In those days, there were no wheelie bins, there was no recycling: you put the trash out in round metal cans of the sort you see only in old movies now, or in paintings or photos of quaint vintage slums. The city trucks that came to pick it up were staffed with two broad-shouldered, big-bellied men who would wreck their backs and go on disability by the time they were fifty. When Andrew was a child, he’d watch fascinated from the living room window each and every trash day, waiting for the truck that he could hear grinding and grumbling out of sight up the block. Eventually the gray hulk would arrive in front of the house, the doors would open, and the big men climb down to lift the cans and tilt them into the cavern at the back of the truck. If Andrew was lucky, one of them would then pull the lever that activated what the child thought of as a jaw, looming out of the depths of the truck to gnaw and swallow the garbage, gulping it, with a moan, into the dark steel stomach.
One time, when he was about to turn five years old, his father took him to a toy store near the park and offered to buy him pretty much anything he wanted for his birthday. This was an old-fashioned toy store, which sold only toys and was staffed by an older couple with plump smiles and gentle manners, people who knew his father’s name. Andrew was delighted to find a toy garbage truck, although his father was not so delighted to hear him choose it, and lobbied for the more typical fire truck. The fire truck was tempting, as it was larger and came with tiny plastic ladders and axes that could be detached and put in the hand of two tiny plastic firefighters. But Andrew insisted on the garbage truck. When they arrived home and his father somewhat shyly told the story to his mother, they both looked at him with unusual expressions. “Well,” his mother said, always practical, “someone designed and made the thing, and someone ordered it in and put it on the shelves, so it can’t be all that odd.” It was the first time Andrew had realized that his parents thought him odd.
This worried him briefly, but he forgot about his possible oddness when he opened the box containing the garbage truck and found that it included two little gray plastic trash cans. There was, however, no toy garbage included, so he decided to make his own.
He approached the matter methodically, taking a sheet of newspaper and cutting it into little squares with a child’s scissors he had. The scissors were made of plastic but were just able to cut newsprint. He carefully layered the squares three deep, folded them, then unfolded them so that they would look like the newspapers his father held before his face every morning. Then he crumpled them and put them into one of the toy trash cans. He had an empty matchbox that his mother had given him to keep the screws and washers in that he occasionally picked up in the garage; he removed the hardware and, with a certain regret, crumpled the matchbox the way his father crushed delivery cartons before tossing them away; he put the crumpled matchbox in the other toy trash can. He wished he had something that could serve as a toy tin can, but though he searched the floors of all the closets, he found only bobby pins and paper clips, along with clumps of dust. He could not think of full-sized analogues for the bobby pins or paper clips, but the dust reminded him of the clippings that piled up in the yard when his father trimmed the back hedge, so he put them in too. He was proud of his home-made garbage though it was not as elaborate as he would have preferred. It was better than imaginary garbage, and he knew that at his age he suffered from limited access to resources. He did not want to ask his parents to help him make toy garbage in case that would again make them wonder whether he was odd. He wanted only to replicate the workings of the bigger world in his room. Now he needed a house, so he could put the trash cans in front of it. He knew there was an empty shoebox in his closet; it was plain and inelegant but would have to do. He drew doors and windows on it in wobbly rectangles, put it at the edge of the rug, which he decided would represent a lawn, and placed the trash cans on the exposed part of the wooden floor, which was now a street. Then he called his parents in to watch the garbage truck in operation.
This was a story he would tell years later, when at parties he would be asked how he had decided to become an architect. He revealed the shoebox house as the origin of his interest in the making of rooms and spaces, for it had become more elaborate over the weeks, especially when he realized that empty cans of tomato paste, much smaller than standard tin cans, were about the size of the toy trash cans that had come with the truck, and were of real metal besides. His mother had cooked spaghetti not long after he had received the truck; Andrew retrieved the empty can from the wastebasket, carefully tore away the label, and asked his mother to wash it for him. Her expression told him that his request marked him, again, as possibly odd, but when he explained why he wanted it, she seemed amused and perhaps a bit relieved. She warned him that there might be a sharp edge in the opening, and so to be careful, but she carefully washed and dried the little tin, and put a piece of transparent tape along the edge to protect his fingers. He took his prize back to the bedroom and searched in his closet for another shoebox to draw doors and windows onto. He made sure to ask for spaghetti regularly—he liked it anyway—so by the end of the month he had three more shiny metal trash cans, and had built a small neighborhood in his bedroom. It gave him a great and quiet joy to push his truck around the neighborhood and collect the garbage from in front of the shoebox houses.
