Rubble, Rubble

12/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On the way to an appointment, I passed two piles of trash. Neither heap appeared to me as run-of-the-mill rubbish: one symbolized economic success and optimism, while the other signified defeat and despair.

The first mound of refuse was set out by homeowners having work done on their very large house. The signed outside proclaimed "another quality job by" some construction company. The plumber and the electrician and the mason had parked their trucks alongside the construction van, causing visibility problems for passing motorists. Cautiously slowing down, I caught a glimpse of thrown away shutters, lighting fixtures, railings, and heaps of fabric in a not quite olive green shade, alongside yards of almost jade colored carpet. Here was a house improved by scads of money that would soon make its inhabitants feel comfy and possibly even pampered.

Driving into a neighborhood with a less affluent reputation, the messy masses outside another house seemed at first to resemble the scene a few blocks back. The presence of a stop sign in front provided an opportunity for me to linger and take a longer look. Immediately, I began to absorb the differences between the debris and sense the air of despair as I spotted the sign that publicized this property was "bank owned." No activity was taking place here except for the swaying of the foot high grass.

At curbside lay cast-offs including a tricycle, heaps of hangers, a picnic table, wicker baskets, shoes, chairs, and a couple of mattresses. These discards were not rejections of the passé to make way for innovation and improvement; I saw the abandonment of possessions that wouldn't fit into a car or a trunk or an in-law's basement. In the few seconds I could stop and observe, I grasped that a child might not have outgrown the trike before its disposal: it was dumped along with all the trappings of a life spent in a two-story colonial. Money wasn't enhancing anything here; a lack of money had halted every hope.

I drove on, a little shaken by the comparisons I drew between the dissimilar refuse that was probably destined to end up in the same landfill. I knew the inhabitants of neither house; I knew nothing of the circumstances that led to the discarding of the carpet or the picnic table, and I certainly had only moments to take in each tableau. Yet I've been around the block (literally and figuratively) enough times to make some reasonable inferences about the piles I passed. My trash themed take-away at the end of my car trip? Not all that litters is old, nor is all garbage created equal.