Excerpt from the book, “Happiness to the Rescue,” by Clara Young, Ph.D.
Available Now.

Learn from the Trash People

“Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

The sun was going down slowly early Thursday evening when I went outside to walk my dog. That’s when I saw them coming out in droves. I was amazed how many there were now. And, I could tell, it was a race for the plumpest bins.

They used to come out only after dark, when homeowners placed their green, blue and black trash bins on the sidewalk neatly the night before the official trash pickup day. No one knew trash people existed for a while, but sometimes we heard sounds of broken glass and tops of bins being shut noisily, as people with no faces, ragged clothes, and large shopping carts scurried away like rats before they were seen by human eyes.

But times have changed, even for the trash people. Today, as I turned a corner onto my favorite street with my dog, I saw them. At almost every house, someone was going through their blue and black bins. The blue ones were the most popular, because they had recyclable cans that could be turned into cash, or clothes that could keep them warm on chilly nights. The ones going through the truly dirty and smelly black trash bins, full of unimaginable filth and odor, were usually looking for food they could eat, rotten or otherwise. Once, I saw a man become suddenly elated to find a half-torn umbrella in a black bin on a rainy day. Some would find shoes, still with some miles left on them, but there were holes in the soles. Other things found in trash cans became ingenious inventions overnight that helped the trash people survive a harsh life. Discovering usable trash was like hitting a jackpot to the trash people. They carefully put their treasure findings in their pockets full of holes or their overburdened carts. They put them there with joy, forgetting where the treasures came from. Pride was something they had to fold away in one of the trash bins long ago.

I was surprised to see that the trash people were of all ages and races now. It used to be mostly middle-aged men, who were at times intoxicated or delusional, looking for a bottle that wasn’t completely empty or a cigarette butt that had some smoke left in it. They used to have dirty and long black beards and a face full of sickness of both the body and the soul. But it was a whole different story now. Poverty, survival, desperation, hunger, and bad luck knew no prejudice. It was all up for grabs.

As I continued to walk my dog with a heavy heart, I saw two young Hispanic girls with a perfect system of going through the blue bins. One would topple the bin while the other quickly separated the items into categories, then they had marked bags to put their findings in with great precision and speed.

Next to them was an Asian man in his late 50s wearing cheap sneakers and worn out shorts and a pair of glasses from the ‘60s that kept on sliding off his nose. He wasn’t as fast as the girls, but he was diligent, and he went through every item, one by one. And then with respect, he put each item he did not want back in the trash bins. Then he wiped his hands, shook dust off of his cap, and moved onto the next house.

On the corner, I saw an elderly black man. I’d seen him before. He was very polite. He would always say“hello,”“please,” and “thank you.” He was much older and thus slower, and with aching joints and bones, he went through only one bin quietly, until it was too dark to see.

When the sun went down a little further, I saw a white man in his 30s with a goatee. He seemed new to the game. I could tell he was ashamed, as he looked around constantly in fear of being seen or recognized. He wore a relatively new baseball cap but he didn’t fool anyone. I wondered if he was one of those tech-savvy guys who went bankrupt after a fast rise and fall in the computer business. One thing was clear: This guy knew a better life not so long ago.

But the worst was when I saw a child among the trash people. I froze with overwhelming sadness and despair. This was cruelty at its highest. A child no bigger than my own niece was clutching a dirty little rag doll while holding onto her mother’s sweater. Her mother had to get on her tippy toes to reach deep into the blue bin. She didn’t find much down there, except some newspapers and a badly torn and faded handbag. People throw anything into the blue bins now. They don’t bother to read what is recyclable. The mother took the handbag, dusted it off with her dirty hands. It was a gem to her. Her daughter was in awe, and she played with it for a while. I almost choked trying to hold back a flood of tears and anger, big enough to scare God himself.

Being a dog lover, it was equally heart-ripping when I saw an old man with a dog chained to his cart digging through the black bin. They both looked thin and obviously hungry. The dog was dirty. He probably never knew a bath or clean water, but I hoped he knew love from his unfortunate human friend. They didn’t find much. So they moved across the street. The man was limping, and he looked as if he was in a lot of pain. The dog followed without any choice, panting with the look of a wounded animal that was dealt a very poor hand in life. Slowly, I looked at my dog, who was eyeing a squirrel. Before we left the house, he’d had a hearty dinner made of organic chicken and rice.

I had to stop. I didn’t want to stare at the trash people, so I stayed at a distance and watched them in agonizing awe, and asked the question I had vowed never to ask in this lifetime, because I knew there was no answer here. But I couldn’t help myself. It came over me like a shadow of a giant. Why, why, why do some people have more than others? Why?”

Who are these people going through strangers’ garbage bins day after day looking for soda cans, food, a drop of beer, or even a toy for their kids, and how did they become this way? Very few of them were drunk or wasted. They were sober, relatively young, and wore gloves, as they became professional trash diggers for survival. What could be going through their mind? Are they thinking anything? Or perhaps they didn’t have the luxury to question anything? What are their stories? How did it come to this? I wanted desperately to know, and I wanted to run to them and ask, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to offend them, and I was told they could even be dangerous, because they were desperate and scared beyond reason.

