28 February 2013

"I Thought You Were Someone Else"

One of my household chores growing up was the garbage.  I was supposed to collect it from the various wastebaskets in bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchen and garage and make sure it all ended up in the two metal fifty-gallon cans on the concrete pad in the backyard, in time for the garbageman to fetch them on garbage day.

Back then--this is forty years ago--people didn't set their cans out on the street.  Men rode on the side of the garbage truck and went to where the cans sat and carried them back to the truck.  In our case the man had to walk down a narrow sloping concrete walk on the west side of the house to the back patio.  There was none of this curbside robot claw stuff.

Garbage day was once a week, Wednesday, I think.

This was in nineteen seventy.  I was in my Junior year in high school.  My folks bought a three-bedroom ranch style house with a daylight basement.  Mom, Dad and sisters got the upstairs bedrooms.  I slept in the basement.  My room was a cordoned-off area of the the main downstairs room.  Two of my bedroom walls were just bedspreads tacked from walls to a support column.  The room measured eight feet by ten.  I had a dresser and a twin bed and a footlocker and some shelves for books and albums.

 I didn't have a door.  To get in and out I just pushed aside the spread where it met the column like a tent flap.  I played records on a cheap combo radio/turntable with detachable speakers that sat on the dresser top.  I had no clothes closet, but then I didn't have a lot of clothes.  My slacks and a sports jacket and a couple of dress shirts hung on wire hangers on a broomstick, which in turn hung from bailing wire from nails stuck into the bare joists that were my ceiling.
It sounds pretty spartan, but it was cosy enough and I had my own bathroom in the basement, where the girls seldom ventured.   I'd got my license five months before, and I got to drive my mom's '63 Volkswagen Beetle to school, instead of taking the bus.  And I had a girlfriend, as well as a pretty active social group to which I belonged.  Life was good

But then one spring morning, ascending the stairs to the front entry, I was met by my mom.  She was on her way out the door and pointed over her shoulder in the direction of the rear of the living room and the big picture window that looked out over the back yard and rattled off something about me having to do something, but all I heard was "dogs."

"Dogs?" I asked.

"Just take a look.  Dad wants it cleaned up before you leave for school." And she was gone and I crossed to the window.  It was scraps of paper and styrofoam meat trays and orange juice concentrate cartons strewn all over the quarter acre.  It was like some freak blizzard had struck in the night and only in my yard, and with really big snowflakes. 

It was a mess and it looked worse close up.  It hadn't rained but the grass was long--I'd neglected my lawn duties--and soggy with dew and all the scraps were slimy and clingy.  The tissue paper was the worst.  I left a lot of it hoping it would just dissolve eventually. 

The dogs--it had to be more than one--had knocked over the cans, got the lids off somehow and tugged all the contents out and sifted through it looking for smelly doglickworthy morsels.  And that wasn't all.  They left behind some doggie extrusions.  This was just cruel.  It took me twenty minutes and my pumas were soggy when I finally reached my first class.  I washed up but I felt faintly soiled the whole day.

How had I not heard the cans being ravished the night before?   I slept not thirty feet away and I was a light sleeper.  The raiders must have come earlier before I went down to bed.  Yeah, that was it.  This next time I would put the lids on real tight, and maybe lean something heavy up against them, like a spare truck tire and put bricks on the lids.

But the dogs came only three days later before I began fortifications.  They didn't know about garbage day.  They didn't have a calendar tacked up on their doghouse wall.  They didn't really care if the cans were full or not.  They came in the afternoon and sniffed out something savory and sacked Rome.  We kids were all in school and the adults at work, and the neighbors...well maybe they didn't want to get involved. 

The good news was there wasn't as much to clean up, and no dog noodles this time.

But I wasn't happy.  There would be no third despoilment.  I got the tire and weights.

We had fence and a couple gates on the front of the house on either side, but the back yard was open to a field and orchard.  There was no way to keep the hellhounds out.  I suspect someone in the neighborhood was just letting them out to roam, at night.  Or maybe they were escaping by digging out like that World War Two  prisoner-of-war movie with Steve McQueen.  Anyway, I made ready. 

Nothing happened for a week.  Then one morning I was up early while it was still dark outside and headed for the bathroom when I stopped.  I heard a scrape of metal on concrete.  There it was again.  IT WAS THE DOGS!  They were moving the cans.  I had on pajama bottoms and a tee-shirt and I crept barefoot to the back door to the patio.  There were no lights on in the basement and no lights on outside, so I could see nothing outside, but then nothing outside could see me either.

I decided I would scare the dogs, and maybe that would dissuade them from trespassing again.  To do that I would have to be really quiet because dogs have good hearing.  I reached the door and put one hand on the knob and the other on the outside light switch.  I hadn't heard any more sounds.  Maybe they'd left.  Maybe they'd given up.  Maybe I should, also.

Then I heard the noise again, the faint scraping of metal.  This was it.  I threw the door wide open and flicked on the light and launched out the door screaming and waving my arms. 

At the time, it didn't occur to me that dogs, when frightened, do not always run away, tail between their legs.  Sometimes they attack.  But that wasn't the case here. 

There were no dogs.  It was Wednesday and the disturber of the garbage cans was the garbage man.  He was facing away from me and bent over about to heft our second can.  He didn't say anything; just turned his head and stared over his shoulder at me wide-eyed.  He was short and stout and had a cloth cap on his head and was smoking  the remains of cigar as thick as a thumb. 

I stared back and lowered my arms.  There was a moment of us just looking at each other and then I said:

"I'm Sorry.  I thought you were someone else."  Which was true. 

I went back inside, closed the door,  turned off the light and flopped down on my bed and laughed for half an hour.  That whole day at school, every ten minutes I'd see the look on that poor man's face and start laughing.  Classmates would ask me what was so funny.   

I must of scared that guy really bad.  Really really bad.  His eyes were like hard boiled eggs, they were that big.  I wonder if he told his fellow workers and wife about this crazy kid who jumped out at him.  I'm sure he never turned his back on that door again.  Maybe he transferred to another route.  I don't know.  I never saw him again.  I never saw him before that moment either. I didn't want to see him again. 

I've wondered if maybe the gods didn't set me up.  I mean all the elements leading up to it were perfectly aligned.
It was like they were having a slow day and needed a laugh.  And I was just the guy to oblige them.       

All I know is I'm still chuckling about it, just remembering, four decades later.


  1. I think I'd heard this one before, but it still made me laugh.

  2. One time Alexis and I were out really late at night, around 3 or 4 am, and when I went to drop her off she noticed a creepy car that was idling outside of her neighbor's house down the block. She was too afraid to get out of the car, so we watched as it slowly crept along the street, pausing in front of several of the houses, apparently casing her neighborhood for a string of future burglaries. After she got me all worked up and convinced me to follow the guy, it turned out to be the newspaper delivery guy on his morning route.

  3. too funny, i enjoy reading your blog uncle.