Our house has two front entrances. A stoop goes from the sidewalk up ten steps to a magnificent double set of ten-foot walnut doors. To the left of the stoop a wrought-iron, four-foot fence with a gate encloses an area three steps down from the sidewalk. This area is where we New York row-house people keep the trash containers.

When we first moved into this house, sanitation workers would enter this area and take and empty the garbage cans, leaving them on the sidewalk to be collected by the owners or custodians. Then one day, although the rest of the block had the trash removed, we did not.  And then it happened again and again.

I finally waited for the telltale sound of the sanitation truck, headed to the street, and approached the driver. I asked, “How come you haven’t been picking up my garbage?” He replied, “Our rules are that we are not supposed to go down three steps to get the cans.” I said, “But you get all the other containers on the street from in front of the houses.” Looking at me as if it were self-evident, he noted, “The other houses have at most two steps!” (My later reconnoitering showed that he was right.) I pleaded, “What am I supposed to do?” With a tone that indicated that that was not really his problem, he announced, “I guess you will have to put the cans at the curb on collection day.”

The pick-ups often come early in the morning, and I started putting the cans out the night before. I was embarrassed by this. The block was hardly pristine, but we were the only house with garbage cans waiting on the sidewalk. I wondered if the neighbors thought we were bringing down the quality of our street, and I wanted to tell everyone why we had no choice in doing this, but, then again, this was Brooklyn, and I only knew a smattering of those neighbors.

The cans awaiting collection were especially unsightly because they were not covered. Once again, this was Brooklyn, and it is a well known fact of life here that garbage can covers in  this borough tend to disappear if they are in reach of those passing by. (Many owners then chained the covers to the fences in the recessed areas in front of the houses.) Indeed, one of the mysteries of urban life is what happens to all those covers. I can’t imagine a use for all that go missing.

I got into the routine of putting the cans on the curb on the appropriate evenings. It irked me, but I lived with it until the day a piece of paper was attached to the front door–a sanitation violation because of uncovered cans on the sidewalk with garbage in them. The violation carried a fine.

I was now in the land of Catch-22. If I didn’t put the cans out, I would not have a garbage pickup. If I did, the tops would disappear, and I would get a fine.

The sanitation violation carried a notice of a hearing if one was desired. The hearing time was during working hours and on a date that I could not make, so the spouse, who then had a more flexible schedule, went. When our violation was called, the hearing officer looked at our distinctive name on the records, and then asked the spouse whether she knew me. She replied that she was married to me, and officer indicated that he knew me from my work at the Legal Aid Society, but if it was ok with her, he would still hear the case. She assented and explained the situation, but the officer said that there was nothing he could do and the fine would have to be paid. Then, when the hearing was over, he subtly waved her forward and leaned over and explained to her how New York works. He said, I kid you not, “Just pay the sanitation workers a ‘gratuity,’ and they will pick up your garbage.” He was careful not to utter “bribe.”

The next collection day I waited for that telltale sound of the coming trucks and approached the driver, who was a different one from my last encounter. I explained our predicament, and I heard the driver tell the other workers in what I regarded as a false tone, “Can you imagine? They get a violation if they leave the cans at the curb!” This was new territory for me. I did not know what was the appropriate amount, but I took out some bills hoping it was enough but not way too much and started to hand it to him. Apprehension flashed across his face while he said that I could not hand him money like that. Then it dawned on this yokel what he meant. I sprinted back to the house, put the money in the folds of a newspaper, rushed back, and handed him The New York Times for his reading pleasure.

This solved the problem. Our cans, like those of our neighbors, got picked up in front of the house until some time later when in labor negotiations the sanitation workers got a raise in exchange for reducing the number of workers in each crew. After that, everyone on our block had to put the receptacles at the curb, and miraculously, no one then got a sanitation violation for uncovered garbage cans on the street.

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