“And that led to a career?” The woman who would eventually become his wife had asked him, at the dinner party where they first met.
“As far as I can tell,” he had answered. “Although I was more interested in urban planning at first, in university. When it turned out that I could draw pretty well—in those days we actually drew things, by hand—I ended up drifting towards architecture. I never stopped wondering where the garbage goes, though. My parents were right; I was an odd child. Haven’t outgrown it either. Being odd.”
His future wife responded by raising her wineglass: “Here’s to oddity. It may save us yet.”
Their first real date was then by calculation odd. They had been discussing waste streams and development at a coffeehouse, neutral ground where they met for pastries and oversweetened caffeine. He said, “Let’s kill two birds with one stone—garbage and neighborhoods. I’ll take you to Oak Crest. Ever been there?”
“Never even heard of it. Sounds like one of those walled communities. Walled and so-called,” she said.
“Exactly. But with a twist, which I’ll tell you about after you’ve seen it. It’s up in the hills above town. There’s kind of a view, I guess. If you like freeways.”
“I don’t,” she said. “But I like you, I think. Three birds, one stone, maybe.”
“I like you too, I think. So maybe. Saturday good?”
Saturday was good. They drove alongside a notoriously busy freeway that blundered through a pass in the hills dividing the city, but using the old road that had served before the ten-lane went in. There was little traffic along the old road any more; it served pockets of forgotten houses that were much less grand than the edifices at Oak Crest. Mostly there were the half-barren hillsides, furred with dead late-season grass and the few actual oak trees that had escaped destruction to make room for the ostentatious domiciles on upper slopes. About halfway to the summit Andrew pointed out a curved concrete bastion that presented the words “Oak Crest” in gilded wooden cursive; it was by a road that went straight up the face of the hill without regard to steepness. Denise laughed: “The first car I ever owned would never have made it up that hill. An old Volks, the kind with the tiny back window.”
“This place wasn’t meant for a ‘people’s car’ to access. Here we go.” Gravity pushed them back in their seats as Andrew’s car labored up the hill. Nearly half a mile along there was another concrete bastion with the same legend, and beyond it the road sprouted tentacles of cul-de-sacs crowded with two-story houses, all painted white and sporting red tile roofs.
They drove along the deserted streets at first, nosing the car into the cul-de-sacs and driving slowly along the curves to the turnarounds at the end. They saw no one walking, no one in the tidy gardens except a gardener crouched under his torn straw hat trimming roses; his dented pickup truck, laden with rakes and shovels, looked weary at the curbs. “Where is everyone?” Denise said. “It’s Saturday; they can’t all be at work. Aren’t there kids?”
“I suppose they’re all watching TV. Or staring at phone screens.”
“Maybe checking their investments online? Or networking at the tennis club?”
Andrew shrugged. “I’ve been here at night. All you see is the flash of widescreens flickering through closed drapes. I suppose it’s the same in the daytime.”
“And these houses…,” she said. “What would you call this style?”
He chuckled. “Well, I call it ‘Tuscan, with a dash of dollhouse.’ But maybe it should be the other way around. Spanish tile roofs, Grecian columns, two-story living room, and a handsome kitchen for the housekeeper to work in.”
“I suppose the likes of you and me won’t really know what they’re like inside.”
“Ah, but I have an associate who lives here. A real-estate moneyman, not an architect, thank god. I have been inside. It’s quite surrealistic. Great echoing rooms that the family itself seemed to feel lost in. Widescreens in every room. Except the kitchen and bath, of course. Or baths: at least three latrines per barracks here. Let’s park and walk.” He had driven to the back end of the development, where the hill rose towards a dry crest dotted with oaks. There was a barrier at the end of the road, with a guardrail. Beyond it was bare dirt tufted with more of the dead grasses, and an arrangement of concrete ditches laid across the slope. He led her up to the third and highest of the ditches, where they could stand overlooking the entire development, the ten-lane freeway at the bottom of the canyon, and the rising slope of the hillside beyond the freeway. There was a faint rush and rumble of traffic. The tile roofs glowed orange-red among the curving streets below them. A cold breeze began to flow down the hill; they could suddenly feel it on the backs of their necks, and simultaneously raised their collars.
