Talking Trash, Talking People

Trash in cities has a long and interesting, if smelly history. For hundreds of years after the advent of cities people had to be careful walking down a street, ever watchful for falling garbage thrown from living quarters above. We’ve moved a bit past that, thankfully.
So what do you do with garbage in downtown Knoxville in 2010? I would not have known or thought about it until we moved here. It turns out there is a pretty conventional answer to that question: You take it outside to a plastic dumpster just like folks in the suburbs. There are some differences: Our taxes pay for the dumpsters to be available and to be emptied, unlike in the county where you have to pay directly for garbage service. Our bins are larger and they are communal (That means we share them. The bins are not communists!)

The largest difference is more poignant. Given recent opposition to transitional housing in Knoxville, I’m guessing it isn’t a difference most people outside of downtown want to experience. While jokes about dumpster diving may be common, it is a reality in a city. It is possible to live in a suburb and know homeless people and know garbage scavenging only in a theoretical sense. You never really have to see the reality. A city keeps us more honest. There are people who are not as different as you might like to think from me or you who have to resort to going through garbage to survive.

It gets even more personal when it is your garbage. When you have to think, “What did I throw away tonight, that I considered completely worthless, that would be important enough for a fellow human being to dig through a garbage can to get? I hear someone going through my garbage can most nights. It’s hard to not see these invisible people when it is your garbage they look to for hope.

Interestingly, given the chance to share our communities and in the form of Housing First, helping people who are chronically homeless, Knoxvillians are choosing to fight it at every turn. The one thing that we might be able to do to help these people have a home and not have to go through our garbage, we resist because we don’t want them close to our homes. We prefer they stay invisible, theoretical, not flesh and blood like us. Life in a city forces us to face the truth in all its beauty and ugliness. That’s a reason many people should never move into a city and it’s a reason I love it. It keeps me honest.

This man pictured going through the garbage at the corner of Wall and Gay Street agreed to have his photograph taken. The pictures are not pleasant, but they are real and they are a part of this city.