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Solving the Mystery of the Garbage Can Kid

End of One Neighborhood Mystery, and the Start of Another

About a month ago, I saw the GCK striding by in the early evening with two middle-aged ladies walking about a block behind him. Sure enough, when I pulled into my driveway, the green garbage can, placed out the night before, was put away for me. The GCK had struck again, and he was now within contact distance. The trio actually came around the block (he avoided me) but I stopped the ladies and chatted. They were very nice and I explained the situation: I’d seen the boy regularly arrange my garbage cans and put them out on random days. They gave me a knowing look and told me he was a special needs person who just likes garbage cans — indeed always has had a fascination with them. They were apologetic, but I told them if it made him happy, it wasn’t really a problem. I just wanted to understand it. I explained that I thought it was a prank at first, but this “prank” seemed to be actually doing me a favor, so that didn’t make sense. Turns out, on their evening walks, he does to it to other people randomly in the neighborhood; this activity is apparently the highlight of his day. Now that I know what is going on, I’ve taken down the youtube video from the original blog out of respect for his privacy.

The case of the Mystery of the Garbage Can Kid is now officially closed. Whew! Serenity now, Serenity NOW!

Mystery of the Tree-Watering Guy (TWG)

But right on the heals of that resolution, another neighborhood mystery has spawned. Recently, at approximately 12:30am, my wife and I were coming home from a dinner party. As we rounded the corner of our otherwise quiet and empty street (for that evening, anyway) we saw a man dumping some mystery liquid from a black pail onto one of those curbside city-planed trees on one side of our house. He was a white, middle-aged man, somewhat overweight, about 5’9″, light brown hair, somewhat haggard face, with dark clothes — and was holding a black plastic ten-gallon painting bucket outside my house after midnight. He sorta stood out a little. I got out of the car, approached him cautiously, and said “hello” while waving slightly. He basically ignored me only grumbling something under his breath. He then casually shambled past me. I basically stood agape, trying to calculate the degree of confrontation I was will to endure. My wife observed from a safe distance and watched where the man went. He is a neighbor several doors down, but yet someone we’ve never seen before.

My first instinct was he was dumping “something he shouldn’t” in a random location to avoid responsibility. I imagined, in the best case, motor oil, paint, miscellaneous toxic chemicals, etc. — in the worst case, my wife imagined something unpleasantly biological. But why around a tree and not just in the curbside dirt? Why THAT tree (there are many in our neighborhood to choose from)? Why not just in the gutter? Why do it in a fairly visible area of the neighborhood (there is a busy street nearby)? Of course, my mind naturally vectored back to the Mystery of the Garbage Can Kid and the apparently strange and quirky intrinsic background noise of this neighborhood. I suspect no easy or obvious answer would readily present itself without a little detective work.

About 15 minutes after the incident, I went outside with a flashlight and a camera, took a picture of the area around the tree, and looked around. To me, the damp material under the tree looked simply like water. It didn’t smell funny or have any odd color or chemical look to it. With no other information, at least at a glance, I would say we just observed a previously unseen neighbor going out of his way to water a random neighborhood tree next to our house at 12:30 in the morning.

This freakin’ neighborhood never ceases to amaze me

Like with the GCK, I’m confused and disturbed by the event itself. It seems so arbitrary and purposeless. I don’t have many theories here, but I’m forming one. That specific tree has an odd bit of history. When we first moved in, there was a normal-sized city planted tree in that spot along the sidewalk. It was carefully planted with stakes and irrigation ducts. But sadly, that original tree was randomly broken by neighborhood students having a party in the fall of 2006. I reported the incident to the city and they said they would take care of it. About six months later, in the spring of 2007, I first noticed a small tree was planted in that same location. I naturally assumed it was the city who had done it. But it may be important to note that the tree is like a weird small version of the city trees. It doesn’t look like a carefully groomed tree planted in the style of the city arborist. But with no reason to suspect otherwise, I just assumed the city did some quick ad hoc thing to appease me. I think you can see where I’m going with this: I wonder if this guy is the one who planted it and, unbeknownst to me or my wife, has been tending it over the last year or so.

This TWG situation is similar in attitude and process to the GCK events. There is obviously some deeper, unexplained motive going on here that would be impossible to easily guess. It highlights another unexpected noise baseline of this neighborhood. Like with the GCK, for all I know, the TWG might have been doing this for the whole past year since that tree showed up. Indeed, he may have planted it himself. Other elements of the noise baseline in the neighborhood are perhaps more prominent. For example, skateboard kids, bike kids, student parties, loud cars, band practices, midnight basketball etc. are usually very obvious. There is a literal noise and disruption accompanied by spikes of activity with long tails extending in time for hours. In contrast, the window of time for the GCK or the TWG is very short. The activity itself is basically silent and unremarkable. The amount of time spent doing the activity is less than a minute. The amount of time spent in front of our house is also about a minute. The probability of overlap with any random time I’m actually outside is rather small. Lets say, for the sake of argument, that he waters that tree randomly once a week between the hours of 9pm and 3am and the activity takes 3 minutes door-to-door. Depending on how you want to calculate things, if you were out at random times averaging about 1 minute every evening between those hours, you might expect to see him once out of every 1000 times you went out. That’s about 2.5 years of sampling to catch him just once! Not seeing this activity after one year is not entirely unreasonable based on that back-of-the-envelope calculation (for example, it might mean I was spending on average 3 minutes in front of my house each day during those hours, which is probably about right). The calculation is obviously very loose and fast, but I think it highlights how easy it is to get away with random things. The good news is that now I know who is responsible and, like with the GCK, I don’t have to see him directly. He has a signature. I can just observe the damp dirt around that tree to tag and event.

A new mystery unfolds.

2 Responses to “Solving the Mystery of the Garbage Can Kid”

  1. Tom,

    I have a couple of theories about TWG. One, he has a bizarre parasomnia in where he sleep walks and goes out at night and waters that tree. People have been known to do weird things like cook food or have sex all while perfectly sound asleep and they have no recollection of it whatsoever. Two, and maybe more plausible, your neighbors have caught wind of your blog and the tale of the GPK, and are now coming up with innocent and seemingly random things to do to play with your mind. Give it some thought…

    Dr. John

  2. Yeah, I’ve certainly considered the possibility. However, given the nature of the “innocent random thing,” it just doesn’t pan out. It seems like a lot of work for them to do something which I might not notice for YEARS (which may indeed be the case). My guess is, like the GCK, it is something very particular, but otherwise “ordinary” in nature.