IN THE CHILL DARKNESS OF AN AUTUMN NIGHT, A PICKUP TRUCK PULLS OVER TO THE CURB OF a side street. Caught in the glare of its headlights, piles of
black plastic trash bags await early-morning collection. A woman darts from the small truck, gives the bags an exploratory pat, and begins tossing them into the bed of her vehicle. Two, five, nine; the/re all loaded up and the truck moves on.
Turning the corner, another mound of bags catches her eye. The Leaf Thief strikes again. Alighting from the truck she’s arranging the new bags in the back of the pickup when an elderly man, out walking his dog, tips his hat in greeting.
I’ve been caught; my cover is blown. I wave nonchalantly and say hello.
He wants to know why I am stealing garbage.I laugh. “These are bags of leaves, not garbage!” “How do you know?” he asks. “Easy,” I reply, patting a well-
stuffed bag. “Bags of leaves are light and they sound crunchy when you squeeze them.”
Pointing across the street at four more bags, smaller than the others, I add, “Those are probably leaves, too, but I’ll bet they’ve been mulched.” We go check them out together. “Yup,” I say, feeling the bags. “Much heavier.” I grunt slightly as I bend to heave the squat bags into the truck. The man gives me a hand with the last two.
When my kids were small, sometimes I could coax one or two of them to come into town with me and help with this part of my run. But by the time they were teenagers, there was no way they would have gotten out of the truck if there was someone else around. That is why I began making my “leaf run” under the cover of darkness. Only occasionally have I been spotted.
I REMEMBER ELEANOR’S EMBARRASSMENT THE FIRST TIME SOMEONE OBSERVED ME SPIRITING AWAY bags of leaves.
“Oh, no,” she moaned and slid down in her seat, hoping it wouldn’t be someone she knew. Twenty years later she probably would not mind, but maybe it’s just as well that I’m alone tonight.
Puzzled, the dog walker continues his questions. “But what do you do with them?” “Oh, lots of things,” I answer. “I’ll till these mulched ones into the garden. I’ll put the other leaves on the garden, too, but I’ll have to chop them up first. By spring they’ll have all broken down and enriched the soil. Our garden started out as red clay but is rich and brown now and teeming with worms.” I laugh and add, “And that comes in handy when my husband wants to take our granddaughters fishing.”
“But why take these leaves?” the dog walker persists. “The city workers will pick them up tomorrow.” “True,” I agree, “but they’ll just take them to the landfill, where they won’t benefit anyone.” As he considers this I add, “I return the leaves to the soil and the bags to the recycling center.”
The man nods silently. Then, giving me a thoughtful look, he tips his hat and heads up the street. RECYCLING AND REUSE HAVE BEEN part of our lives since before our youngest child, Sarah, was born, almost 30 years ago. Last Christmas I overheard the children reminiscing about the Lunch Bag Marathons of their elementary-school days.
“Remember how Mom always had us bring our paper lunch bags back home every day?” Drew recalled. “We’d see who could make their bag last the longest. I always won ’cause I didn’t mind carrying a spotted, crumpled one. My record was four weeks with the same bag.”
“Yeah,” Eleanor said, wrinkling her nose at the memory. “But you cheated. You’d fix ’em up with tape.” Some people’s laundry lines are hung with shirts and socks. Ours also flutter with washed and reused plastic bags. The other day, as I was folding a heavy-duty freezer bag, I noticed the various labels that had been
written on it and realized that it had had five different leftovers frozen in it! Reading the previous contents, I tried to recall the meals and who had been with us for them. “Lamb Curry–March 31” meant the leftovers from the Easter leg of lamb, when we had sat 11 around the table. “Zucchini Soup–July 17” probably heralded the first of the summer’s bumper crop of our family’s favorite vegetable. And my neighbor Anne’s nut bread must have been the loaf she brought me last winter when I was down with the flu.
Although the kids used to think I was a bit batty over bags, our garage is living proof of all the different ways they can be used. One wall is lined with paper grocery sacks filled with recycled glass and tin, paper and plastic. Cloth bags of various sizes hang from hooks ready for trips to the market. Plastic dry-cleaning bags, their open ends tied in a knot, awalt use as kitchen trash-can liners. A recycled leaf bag holds an accumulation of Styrofoam packing peanuts.
In the past, I used up most of those peanuts sending snacks to my children when they were away at college. One year Drew made a beanbag chair with all the ones we’d saved up for two years. Now that I’m not mailing cookies out so often, I am delighted to discover that our local packaging store is happy to receive them. And our grocery store has a bin for the plastic bags we cant reuse.
Only recently have my children admitted that having a Leaf Thief for a mother hasn’t been all bad. Over the years, they came up with some great ideas for science-fair projects. They became friends with some of the other kids who helped out at the recycling center the same weekends we did and even earned a few Scout badges for their participation.
I smile at the memory of Sarah rolling her eyes in disgust when it was her turn to take the tea leaves and carrot peelings out to the compost heap. She now lives in
the country and has a compost pile of her own. So does Drew. Eleanor would like one too but life in the big city doesn’t really allow for that. Besides, she’s not sure her co-op board would approve of such a thing on her balcony. But that’s okay. When we visit her, we always bring her a nice bag (recycled, of course) filled with rich compost for her potted plants.