Columnist for Tuesday, 6/12 - Betsy Shebang

The Wages of Compost

We'd been collecting old food for two months, dumping the drippy kitchen bucket into a plastic trash can in our tiny square of apartment backyard until the contents reached the rim of the can and the lid would barely snap back on.

Because we love the Earth and hate excess packaging and eat a lot of bananas, my wife and I have been doing our best to achieve farm living in a fog-soaked one-bedroom Pacifica apartment. In our large can, we'd gathered a mighty compost pile before we took seriously the challenge of finding somewhere to pile it. Now it was too late.

I've been polite so far, but I must be clear. When the lid was snapped shut, there was no problem. When the lid was removed, this stuff reeked like warm catshit don't know how. Food is mostly liquid, which settles and bleeds as the food rots, which harbors bacteria, which make more bacteria. A large closed container in the sun is a club-med for bacteria, with pools and restaurants and an oppressive network of social castes battling for territorial control. After two months of our tree-hugging self-righteousness, a freestanding digestive system was living, and living well, under a straining lid in the corner of our minute yard.

My parents, who taught me long ago how to be compassionate and generous with others as a way of avoiding the resolution of my own problems, accepted our offer. They live only a few miles away, they respect the processes of nature, and their backyard is unused except to store decaying lumber and rapidly depreciating garden tools. Our thirty-three gallons of steaming glop would have a home, if we could get it to them without ever letting the can tip over.

There's an electrifying old movie, "The Wages of Fear", about a small team of men who drive a truck full of nitroglycerin across the alps. One hard turn, one wrong bump, and their trip would end in explosive tragedy.

I now know such terror.

We folded forward the rear bench seat of the Volvo wagon, leaving the seat back upright. I stepped into the backyard. I dragged the can, dense with compressed, poisonous produce, two feet to the middle of the concrete. I grasped both plastic handles and, careful not to release the lid from its locked position, lifted the can. Both plastic handles broke apart in my hands and the can crashed back to the concrete, still upright.

I wrapped my fingers around the edges of what had been the handles, lifted the can and, at top speed, waddled the can through the living room and out the front door. Outside, I gambled - what was I thinking? - and used the centrifugal-force method to lift the container and spin myself and it toward the car.

Suddenly deciding my favorite old beach towel was now disposable, I draped it over the back of the seat and lifted the can into place behind the driver. The seat belt I carefully strapped into place. We opened all the windows.

We drove slowly, rounding the first circular onramp as if searching for a lost dime. I've been told I drive like I think - switching lanes constantly - but for this moment I was Mother Theresa behind the wheel. Through the first mile, we followed the newly threatening curves of Highway 1; through the second mile. The only real turn took place without incedent at Linda Mar Boulevard, a mile from my parents' house; we crept around and continued on our way.

But nothing, nothing, could prepare me for what happened next.

Will our heroes make it to the parents' house with the overstuffed trash can - or their marriage - intact? How will they get it out of the car without handles? Will our heroes suffer tubercular digestive disorder? Very Scary! Dysentery! How will their garden grow?

Copyright 2001 Betsy Shebang


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