I learned a lot in my early life. In fact, my youngest years were so full of experience that they give me no end (at least, so far) to colorful stories. One of those stories has to do with trashcans and the way that we humans are so very programmable.
Specifically, that children, adults, too, will form attachments to whatever source of sustenance is available.
In my earliest years, my parents, or really, they were more bio-donors, since they had no love for me, lived in a tiny, two-room apartment in Paterson, New Jersey. The living room and kitchen were connected. The only other room was a small bedroom and bathroom. There was a small window in the living room where I’d spend hours watching flies crawl up and down the glass, and where I’d watch the neighbors hanging their wash across ropes that spanned the nest of brownstone buildings in our neighborhood.
Our trashcan at the time was a paper sack that sat beside the refrigerator until it was full enough that it’s by then oily sides were bursting. It attracted flies and smelled terrible after it had sat beside the fridge for a couple days, but to me that paper sack was beautiful.
It represented food. The stilling of the constant gnawing of my stomach. It offered the experience of tastes that I was forbidden, like pizza crusts with bits of cheese and sauce stuck to them or bits of fried rice at the bottoms of Chinese take out boxes.
I learned very quickly that when my parents were in one of their moods, looking for someone to fight with who couldn’t hurt them, that they found any excuse at all to blame me. Sure, they used their fists to express themselves on my body, but I was too young for them to feel completely satisfied once they’d reduced me to a hiccup-y mess of tears and bruises. So they’d keep other things from me, like food.
Oh, my father was actually pretty good at letting me have food. He’d even take me to the soda shop for a black and white shake, telling the soda clerk over and over exactly how to make it, as if the poor guy had never made a shake before.
Maybe I’d messed my diaper once too often and she had to choose between buying cigarettes or Pampers. Maybe I’d colored on the walls during the long afternoons when she left me alone in the apartment. Maybe I’d dared to complain when I couldn’t force myself to choke down a slice of toast burnt to charcoal.
Whatever the reason, she’d refuse to give me any more food that day.
I learned early that life is a game in many ways. If I was to survive, I had to develop a strategy. For example, if my mother refused to feed me on a day when my father actually came home for dinner, he would make sure I got something to eat.
Like the mob boss who had the power to take people out at a moment’s notice, my father would pour all the bits of sweetness that he could muster into the few minutes he’d see me. Perhaps to make up for the late night “house calls” to replace tubes in the televisions of sweet young things, or perhaps to usurp my mother’s power to get back at his own parents in an oblique way. I was very young. I knew little of motives except what I learned from watching them.
Whatever the case, he’d caress my hair and speak in a sweet, gentle voice.
“How are you today?” he’d ask, as if he was really interested. “Did you have a good day? Did you color some pictures for Daddy?” If I was smart, I’d have colored pictures ready for him.
He’d ooh and aaah over them and then when I’d tell him how hungry I was he’d stand up for me.
“Betty!” he’d call in an incredulous tone that implied deep concern, “why didn’t you feed her lunch? Or give her a snack if she’s hungry. She’s just a little kid!”
My mother would grumble and complain about all the childish things I’d done that day that had set her off, but she’d give me a share of dinner. Oh, she’d get me back, later, calling me “youlittlebrat” and accidentally brushing my skin with the lit end of her cigarette.
She’d wait, until a night when my father was doing house calls. She’d refuse to give me dinner, then wait up for my father. He’d come home with a pizza or containers of Chinese food. They’d sit at the kitchen table, right across from my crib, and eat and talk about their day.
When I’d cry, saying my stomach hurt, my mother would brush it off.
“Oh, she ate too much at dinner!” she’d say, to put my father at ease.
“You shouldn’t eat so late at night, honey,” he’d say.
And, oh, how I wished that it was true, that I really was his honey, that he knew enough about life to care for me as a father should. It was almost more than I could bear, watching them eat, smelling the food that was so much more delicious than the burn toast or gummy oatmeal that my mother made. My stomach rumbled so loud I was sure they’d hear it.
And so I’d wait until they went to bed. I’d learned that my mother almost never finished what she started to eat, so there was almost always leftovers in the paper trash sack after they shared a late night snack. I’d carefully riffle through the trash until I found a pizza crust or a bit of chow mein. And at last my stomach would be still.
And so I learned from my earliest days to associate sustenance with the garbage sack. I loved those paper sacks and was sad every time my father would finally carry one down to the trash bin in the alley behind our building. When we eventually got a plastic trashcan, I stuck my nose inside of it before it was used, and drank in the new plastic smell. I’d run my fingers lovingly over the smooth sides, knowing that this trash can would hold snacks for me far longer than a paper sack had.
It’s sad, I know, to feel more affection for a trashcan than I did for my parents. And, though I’ve tried to feel affection for them, or compassion, or sympathy or something, I still feel a deeper connection to the paper sack that allowed me to stay alive.