Growing up during the 1960s in downtown Baltimore, my siblings and I were assigned chores. The girls were responsible for dishes and I was responsible for taking out the trash. My brother was responsible for reminding me about the trash. Most of our trash was generated in the kitchen. Plastic trash cans weren’t available then. All the trash cans I can remember were metal. We had a simple cylinder in the kitchen and the big 30-gallon galvanized steel lidded cans for the garbage collectors to empty out in the alley.
Our kitchen trash can was lined with a paper grocery bag. No Hefty bags at that point. The Crown market on St. Paul St. at 25th usually had the nicer bags with handles. We walked up to Eddie’s (also on St. Paul) but in the 3100 block. At some point in the past, Crown Market had pissed off my mother (Esther) and we were boycotting them before boycotts became popular. We’d walk twice as far to get the lighter weight paper bags from Eddie’s. If you saw a fat kid chasing oranges from a torn grocery bag and running into 29th St. traffic back in 1967, that was me.
Some of the households used old newspapers to neatly line their indoor garbage cans. There was a certain finesse to folding the newspapers and spiraling up from the bottom so every inch of the can was protected. I never had to do that. I remember one poor bastard who said he had to line the outdoor ones, too. That sounded more like punishment than necessity to me.
The galvanized cans were kept as close to the back fence as possible and we ferried the trash from the house to the back fence, maybe 100 feet away. Garbage cans were frequently stolen. People would simply reach over the fence and take them. You had to paint your house number on the can to reduce its chances of being taken. Paint doesn’t stick to galvanized steel until it’s been primed. After painting it had to be chained and locked to the fence. You had to make sure the chain went through the lid’s handle because a lid was a perfect toy, a shield, a sled, a Frisbee, a portable table top for games.
You couldn’t chain up the trash cans on garbage day. You unlocked the cans, unlocked the back gate, dragged the cans just outside the fence and hoped they didn’t get stolen after the city emptied them. If you couldn’t find the key to the back gate, it became an all-hands-on-deck situation. Esther would scream from the top of the interior stairwell, “ALL HANDS ON DECK!” until all four of her kids were assembled and then the assignment was announced. “FIND THAT GODDAMN KEY!” Then our sole mission in life was to find that key. Getting the trash out was not a trivial matter.
When, upon seeing a garbage can that was new in service, the men on the garbage trucks took a particular delight personalizing it with dents produced by repeatedly smashing the can against the edge of the truck’s hopper. After a few weeks of this tender care, the bottom seam would split and the vermin could feed again. Once, Esther bought a 30-gallon ash bin instead of a trash can. It was a monster, so solid and heavy. Although the same size as our other cans, its steel was twice as thick. It had a reinforcing ring around the base, riveted in place. The garbage men wouldn’t so easily destroy this one. Instead they ignored it. Indestructible, but they wouldn’t empty it. Let’s call that one a draw.
As a too-young garbage collector, I became too familiar with maggots. We were a large family and luckily the fridge was always full. If not eaten right away, leftovers could hide and might stay in the fridge until they started growing fur. Then they’d be dumped into that old paper grocery bag lining the can. This would wet and weaken the bag and it was much more likely to tear while I was carrying it, spilling trash and furry, spoiled food all along the way which normally included whatever pants and shoes I was wearing. The rotted food was dumped into those galvanized trash cans by the fence and in a day or two the cans would be filled with maggots. I don’t remember ever vomiting, but I gagged a lot. Maggots meant hosing out the cans. Birds would get a free meal as maggots were hosed down the alley. Even if the bag didn’t spill, the cans still drew flies and flies mean maggots. And maggots mean flies.
Our alley was home to those awful dogshit flies, rats, broken glass, rats, snack food trash, and rats. The big hairy Norway rats for those who recall that particular Johnny Foulmouth joke. =There were rat holes by every garage and drain pipe. There were rat hills in any neglected yard. Our next-door neighbor had a stand of ailanthus (the tree that grew in Brooklyn) and the trees formed a circle maybe six or eight feet in diameter. The interior space created was like a stockade fortress for an entire colony of rats, tunneling everywhere.
One family on the block would go ratting on nice summer nights. They’d take baseball bats and broom handles with a sharpened nail sticking out of the end and run the alleys hunting rats, pinning them to the ground and then beating them to death. This isn’t easy because rats are tough. My siblings and I never went ratting because we weren’t allowed to play in the alley. It was always “the alley” until street signs went up in the 1970s. That’s when I found out our alley full of broken glass was Hunter St.
