Homeowner forced to get ugly playing the trash can game


I am playing the trash can game again.

It goes like this: Somebody steals your trash cans. You prowl distant alleys vowing to find the missing cans. Eventually you call off your search and buy new cans. But you don't do this too quickly. If new cans appear too soon after the old ones have disappeared, the thieves are likely to return to the scene of the crime, and grab the new ones.

This is either the third or fourth time in 16 years that my trash cans have been stolen. Looking at things on the bright side, my trash cans have an average life-span of about four years. But the other morning as I drove through unfamiliar alleys looking for my missing cans, I was not amused. I was angry both that some

thieves had lifted my cans, and that I had not caught them.

I had heard them stealing the trash cans. I was sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee when I heard a noise out in the alley. Being a student of alley noises, I identified this one as the thump that is made when someone tosses something in a metal trash can.

I thought about going out to the alley and applauding the passer-by who had engaged in that all-too-rare behavior, throwing trash in a trash can. But, instead, I sat at the breakfast table and drank another cup of coffee.

By the time I got to the alley I saw that instead of putting trash in the cans, somebody had pulled trash out and had run off with the containers. Presumably the thieves did this because they could make some quick cash by selling the "recycled" trash cans.

The two cans in question were fairly new metal cans, with my address painted on them, and they had tight-fitting lids. The lids made the cans attractive.

That is another rule of the game. If you don't put lids on your trash cans, they probably won't get stolen. The "after-market" value of lidless trash cans is zilch.

However, if you don't put lids on your cans, the trash inside them is likely to fly all over your yard. Moreover, once the lids are off, all manner of critters can set up residence in or near your trash cans, and scratch their way to free meals. So I have refused to go lidless.

Another option is to give your cans the "witness protection treatment." It works this way: You keep your cans out of view, locked up in the safety of your home. On trash pickup day, you hurry the cans out to the alley, the sanitation crew empties the cans, then you quickly return the cans to the lockup.

While I have little doubt that this treatment prolongs the lives of trash cans, it also requires planning your life around the trash pickup schedule. That is a step I am not ready to take.

Shortly after my cans were filched, I consulted with another veteran of the trash can game, James "Buzzy" Cusack. We are neighbors, and over the years he and I have studied many aspects of urban life, including whether plastic trash cans are more likely than metal ones to "disappear." Plastic cans are slightly more likely to walk, we have concluded. We have also concluded that while young cans, fresh from the store, are the first ones grabbed, older cans that have kept their bodies firm are also considered attractive.

I found Buzzy and his cousin Dennis Cusack working in Cusack's, the Bolton Hill cafe they own. Together we worked up a few ideas on how to stop my trash cans from disappearing.

One idea was to build them a home. It would be a wooden structure that resembled an oversized coffin, with a locking lid. The trash cans would sit in the home, and the home would sit near the alley. I would have to unlock the lid on pickup day. And I would have to build the home or pay somebody else to build it. The build-them-a home plan sounded solid, but expensive. It was shelved.

Another idea was to buy new cans, but make them too heavy to steal. This could be done, we figured, by cutting holes in the bottom of the cans, then pouring in a little wet cement. The theory was that some of the cement would seep through the holes, thereby locking the cans to the brick pad they rested upon. Thieves could not pick the cans up. But then again, neither could the sanitation crews. The "give-'em-cement-feet" solution, we decided, needed more work.

I got a third idea after looking at my one remaining trash can. It was battered and misshapen. So maybe I will go out and buy new trash cans, then pound them with a hammer until they look too ugly to steal. Maybe ugliness is the key to winning the trash can game.

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