When I was five years old, it was hard for me to make affiliations in my family. As a toddler, Dad’s namesake, oldest male child and best looking, I received all the oohs and aahs I needed for a healthy ego by just showing up each day. As the family grew, the oohs and aahs were passed down to the babies and my status changed. To get affirmation at five years old, I was required to perform. “Get me a diaper,” was my signal to scamper to the bassinette, retrieve the thing Mom asked for, then scamper to the bathroom with the soiled diaper for the pail in the bathtub, earn esteem in Mom’s, “Thank you.” I felt important and effective. However, chasing diapers for kudos proved to be merely a gateway addiction. It wasn’t much of a stretch from diapers to wastebaskets and a new family concept called the chore, which I began to understand as currency.
We lived in Ferndale, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, in a small house that kept growing smaller from living life to the rhythm of the Catholic Church, and the regular arrival of new Smiths. Though we kids never saw Mom and Dad actually touch each other, every couple of years, Mom had a baby, and with each one, the distance between her lap and me increased. She got busy, and I got lonely, so I took to fetching things for her, often before she asked, in races with my younger brother, Larry, to be the one who handed Mom whatever she asked for, to hear her thank– proof she loved me.
Whether it was from Mom seeing my need for approval or her need for help, was never quite clear to me. Nevertheless, when she disappeared behind the diaper mountain Larry and I built on the coffee table, she stopped us. She designated Larry the diaper retriever and introduced me to the wastebasket in the kitchen. It was metal, yellow on the inside with a brown marinade bottom. The outside was white with daisies painted on the front to add pleasant to the unpleasant. I was barely taller than the basket and carried the thing with my nose in the sheath of garbage smells. Helping Mom turned into a challenge to find the balance point between gagging and vomiting, and how long I could hold my breath before seeing those little dots, laying my burden and dashing off for a clean breath.
We lived on a deep narrow lot with a full-sized vacant lot next door. There were tall trees on both properties, and a driveway that extended from the kitchen door to the street. From the house-end of the drive, to the alley was a distance of some thirty yards, which to my five-year-old eyeballs seemed far. I remember Mom holding the screen door open for me the first time I took the trash out and down the steps toward the garbage cans in the alley, while I shouted, “Don’t go in yet,” over my shoulder. By the second evening, I found her hovering and protested her watching me, as if I was a baby or something.
I never thought much about the alley because we were not allowed back there. I never questioned why, but learned for myself. The delight of helping Mom for “Thank yous,” morphed into an act of terror when I met one of the alley’s inhabitants, Rex, the German Shepherd and former Gestapo mascot.
I had no idea that there was more of the world across the alley. One day while I was innocently emptying the trash, I replaced the lid on the can and caught sight of something four-legged running toward me. I had no clue what it was or what to do, so I ran. I proved to be no match for my competition when, within my first ten steps, I stumbled and fell on the ground. Rex, who was no doubt thinking in his wolf-like brain that he’d run down a gazelle with a wastebasket, was on me like shine on bald heads. No matter how I covered up, I couldn’t stop him from licking my face. When in his assault he licked my teeth, I started screaming.
I have no idea how long I lay on the ground under siege, but it seemed like all afternoon. Eventually, Mom came out and Rex went back to the alley. I stood with the skin on my face growing tight from drying dog spit, picked up the wastebasket and ran to Mom. I stood beside her, hugged her leg and gushed. I’d felt helpless, tormented and held captive, which Mom said was good practice for marriage
Though I rarely saw Rex again, the dog’s presence wasn’t necessary to ignite my phantasm. I tip-toed the entire way, removed the can’s lid as silently as possible, then slowly lifted the wastebasket, dumped-the-garbage-in-the-can-replaced-the-lid-and- ran. Every day I relived the assault, and every day I faced the reality that if Rex chased me, I had no chance of escape. It was pure panic that Mom called, “Stop it,” after the hundredth time she heard my safety proposal about her covering me with Dad’s 12-gauge shotgun and shooting Rex if he went after me. Mom thought I was kidding, but, “Eliminate that dog, please, Sir,” were the words I said every night right after the “God Bless…” part of Now I Lay me Down to Sleep.
When my sister, Barbara, learned of my fear of the alley, she took it on herself to desensitize me. At the back corner of our house was a huge tree. One evening, she snuck out and waited behind that tree for me to return. When I got close to the house, she leaped out, shrieked at me and over-challenged my bladder control. Barbara got her broom taken away from her for a week, and I got some dry clean clothes when it was almost bedtime, but the effect of her cruelty was permanent. Every day, after I managed the anxiety of avoiding Rex the wild alley dog, my panic revved back up when I approached the tree on the way back. Barbara never jumped out at me again, but I remembered it so vividly I made wide circles around the area. The tree was next to the back door and by the time I got to the screen, I had relived the entire terrifying experience, except the bladder part. I acquired a fear of trees and had nightmares about trees chasing me and scaring me out of my regularity.
