Please Move to the Next Bin
Leaping like a shot out of bed I ran from window to window in the dark room, trying to see the object of my wrath, but my view was blocked by the thick trees. How could I direct this anger into thin air? I needed to see my target. Clink! Clink! Clink!
Then out of the corner of my eye I saw Luciano out on the street, tall, solitary and suddenly vulnerable, walking towards the noise. The man was about to confront people going through discarded bottles at four in the morning outside of a private home. This just wouldn’t happen in Italy; another situation he would never find himself in at home. He could see what I couldn’t, but composure oozed from his finger tips.
He spoke calmly. “Hello.”
I heard voices respond. “We are going through the recycling, sir.”
“I know. But it is 4 o’clock in the morning. Come on.”
At this point I could not contain myself and, shattering the congeniality of the exchange, leaned out the window and screamed, “What you’re doing is illegal! I’m calling the police!”
Luciano glanced up at me and then back to the scavengers. I did not see it but perhaps he gave them an eye roll towards me; Guys, you see what I have to put up with? Gimme a break.
Out loud he said, “Can you at least move to the next bin?
“Sure.” And they did. Now it was someone else’s problem.
I sank into the bed and sleep as Luciano padded back into the house as quietly as he had left it. As always, elegant yet effective.
I know they were looking in particular for the bottles that can be returned for a 5cent deposit. While individually not a big payback, when you put together a shopping cart full of plastic soda bottles and glass beer bottles, it could represent lunch. But for the city of Berkeley that money provides a much needed subsidy to the recycling program. And wait a minute! What about me? I pay an extra five cents plus tax for each bottle. Where does that money go?
I instituted a new no-recycle rule in the house and instructed Luciano to only toss the non-revenue bottles into the recycling bin. This he did, but then lined the others up in the hallway, perhaps to annoy me, and as the line of nickel bottles grew I researched options for keeping those scavengers out of our bins. I traveled up to the supermarket to ask how I could get my refund for responsible recycling. I remember there being a counter….
“Hi, I would like to know where I can recycle these bottles and get this deposit back.”
The cashier hesitated, most likely wondering why I just didn’t throw it in the bin behind the house.
“You need to take them down to a center. I think there is one near the highway.”
“Really?” I knew the place. “I can’t get this deposit back here?”
“Oh, no. That is impossible.” Wierdo. “That practice went out with milk bottle returns and S&H green stamps.”
Ok, she did not say the last part, but I got the gist. Resolved to carry through with my principals, I headed down to the Berkeley Recycling Center with my five large plastic bottles and seven beer bottles. Those street foragers weren’t going to outsmart me or the City. No way.
The Berkeley Recycling Center is a grim establishment in dire need of a power hose clean up…or a small bomb. The grubby asphalt yard is surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Battered shipping container sized bins sit in a row on the gummy glass-encrusted tarmac and cars scream passed on the nearby freeway. People moving about the yard are anonymous and grey, without features, both workers and depositors. I walked purposefully to the “Buy Back Window” with my bag of bottles, but found the window closed with a hand scrawled sign, “Back in 5 Minites.” I stood there for a moment in indecision. A nondescript man in a hoodie walked up to me and said, “First time here?” Without waiting for my answer he went on. “Are you here to donate or sell?”
“You need to stand in line over there first and they will weigh your recyclables. They will give a receipt and then you come back here.”
“Oh, right. Thank you.”
Forklifts were buzzing past me. There was the splintering crash of thousands of bottles being poured from one container to another. Cars screamed by on 580 as I walked across the yard, with my feet sticking slightly to the pavement, to get in line. I stood for a moment, absorbing the unfamiliar surroundings when I noticed that I was standing behind a man with a shopping cart heaped with bottles. In front of him, extending four or five deep, were men and women with flatbed carts heaving with collected containers. Everyone was anonymous, grey and staring at me with my little bag of 11 items. Then I realized I was standing in line with people who do this for a living and it was entirely possible that I was standing behind the very people at whom I was screaming from my window. I felt suddenly out of place, very suburban, and a little bit stupid. I turned and walked back to the hoodie guy who seemed to be waiting for me to return.
“Ok, how do I donate?”
Grinning he pointed at the bins lined up against the barbed wire fence. I hitched up my dignity, strolled across the filthy yard and hook shot my bottles into the appropriate containers. There, I sure taught them a lesson.
The Happiest Thing
“This is the happiest thing I have ever seen. Look at this, Luciano.”
I held up the macaroon in the palm of my hand. The handmade almond confection was wrapped in a gaily decorated paper, the edges tasseled like a party favor. I felt as if I blew on one end, it would unfurl with a snap and toot. This box of soft macaroons was a gift from my friend Carlo who, with his wife, had visited the town in Liguria where they have been made, one at a time since 1955.