On the next block, the irony and the mystery of life were unfolding and my heart broke again. While the trash people continued digging through the bins, I saw a homeowner pull up in his driveway in a Mercedes sports car. The owner and the trash people didn’t acknowledge each other. Either they were embarrassed, or worse, they didn’t care. They each chose to be invisible. Across the street, a pizza was being delivered to a man who was too lazy to cook his own dinner. There were overweight joggers running around in their designer’s sportswear while talking on their cell phones, and folks with their dogs like me, leisurely walking before a plentiful meal, which was waiting for them in a safe, clean, and warm home.

I walked slowly with a heavy sadness. My fellow man, woman, child, and dog were digging through fly-, ant-, and cockroach-infested trash bins to find a soda can that could get them a nickel or something edible, alongside alley cats. I could not fathom the experience of the trash people. To me, it was the ultimate human low.

I wanted to help them but I didn’t know how. I could throw in more soda cans and extra goods in the trash bins, but it didn’t seem to be enough. I wanted to hear their stories, but I could not go near them. I realized that in a blink of an eye, I too could end up as a trash person. We were not much different, as life has a tendency to be cruel and harsh without notice. So I hugged my dog and thanked God for being so blessed.

I gave one last look. Across the street, the trash people were too busy to notice my disappointment in the design of life and my heart that ached for their indignity. Why must life be so ugly, so humiliating, and so unforgiving?

It started to get dark, and one by one, they disappeared to a place I could not step into. I wondered where they were going, if they had a home or a family. I wanted to follow them, but it began to rain and I turned a corner and headed home. There, I skipped dinner and rummaged through the house and put extra soda cans, clothes and shoes, and my favorite teddy bear and other toys, along with a bag of dog treats, in my blue bin and wished them farewell and good mission. Unable to sleep, I spent the whole night staring out the window hoping that all the trash people, including that sweet but unlucky dog, were indoors somewhere warm and safe.

I had trouble sleeping that night. I was wrestling with myself. So I walked to the kitchen for a snack, even though I wasn’t hungry. Then I heard a noise outside. It was three in the morning. I pulled the curtains back slowly and saw someone on the corner of the street opening a blue bin filled with empty bottles, broken glass, and torn newspapers. He was not alone. Beside him was a short woman who picked up everything he tossed out, while holding a broken umbrella over his head. In her right arm sat a small kitten. It started to rain harder, and I watched as the tears rolled down my face one after another. Then, like the end of a movie, all faded to black, and soon I saw nothing but the deep darkness of the night. I closed the curtain slowly and headed for bed. There for the first time in a long time, I got on my knees to say a prayer, to simply say thank you for all I have and to please help the trash people and animals, whom he might have forgotten. Please…. Amen.

For a long time, I was really good at complaining. I was famous for it. There was always something missing or wrong with my life. Then the trash people taught me a precious lesson: There is always someone who has less than I do. I saw it. I felt it. That cured my chronic complaining. When I need a reminder, I don’t have to go far to see men, women, children, and animals that are hungry, cold, sick, hurt, alone, and scared.

When I find myself wallowing in self-pity, I catch and remind myself that someone somewhere is worse off than I am. So, snap out of it!!! My mom used to say, “Look at what you have instead of what you don’t have.” Yes, mom. I know I have more than I know. Thank you.

The Have and Have Nots:

I’m always perplexed and disturbed about the inequalities of our human existence. Why do some people have so much, while others have so little their whole lives? I heard an expert on food say there’s actually enough food in the world to feed every human being comfortably, but the problem is that it’s unevenly distributed. I think there’s some truth to this. I see food being wasted here in the U.S. everyday, and yet there are people starving not only around the world, but right here in our backyards. As a teacher, I had to regularly give money to students who did not have enough food to eat. I suspect human greed has a major role. Will that ever change? History has proven not. Many experts say there is still a very wide gap between the poor and the wealthy, and it’s not getting any better.

We were taught to share in kindergarten, but the grown-ups are the ones who have forgotten it. Seriously, does it make sense that we have billionaires who have more money than they know what to do with it, and people starving on pennies, despite hard work and honest living? What is amazing is that our society has become indifferent and numb. Seeing faces of hunger, poverty, and destitution don’t affect people any more. We pass them by like things — unwanted things.

For now and always, we have to keep trying to even things out and to share; a lesson from kindergarten we must bring back. And as long there are people who care, there is hope.

Gratitude has long been associated with health, longevity, and happiness. When we focus on all that we have, we get a sense of appreciation, calmness, and happiness, which helps us steer away from desperate acts that gets us in trouble. So make a daily list of things and people you are grateful for. I carry my list with me everywhere I go and use it both as a reminder and a tool when I succumb to feeling sorry for myself. There’s no need for that, ever.

My all-time favorite star said it best: Gratitude is riches. Complaints is poverty.” Thank you, Ms. Doris Day!