My trips to the alley took on a new flavor when one day, on my way to the alley, I saw an animal standing beside the garbage can. It was on its hind legs, paws leaning against the can, nose held high. It was the size of a cat but had a pointed head. I was mesmerized. The only pets I’d ever had were a few crickets I’d caught in the yard, and I’d found them to be most unsatisfactory for cuddling. The possibility that this could be a pet with fur was captivating. I slowed to a stalk, and when I got close, it saw me and fled down the alley. I set the wastebasket down, ran into the alley and watched my new friend escape into Mr. Chase’s yard next door. I dumped the trash staring that direction, waiting for it to come back, but it didn’t. I hurried back into the house to find out what it was.
In her explanation of the thing, Mom taught me the word rat. She said that there were many rats in the alleys, and they were dangerous. A new rule, #4277, forbade me to get close to rats: I was supposed to come back inside until they left. Even though I was a coward, I wasn’t scared of something that ran away from me. Therefore, I never abandoned my fantasy of keeping it for a pet.
For days after that, my rat fetish overshadowed my fear of Rex. I still worked as silently and quickly as possible, but my eyes were always on Mr. Chase’s back fence. I don’t know if I saw another real rat, but from the corners of my eyes I saw hundreds of things move and disappear when I looked at them. I heard noises behind me that stopped when I whirled around. I imagined rats everywhere. I wasn’t scared of them, I tried to talk to them, encourage them to not be afraid of me, show them that I wouldn’t hurt them.
In June, school ended so summer could begin, and my chore changed. I was required to empty the trash in the morning instead of after dinner, and in addition to the big wastebasket in the kitchen, once a week, I was required to empty all the little wastebaskets in the house into one and make a second trip to the alley. It was on one of these morning trips when I saw something else I’d never seen before.
Previously, I had seen other people in the alley and thought they were emptying their garbage too. I didn’t know who they were, but I waved and they waved back. I thought little of it until one day, as I started from the end of the drive toward the alley, I saw someone standing by our garbage can. She looked familiar, tall, dark skin, scarf over her tied up hair. I kept walking, and when I got close, she replaced the lid on the garbage can and walked off a ways. When I got to the can, she was troubling a fingernail and pretending not to look at me. I waved a tiny wave, she tiny-waved back. I said hello and she smiled and echoed my greeting but stayed distant. I didn’t want to make her run into Mr. Chase’s back yard, so I carried the basket back inside.
“Those are rag pickers,” Mom said.
“What are rag pickers?” I had seen dark people before, my parents called them something else, a word that started with N, and I knew Dad didn’t like them because when he talked about them he always used his mad voice.
“They’re poor people who go down alleys looking through garbage cans.”
“That’s where they get food. They don’t have food at home so they come around here looking for what we throw away.”
I remembered the rotting smell of the can and I felt sorry for the rag pickers. “How come we don’t give them good food?”
“That’s not our job,” Mom said, setting her tea bag on the counter. She took a sip from the cup. “Now you stop this and go play and stay away from those people. If you see them out there again, you come and tell me. If I catch you even talking to them, you’re gonna get a spanking, understand? ”
I said I did, but I only understood the last part. It didn’t make sense that that rag picker didn’t have any food. She was a woman, like Mom. In the weeks that followed, I saw her again. I saw other rag pickers too. They weren’t scary like Rex, they were nice; nodded sometimes and sometimes said hi. I felt sorry for them not having food and I wanted to help them. My thoughts lead me to memories of a cat that appeared in our yard recently. It mewed incessantly, walked in circles around us, and finally Barbara went in the house and came out with a bowl of milk. Mom said we could give it some milk but not to pet it. It lived next door at the Dystelraths’ and it needed to go home and not stay here. These thoughts merged into my thoughts about rag pickers.
I went in the house and told Mom I wanted milk. She poured some in a glass and I went back outside. I hurried to the garbage can, put my glass next to the can then hurried back to the big tree and watched for a while to see if she would come. Eventually I heard my name called and I went inside, “What?”
“Did you finish your milk?”
My heart stopped. I did something wrong — her voice was loud and I got scared. “Yes.”
“Where’s your glass?”
“I left it outside.”
“Well, go get it, I’m doing dishes.”
“I’m waiting for the rag-picker.”
“I put it out by the garbage can so if the rag-picker lady was thirsty, she could have a drink,” I said, then hastily added, “I wasn’t going to pet her.”
“You go get that glass right now and bring it in here!”
I went out, picked up the glass, looked up and down the alley, and seeing nobody, dumped the milk and the bug that was swimming in it and took the glass inside. Mom talked in her mad voice. She told me that what I did was wrong, and I should never do that again. She used the N word and warned me they were people I had to avoid. When she ran out of words, I went outside, confused. I didn’t understand why we gave milk to a cat but not a woman, but Mom was mad and I wanted her to like me, so I didn’t say anything for a long time until I forgot.