Recently I took on a job I never knew I had in me: garbage collector to a stranger.
I’m on an Amtrak train from DC to New York. I make this ride a lot and when I’m alone, there’s nothing I root for more than getting two seats by myself. No forced interaction, no silent struggles over the armrest. Just me, being a pretend king in my private quarters for the next few hours.
The train’s crowded and a woman getting on at Baltimore asks to sit next to me. No problem, I say. I don’t want to sit next to anyone but I’m not going to be one of those scumbags that lays across two seats.
After a few minutes she goes to the food car and comes back with a Thanksgiving Eve-sized load of food. Candy, beer, hot dog, soda. It’s like she said, “Screw it, it’s pay day. Give me one of everything! Let me sample your finest wares!”
She completes her feast and (in what I thought was an unrelated move) I get up to go the bathroom. She sees this and asks a question:
“You walking past the trash?”
I was so unprepared for any question coming from her, I don’t really answer it. “Uh, I’m heading to the bathroom.”
“Do me a favor, throw this away for me?”
Lest you think my annoyance is petty, she did not hand me a soda can or a crumpled napkin. She gave me the whole kit and caboodle. A cardboard tray filled all sorts of napkins, wrappers, cups and cans. Based on the mountain of trash she handed me it looked like she brought some in from home. “Excuse me, Miss…is this your prescription receipt and electric bill?”
I said yes and took it for her, more out of shock than anything else. What am I, your personal assistant? If it’s one piece of trash, okay. But anything more than that? I’m pretty sure in some states I’m now legally her butler.
I took it though, mainly because what if it’s like that old fable where Jesus disguises himself and asks strangers for help? If Jesus and God are real, I’m not trying to go to hell because I couldn’t be bothered to chuck a hot dog wrapper.
I also took it because while I think she’s being an asshole by asking me to do it, I’d be an even bigger asshole if I didn’t do it. Now it’s become a game of asshole poker we’re playing. “I’ll see you asking me to throw your garbage away and raise you not doing it.” “Oh yeah? I’ll see that and raise you coughing and farting the rest of the ride.”
I did her the favor without needing thanks, but I did feel like she owed me a favor back. How about picking me up a Twix at the food car? Carrying my bags when I get off? Going up to noisy people and telling them to shut up on my behalf. “Yo tell your kid to shut up. This isn’t coming from me, it’s from that guy back there who took my trash earlier. Don’t shoot the messenger.”
In a way, I owe that women a debt of gratitude. If this comedy thing doesn’t work out, I’ve now got a backup career waiting for me as a public transit garbageman.