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The Ballad of the Garbage Can Kid

The Garbage Can Mystery has (mostly) revealed its innermost workings. Saturday, the day that I first saw the kid turn the cans around on the security camera, I went outside within a minute of his activity and began looking for him. I walked quickly through the neighborhood and eventually caught up to him, recognizing his orange hoodie and grey sweatpants from a distance. I was prepared to confront him as he loitered on a neighborhood street corner with two of his friends. But as i approached, I noticed that his “friends” were actually just two older ladies. I was quite confused by this and had to quickly recalculate my course of action, deciding to go into a holding pattern and just continue walking. I passed the three and he appeared simply as an awkward young teen, tall, lanky, and looking somewhat restless as the older women chatted about ordinary neighborhood pleasantries. I was baffled. Eventually, I saw him and one of the older women walk away together towards a distant part of our neighborhood. After seeing this, my sense of irritation and anger melted into a kind of strange pathos. Something was definitely exceptional about this situation that transcended some neighborhood teen prank.

After discussing this situation with my wife, we formed the hypothesis that this kid may have some form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Here is a twelve or thirteen year-old kid taking a walk with an older woman, perhaps a mother or grandmother, early on a Saturday morning. Yet during this time he somehow finds the compulsion and time to walk purposefully into our yard and turn our garbage cans around? I’m not sure there is any other reasonable explanation than OCD.

To test the OCD hypothesis, I observed how the kid oriented the garbage cans in the video. He seemed to prefer the wheels oriented towards the fence, not towards the driveway. The latter orientation is the easiest one to obtain if you are just dragging the cans to and from the curb. The former (his preferred) is the one that is more orderly and makes it easier to put the trash into the cans. I set up all three of my cans in a particular order against the fence. The blue one with the wheels towards the driveway, the grey one with wheels towards the fence, then the green one with wheels again towards the driveway. The idea is that if he has a compulsion for a certain order consistent with his other actions, he will only manipulate the blue and green cans, rotating them so the wheels are against the fence. Below is a picture of the cans as I set them up:

Sure enough, after going away for a few hours on Sunday, we returned home to discover the blue and green cans turned around while the grey one was untouched. Our security camera revealed he had indeed visited us Sunday afternoon. Like before he purposefully walked onto our property from afar and, without the slightest hesitation (or even looking at the cans!), systematically rotated only the blue and green cans as predicted above. Below is a picture of the cans after a visit from our mystery rotator:

While not absolutely conclusive, I’m am sufficiently convinced that we are dealing with a kid with OCD and perhaps some other developmental issues. Armed with this new understanding, I’m inclined to be far more tolerant of his essentially harmless activity. Viewed in this light, there is a funny kind of innocent neighborhood symbiosis going on. In some sense, he is doing me a favor by ordering my garbage cans and, if on trash days, I ever fail to set my cans up for easy access, I can rely on him to set things right. As the budding neighborhood curmudgeon, perhaps I’ve learned a valuable lesson here: things are not always as sinister and simple as they might appear in my mind. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to understand the world from the point of view of others is a valuable interpersonal tool. Not only that, but security cameras can actually be useful from time to time.

One Response to “The Ballad of the Garbage Can Kid”

  1. Tom,

    I was just thinking this weekend, perhaps you should start toying – in a friendly manner, of course – with this kid and start doing things like rearraning the positions of the cans (instead of blue, grey, green, try green, blue, grey) and see what happens. Or heck, try putting the cans in a different place on your property and see what he does. May be an interesting experiment with an N of 1, and may provide a way to open up to the guy to find out what he is about…

    Dr. John