01/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Urban and Married Life, With Tickets

Here, for posterity, is our story of a recent confrontation with the city bureaucracy.

TO: New York City Department of Santitation

RE: Summons No. 160405989

To Whom It May Concern:

We are in receipt of your summons, tucked neatly into our door handle at dawn today. While I can't argue with the fact -- there was indeed "household waste improperly placed in a recycling container designated for metal, glass, plastic [sic]," I do wish to expose to you the myriad facts and events and feelings that led to this unfortunate situation in hopes that you will, in the context of human understanding, dismiss the $25 fine.

There are numerous lines of events leading up to the unfortunate and illegal end. They include horticulture, generosity, legal anxiety, stubbornness, acceptance, love, respect for the elderly, poor eyesight, lack of perspective, and perhaps a smidgeon of laziness couched in respect for the neighbors. In sum, these things are sometimes not at all cut and dry, however specific and concise the law may be.

The first chain of events concerns the bin itself. We've used the same pale blue recycling bin since recycling came into effect here about 20 years ago. Over time, the bin itself deteriorated, with bigger and bigger openings on the sides and bottom. The top disintegrated a few months ago, and ever since then I've been unable to find a rectangular top to replace it. Many stores do not sell just the tops, and in any case, smaller rectangular bins are fairly rare.

Fearing a fine for an uncovered bin, I placed an old round one on the rectangular bin. This really was ugly and unsatisfactory, proof that you cannot fit a round peg into a square hole (of the same size, anyway).

After a few weeks, I finally gave up on finding a rectangular replacement cover and made the executive decision while at a large hardware store a few days ago to purchase a new bin for recycling purposes. Excited about my new purchase, I immediately called 311 to order a recycling sticker, wrote our address on the top and bottom, and removed the old bin to throw it away.

Here is where things go bad.

The plastic bin was full of gaps and holes, but retained a certain springiness. I stomped on it to crush it so it would fit into a garbage can, but it sprung right back to its original size and shape. Too thick to rip apart with my bare hands, I elected to put it aside, on its side, behind our tree, six feet or more behind our garbage cans and about ten feet from the street, and planned to slice it up with a large and inappropriate power tool within the next few days.

Now the other lines of events appear in the scenario.

My wife then noticed that the ivy in our little, ten-foot-square front "yard" -- basically a large tree well -- had had a serious growth spurt and was in need of a serious trim. At the same time, our neighbors to our rear put in a new retaining wall of big rocks mortared with soil. We offered them (as we always offer all of our neighbors) cuttings that we would root for them, and they gratefully accepted. Normally we put an armload of cuttings in a five-gallon bucket of water so that roots develop within a few days. This ivy transplants wonderfully and is very hardy, dating back more than 20 years. I told a few other neighbors that we would have cuttings for them, too, and looked forward to planting more in our own back yard.

I had to take our kids somewhere and my wife, alone now, faced with more ivy than she had ever harvested before, elected to place it all in a handy, larger container, thinking she would get smaller ones that could hold water within the next few hours. Alas, she chose the discarded, broken down, old recycling bin to hold the ivy in a neat pile as she worked. Alas again, distracted by some engagements away, she failed to go to the basement and fetch a five-gallon bucket or two, and as night descended, she chose to believe that the ivy would not suffer going one night with neither water nor soil.

When I returned after dark, I failed to notice the ivy cuttings, and when I did see them the following morning, I was rushing off to work. Knowing better than to suggest something to my wife that might possibly imply a feeling of competence or superiority in household management or gardening on my part, such as that she might want to put the cuttings in water and free up the old bin for destruction, and wishing to enjoy the day unblemished by even a minor confrontation, I left many things unsaid that might have averted this problematic summons.

Late that night, the feelings were the same as was the location and condition of the now-wilted cuttings. Not wishing to add commentary about the possibility of harm to the cuttings to the other problems, I let that go in the interests of marital harmony, no doubt burnished by a faint hint of incompetence on my part (i.e., I could have gotten the buckets myself, but did not want to butt in on her project).

That night, the final line of events unfolded that brought this to an administrative crescendo.

We employ a warm-hearted, generous, friendly, hardworking, and loyal elderly man to put our garbage cans along with most of those on the block out for collection twice a week. For some years now, we've noticed that his eyesight, among other abilities, has deteriorated greatly, along with his ability to judge what should be placed on the curb, and where.

Most collection days I scoot outside at about 7am and rearrange things according to the rules and for greater efficiency. Often I put the cans out myself because he has not been feeling well. Sometimes I've had spirited and wide-ranging discussions with my wife about the philosophy behind the idea of having to do or redo the work of someone who you have hired precisely so you don't have to do that work in the first place, but, as I said, he is a truly good man, quite worthy of great respect, and my wife has a special place in her heart for people who are no longer on top of their games the way they might have been when they were younger or healthier. That's a good characteristic to have. That's one thing I especially like about her.

This man put our cans and those of our neighbors out on the curb as usual, but instead of missing a partially full one (something he does fairly often, I've noted), he actually went beyond the call of duty and with a lot of extra effort and unusual initiative, dragged the broken, half-open, falling-apart, discarded, old recycling bin from behind our tree, full of fresh cut ivy, out to the curb as well.

In one special moment of convergence, both the Sanitation Dept. officer and I noticed the offensive and doomed ivy simultaneously, but that morning, at that moment, unfortunately for both us and the ivy, I was running late and not yet dressed in a way that would be found presentable and inoffensive to our neighbors if I had dashed to the curb right then and recovered the ivy harvest for our waiting neighbors. I chose decorum, but dressing took some time.

So we got the ticket.

Perhaps you find in this explanation enough perspective to dismiss the summons, for which we would be grateful, but if not, please rest assured of our continued respect for and understanding of the Sanitation Dept. rules for recycling containers and household waste.


Steve Ettlinger and Gusty Lange

Postscript: My wife made our case at a hearing to no avail. We paid the ticket.