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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Gone with the wind, but not forgotten

By Dick Hirsch
Among the more humbling situations that a person can experience is the occasional search for a missing garbage can that has blown away during a high wind.

I’ve just recently completed such an expedition and can report it was much more challenging now than a comparable mission would have been just a few years ago. The reason? All the containers in front of every house are identical. It is part of the effort to professionalize refuse collection and elevate garbology to a science.

In the old days, the refuse containers reflected the personality of the homeowner. If you were a person like me, your cans conveyed their own aura. I was never one to expend large sums on new garbage cans when older models---even those that were dinged, dented and rusty---could hold the same amounts of trash.

They may not have been elegant in appearance, but they did the job just fine and they were readily identifiable should they be blown away. An added plus was the simple fact that they were unlikely to be claimed by any other person into whose yard a gust might deposit them. Who would ever appropriate a rusty, beat up garbage can?

Now the situation has changed dramatically; every container in my neighborhood is blue. The large garbage totes are blue, as are the smaller recycling bins. The totes are heavy and can be blown over, but they are bulky enough that they won’t travel very far, usually no further than the middle of the street. The bins are different, however. Their design provides that inner space which is ideal for catching the wind and propelling the bin airborne in a unique tumbling flight pattern.

That is what happened in my case. I found some evidence of its fate at curbside, a few cans, plastic containers and an empty ketchup bottle, but there was no sign of the bin. I scanned the horizon briefly, but it was too windy to embark on a comprehensive search. The following day, as things calmed down, I resolved to find the bin. Down the block I saw one, unattended on a front lawn. With even a cursory glance, I knew it wasn’t mine. I moved along, checking for stray bins among bushes and in side yards, but found none. Disappointed, I returned to the home with the bin, rang the doorbell, and asked the woman who answered whether that was her bin on the lawn. She said it wasn’t.

“That’s a stray,” she said. “If yours is missing, why don’t you take that one?”

I had considered that as a solution. I thanked her for the suggestion and said I would remove the bin from her front lawn and take it home.

“Good,” she said. “But be careful what you put in it. “It’s cracked.”

Cracked? That was an understatement, a misdiagnosis. The bin had survived, still whole, but it had been smashed by a car or delivery truck. The result of my search, a busted bin, was not very satisfying. My bin was gone with the wind, gone for good.

I never have associated the area with high winds, although I know it can get gusty. The emphasis has always been on snow, with wind being almost an afterthought. Any discussion of the legendary blizzard of ‘77 always focuses on the amount of snow and the height of the drifts. But wind played an essential role, blowing a monstrous quantity of snow off the frozen lake onto city streets. Yes, the wind gets underplayed, with snow getting the headlines.

Years ago I met a man who moved to Buffalo in early December. As is often the case with new arrivals, he expressed concerns about the weather and the impending winter. I tried to calm him.

“Where is the Hotel Statler?” he asked. “I understand they put ropes all around the building in the winter for people to grab onto so they don’t get blown over.”

I had never heard of such a thing. It was a fable, an urban legend. Then I offered to drive him down to the scene so he could see for himself. We parked and walked toward the hotel. There were no ropes, but it was somewhat breezy, and a sudden gust swooped in and scooped the hat off my head, sending it soaring high in the air, toward City Hall, disappearing into the evening darkness. I tried to reassure him that it was a fluke. That was the last hat I ever owned.



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