“Here, try one.” With all the solemnity of transferring a jewel, I handed one to Luciano, who tore into the wrapping and swallowed it whole. It took all of two seconds. I didn’t even have time to reclose the box. But then, he is not a sipper.
“It’s good.” He said, “Small, but good.”
Making a mental note on how fast that thing had disappeared, I hid the box. Luciano would never eat something of mine without asking, but why tempt the man? And I want to keep at least one of these happy things around for a while. I then went back to scrubbing the grill from last night’s dinner which, a moment ago had been a bit of drudgery, but now just wasn’t so bad.
How many moments of pure happiness are there in a day? As Topo, my little blue car, and I motor around the Veneto with my classroom in the trunk I see many things; snapshots of life, a simple moment of bliss. I started collecting them in a file called snapshots but have not been able to link them until I held that frivolous, excessively wrapped sweet in my hand.
A circus from Eastern Europe passes through nearby Susegana every year, setting up a battered tent and staking the camels out in the scruffy cornfield near the industrial park. Jaded elephants, the heavy leg chains having become indistinguishable from their thick skin, sway in the shade of the big top while nearby shoppers flow into the local big box store looking for flat screen TV’s or cook pots. It is such an incongruous sight that I always slow down as I pass…and it was there that I saw a moment of happiness. Between the shabby circus trailers set up on the edges of the encampment, I saw a man sitting in a red chair in the rough grass. His ruddy face was turned to some friends sitting at a nearby picnic table. They were laughing. Standing behind the smiling roustabout was another man, with muscular arms raised, studiously cutting his friend’s thick black hair.
Not ten minutes later I passed a white house that gleamed in a sudden show of early spring sunshine. In the garden in front of the house a small girl was pushing a wooden swing with all her might. Leaning back on the swing, a woman in a blue apron had her hands on the chains and her feet in the air. Her head was back and her eyes were closed with her face in the sun, taking a break from morning chores to travel through space and time to the moment she was a child pushing the swing with all her might.
A whitewashed 50 gallon drum sits against an ancient house built on a once narrow dirt lane; the only thing separating the front door from speeding cars is a painted stripe on the pavement. Someone has planted a wisteria tree in that banged-up drum and now it blooms, blissfully beautiful against the worn stucco.
A nonna walks down our street in her housewife dress and apron. She seems to have just stepped out of the kitchen for a moment for in her hand is a cook pot. As I pass she stoops to gather the tender wild greens that grow everywhere in this season and throws the handful into the pot. Lunch.
The gas station on the road to Treviso has a handwritten sign out front. Menu di Asparagi. The gas station.
A vigorous orange gerbera daisy grows in a chipped coffee cup set on a stump.
And last Saturday afternoon I heard bells outside the window… I know that sound anywhere: ice cream truck.
In my mind I am suddenly a child, running wild with my brothers and sisters in the back yard with summer hardened bare feet, stained purple with fallen mulberries. The bells ring at mid-morning and all play stops as we run screaming to the street, “Good Humor Man! Good Humor Man!” We balance on tiptoe on the hot asphalt street, choosing a popsicle from the gay illustrations on the side of the truck and then pay with the wadded up bill that my mother had stuck into someone’s pocket, just in case. As the driver shifts into drive, turns on his bells and motors on, we stand in a circle on the grass and eat; the younger ones, not always able to keep up with the heat, lose some of the ice cream in melted streaks down their bare brown tummies, but it doesn’t matter. They are hosed off easily enough.
In Mareno di Piave I leaned out the window and saw the ice cream man dishing up a scoop for our neighbor. No prepackaged ice cream here.
Now as I tell Luciano about my memory, the name “good humor man” just rolls off my tongue and he laughs at me.
“Why, was he always in a good mood?”
“Hmmm, I don’t know. I never thought of it, really.”
In fact, I realize that for us it was a state of mind, not a brand name. How could it not be? Here in our quiet hot afternoon and in an official white coat, the vendor bent over the buckets of homemade, produzione propria, ice cream. Then he shifted his truck into drive, turned on his bells and motored on… the happiest noise ever.
“I can get a better phone any time I want…I could get one tomorrow. Well, I could on Tuesday, the stores are closed tomorrow, but I could do it!” With that Anna Maria stormed out of the room, or at least stormed as much as I have ever seen.
“Is she angry?” I asked Luciano who was laughing.
I could tell she was agitated since she had switched to dialect, something she does unconsciously when excited. After all, Italian is as much a second language for her as it is for me and so she needs to concentrate to speak it. And while I can get the gist of the conversation in dialect, the details escape me.
“No. Well, maybe. She has just had enough teasing.”
