(I told this story at a local storytelling event a few years ago. This comes from my Booby Naked collection of personal stories).
My name is Robert Nagle, and I am not a messy person. People say that, but they’re wrong; it’s all one big misunderstanding. Recently I filled out a thingie for an online dating service. I put down that I had a “tolerance for clutter.” I like that phrase. Tolerance for clutter. I’m not a slob…I’m only tolerant.
A few weeks ago, I was in a parking lot waiting for a meeting to begin. Just to kill time, I decided to count the number of dirty dishes in my car. I counted 14 plates. A week later, in an effort to reform myself, I went to the library and checked out every book about how to clean house, organize your life. That sort of thing. I checked them out, put them in a large paper bag which I brought to my apartment, vowing to read them all.
To this day, I still have not found that bag of books. The library fines totaled one $150. Tolerance can get expensive.
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania, I faced a special challenge.
Here was what I understood to be the trash system or lack of one. A man eating a banana would toss a peel onto a random place. Next, another man would come drinking a coke can; he would spy the banana peel and decide to throw his coke can there. Eventually, everybody would start dropping things there until it formed a trash heap that grew bigger and bigger. It would attract all kinds of animals–dogs, cats–sometimes even rats–and even cows–who would munch on discarded food. At some point the trash heap became such an eyesore that somebody would toss a match at it and light the whole thing on fire. Then the process would begin again, this time on another spot.
The problem was that I lived on the fifth floor, and you couldn’t find trashbags or trashcans–which actually made a lot of sense–where would you throw it away when it became full? As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was resourceful and ingenious. I took an oversized appliance box and used it as a kind of trashcan. When it became full, I would take it down five flights of stairs to empty it.
The other problem was time and organization. I worked a lot of hours, and the apartment had running water for only about 45 minutes a day, so I was always falling behind. And I had paper everywhere –Peace Corps memos, notes to myself, magazines, student papers; you name it.
Luckily, I had a solution–boxes. Boxes, you see, are the solution to many common organizational problems. I would reuse discarded mailing boxes to organize my stuff. One box was for student papers; another was for Peace Corps request forms, another was for correspondence. Now, instead of having papers everywhere, I had BOXES everywhere…but at least they were organized!
Once while coming home, I noticed my balcony door was open. That was strange. After climbing the stairs, I noticed the front door was open. When I pushed it open, I saw my nosy neighbor, eying me with disappointment. She was a short older woman who always muttered, “Bobobobobobobob” at the inanities of post-communist living.
“Degjo,” she said. “Shtepia i tuaj ka shume pise. Prandaj eshte nevoshme te pastroj stepi i tuaj.” Which translates as, “Listen, Robert, this place is a pigsty! You left me no choice but to clean it myself.”
“Why did you do that?” I asked in Albanian.
I looked around. I had admit that the place looked nice. I noticed the floor was swept, the dirty dishes were put away, and even the bed was made. But then out of the corner of my eye–I noticed something. Or rather did NOT notice something.
“Where is my trashcan box?” I asked.
“What?” she said.
“The big box in the corner. Where is it?”
“The one full of trash? I threw it out.”
I began to lecture her about my logical system of using the big box to transport my trash downstairs, when I noticed something–none of my other boxes were around either.
“Where are my other boxes?” I said.
“Oh, the ones with papers?”
“Oh, I threw them out too. You should not be keeping old papers and boxes around!”
“Where did you put them?”
“Why did you do that?”
“Mos u merzitur, Roberti” she said. Don’t be mad.
“Jam shume I merzitur.” I said. I am very mad. I ran downstairs, and the woman followed behind.
“Where are they?” I asked. “Is this where you threw everything out?”
“No,” she said. “The one on the other side.”
I ran to the other side of apartment until I came to a trash heap I’d never seen before, a trash heap three times the size of the others, surrounded by boulders, several cats, dogs, a cow, and yes, even a goat. They were all poking around and chomping merrily away, as though this were some fabulous all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. And there—on the top–I saw it. I saw my giant trashcan box. I rushed forward, shooed the animals away as my eyes scanned the trash heap. And there–there was the box with reimbursement forms. And there was the box with letters from home. And there–there were my American postage stamps. And my lecture notes–holy cow! My prize lecture notes on the psychoanalytic interpretations of Kafka’s early fiction–here, which only moments ago a feral cat had been clawing at.
“WHY DID YOU DO THIS?” I yelled.
“Roberti,” she said, “mos u merzitur.” Don’t be mad.
“JAM SHUME I MERZITUR!” I shouted. “SHUME I MERZITUR. SHUME!”
Just then, I noticed that the woman’s eyes were filled with terror, and the animals, who had been patiently tolerating my outburst, were now inching quietly and cautiously away. And suddenly, I became aware that I stood in an open square surrounded on all sides by a dozen high rises, all about 6 stories high. And on the balconies and from the stairwells and the windows, I could see dozens of mother’s heads popping out, dozens of children pointing, staring at me with utter amazement.
About a month later, I was at a cocktail party for teachers, and a woman I’d never seen before was looking at me with a puzzled expression. Nothing unusual about that; after all, I was the token foreigner. Thirty minutes later, she tapped me on the shoulder. Her eyes glimmering with recognition.
“I know you!” she said. “You were…that man….who was yelling at the garbage–weren’t you?”
Every Peace Corps volunteer is proud of his legacy. Some point to public health programs or irrigation systems they helped to build. Others can say they inspired students to become future leaders. As for me, I will be remembered as the man who would stop at nothing–not rat droppings or soggy milk cartons or rotten cucumbers–to rescue his precious boxes.