In long-ago America, people gathered in the town center to share stories, friendships and a sense of community. Today, we have little time for such nonsense.
In the city, we might exchange a brief glance of recognition with a fellow occupant at the local coffee shop, where Jason Your Barista has replaced kindly old Mr. Johnson, and frigid air conditioning and reliable wi-fi play the role of the park bench.
In rural areas of the country, however, it’s been a little harder to find a fitting substitute. The feed store went belly-up when agribusiness took over. The seed store closed when everybody started ordering off the internet. The speed store was busted by the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Just outside our city limits, in a magical land known as Unincorporated York County, a settlement called the “convenience center” is making a name for itself as the new community hub for country folk. It’s hard to say how it came about its name, a euphemism for a trash and recycling collection facility. (It seems like it’d be a lot more convenient just to throw your garbage wherever you wanted to.) Instead, the county government has set up a dozen of these locations where you can toss old mattresses, discard unwanted kitchen grease, and generally trash up the place.
But it’s also become a location to go and meet your neighbors, where you can swap tales or swap refuse. Saturdays are an especially popular time for folks to pull up their trucks, dump a huge stinking load of rubbish, then set a spell to catch up on what people are doing.
I decided to join in the scene this past weekend when I had to get rid of some boxes and other junk. I had been to the Mt. Gallant Road location several times before, and it always struck me as a friendly and welcoming place. There’s a large volume of visitors, but a well-constructed traffic flow allows those who want to do their business and be gone to do exactly that, while there are enough pull-offs for those interested in more leisurely dumping.
In the center of the traffic circle sits a grassy island shaded by three flowering crape myrtle trees. My plan was to ditch the boxes, then swing back around and park in the shade, pull out a lawn chair from the trunk, and enjoy a picnic lunch while soaking in the hubbub around me. I even brought my netbook, on the off-chance I could get an internet connection.
A healthy emphasis on recycling has prompted debris officials to set up various stations where your rejects may be able to start a new life helping someone else. There’s a station for old electronics and latex paint, though I’m not sure how they’re connected. There’s a bin for tires, for newspapers, for cardboard, for large bulky items, for chipboard and for junk mail. There are smaller receptacles for glass of different colors. Around back, kept discreetly out of sight and smell, are vats for antifreeze, motor oil and animal fat.
I knew where to put my cardboard boxes, but I also had about a dozen styrofoam coolers stuffed with what I’ll claim to be thawed freezer packs. I don’t particularly care to disclose what purposes these containers originally served (except to say categorically that they never — I repeat, never — held human organs), which made me feel guilty when I asked one of the two orange-shirted attendants on duty where I should discard them.
“Put ’em in the ‘open’ bin,” said the elderly fellow. “That’s for everything that doesn’t go in another category. But no dead animals or construction materials.”
My dumping complete, I began the leisurely part of the excursion. I decided to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of my car, at least long enough to eat my roast beef sandwich, because the thick summer air was lending a certain olfactory ambience to the scene that wasn’t conducive to successful digestion. Besides, I was afraid it might look weird to be enjoying myself too much.
People of all kinds could be seen passing through the convenience center on that muggy afternoon. There were moms hauling black plastic bags, country squires in their plaid shorts and sandals, young children helping dads get rid of every remnant left behind by that slutty ex-wife. And there were plenty of representatives from the lower social classes as well, including an apparent militia-man in camo Bermudas and head scarf, and a mostly toothless man who seemed to be collecting more than he was disposing. Many patrons brought their dogs along, treating them to what I’d guess is a canine version of a fine restaurant.
I sat in my car and took some notes, snapped a few photos out the window, and gave a try at hooking up with the web. The only available router I could pick up was for the “Pogo Family,” but it was too weak to get me a connection. Also, it was secured. The Pogos may be dumb enough to live next door to a dump, but they’re not so dumb as to allow a hacker like me to check a few baseball scores at their expense.
The longer I stayed, the more suspicious I felt. I don’t think I was doing anything illegal, but I sure wasn’t joining in the camaraderie that all the other rubbish hounds seemed to be enjoying. I noticed one of the attendants looking in my direction, probably wondering what’s up with the guy taking pictures and scribbling in a notebook from behind the darkened windows of a late-model sedan. Might he be planning a terrorist action of some sort? You know, those al-Qaida guys are supposed to be looking for so-called soft targets these days, and what’s softer than a silo full of used oil filters?
I decide it’s probably time to leave. I finish up my Arby’s combo meal, wad the packaging into a ball, and walk over to the open bin to discard my “Arbage.” I sense the attendant is relieved to see me dressed in shorts and a T-shirt instead of long flowing robes and a bandolier. We exchange a nod, and that becomes the extent of my communion with the locals.
Returning home to the city, I feel an uncomfortable sensation that I’ve intruded into a landscape where I didn’t really belong. People were going about the honest business of cleaning out their homes, making their best efforts at recycling what they could and properly disposing of the rest. And I sat there and watched them like they were zoo animals, and now I’m posting a blog that ridicules their sincere toil.
I feel somehow unclean.
Oh — right. I’ve been hanging out at a dump.