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Of a Fire in the Garbage

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Jimmy Weinstein, the editor of the lefty newspaper In These Times, had never thought much about garbage cans. He hadn't cared for the old metal cans that used to be strewn about the alleys. Stenciled "Compliments of some alderman," they stunk of the Machine. He was glad when the city replaced them with standardized plastic cans. The new cans seemed symbolic of a new Chicago. Advertising nothing, they were larger than the old cans, and the attached plastic lid meant no screech of metal hitting pavement 20 times a day. Sure, his new cans blew over in a high wind, but he solved that problem by propping them against the fence next to his garage.

After the first flush of possession, Jimmy didn't think much about garbage cans again until late one night when he was woken up by a volley of firecrackers. They seemed to be exploding in the alley behind his house on Palmer Square. Jimmy had always liked firecrackers, but this was too much. He was annoyed. Normally he would have just gritted his teeth and gone back to sleep, but somebody yelled "Fire!" He threw on his pants and ran outside.

The fire was behind his house coming from his garbage cans. They looked like a pair of wind-up monster toys shooting sparks out of their bodies, and they were going up as fast as toilet paper. The wooden fence the cans had been leaned up against was also ablaze, and it crackled like firewood. Jimmy's downstairs neighbor called out through his window that he'd phoned the Fire Department just a minute before. They were on their way.

Watching the garbage cans burn, Jimmy tried to look on the bright side. At least he had a brick garage. You can't blow it down and you can't burn it down. But, he thought, if the flames reached the roof, or found their way inside some other way, they could blow up his car. The alley was lined with other garages filled with cars. A major fire could blast it into orbit.

As a fire truck filled the alley, some neighbors gathered to watch. Joined by the woman from next door, Jimmy pointed at the cans. "They look like torches," he said. She agreed. They didn't look like torches for long. After the fire was extinguished, Jimmy and his neighbor examined the charred remains of the fence and a muddy pile of debris. The only sign of the garbage cans was a small puddle of black goo and a couple of strips of burnt metal that had held the lid on. There was more garbage left than can.

The woman next door told Jimmy that burning garbage cans were nothing new to her. She'd seen the same thing happen before, at her last apartment. "Somebody threw a lit cigarette into one of my cans, or at least that's what the cops figured. There weren't any firecrackers or nothing." She looked over at Jimmy's garage. "Two garages burned down. One on each side of the cans."

Just before the firemen left, Jimmy asked one if he answered many similar calls, and the fireman said that he did. Jimmy went back upstairs and rolled back into bed, but the mingled smells of soaked wood, plastic, and burnt trash wafting into his house kept him and his wife up late into the morning.

A few hours after sunrise, Jimmy called a contractor friend who lives across Palmer Square to ask him to fix the fence. The contractor asked what happened to the old one. When Jimmy told him, the contractor said the same thing had happened to him last New Year's Eve. "Some kids threw firecrackers into my neighbor's garbage can. The cans caught on fire and torched my garage."

Jimmy was starting to feel a little burned up himself. These garbage cans are a menace, he thought. Somebody should do something.

He phoned the complaints section at Streets and Sanitation and got hooked up to a guy who could answer any question about garbage cans. Jimmy got right down to business. He asked, "Hey, what's with these cans? Why do they burn up so fast? "

"The garbage cans don't burn," the man answered.

"Like hell they don't burn," Jimmy snorted. "I saw them burn with my own eyes. They burn."

"They don't burn, sir. They melt. The cans are made so that they melt in a fire. The garbage burns, not the can. If there was no garbage inside the can you couldn't burn it."

Jimmy was momentarily dumbfounded. Had he called the NRA by mistake? "Garbage cans don't burn, garbage does." He argued back, "There was a bigger pile of garbage left over that didn't burn than there was of the can. How do you explain that?" "That's right," the man agreed, "there probably wasn't anything left of the can except for a little black blob. That's because the garbage can doesn't burn, it melts. It melts down to almost nothing." The man politely offered to transfer his call over to someone else who could tell him the name and number of the company that manufactures the cans, but there was a call coming in on Jimmy's other line, and he took it. it was a police investigator calling from the arson squad. The officer asked if Jimmy suspected anybody of setting the fire. Jimmy explained about the firecrackers, and the investigator wasn't surprised. "I've seen this happen hundreds of times," he said, irritably. "It's a real pain in the ass, but there's nothing we can do about it."

Jimmy thought about all the thousands of garbage cans wheeled smack up against the thousands of wood fences and garages in Chicago. Thousands of garbage cans ready to blow. It's a windy city. It's the second city, too, since the first one burned to the ground about 120 years ago. The cans could symbolize a new city all right, he thought. They're an accident waiting to happen. He wondered if he should call his alderman. He called Handy Andy instead and got a price on metal containers. They don't burn and they don't melt. He'd had enough garbage for one day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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