THE BLOG
04/15/2014 08:19 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

Good News for My Neighbors

RJW via Getty Images

After long and thoughtful consideration, I've made a significant lifestyle decision. I am NOT going to become the neighborhood curmudgeon.

Everyone in the boomer generation will know exactly the kind of person I'm talking about. The annoying individual was usually a feisty old geezer who looked like William Frawley or Walter Brennan (and if you don't know who they were I suggest you go online immediately and find out), and he didn't hesitate to offer unsolicited advice or explicit directives on a wide variety of issues, most of which were none of his damn business.

Here's a typical example: The curmudgeon drives to the house of a friend, gets out of his car, sees some kids playing on a roof across the street and yells at them to get "get down off there right now!" For the targets of such unprovoked verbal assaults, incidents like these create vivid memories of childhood that last a lifetime.

Alas, the youngsters on my street will not have similar experiences to look back on in their adult years. I'm definitely never going to yell at anyone occupying space on a residential rooftop. They may have an excellent reason for being there. Years ago, I watched a TV biography about pro wrestler Mick Foley (also known as 'Mankind') and it showed video of him as a boy jumping off his garage onto several mattresses piled in the driveway. Times change. What used to be forbidden fun is now just another way to build a youthful WWE resume reel.

During my own childhood, I was often curious about how curmudgeons got to be that way. Was there, I wondered, some psycho-biological transformation that came over men at a certain age, a sudden urge to start telling other people about all the things they're doing wrong? I think the answer may be yes because -- and this is difficult to admit -- I have felt that urge myself, and resisting it isn't easy.

The feeling comes over me once a week and is triggered by the subject of waste management. I'm absolutely serious. Garbage collection occurs Wednesdays on my block and each house has three large bins on rollers to put at curbside. One is for trash, one for yard clippings and one for recycling paper, plastic and cans.

There are specific guidelines for preparing the contents and positioning each container, and reminders about the correct procedures have been mailed out year after year. It would be logical to assume that all residents are fully informed and hardly anyone makes mistakes, and that assumption is totally false.

For example, the bins are supposed to be spaced at least four feet apart because the collection truck has a big mechanical arm that needs plenty of room to operate properly. And yet, Tuesday evening when I look up and down the street I see numerous sets of bins neatly arranged side by side, some almost touching, and a voice in my head yells, "No! Too close together! What's the matter with you people?!"

Under cover of darkness, in my agitated state, I sometimes wander along the sidewalk and peek into the recycling bins. The guidelines call for all food containers to be rinsed clean and plastic bottles should have their screw-on caps removed. The reality is starkly, sloppily different. Metal cans that once contained tomato soup, chili, or baked beans are still coated with the slimy remains and piles of plastic bottles have their caps firmly in place.

I'm a big fan of garbage reduction and I know sorting household waste takes time and effort. So it's frustrating every time I find examples of people who get through most of the process but fail to complete one or two crucial steps. There's a saying football coaches use: don't give up on the play. If you're a lineman and get knocked down, jump up and find someone else to block. If you're a running back and drop the ball, grab it and keep going. When I see a bin full of dirty recyclables my immediate thought is, They didn't finish the play.

And then comes the dangerous follow-up thought: Maybe all they need is a little extra coaching. From me, of course. I'll knock on the door and have a quick conversation on their front porch, very cheery, simply pointing out how important it is for every resident to follow our disposal guidelines exactly. But then what?

I'd have to monitor the street every week to make sure my helpful suggestions were being followed. If they weren't I would have to send follow-up notices, and a few phone calls might also be necessary. You see where this is going? Pretty soon I'd be carrying a clipboard and a tape measure and making chalk marks on the sidewalk along with notations like "All wrong! Still too close together!" My neighbors would peek out their front windows, shake their heads, and say, "Look, he's at it again."

But it won't happen that way. I've stepped back from the brink. I realized the folly of sending my reputation to perish in a futile battle against improper bin placement and baked bean residue. The best course of action is to focus my opinions inward, make sure my own cans and bottles are clean every week, leave four feet between the bins, and then call it done. I urge all other potential curmudgeons in America to follow my example.

I realize what I'm advocating might eventually lead to the disappearance of a cultural tradition that's been carried on in towns and villages all over the world for centuries. But not all traditions deserve to continue forever, and I'm on the right side of history.