The Trash Collector by Monica Shaughnessy is a very short story. It gives an answer to the question about the real owner of items you discard. Imagine that someone in your family purchased something, such as a sweater, that you hated. You are willing to sacrifice the money spent but you want the sweater out of your house. You wait for a chance to “acquire” the offending item and you put it in a garbage bin just prior to pick up by the city trash collector. Two days later you see a neighbor wearing the sweater. More importantly, your family sees it as well and accuses the neighbor of theft. The neighbor admits taking it from the trash and refuses to return it saying that once discarded the sweater became public property and was available to anyone. Who is right?
Lydia Strichter believes that she owned the trash she threw away. She discarded it with the expectation the final home for the discards would be a landfill. She also noted that some things were missing from her home that she had not discarded, such as lawn ornamentation. There was also a missing umbrella that used to reside just outside her front door. Neighborhood gossip reported that many people were missing things that, while not important, were annoying when they could not be found readily at hand when needed, such as hedge clippers. Lydia called a neighborhood meeting. Something had to be done to get rid of Dale who had been seen openly going through neighborhood trash cans prior to their pick up and openly retrieving items before returning to his home.
Shaughnessy explores the character and problems of Lydia and her neighbors as they discuss the problems of Dale. His erratic behavior had begun after the death of his parents in an accident and had continued for three years. Most neighbors were not bothered by Dale going through the trash. The meeting was not going as Lydia wanted. She pointed out that many things that went missing most recently were not from trash can contents. Most neighbors, while not defending or supporting Dale’s actions, demanded proof that Dale was a thief before they would agree to a united action. Through this meeting, Shaughnessy explores issues of racism, neighborhood jealousies, effects of divorce, mental health problems, and petty vindictiveness.
There is almost a surprise ending. As Lydia creates a trap to catch Dale in the act of taking something from her front porch, I think many readers will guess the conclusion. If not, surprise!
This is a very, very short story with a lot of well-expressed thought on social problems. After reading this I subscribed to the author’s website and will read more of her writings.