When you think of Garbo you probably think about a mysterious actress from the black & white era, a beauty in a big hat who, “Vants to be ahlone.” And if you don’t think of Greta when you think of Garbo, then you probably think of nothing much at all.
I, however, think of Garbo as my older son’s first obsession—not with Mata Hari, but with trash: “garbo” was his pronunciation of “garbage.” While we have our share of obsessiveness in the family, I remember how this one first got started…
We were on our first attempted holiday with friends, Paul and Marcy (a first holiday not counting a pull-over and nurse, repeatedly, road trip to my sister-in-law’s to essentially be new, sleep-deprived-parents at our home away from home). This trip was San Francisco and Nate and Lucy were both about a year old, barely walking, but not too keen on sitting still in cafes either. We grown-ups, all former denizens of New York City, were more than thrilled to be in a “real” city, a place you could walk… but even we could not yet fully grasp just how much things had changed now that we had kids.
The six of us, checked into the hotel and then headed out for an early dinner. We all love Asian food and thought a frenetic Chinese restaurant might be, if not engaging to kids, at least a place where a little fussing might not be noticed.
Alas, Nate was a howler when not happy, and it soon became clear that this would not do. I hoisted him up, and as had become customary in Los Angeles restaurants, I hit the road—walking the local streets of wherever I was to quiet him down.
It was an early summer evening and I suspect that Monday was garbage day in that part of Chinatown, as trash bins were piled to overflowing up and down the smelly streets. As we walked along, Nate quieted in rapt fascination with the discarded bounty overflowing the first bin we passed. He pointed. I said, “Garbage.” He repeated, “Garbo.” We gazed together at this interesting random sample of humanity, an archeological record in the making, and then we moved along.
At the next bin, Nate pointed and called out, “Garbo!” We stopped and looked. We’d gone four feet since the last bin, but I had nowhere to go and Nate was no longer howling. We gazed at the Garbo, and then moved along. Point, call out, stare, and move along. “Garbo! Garbo! Garbo!” It was a great walk, a lovely time spent together.
It reminded me how my brother and I would always go trash-picking on Wednesdays growing up, finding and carting the most bizarre things home and stashing them in the garage until we had enough stuff to have a “garage sale” where we might make a quarter or fifty cents (sometimes because a big snow storm would hit just as we had prepared all our wares, ready for the best sale ever). We carted things home, not knowing what they were: a meat-slicer (at least it looked dangerous so we grabbed it), a sex pillow, a joke “adult erector set” (a picture of woman in lingerie inside a fancy box).
And so deep in my genetic soul, I recognized my son’s love of garbage, a sort of Sanford and Son affinity that at least let me know that we were cut from the same cloth. The old cliché that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure always struck me as exceedingly true. Some of my favorite art is found art (that of artist as trash-picker or “bricoleur”)—particularly Picasso taking a bicycle seat and handlebars to make a bull, or Marcel DuChamp signing a urinal as “R. Mutt” and putting it in an art show.
But beyond trash, “time” is also a one-man’s-trash-is-another-man’s-treasure sort of commodity and the time I’ve spent staring into trash bins with my son are amongst my fondest memories. For a year or so we could not pass a trash bin, not at the mall or on the street, without my son pointing and wanting to be hoisted up to stare at the Garbo. Over time, we had to develop arcane rules pertaining to Garbo: Only open lidded bins, every second, or fourth trash pail, etc. Perhaps we might agree to open one lid along the evening walk if all were closed and Nate was blocked from any voyeuristic Garbo moments whatsoever.
When the garbage truck would rumble up to our duplex Andy and I would call out “Garbo!” and Nate (and eventually his little brother, Will) would come tearing out of his room and wait with delight at the big picture window to see the Garbo truck dispatch of the Garbo.
As years rolled by, Nate and Lucy grew to sit politely at Sunday Morning dim sum, and now we live in separate cities… cities as great producers of Garbo. Garbo may want to be alone, but I don’t.
So, let’s dedicate today to our mutual quirks, to bonding through our oddities and interests, looking without judging at the humanity pulsing in a million discarded treasures—and in the ripe potential of every tossed off ticking moment—in the service of all our collective children (and with mindful awareness of the ever-growing mountains of trash floating around our choking oceans; as perhaps Nate was sounding a warning cry and not just an art-critic’s comment on the tragic beauty of Garbo). While Nate was heavily into Garbo, perhaps today’s kids can be more likely to call out “Compost,” as they help us spin the bin.