For most of my life, the comings and goings of garbage was pretty much a mystery to me. When I was a kid, I put it in a can. When I lived in New York City, I dropped it down a shoot. And so on. It wasn’t until I moved out to the middle of nowhere and started taking my trash to the dump that I really began to have a real relationship with trash. I’ve seen some very nice transfer stations elsewhere, but ours is very low rent. You get your shoes dirty at the very least. But that’s the thing, right? It’s only my shoes and it’s only two or three times a month. What about the folks who deal with this full time?
Derf Backderf’s Trashed, an adaptation of his web comic of the same name, dives right in there, showing delicate weekend dump visitors like myself the real grit. Part fictionalized memoir and part documentary and editorial on the system of trash in the United States, Backderf follows a crew of garbage collectors on their routes through all the seasons, portraying just about every gross possibility you can think of. So much bugs and poop and ick.
The plot itself is minimal. This is basically an entire book about a bunch of guys doing a garbage route, with some side diversions into town politics and the personal lives of the trash collectors, as well as intricate attention on the people they service and usually tense interactions. And lots of crass garbage man gallows humor. Put all together, it creates an amusing portrait of a small town as realized through its trash.
Backderf’s narrative choices are excellent. He keeps it friendly and freewheeling, which makes the informational sections seem less like lectures and more like background to the action you’re witnessing. You get to know the infrastructure through the memoir, which in turn makes the information more powerful.
But Backderf is a good writer of natural dialogue, and he captures the guys just hanging out on the job and doing a lot of goofing around well. It’s all very natural, even when he’s bringing out the slapstick elements. As with My Friend Dahmer, he does an excellent job at humanizing the unsavory.
Backderf’s first day on the job involved a garbage can full of lice, where one of the worst things possible happens. Backderf, as well as the reader, gets used to this gross stuff eventually. By the time they get to the rain-soaked bags of dog poop, you’re numb.
Or, at least you think you are. That’s when Backderf takes the reader on an informational journey about how much dog poop is put in dumps, and specifically the degree to which New York City could be said to be a factory pumping out its own equal mass in dog poop form.
That’s one of the real achievements of Backderf’s work here, managing to link our local life to the larger problems that waste cause, including the environmental toll, the money involved. By wrapping this casual narrative through segments that reveal the structure and impact of the garbage industry, Backderf makes plain that our own habits do effect a much larger picture, and our own choices can make a difference.