The Secret Trash Collector

The Secret Trash Collector - student project

I saw Abram walking up and down the road in the late afternoon for months before we ever spoke. He always wears camouflage pants, and his tee shirt is usually army green or black. His cap is khaki and has the classic Adidas logo, though it is well faded and hardly legible. Abram wears an ancient pair of hiking boots, even in the summer.

The neighborhood where I live is at the edge of a place called Oconee Heights in Milledgeville, Georgia. The house I live in is a rental, built in 1945, with good bones and all the uniqueness of homes built in that decade – a style my sister calls “Small American Family with Tudor Bungalow overtones.” She would know; she has a master’s degree in historic preservation. I just call it my little gingerbread house.

Most of the folks I work with can’t imagine why I chose to live on the south side, especially so close to the aforementioned Oconee Heights. Oconee Heights is one of the traditionally African American neighborhoods in town, but unlike the ones on the north side of Milledgeville, this one is downtrodden and encompasses what might be considered a ‘hood if we were in a city where gangs existed. There is violence in Oconee Heights, but it’s mostly domestic situations that stem from too many people without enough living in close proximity.

My house is at the end of a street that forks into two other streets. If I were to take the fork to the right, I would end up in Oconee Heights fairly quickly. However, even though it’s close by, this street is so quiet that if I were to forget to lock my front door and the cleverer of the two cats were to open it so she could sun on the porch, one of my neighbors would come by and shoo her into the house, leave a note on the door, and tie the handle with a string to make certain that cat couldn’t repeat the stunt, and everything in the house would be left intact. I know this because I read such a note note and saw such a string a few weeks ago after returning from a day trip to Atlanta.

Abram’s walks take him from Oconee Heights, up Pine to my street, and across Elbert Street, which is a four-lane road that drivers insist on using as an amateur speedway. There’s a family-run gas station there. Abram makes this walk every day to “avoid the nonsense that goes on” at the gas stations much closer to his home, even though it means crossing Elbert Street. I’m not sure what kind of nonsense happens there, but Abram assures me I don’t want to know. Every day, Abram goes to the gas station and purchases the same thing – a red Powerade and a Twix bar.

As he comes back toward the house, I see him put the empty bottle and wrapper into the grocery sack the store clerk has given him, and then he proceeds to pick up the trash along my street. Since he’s not a resident of our street, I wondered if he was picking up things tossed on the side of the streets further down. Was he recycling them? Was he doing it for change? When I was little, my mother would let my siblings and I recycle aluminum cans for money, which was never much, but put a few quarters in our pockets.

One Friday, when I was home early from work and before I had walked down the driveway to pick up my garbage can, I noticed Abram toss his grocery bag into my trashcan. The following day, when I saw him walking down the street, I walked out of the front door and waved so he’d stop. I met him on the road and struck up a conversation, not wanting to start with the question about the grocery bag, lest it sound accusatory. I was merely curious! Finally, I allowed myself to broach the topic.

“Abram, I noticed you picked up all the trash tossed on the side of the road yesterday, all the way down the street, but you stopped with my house and threw the sack of trash away. Why?” I asked.

He thought for a moment, and then he looked down the street, straightened, and drew in a breath. “You folk keep your yards nice. Hoodlums from the Heights come and toss stuff in your yard, and I’m just picking it up.”

“That’s very kind of you, Abram, but what about the yards of the folks on Pine?”

Again, a pause. “Well, I suppose if they kept their yards like y’all do, I’d care more about that.”

In the weeks since asking Abram about the trash pick up, I’ve noticed him still carrying out his service to the street, a street that isn’t even his own. I toyed with the idea of taking over for him so he didn’t have to do it, but ultimately, it felt like I’d be interfering if I did. I am certain I didn’t misread the pride in his voice when he explained he was helping us keep our yards trash free. I wonder often if I'm the only one who sees him, day after day, working to keep up the street's appearances, if I'm the only one who even knows to appreciate his kind act.