The Case of the Reappearing Garbage
During the five-week civic workers' strike in Toronto this summer, my friend Mohan came home to an unwelcome gift. While he was away someone had deposited a large bag of garbage on his front lawn. Raccoons had been into it and there was garbage everywhere. He was livid, but had no choice except to clean it up and store it with his own garbage, awaiting the end of the strike. A few days later another bag appeared. Mo began to feel that he was being targeted. He noticed the red tie was the same on both bags. Both had been left beside a rock at the edge of the lawn near the sidewalk. Mo wrote a note in large letters, slipped it inside a transparent plastic bag and set it down by the rock. The note said, “This is not a garbage dump. Please deal with your own garbage.”
When a third bag appeared, Mo decided it was time to take action. Much to the delight of his children, especially his oldest—a fifteen year-old fan of CSI and anything to do with forensic criminology—he went to the store, purchased rubber gloves, a surgical mask, and a tarp. Next he proceeded to empty out the contents of the garbage bag onto the tarp, in the hopes of finding an address label that would identify the culprits. The girls and his five-year old son stayed inside while Mo did his digging—it was too disgusting to watch—but they were thrilled when he came in, still wearing his mask and gloves and holding up a damp but legible address label. The garbage belonged to a family living just two blocks away. Full of righteous indignation, Mo headed up the street, still wearing his forensic investigator outfit. His five year-old son, dressed as a pirate, accompanied him, with his plastic sword at his side. When they reached the house Mo knocked vigorously on the door, but no one answered. They were foiled in the act of seeing reparation, but not for long.
Mo had been in contact with his city councillor and was well aware that there was a $500 fine for this kind of dumping, but rather than report his neighbours he decided to write them a letter. In his view, everyone deserves an opportunity to make amends. This could be achieved, Mo wrote, if the family stopped dumping their garbage on his lawn and reclaimed what they had already deposited. In his final paragraph he included a veiled threat that lack of compliance would lead him to file a report with the city.
Mo showed the letter to his daughters, aged 12 and 15. The younger of the two insisted that he should demand an apology. From Mo’s perspective, there was little chance of receiving a sincere apology if it was demanded. Nonetheless, he reworded parts of his letter to leave room for that possibility. The older daughter felt strongly that if he were being consistent with his philosophy he should take out the veiled threat and instead invite his neighbours’ highest potential to shine forth, without threatening them. Being fully informed of the effects of their behaviour on others, she said, they would naturally wish to rectify the situation.
Mo edited his letter again, included his phone number and took it up the street, where he once more knocked vigorously on his neighbour’s door. His plan was to speak his mind but if a confrontation ensued, he would simply hand over the letter. But again there was no answer. He left the letter in the mailbox and returned home. An hour later, however, he received a call from a young man in his twenties, sounding very apologetic. He asked if he could meet with Mo. That afternoon, Mo learned that the young man was one of five children. He was the only one at home caring for his elderly parents, neither of whom spoke English. His father had Alzheimers’ disease. His mother was bedridden. Because of the city workers’ strike the young man had lost his job doing janitorial work at a local community centre. He was working two jobs, one at a carwash and the other as a janitor in an office building. In one of the father’s more lucid moments, the young man informed Mo, he had volunteered to take care of the garbage, so that his son would have one less thing to worry about. This seemed like a help, and when he came home and found the garbage was gone he didn’t think to ask where his father had taken it. But as soon as he received Mo’s letter he asked his father what he had been doing with it. “Just putting it behind that big rock down the street,” his father replied, apparently unaware that the rock was on somebody’s front lawn.
The young man, mortified at his father’s behaviour, informed Mo that he would be dealing with the family’s garbage from now on. Mo, on his side, had no doubt of the young man’s sincerity, and accepted his apology. He was moved by the young man’s commitment to caring for his parents and realized that during the whole episode his actions and reactions had been generated by false assumptions about who was leaving garbage on his lawn. And yet, his passion for justice had led him to unravelling the story behind the garbage, which turned out to be much more complex than he could ever have imagined. The story, in turn, taught him the value of giving others the benefit of the doubt. A simple act of generosity, but one we often withhold.