23 March 2010

Styrofoam Boat, Infernal Mountain

At school, my 11 roommates and I love to get food delivered to us. We’ve had a long day of lectures, just worked out, there’s a game on the 60’ flat screen––we’re too tired to go make food for ourselves. Besides, why should we? We deserve a little service. So we place an order, lean back, and 20 minutes later receive our double cheeseburgers with chili cheese fries. It’s like Christmas: the goods are separately wrapped in aluminum sheets, locked in Styrofoam containers, and then, together, wrapped again in two plastic bags. In a separate bag are bags of ketchup, plastic tubs of honey mustard, plastic cutlery, napkins, and a stack of menus we always say we will keep, but always end up throwing out. Ingestion takes no more than five minutes. We toss our mess of condiment-splattered packaging in the garbage can and POOF it vanishes as readily as it was delivered. (Of course, there is the weekly argument over which of us will take the time to tie the optimized heavy-duty plastic bag straps in a knot and lug it outside for the invisible magicians to make officially disappear.)

But, as with every magic trick, this one depends on deception. The rabbit in the hat doesn’t literally vanish into thin air. It gets sent somewhere to rot. Most often to a landfill in some walled off corner of elsewhere, itself a vanishing act. Last week I found one such landfill and spent two days picking through massifs of what was very likely my own filth, or might as well have been. 90-foot mountains of used, discarded, and forgotten items––Red Bull cans, fish sauce bottles, warped Gerber Baby faces, hypodermic needles, last night’s to-go box, all the vibrant colors that once shouted out your name in the supermarket, commanded your need, now collaged on a range in the sky and pasted together by your putrefying food scraps, like a fantasy of Pop art. But it’s real. And that’s only what’s above the ground. There are 60 feet more of capitalistic wasteland buried in the planet beneath your feet. 40 years of garbage, itself now growing its own nature. When there is a fire, which is inevitable with all the methane gas swarming around the already steaming heaps, the firemen can’t put it out, if ever they try. And people live here, breathing in the throat-searing smog of my vanished take-out. These scavengers (sic) make their livelihood mining our trash to extract our recyclables.

Last week, I set my pitchfork with theirs with the hope of understanding their courage and strength. But instead I felt like the damned, condemned to a secular hell, which I had ignorantly helped create in my consumer paradise. Though I lived and worked with them, I continued to be alienated from the villagers; they had managed such dignity in their work, and all I offered was a pathetic attempt to assuage my guilt. I picked garbage with a vengeance, as if by collecting the most water bottles I could simultaneously repent for a lifetime’s waste, impress the villagers with my work ethic, and legitimately help them. But my best intentions translated into me interrupting their work to ask if this bag or that bottle could be reused. I only knew how to throw out. I have spent more money on coffee today than I helped them make last week. And yet I am thankful. I could not help nor repent, but through this hellish journey, led by my Thai Virgil, I have discovered the urgency of reforming my decadent lifestyle.

Cyril Bennouna
University of Michigan

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