Immediately after WWII, most beverage containers were tinned steel or glass. Bottle deposits on glass soft drink containers were common by the 1920s. You’d pay 12 cents for a bottle of pop and get two cents back when you returned it. Kids collected discarded bottles for the cash upon return. The purpose of the bottle deposits was to reduce trash in the streets. Then beverages were distributed in aluminum cans. These new cans didn’t have a deposit, saving the consumer the hassle of returning them. They were throwaways! The glass bottle industry responded with “No Deposit, No Return'' bottles. It was the habit for many in our neighborhood to dispose of no-deposit-no-return bottles by hurling them as far down the alley as you could throw them. I used to joke that I could tell the color of the glass by the sound it made. Kreesh! Green… 7Up. Kreesh! Brown… National Bohemian Beer. Gish! Heavy, clear… Pepsi!
It’s worth noting that to make the no-deposit-no-return bottles financially effective, the amount of product contained within needed to increase. Before then, most soft drinks came in seven-ounce or eight-ounce single-serving containers. After, single-serving 12-ounce containers became the norm and American consumption and littering increased. My alley was littered with broken glass. I don’t ever need to firewalk because I once ran the length of an alley barefoot over broken glass to escape a beatdown from a neighborhood gang. I learned to wear shoes when venturing out.
The neighborhood was changing. A large family of mentally-challenged kids moved in down the block in the late-1960s and over time our alley looked downright sharp. We thought people were just becoming more conscientious about littering. “Give a hoot; don’t pollute!” But then we noticed that different city garbage trucks would be parked one at a time down the alley for hours. It turns out that the matriarch of that family and her eldest daughter were banging the crew, probably for cash. Whoever wasn’t actively banging them would be cleaning our alley so they didn’t get in trouble when the supervisor would drive by. Talk about city services!
Eventually the eldest daughter of the mentally-challenged family married the eldest son of the ratters. Their first child was mixed race although the parents were of the same race. The general consensus was that one of the trash collectors didn’t clean up completely after one of his visits.
Our big rowhome on Calvert St. was unusual in that the kitchen was on the second floor. It’d been split into apartments at some point and when my parents bought it they reverted it back to a single-family home. Esther decided that a second floor kitchen was more convenient. There was also a kitchen up on the third floor, but it was used strictly for storing unused kitchen items/equipment. The first-floor kitchen became a bedroom for my brother and me, but there was always a big commercial refrigerator/freezer there, too.
Ferrying the trash meant first getting it to ground level from the kitchen on the second floor. When I was really little, the house had a wooden fire escape. Some homes had small decks or porches on the different levels. We could carry the trash through the house and use the interior stairwell or we could go down the wooden fire escape. The house was the worst option because a spill was likely to damage some piece of furniture or a rug along the way. Cleaning trash off exterior surfaces was done by hose. Using the old gray-painted half-rotted wooden fire escape was treacherous in its own way. Most of my childhood splinter incidents came from that stairwell. I probably got a few injections of lead from the paint on those splinters, too.
At some point, my dad tore off the wooden fire escape and replaced it all with steel and a new concrete patio and sidewalk. He did the work with the help of a few friends. Still steep, but it was no longer a splinter field. It was also more open than its predecessor. We could reach much further out and throw things off that second floor landing now.
It was about this same time that plastic trash bags became available. They were invented in Canada in the 1950s and it took a few years before they were ubiquitous in our home. Not just as trash bags, but storage for a hoarder (my mother). The first plastic trash bags were nothing more than a plastic sheet tube with heat-sealed ends. There was no gusseting. There was no reinforcing. There was no “Flex.” If the load was too heavy, the sides would split and the contents would be spilt.
The new plastic bags were bigger than the kitchen trashcans so they held more than the paper grocery bags. The bag could be pulled and set by the door for me to then ferry out the door, down the steps and on to the back fence. While waiting for my lazy ass to do my chores, the bags would soon become overfilled.
I kept experimenting with different methods of trash removal other than carrying it all the way as quickly as possible. I was about nine when I finally figured out dropping those bags of trash just wasn’t going to work. Dropped from the second floor? Result: complete explosions of trash, interesting to watch, awful to clean up. Shorten the distance by leaning over really, really far? No good. Dropped from halfway down the fire escape? Same result. I tried sliding it down the iron stair rail, but I’d have to escort it all the way or it would pick up speed and rocket off the end of the rail to provide the same result exploding on the first floor landing. I even tried tying the bags to a rope and lowering them over the side of the second floor landing. Unpredictable results with that because I was lousy at tying knots.
I never discovered a better way than carrying the bag. I had to suck it up and just carry the bags one at a time to the outside cans as quickly and carefully as possible. The plastic trash bags would be dog-eared and then tied in a knot and I’d hold onto that knot. And hope the bag didn’t have a sharp object to cause a split.
Better quality bags are available today. I’m sure they’d survive a drop from the second level of that house. I haven’t had a plastic trash bag fail on me in years, but have noticed a tremendous increase of plastic bags in the general environment. Bags in the trees, bags in the gutters. Bags in the waterways. Awful. Perhaps this is the worst trash of all.