“The weather’s turning,” she said. “I’ve heard it might rain.” They looked across the red roofs and the freeway to the dry hills across the canyon. “I guess we need it, don’t we?”
“We do. Although the plants that live here—or lived here, before we built it up—they’re adapted to drought. More or less.”
“Like the oaks that used to fill this valley, before it was filled in by Oak Crest and its tidy little lawns?”
“Yes. But it wasn’t Oak Crest that originally filled this valley. See that big pipe there, sticking up out of the ground?” This was a corrugated tube some two feet across that stood about eight feet high.
“I noticed that,” Denise said. “What is it? It looks like some kind of vent.”
“And so it is,” Andrew said. “It is, in fact, a methane vent. Oak Crest”—he cleared his throat, then threw his arm out in a grand gesture—”Oak Crest is built on landfill. Yes. This was, in fact, a garbage dump before it was remade into a golden ghetto. Quite possibly things you and I threw away years back lie festering under our feet right now.”
She coughed out a startled laugh. “Oh my god,” she said. “Old phone bills, used Kleenex, banana peels, and…other things—what a foundation for this, this Tuscan toychest!”
They both laughed now. “Yep. A thousand years from now, archaeologists will dig this all up and put the lie to all the noble rot we write about ourselves and how wonderful we are.”
The air became colder around them, and they huddled deeper into their jackets. The sky darkened as fog began to pour over the ridge at their backs. Tendrils of pale vapor swirled past and flowed down the hill, drifting in rags and tatters over the roofs of Oak Crest. “Oh, how beautiful!” she said. “But cold….” Heavier clouds marched past overhead, and the fog kept up its skirmishing among the red tile roofs. “I know it’s early in the game” she said, “but I guess we can snuggle up…just to keep warm. For now.”
Andrew moved closer and they leaned their shoulders together, then each slid an arm around the other.
“So here we are,” she said. “Holding each other on a pile of trash, and waiting for the rain. Is it romantic? I can’t decide.”
“It is if you’re an oddball like me,” he said. “Next date: the sewage treatment plant by King’s Beach. They actually give tours. You game?”
She nodded. “I’m game. What the hell. It won’t get realer than that, will it? I guess I’m odd too.”
“Here’s to oddity,” he said. They leaned their heads together and watched the fog infiltrate the valley, obscuring the red tile roofs. The first spatters of rain tapped their cheeks, and they scrambled down the hill to where they had parked the car. By the time they had settled themselves into its cold coziness, still huddled in their coats, it was raining hard, the bright drops merging into streams on the windshield. They rubbed their hands and blew into them, in unconscious simultaneity, and then Denise snorted a laugh and said, “Look: the damned fools!”
Andrew gazed out the window and saw the automatic sprinklers begin to spray over the wet lawn of the house next to where they were parked. The rain came down harder, and he shook his head. “There are rain sensors for sprinkler systems. You’d think they would know that. Or the so-called architect would.”
“But you’d have to care first, wouldn’t you?”
‘Yeah. You’d have to care first.”
Denise put on a serious expression and caught his eye. “I guess we’ll have to care extra to make up for them, won’t we?”
“I guess we will. For all the good it will do.”
She reached for his hand, gave it a squeeze, and held it. “It’s worth a try, isn’t it? Maybe?”
“Let’s try it, and see what happens in fifty years or so. It might not be easy, but, yes. Deal?”
“Deal!” she said. “Or at least, probably. It is still early in the game.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “We’ll pencil it in. Leave room for revisions.” He started the car and set the windshield wipers flapping.
As they left Oak Crest, they saw the gardener packing up his tools in the rain. He’d left the oversized plastic trash bins out front for the Monday pickup. Denise and Andrew looked at trash bins and then at each other and laughed. The gardener glanced up and smiled at the two of them laughing as they passed. They waved, he waved back, and they drove on slowly down the hill, through the rattling rain.