saturday Evening Post.
7:40 a.m. Trash day. Still dark. Neighborhood full of noise though. Trucks rumbling up and down the streets. Two companies, two trucks each, one for the recyclables, one for the trash, two bins at each house. Brakes wheeze, hydraulically, sneeze, cough. Motors growl as the robot arms reach out, grab, lift, dump, and set back down the bins. Bins go down with a clatter and and a hollow slap as their wheels hit the ground and their lids flap back into place or not, hanging open behind, smacking the backs of the resettled bins. But that’s all it is, noise. It’s depressing.
I used to look forward to trash day. I’m not talking about when I was a kid and just watching trucks at work was fun and exciting and practically an adventure by itself. I’m talking about recently, while living here as a grown-up homeowner. Just a few years back. Cheered me up, standing at the window with my coffee, watching. Now it fills me with sadness and dread.
Lots of things do that these days. Nothing to do with the election. Not everything’s politics. Not everything can be solved and salved by politics. I’d feel sad and full of dread if she’d won. Things are weighing on my mind that, considered selfishly and self-interestedly, are of more pressing concern. Probably why I’m not as upset as I otherwise would be, as I should be. Things are going to get harder, again considered selfishly and self-interestedly. He’s going to see to that. But at the moment I’ve got enough to worry about to keep me anxious and miserable. But I don’t think that’s all that’s behind my trash day melancholy.
It’s the noise. Or, rather, it’s the noise that’s missing. The sound of voices. The crews talking to each other. The neighbors calling out good morning to the crews. The crews calling out good morning back. There are no crews. Each truck has a single driver who doesn’t get out of the cab. You can’t even see him in there. I wave but I don’t know if he sees it or waves back. He might as well be a part of the truck. In a way, that’s what he is. The human component of a machine designed to pick up the trash and that’s all.
Once upon a time and not all that long ago, human beings picked up our trash. Their trucks were just big wagons and wheelbarrows they rode on and used to haul their loads. But those humans did the work. There were at least two humans on each truck, usually three. But if there were only two the driver routinely got out to help his partner with the bins. And when he did and when he didn’t and it was only the other guys moving things around at the end of the driveway I could wave at them from the front window and they’d see me and wave back. Often I’d step out on the porch and call out good morning and thanks, guys, as if they were doing me a favor and not a paid for service. And this went on up and down the street and all around the neighborhood as the neighbors did the same and then men waved and called back to them too.
That’s what trash day was, a calling together of neighbors. The noises of the trucks and the voices of people were the sounds of the community waking up and beginning the day as a community, all us lonely isolates escaping from our nightly atomization and finding comfort and cheerfulness in each other’s company again.
Now it’s just noise that wakes us up but leaves us still all alone in the dark.
And it’s a sign and a portent. Every day more and more of us are rendered useless and obsolete by machines. Every day we have to rely on each other less and less. Every day there’s yet another reason not to have to talk to yet another previously necessary human being. I’m no fan of attributing political outcomes to any one thing, of saying things like “She lost because of x or y or z,” but every time a well-meaning liberal pundit or politician says “It’s not trade, it’s automation” I want to roll out the tumbrils myself. As if people are happier to know that their jobs are being taken from them by robots instead of someone in Mexico or Vietnam.
The day is coming when the trash essentially collects itself, when the trucks drive themselves and operate their own robot arms. When the trucks are robots. But we don’t need or want self-driving trucks. We want and need trucks that drive themselves intelligently. Trucks that make judgments and know to keep a look out for darting pets and small children. That expect hurried commuters to come backing out of their driveways without looking. That day is a ways off. I hope a long way off. We don’t need or want another set of human beings to become obsolete.
I’m thinking of cancelling the service and hauling our trash and recyclables to the transfer station myself. It’d be cheaper. Save us fifty bucks a month. And it’s not that far from here and I go there often as it is to drop off yard waste for compost. But the main attraction is that John, the guy who oversees things down there for the town, knows me and calls me by name. It’s the wrong name but I don’t care. I’m really not sure his name’s John. But when one of us waves hello to the other the other waves back.