Some things should stay in the alley


LIKE A LOT of people who take out the trash, I was steaming this week when I heard that Baltimore City Hall now wants us to haul our recyclables - another way of saying "clean trash" - out to the front of the house for pick up. This goes against common sense, propriety and the East Coast version of the divine urban plan. You put your trash, the rinsed-out bottles or the plain old smelly stuff, out back. That is why the good Lord gave us alleys.

Baltimore, a city of rowhouses and alleys, is the ultimate outback town. This is not Los Angeles or some similar sprawling Western community, where, if folks carry their trash to the front, they simply wheel it around the side of their home and down the driveway. This is chockablock Baltimore. Here, if you have to haul something to the front, you have to either tote it through your front room - and Lord help you if anything leaks on the rug - or you take your burden out back, down the alley and around the block.

There are "front door" things and "back door" things, and trash is one of the latter. That is one of the points of trash etiquette I have picked up from the good citizens of this community during the 20 or so years I have been toting trash here.

Another is that you fight to keep trash away from the front of your house. Like many mop-up men in Baltimore, I have spent a fair amount of my free time trying to keep the sidewalk in front of my house clear of papers and bottles. Revelers passing in the dark of night deposit the bottles, which usually contained something like Kickapoo Joy Juice or Kickapoo Joy Juice Light.

They are removed in the light of day by homeowners like me, who, as we pour the dregs into the gutter, often wonder aloud "what kind of people would leave bottles on the sidewalk." Apparently some people down at City Hall.

As best I can figure from the new recycling schedule - and it does take some figuring - the authorities now want us to put our bottles and newspapers (on alternating weeks and on different days each week) somewhere on the front curb. We are supposed to put it there at night, sometime before 7 a.m. on pickup day. This, it seems to me, is an invitation to trouble, a mess waiting to happen.

Trash, even the recyclable, rinsed-out variety, does not lead a lonely nightlife. Creatures of the night, two-legged and four-legged, paw through it. A stack of trash bags is never a pretty sight, but rogue trash, flying every which way, is especially ugly, especially in front of your home.

While we are dealing with aesthetic, let me say a few words on behalf of alleys. While alleys rarely get much good press, I like their functional beauty. They are what they are. Out-of-the-way places where some of the everyday, not-so-picturesque tasks of life are performed. In my way of thinking, trash and trash trucks belong in alleys.

Some mornings when trucks rumble down the alley to fetch trash and, until recently, to scoop up bottles and newspapers, I have watched the city crews work. They work hard and fast, and there is a certain choreography to their efforts. The driver wheels the massive truck through demanding spaces. The pickup guys, sometimes one, sometimes two, snatch the refuse and toss it into the moving truck with amazing precision. It is an impressive performance, a city service you can count on.

This week when I spoke on the telephone with Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works, he, too, was steamed. He said the media, especially we members of the print media whose product ends up in recycling bins, were missing the point by criticizing the new program.

He said the reworked recycling schedule was going to save the city money, about $900,000 a year. He said a new breed of trucks - ones that hold more recyclables and therefore can stay on a route longer - have trouble navigating through some of our city's old, narrow alleys. That, he said, is why the recycling pickup has been moved out front. He also said that the new recycling schedule and deployment of personnel would free up crews to clean alleys that are clogged with trash.

Maybe so. Some folks I know have said they are not going to comply with the new edict. These "refuseniks" say they are going to continue to put their bottles and paper out back in the alley, with the "regular" trash. That means that rather than being recycled, this trash will end up in the already crowded municipal landfill. Some people I know, the skeptics, speculate that that is where most of the "recycled" material ends up anyway.

I don't know whom to believe. But I do know that the recently recycled recycling schedule would be a whole lot easier to live with if it kept refuse pickup in the alleys, as the Almighty and other alley-lovers intended.

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