Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
1988 that the Constitution gives individuals no privacy rights over their garbage, though some state constitutions offer more stringent protection.
    Weberman went on to found the National Institute of Garbology, or NIG, and to defend trash trolling as a tool of psychological investigation and character delineation. When he tired of Dylan’s garbage, he dove into Neil Simon’s (he found bagel scraps, lox, whitefish, and an infestation of ants), Gloria Vanderbilt’s (a Valium bottle), Tony Perkins’s (a tiny amount of marijuana), Norman Mailer’s (betting slips), and antiwar activist Bella Abzug’s (proof of investments in companies that made weapons).
    Looking through trash often says more about the detective than the discarder. When city officials in Portland, Oregon, decided in 2002 that it was legal to swipe trash in an investigation of a police officer, reporters from the
Willamette Week
decided to dive through the refuse of local officials. What the reporters found most remarkable, after poring through soggy receipts and burnt toast, was how bad the investigation made them feel. “There is something about poking through someone else’s garbage that makes you feel dirty, and it’s not just the stench and the flies,” wrote Chris Lydgate and Nick Budnick. “Scrap by scrap, we are reverse-engineering a grimy portrait of another human being, reconstituting an identity from his discards, probing into stuff that is absolutely, positively none of our damn business.”
    At a large apartment building on the corner of Eighth Avenue, Sullivan parked the truck at an angle to the curb. The building’s super had heaped long black garbage bags—each a 120-pound sausage—into a four-foot-high mound. It took the team less than two minutes, and a few cranks of the packing blade, to transfer the mound from the street to their truck and crush it all together. When they were done, one bag remained on the sidewalk, its contents gushing through a long tear. “Gotta watch for rats when it’s like that,” Murphy said, slightly breathless.
    “Once a rat ran across my back,” Sullivan said. “Whaddaya gonna do?” Maggots, known in the biz as disco rice, were something else. On monsoon days, they floated in garbage pails half full of rainwater. “I won’t empty those,” Sullivan said.
    Before the city’s recycling suspension, it was easy for street people to collect deposit bottles for redemption: residents segregated the glass and plastic for them. Now, scavengers tore through everything in the same sacks, heedless of the mess. “It’s the homeless,” said Sullivan with a shrug. “The super is gonna have to clean this up.” A driver with a cell phone to his ear leaned on his horn. Murphy and Sullivan appeared to be deaf.
    The ITSAs rolled on and on. I lost track of the street, whether we’d cleaned the left side or the right. Sullivan talked about the seasonal changes in garbage. “In the springtime, there’s a lot of yard waste and a lot of construction, because of tax returns. You get more household junk in the spring. You can always tell when an old-timer dies. There’s thirty bags and a lot of clothes.”
    Sullivan continued. “Food waste goes up after Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. You see a lot of barbecue stuff, lots of food waste. And you can always tell when there’s a sale on washing machines, usually around Columbus Day.”
    “People eat different up top,” Murphy said, meaning the blocks closer to Prospect Park. “A lot of organic people, fresh stuff. They’re more health conscious. There’s more cardboard from deliveries; they order those Omaha steaks. People up top read the
New York Times
. They’re more educated. In my neighborhood, Dyker Heights, it’s all
Daily News
and the
Post
.” Though Sullivan thought garbage increased in the summer, with tourists visiting, Murphy thought it went down. “People are away,” he said. “In October, you get a lot of rugs and couches.” Harvest

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