A MAN LIKES to have a good relationship with his garbage collector, but mine, sadly, is on the rocks.
Oh, we used to be tight. There was something between us, something meaningful, something you really couldn't put into words, but it was there.
Now, we're like two people who -- God, it hurts to write this -- barely have time for each other.
I guess things began unraveling last Christmas, when I forgot to put out the six-pack of Coors Light.
The six-pack was my neighbor Mike's idea. A couple of years earlier, I began noticing that after every pick-up, my empty garbage cans were left strewn in the street like downed bowling pins.
Meanwhile, Mike's empty cans were always stacked neatly near the curb, with the lids carefully placed back on top.
Then one day, Mike, who's like a Shaolin priest when it comes to these things, explained the secret to first-class treatment from your garbageman: "Leave him a six-pack at Christmas," Mike said, "and your problems are over."
So on the last pick-up day before Christmas, I stuck a little red bow on a six of Coors Light and left it on one of the cans.
And sure enough, it was like delivering a fine Chianti to Vito Corleone. After every pick-up, I found the cans stacked neatly near the curb. And the lids, which used to end up in a different ZIP code, were placed neatly on top.
In fact, things improved so much that my garbageman, a big, swarthy guy with a mug like Ernest Borgnine, even started waving to me when he saw me outside.
Oh, it wasn't much of a wave -- a quick two fingers raised off the steering wheel while his helpers were popping blood vessels in their foreheads lifting my cans onto the back of his truck.
But a wave is a wave, friend. There was no doubt we were LTC bonding.
The following Christmas, instead of just leaving him a six-pack again, I left him a 12-pack. You didn't have to be Aristotle to see what I was thinking: double the beer volume, double the service.
And this worked like a charm, too. Instead of finding my garbage cans stacked neatly by the curb after a pickup, I'd find them stacked neatly halfway up my driveway.
Plus, it seemed, the extra six-pack virtually ensured that no matter what I dragged out to the curb would be hauled away. It could be a rusted-out John Deere bulldozer or the carcass of an African bush elephant. No questions asked.
Even my garbageman's wave improved. Now when he saw me, he'd actually lift his hand off the steering wheel to wave.
This was a real wave, a quality wave. And sometimes, as he waved, the thin, purple gash that served as his mouth would even break into something approximating a smile.
I'm telling you, things were really great between us. The best they'd ever been.
"How's things between you and your garbageman?" I'd ask other people. When they'd answer "Oh, just so-so" or "Could be better," I'd wrap my middle finger around my index finger and crow: "My garbageman and me are like this."
Then last Christmas, I made the tragic mistake that's come back to haunt me again and again.
Somehow, in the rush of getting ready for the holidays, I brain-locked and forgot to leave some beer for my garbageman.
When I came home from work a few days later, the garbage cans were strewn all over the street. The lids were tossed everywhere, too -- one appeared to have been flung into the neighbor's hedge.
It was like the Hell's Angels had picked up my garbage, only without the Harley tire tracks across the lawn.
"I better leave some beer for those guys, pronto," I told Mike. He shook his head sadly.
"A Christmas tip is sacred to these people," he said. "You dissed the garbageman. You could buy him a brewery now, it wouldn't matter."
So that's how things stand between me and my garbageman. Pick-up day is hell; I need 20 minutes and a Global Positioning System satellite to retrieve the cans and lids now.
Oh, sure, when my garbageman sees me, he still gives me a little wave. But I don't kid myself. Now it's just a lone index finger lifted quickly off the steering wheel, a brisk, impersonal movement, devoid of all warmth.
It's a wave that says: "I know you, but I don't know you," if you catch my drift.
Christmas can't get here soon enough. Maybe I'll lay a case of Heineken on him this year.
Unless you think that's too ostentatious.
Pub Date: 6/04/98