Trash Can Man

It’s funny how I can forget most of what I learned in school, but the tiniest bits of wisdom passed onto me from the unlikeliest of sources can stay with me forever.

I used to work at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in a suburb south of Colorado Springs, except this restaurant was probably built before suburbs were even called suburbs. This place wasn’t like they are now – sharing space with a Taco Bell or a Pizza Hut. No, this was old school and all Kentucky Fried Chicken with a bright red roof and a bucket on a tall pole out front by the highway. Inside, it was like a museum of fast food technology. Every work table, shelf, corner and storeroom held relics of years gone by. There were pieces of projects from previous managers long forgotten, ancient parts of menu boards, signs advertising extinct menu items, and sometimes even ingredients for food no longer served. There was no end to it. There were layers of the stuff. A restaurant archaeologist should have pitched a tent in the parking lot and applied for some university grant. Surely, there was a book to be written about all those remnants of Kentucky fried civilizations past.

I worked there for a really long time. I spent part of high school and most of my college years in that place – maybe five and a half years in all, though not continuously. The place changed management fairly often, so there seemed to be a new manager coming in all the time, wanting to change the way things were done around there.

One new manager, a tall redhead guy named Kevin, was always profoundly irritated with how cluttered the place was. He could never find enough counter space on which to work and he was frustrated with how difficult the place was to keep clean considering how much crap there was to collect dirt and to clean around.

One day Kevin came out of the office and asked for a show of hands, “I need two people. Which two people have been here the longest?”

My hand shot up as well as that of Lori, who had been there around the same length of time.

“OK, you two, come with me”, and he headed off to the back of the store, dragging an enormous trash can behind him.

Along with the trash can, Lori and I immediately became crucial elements in his purging system. Kevin would point to an item and say, “What’s that?”

If neither Lori nor I knew what it was, he would throw it in the trash can. He proceeded all around the store in this fashion.

“When was the last time anybody used this?” he’d say, cradling some contraption or other in his arms.

If Lori and I shrugged, into the trash can it went. Lori and I looked at each other in horror. It felt a little naughty. It was exhilarating! And it went on for hours.

Occasionally, he’d stop and ask rhetorically, “How does that feel? Doesn’t that feel good?”

And it did. I did feel good. It was liberating.

“Do you feel better?” It became his battle cry.

It took us the better part of a day and several of those big trash cans before he saw one of us kind of wince when he picked up an item and he put it back down. But the place looked great. We had room to move. Room to work. Room to breathe.

When we were done he surveyed the place with his hands on his hips and declared, “There! Don’t you feel better?”

And I did. I really did feel better.

Apparently that day affected me rather profoundly because I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve used the wisdom of that day countless times in the years since and thrown away a great many things. I’ve used it during my many moves. I’ve used it at the office, making my coworkers nervous with the enthusiasm with which I could fill a waste can or recycle bin. I’ve thrown away favorite T-shirts that were tattered and full of holes. I’ve thrown away collectibles. Souvenirs. Photos. Relationships. Yes, I’ve even applied it metaphorically to my life, throwing out old memories and old lessons learned. And it was there that I went a step too far.

It’s still good mojo that trash can wisdom, but now I think I’ll keep it to the material world. This collection of stories is proof that even those old things I think I have no use for anymore can sometimes be repurposed and grant me new wisdom. I guess the best wisdom really does come from the unlikeliest of places.

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