Land in the Sky: Toxic Waste Day

Toxic-Waste-Day-iiIt’s Toxic Waste Day. A blessing. The one day in the year when county residents are invited to dispose of their accumulated “household hazardous materials.” For free. No questions asked. That’s good, because in the past when I did ask at the town hall about how to properly dispose of a little carbon tetrachloride, I got the impression it would be easier to get a building permit for a backyard nuclear reactor. Or a new puppy mill. No wonder Toxic Waste Day feels nearly as festive as the Fourth of July.

The venue for this event changes every year. The location remains undisclosed until the very last minute. Then out of the blue a text arrives on my phone. It says go to an address on some road I’ve never heard of in a town I’ve never been to before. When I type this address into Google Maps, I get a travel advisory issued by the EPA. But that doesn’t stop me. I’ve been preparing for this day for too long. The pickup is gassed and ready to go—with its payload of rusty paint cans, quivers of fluorescent light bulbs, leaky bottles of Chlordane, and an unopened case of Red Bull left by some roofers a few years back.

I hit the road with my mephitic freight and drive far out into the wild woolly wags. Nobody lives in these parts. The trees along the road are blighted. No birds sing. Even poison ivy won’t grow here. Suddenly in the middle of the road, a bulbous-nosed traffic cop appears as if from nowhere. But this is nowhere, so what did I expect? The buttons are popping from his uniform. His eyes are red. He may have a gun. With a menacing wave of his hand, he directs me down a dubious dirt lane. I make the turn. What choice do I have? The lane quickly goes from dubious to washboard. The little Superfund Site I’ve been hauling along in the back of the pickup is being shaken violently. This can’t be good.

At last, the end is near. In the distance are a couple of corrugated steel buildings at the edge of a barren field. Yellow smoke can be seen rising from several large vats nearby. Only when I get closer do I see the long line of vehicles with loads even more virulent than my own. Men in red t-shirts and wearing dark rubber gloves work fearlessly to relieve the citizenry of caustic burdens. They whistle while they work. No one is wearing a ventilator. Nearby an American flag flutters gently on a white-painted pole. It almost reminds me of a Zen koan.

The line of vehicles moves more quickly than expected. Before I know it, my turn has arrived. The men in red shirts unload my half ton of hell. They are my heroes. Before I depart, I wave to them. I am given the thumbs up. My happiness is incandescent. Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of this pickup, I would break into fireworks.