By Monday afternoon the alleyway is lined with bins. Riding my bike up the hill along this alleyway is to be a one-person cavalcade with the bins my silent, stinking onlookers. When I turn into the alleyway I see the bins I know to take a deep breath, which I try to hold until I have reached the end, a difficult feat while riding up a hill. I only ever get halfway before I have to breathe, and the smell of the garbage fulminating from the effects of the afternoon sun fills me with a familiar despair.
The two streets that back onto the alleyway are lined with apartment buildings. Hundreds of people must live on these two suburban streets. The bins are their secrets, the things they want to hide. Every week they try to get rid of their secrets but more build up and they can never be free from this cycle.
I try not to get too down about waste, about high density living, about the deathliness of garbage. Instead I focus on the can man, who is digging around in the recycling bins, his canvas sack by his side. He uses a grabber device to pick out the cans and add them to his sack. There are two can men at work in my suburb. Whether they are in competition or share the territory is uncertain. The other can man is always on a bike, which is hung with bags and boxes for the cans he collects from the streets and bins. I know the particular sounds of this can man as he comes down the street, the sound of the bin lid flapping open, then the crunch of the cans as he crushes them underfoot before adding them to his collection. People are protective of their bins and I am no different – my garbage exposes me, my bags full of scrunched up tissues, packets of pandol, uncomposted vegetable peelings – but I don’t mind the can man picking out the cans of the Diet Cokes I drink with both shame and pleasure.
I make it to the end of the alleyway and the air clears. The can man is leaning deep inside a yellow recycling bin, digging around. When I come back from the shops a while later he is gone, but I stop halfway down to do some scavenging of my own, as I see a large flatscreen tv box. I pull out the foam shells inside, shaped to the contours of the “Smart TV” it cradled, and leave them next to the bins. My sense of purpose has inured me to the smell of the garbage, which I no longer notice. An old man appears and watches me with suspicion as I drag the box down the alleyway and turn the corner, returning to my lair with it.