VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Ethan Goffman

One Man’s Trash

As I emptied the trash, a trove of glasses slipped into the garbage bag’s gaping mouth.  “Hey,” I asked my wife, “have you thrown out my old glasses”? 

“They were just sitting in a heap,” she said. “Some of them must have been decades old.” It was true, I had left them beneath my nightstand indefinitely. Still, just tossing them out was wasteful. There were kids in third world countries who could use them. Of course, “third world” is no longer acceptable, as it can be seen as lesser; “developing nations” is now the preferred designation. But some of them never seem to develop, so is it really accurate to call them “developing”? As so often happens, I had become lost in thought, paralyzed. If I wanted to restore the glasses, I had better act now.

I dove into the garbage bag’s vast mouth, pulled like a tiny spaceship into a black hole on my quest to restore vision to distant corners of planet Earth. (Though if Earth is round, can it have corners? All metaphors fail, most sooner than later, though since we think in metaphors, since language itself is a kind of metaphor, we have no choice but to use them). I was adrift in a vast sea of waste—or was it an ocean, a galaxy, or even a multiverse—again with the metaphors! My associative thinking often keeps me from accomplishing much of anything.

Back to the universe—or whatever—inside the garbage bag, through which I swam in a primitive doggie paddle style. I never did master more sophisticated strokes that require you to turn your head to breath. Banana peels and apple cores drifted by, along with a huge, stinking squash rind that had been part of yesterday’s dinner. Should I not have composted them? An enormous, empty Amazon box bumped into my forehead—it had so recently been filled with sweet expectation. Should I not have recycled it? Still, we are a society built on waste, and it seems impossible to avoid creating vast troves of trash as part of the great American consumption machine. It’s all so overwhelming. And where were those glasses?

In the kingdom of the legally blind, is she with glasses Queen?  If I did succeed in my quest to recover this jumble of glasses and have them delivered to the yearning masses overseas, would I be endowing myself with a kind of kingship among the recipients? Would I be an emperor, and if so was this quest as much about my imperialist need to put a stamp on the planet as about compassion for others? Perhaps I was simply a condescending benefactor trying to buy cheap absolution for my guilt at being born among the lucky ones. Most likely, the recipients would soon take the magical glasses that restored their vision for granted, would expect more, would become entitled, the ungrateful bastards!

Getting nowhere fast and slow, I tried switching to the breaststroke, which was somewhat better. I swam through ghosts of trash past, a smart phone recently discarded, a Roomba, power cords beyond counting for God-knows-what devices. Fortunately, none of the larger items had been tossed into the trash bag. It could have been deadly to run into our last washer-dryer, a lemon that had needed multiple repairs before we discarded it after only two years. Made cheap in China, it had been easier to replace than repair. Who cared about the sweat and tears of the Chinese workers? Besides, they needed the employment—for them, it was an opportunity.

And now I came upon older trash—a flip phone. A netbook. A Magnavox Videowriter, my first word processor. Stuff no one under thirty even remembered. Had all this gone into the very same trash bag? Perhaps this vast bag was itself a metaphor or a dream? But no, it felt as real as the living, breathing smart phone in my breast pocket, the heartbeat that kept me connected to reality.

I decided I’d better call my wife and explain to her my whereabouts. But all I got was an error message explaining that I was out of service range.

I must be miles beyond those lost glasses by now. They scarcely seemed worth it. Perhaps this would turn into a quest for home, an insignificant version of The Odyssey. Could I ever find my way back through this wildness of trash?

But no, I was already home. We Americans literally are what we buy, and this was a record of my past, of who I was. I would learn to enjoy it, to luxuriate, not in the new and trendy, but my whole history of consumption.

So here I float, happily meditative among oceans of not trash, but fine consumer goods. I have attained a kind of Nirvana. I do not need glasses. For the first time in my life, I have 20 20 vision.

4 thoughts on “VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Ethan Goffman

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