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The Garbage Can Mystery

For several months I’ve been plagued by a mystery: someone has been tampering with my garbage cans. I know what you are thinking: so what — and why do I care. I’m sympathetic. I would have said the same thing even just two years ago to someone yammering like I am now. However, now these dinky-assed things seem to keep my attention much more often than I would enjoy. All I can say to myself is: welcome to suburban homeownership (for those of you who have done the Suburban Owner Thing might actually be empathetic). At times, I really do feel like I’m living out an episode of Dennis the Menace, shouting at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn. Or perhaps more like Kramer from Seinfeld mumbling “serenity now” to himself trying to enjoy the “cool evening breezes of Anytown, USA. All the while neighborhood kids pelt his house with eggs and toilet paper.

Ok, it really hasn’t been that bad. But more like that than I expected. I’ve had loitering teenagers who decided to use my street corner facing my home office as a place to shout, hang out, and do skateboard tricks all day. I’ve seen and heard the same teens decide to set up a large, unwieldy bike ramp right across the street and ride up and down it (with skateboards and bikes) into oncoming traffic (thanks, probably, to Jackass) for hours well into the night. Same kids shout at my car as we try to park in our own driveway because we are in their way. Their crazy older brother tried to intimidate me because I asked the kids to stop their unneighborly behavior in a neighborly and reasonable way. (Those people have since moved). We have dozens of college kids around who enjoy partying hard after before and during exams (the character the neighborhood basically changes every quarter as students with different personalities diffuse through my local suburban landscape) — and let’s not forget students practicing with their bands (a little bit of what-comes-around-goes-around there, I’ll confess). We’ve had minor vandalism against our car, graffiti on the sidewalk outside our house, and a host of other rather annoying but otherwise minor incidents. Now, keep in mind, contrary to what I just described: I don’t live in a “bad area.” My neighborhood is about as banal and benign as suburbia can be. It just seems to have this din of Poisson small-number-distributed randomness which all add up over time, representing the integrated activities of an average neighborhood in an average California town.

Anytown, USA indeed.

In another incident, my wife and I came home from work one summer day this year to discover, much to our surprise, water balloon debris littering our backyard lawn. We don’t have kids and don’t usually have two-person amnesiac water balloon fights, so we were pretty confused. To muddle matters more, our backyard isn’t exactly directly or casually accessible; you wouldn’t find yourself by mistake in our backyard. You would have to seek it out. Apparently, some neighborhood kids decided they needed faucets to fill their balloons and ours fit the need at the right time. From the debris patterns, we were able to figure out one team was on our fenced-in front patio (there was some debris near a faucet there too) and one team in the back. The battle apparently took place in the back, which tells me the front team must have owned the back team, but these are just bits of idle speculation at this point. Naturally, they didn’t clean up after themselves. Aside from the strategic and tactical musings above, I’m left scratching my head. WTF were they thinking walking onto someone else’s back property, using their water, and having a messy water balloon fight?! There aren’t any kids (at least the right age to have a spontaneous water balloon fight) for several blocks in any direction. Did I do stuff like that when I was a kid? Probably. But as a homeowner in Anytown, USA it’s just another unsolved suburban mystery.

Ah, yes, where was I: the Garbage Can Mystery

Amongst my household chores is garbage duty. This is the usual thing most suburban people have done a gazillion times since they were kids: carting the garbage and recyclables from the house to the properly colored can, then putting the cans out on the street on the right day of the week, then bringing the cans back to their storage area after pickup. After doing this at my current home for about a year and a few months, I started noticing that the cans would sometimes be oriented differently in their storage area than the way I originally put them. Now, this effect was rather subtle because they were frequently MORE organized than the way I left them. The cans have wheels and the new configuration would be aligned in such a way to allow maximum access — indeed, the cans would often be straightened very meticulously. I’m usually anxious to get the chore of dragging those things over with, so I frequently do just a cursory job of organizing them. Of course, I wasn’t just throwing them around: they were sort of organized. Organized “enough” certainly. But the point is that, although subtle, it was obvious to ME that someone was definitely screwing around with the garbage cans. To achieve their effect, they had to actually physically turn the cans around and tuck them in and tidy them up. A modest amount of work that might even be interpreted as a favor of sorts…