Zio Danilo was laughing too. He’d had the honor of pushing his sister just a bit too far, suggesting that her mobile phone was outdated. After all, it had no loudspeaker function and certainly could not take photos. He whipped out his fancy sliding phone, 3 megapixels, and took a few calls…I think to show off. But in fact, being Easter Sunday, Luciano’s Uncle Dan was in high demand. He had just finished leading the mass over in San Polo, but the much-loved priest in town for the weekend is constantly fielding invitations. I think we were pretty lucky to score his presence for Easter lunch. It did not stop Anna Maria, however from being peeved at his comments on her technological limitations.
These criticisms were pretty strong coming from a man who did not own a cell phone until two or three years ago. People used to track him down by calling house phones from San Polo to Mareno…sometimes even during lunch, the epitome of poor education.
“Her battery lasts 11 days, Zio.” Luciano chimed in, “I am lucky if mine lasts 11 hours…”
“Eleven minutes,” I muttered.
“She must never talk to anyone. Wait, I have to take this call.”
Anna Maria had rejoined us, sitting at the table glaring at her brother as Giancarlo made the coffee.
“I talk on the phone when I need to. I am not attached to it all day long.”
Zio Danilo hung up and gazed at his younger sister.
That was a tense moment.
“How many megapixels do you have on your camera, Anna Maria?” I asked innocently enough, as if to change the subject. Anna Maria brightened.
“Eight, I have eight megapixels.”
“Really?” Zio Danilo was visibly impressed. “You have a serious camera.”
“Yes.” She was happy. Everyone relaxed. Indeed she had been the family photographer last summer when I left my old camera with her to record the progress on the house next door; a job she took very seriously. Now of course, Anna Maria was incapable of operating her hand-me-down camera without my going through the steps every time she wants to take a picture. And I am convinced she does not know what a megapixel is, but that did not matter, nor was I going to mention that fact. For the moment she has won the technology spitting match between siblings whose childhood had been spent in a house with a cow in the front yard and no electricity.
Appeased, Anna Maria turned and pulled a piece of paper out of her drawer. This usually means that she has written down some English word that she heard or read and wanted to try her pronunciation out on me…to see if I can figure out what she is saying. I have heard leepstic, (lipstick) ies ui chen (Yes, we can) and hot pants (that one I got). I usually can guess, but sometimes she catches me off guard.
“Waterboarding.” She repeated.
Ok, she surprised me. “Do you know what that is?”
“Yes, it is when you simulate drowning by holding someone’s head under water.”
“Well, that is not really simulation, is it?” Luciano commented dryly.
Anna Maria shot him a look and again switched to dialect. I missed the details, but it was my impression that she clarified this particular method of torture, her expertise on the topic in fact, alarming. I assured her that I knew what it meant. Giancarlo poured the coffee and Zio Danilo stirred in his three spoons of sugar.
“Ok, how about this: book crossing”
“Ok, that I have no idea.”
“Oh I know that, it is a system of book exchange!” Of course Luciano, sworn lover of books, knew this word.
“Serena does not know it because books are being replaced by digital versions,” Zio Danilo had succeeded in getting the conversation back to technology. “In fact, they are talking about replacing all the books in the library with a digital format of some kind.
Anna Maria said nothing…probably digesting this alarming step into the latest brave new world that she had no hope of pretending to understand.
Zio Danilo didn’t even slow down. “My first book in English was about a dog in Alaska, I think, that went back into the wild…what was the name of that book?”
“Oh, Call of the Wild. That’s not an easy book.” I was impressed, but not really surprised. The Italian school system for some reason has not gotten beyond 19th century literature and most people I have met have read Oscar Wilde, Emily Bronte and Jack London, but know nothing of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner; T.S. Eliot, David Foster Wallace…or Danielle Steel, for that matter.
“Have you read Call of the Wild, Anna Maria?” One more jab from Uncle Dan?
“No, but I think I can find it at the Mareno library.”
“Do you think they have it?”
“If they don’t, someone should burn it down.” Luciano has strong feelings about the classics.
Now that we were back on books, real books, both Anna Maria and Giancarlo could relax. Voracious readers since their retirement, they sit side by side at the kitchen table, reading every afternoon. .She will finish any book she starts, even if she hates it. It’s a commitment thing. Anna Maria and I read To Kill a Mockingbird together, I in English and she, of course, in Italian. We discussed Atticus and Boo Radley over the fence last summer. And yes, she has read every book Danielle Steel has ever written and finally tackled Promessi Sposi, the Italian classic novel, so that she could be in the know for television game show questions
Her brother knows this and, being the peaceable, albeit mischievous, priest, he sat back and smiled across the table. The rain came down in sheets outside and the blossom laden trees across the street danced in the blustery wind…strange weather for Easter. But harmony reigned once again at the kitchen table, whose smooth surface shone with years of elbows, book covers and warm banter…in any language.