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February 15, 1968, Vol. XIII, No. 18
On Top of the Heap
by Margot Hentoff
I once knew a man who used to say, “The whole world’s a garbage pail — and you have to keep struggling to get to the top.” I always wondered what he possibly could have thought the metaphor meant. Even at the top of the heap one remained, after all, garbage. With a view of the sky.
One refreshing thing about New York last week was a subtle shift in the nature of terror. I usually walk around worrying about muggers who might be lurking hallways. But last week, I walked around worrying about the garbage and what might be lurking in that.
On Friday, a friend of mine, traveling down Bleecker Street, came upon a group of people and a policeman running around a heap of garbage brandishing little sticks.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Rats!” someone shouted, and they all went on beating the garbage. It was like a drawing from medieval times, my friend said. He ran like hell and went home.
Everyone was worried about the rats. They were afraid that, as a result of rising expectations, the rats would permanently alter their living habits and never go back to the slums. Where they belong.
I read that the Ninth Street Neighborhood Association for Peace had removed the garbage from their own block between Fifth Avenue and Sixth. A spokesman for the group said, “This kind of demonstration is most effective. We are helping to end the alienation that makes wars possible.”
On 9th Street between Fifth and Sixth?
After awhile the garbage became like everything else we live with. Values were assigned to it and standards set for it. There was neat garbage and sloppy garbage. Garbage properly packaged opposed to garbage that was disgraceful. The good garbage was, for the most part, in the better residential areas. The bad garbage was elsewhere. “That’s nothing,” people said looking at Riverside Drive. “You should see Avenue D!” It became another visible measure of success in the society if your street was merely distasteful, but not disgusting.
But, all in all, a curiously exciting quality pervaded the city last week. Almost as if it had finally become what we knew it was all along. There was garbage on the sidewalks, garbage in the gutters, garbage lining the walls of buildings, garbage blowing in the wind. Garbage to trip on. Garbage to fall in. Like a stage set for a Beckett or Ionesco play. For so long they had been telling us our cities were rotten — and look! Indeed they were.
It is always stimulating when life imitates art, when the symbol becomes the reality. For a few days, we were all living literature, living theatre, picking our way through slop. One began, perversely, almost to with it would continue — going on and on until the garbage filled the canyons and the rats leaped from mound to mound. At least it would have been a kind of truthful image, wouldn’t it? It would have been saying something to us all.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]