My wife was rightly skeptical. It seemed much more likely that I had done it myself and just forgot. Think about it. As a prank it is pretty worthless. If you were a neighborhood kid and wanted to mess with the neighbor’s head (my first assumption based on my experience), wouldn’t you do something a little more obvious than just turning the cans around and organizing them? You might put them on the lawn or place them behind the car or or knock them over or organize them in a pattern that made the obvious statement: “ha, ha I’m screwing with your garbage cans old man — and you can’t catch me!” This rotation/tidy bit was so subtle, I doubt most people would even notice.

There is a certain irony in that I’m making the claim the “prank,” or whatever-it-is, is worthless because it wouldn’t bother anyone. Yet it does bother me and I DID notice. It is as if someone knew my personality and catered this non-prank to me. Of course, this is just paranoia, the exact sort of response a devious prankster would enjoy. Nevertheless, with the assumption the prank was not customized to my thinking style by someone who knew me well, I will continue to defend the idea that, as a generic prank, this activity isn’t really that good.

I can confidently say that rotating someone’s garbage cans and tidying them up would never have occurred to me as an effective prank or mind game. Partly because it is actually TOO subtle and might mistakenly be misinterpreted as either 1) nothing at all or 2) an actual act of kindness. Both sort of ruin the “prank/mind game” motivation. As an actual favor, it is also a bit too random. Think about it, who is going to walk onto someone else’s property to tidy and align their neighbor’s garbage cans? Sure, they pulled off D-Day, but not even zealous members of The Greatest Generation would do such an altruistic thing.

My point is: something else seems to be going on here and I don’t understand it. However, today I was able to prove to my wife that I’m not imagining things (at least with respect to the garbage cans). Below, I have a treat for you: The Garbage Can Kid. This is THE guy rotating my empty garbage cans. The footage is from a security camera mounted on my garage. He walks purposefully onto my driveway, rotates the can, then leaves, glancing back proudly at his handiwork. Harmless, purposeful, and, yes, absolutely random. It is displayed at double speed, but you get the idea. Update 040908: I’ve decided to remove the video from YouTube out of respect for the privacy of the person in the clip.

There is more to this story I’ll share another time. But let’s just say I’m doing some “experiments” to figure out his modus operandi. If you have any ideas or theories, please do share. Serenity now. Serenity NOW!

5 Responses to “The Garbage Can Mystery”

  1. After reading both posts on this subject, I felt the need to make a couple of comments. Perhaps this poor soul thinks he is fighting entropy and making more order in the universe when in fact the energy he expends makes a lot more entropy than he gets by putting garbage cans in order. I have just finished rereading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and am in a bit of a physics mood these days (I guess I could ask if he put them in order first and you changed them second, right? Depends on my frame of reference…). Also, if he really had OCD, I would expect to see him come back again and again to make sure the cans were straight, and I would expect your neighbors to report the same thing happening to their cans.

    Let us know if you ever talk to the guy and out of morbid curiosity find out what the heck is going on.

    Dr. John

  2. Hey Dr. John,
    I was hoping you would respond. Thanks for your insights (nice use of physics terms too). I’ll be sure and post as I learn more.


  3. I can’t stop watching that kid fix your cans. It’s a very compelling video. What a trip. Too bad you don’t teach psych! You have to keep this one going. What else is he doing on his walks? Does he fix everyone’s cans, or does he wind up some people’s hoses, etc? Fascinating!

  4. I just showed my wife this post and the other one that goes with it and it is the best laugh she has had in some time. Thanks!

    P.S. She is not laughing at the kid, but just the whole bizarreness of it all. I think there may be an idea for a reality show in all this…

    Dr. John

  5. I was thinking about this over the weekend (am I obsessed with this? Uh oh…) and thought maybe you should start playing some mind games with him, like putting the cans in different order (one day blue-green-grey, the next green-grey-blue, and see what happens. Heck, put the cans somwhere different near your house and see what happens. Would be an interesting experiment with an N of 1 to find out more of what makes this guy tick…

    Dr. John