Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Scavenger

Last night we had a visit from a scavenger.

As way of preface I should explain that the bins for our entire apartment complex are dutifully arranged, like green soldiers with yellow and red hats, directly outside the front window of our ground floor apartment. Oh the joy.

Sure he said he was “looking for my watch that my girlfriend threw in the bin last night” but I instantly knew that was bullshit. He was unkempt. He wasn’t old, but he appeared weary and was slightly ravaged by the effects of a decade long smack habit. He had a bike but no helmet. His fingers were too thick for his skeletal build, and well crusty from years of sifting filth through them. His manner, his inability to make eye contact, his insistence at repeating his story about looking for the watch – each time he told another stranger he added an extra, unnecessary detail further suturing his neat lie.

I first noticed unfamiliar noises before 5pm. It may well have been well prior to 5pm – I was reading, and oblivious. I went to the gym and he was still there upon my return. Rubbish was now lining the street and incidental items (a soy sauce bottle; mustard half left; unlabeled chutney, all clearly past best) lined up atop one of the bins. This guy was clearly not looking for a watch, although – had he found one, he would surely have claimed it.

As it got to around 8.30pm my mood shifted. To this point I was ambivalent. I felt sorry for him. I pitied him. His noises were slightly annoying yet not overly distracting. But at around 8.30pm something in me changed.

Before 8.30pm a number of passers-by and residents in other apartments had commented to him. His scavenging had started to get messy. His refuse was growing by the bins – and open bin lids were gently overflowing with the odours best kept in by closed lids. He very audibly promised that he was giving up on the watch and would start cleaning up and would be gone within five minutes. A woman walked past and said, “That’s disgusting!” To which our scavenger replied almost menacingly “We’re not living in a Third World country.” I still don’t know what correlation there is between the two statements, but his manner was now anti-social, as if his scavenging prior was not, and it was apparent that he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It also became increasingly apparent that he would be unwilling at best, and unable at worst, to clean his mess once he was finally done. I also noticed he had started wandering down the street, to other people’s bins, and had started hauling their bags of rubbish in front of my apartment to commence work on those as well.

Upon this realisation, and the added realisation that it would be most likely me that ended up cleaning this mess, I called the police. I was patient and polite and explained the situation. He wasn’t hurting anyone, but he was providing a nuisance and I was now sure he would leave our bins festering amongst piles of the rubbish even he was not desperate enough to consider. I also suspected that someone so desperate as to trawl so fastidiously through so much rubbish would not hesitate to try a door to see if it were unlocked – to jemmy window to reach the promise within.

I don’t like calling the police. They’ve got a tough enough job without having to worry about matters of minor social disorder. And our local police station is at the end of our rather modest street. They are less than one minute away. They promised to send a van. They never did. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

After being asked repeatedly now by various residents (all to politely in my opinion) his scavenging became almost silent. His presence was betrayed only occasionally by the odd gently clinking bottle. He became like a hyena all too aware of the lion’s imminent arrival. But he was still there. It was raining, intermittently but heavily. Persistently. Still there at 11.30pm when I finished my book and decided upon bed. A total of perhaps seven hours scavenging through a dozen or so bins.

So what of my role in all of this? I never confronted him. Not once. I didn’t really care until 8.30pm. I was happy in my world, and happy enough to leave him in his, content to deny his existence like the other scavengers; the vultures, . But after 8.30pm any confrontation would have been counterproductive. I felt myself becoming angry. I knew I would not be able to approach him without doing something that would go over the edge. Something that would get me in trouble, if not with the law, then with someone else who would never look at me with the same respect again. My pity turned to contempt. I wanted to cure us of him. I fantasised about beating him so badly that I would just dispose of him, head first, into one of the bins – to be buried with the filth of which he was so fond. I wanted to cure him of himself. His life, so pathetic.

I woke this morning and there is litter strewn loosely around the bins on my street. In front of my apartment. Down the street, in front of other houses and buildings. He’d obviously moved on east after exhausting the remnants of ours. It could have been worse. To his credit he did make some attempt to clean up as he left – but the rain had melted and stuck the paper items to the road and footpath; the dark had made some objects invisible to him; and other items had become inaccessible enough (in cracks or between bins) as to make them too hard for him to bother with.

But he has washed away. The street, apart from the trail of rubbish he left, has been washed clean by the rain. The bins, now soldiers with their hats scalped off backwards, revealing their filthy guts – awaiting their collection patiently, with their dignity stripped.

I will wander out shortly – once the rain has dried – and with gloved hands pick up what he has left, and wonder why I am cleaning up after the scavenger.

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