As you may have already guessed, there’s nothing that I find quite so captivating as the offbeat or downright bizarre. Anything that gives rise to the question, "Why on earth would anyone do that? “ makes my pulse race. So, naturally, when I heard that Baltimore boasts the world’s largest trashcan, I simply had to see it.
Later, when I read that Baltimore holds an annual Garbageman Appreciation Day, I grew even more excited. (I must pause here to applaud that politically incorrect term, garbageman, which has somehow escaped becoming “garbageperson.” I note with some chagrin that the Queen of the annual Garbageman Appreciation Day Parade is known as “Ms Garbageman Appreciation Day.” So, as you can see, the waste managers of Baltimore do move with the times.)
The world’s largest trashcan – 18 feet high and holding over 15,000 gallons – sits outside the Baltimore Refuse Energy Systems Company (BRESCO) plant on Russell Street. The plant turns solid waste into steam, which is then converted into electricity. I’m not entirely sure how this process works, but it sounds like a worthwhile enterprise: from trash to energy.
So I’m driving south on Russell Street, past the stadium that’s home to the Baltimore Ravens, keeping an eye out for the Bresco plant. Suddenly, there it is, on the other side what is now a divided highway. I wave at it as I whiz by, for suddenly Russell Street has become - hey, wait a minute! - an expressway.
Before I know it, I’m heading out of Baltimore on 295. Silly me. Had I consulted a bigger map I’d’ve known that Russell Street becomes the Baltimore-Washington Expressway. I’ve just passed the only place I could have conveniently turned around within the city limits, and I’m deep into the suburbs before there’s an exit. Somehow – blind luck, basically - I manage to work my way back onto 95 north, and then lo and behold I see an exit for Russell Street. Going north this time.
I feel positively lightheaded making my way toward the Bresco plant. I can see the enormous smokestack with BRESCO written on it, and soon I’m in front of the plant and there’s the trashcan. However, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere in particular to park, so I pull up to the security booth near the gate to check.
Wearing what in retrospect must have been an idiotic grin on my face, I get out of my battered pickup and walk toward the booth. A middle-aged woman wearing a “what sweet hell is this?” expression on her face looks at me soberly.
“I made it!” I crow. “The world’s biggest trashcan!”
A very long couple of seconds go by before she responds. “Yeeesss…it’s here.”
“You must get visitors all the time,” I enthuse. “Is there somewhere I can park my car while I get some pictures of the trashcan?”
She is now regarding me suspiciously, as if any minute now she’ll hear an APB on her poh-leece radio about an escaped lunatic fitting my description. “Actually, you’re the first one I’ve ever had. This is only my second week on the job, see.”
I nod sympathetically, somewhat proud to be her first trashcan tourist.
Gesturing to a small space between orange traffic cones, she instructs me to park there. I do what I consider a very spiffy parallel parking job between the cones, suddenly remembering the day I got my driver’s license and how I’d dreaded the parallel parking portion of the driving test.
When I step out of the parked car, the guard beckons me over. She looks pleased. And, somehow, relieved. “It’s okay. I checked with my supervisor and he said you can go on over and take a picture of the trashcan.”
Somewhat baffled that this merited checking with her supervisor, I politely thank the guard, then walk over to the grassy area housing the trashcan.
Now, I don’t mean to sound small minded here, but I just have to say that the idea of the World’s Largest Trashcan is more satisfying than the thing itself. It’s a can. A very large one. What impressed me most, I suppose, was the large sign directly in front of it, proclaiming, “WORLD’S LARGEST TRASHCAN” in great big letters. And, even more impressive, there’s a large wooden viewing platform that supports the sign. If anyone had been with me, I could have had my picture taken standing on the platform in front of the trashcan. I briefly consider asking the guard to do the honors, but I doubt she’d leave her post. She seems to take being a guard very seriously.
I photograph the trashcan from several artistic angles. Then, looking up at the phallic looming Bresco smokestack tower, visible for miles and one of Baltimore’s more prominent landmarks, I photograph that, too, just for good measure. I stand for a couple long minutes, to mark the occasion of my visit. There really isn’t much to do after you’ve just seen the biggest trashcan in the world, I’m afraid. It’s a bit anticlimactic.
As I head back to my car, I see the security guard beckoning me again, in apparent agitation.
“You were supposed to take pictures of the trashcan,” she said, accusingly.
“Yes?” I’m keeping my polite tourist smile plastered on my face, though an alarm bell is sounding faintly in my skull.
“You took a picture of the tower. No one gave you permission to do that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I had no idea… It’s quite a prominent landmark, you see, so I never imagined there was a restriction.” More memories, this time of being upbraided by an army guard in Red Square for pointing my camera in the wrong direction, come unbidden into my head.
“And you’ve got one of those swan stickers on your truck.”
“Swan stickers?” I’m now completely at sea. What on earth is she talking about? Then I realize what she’s referring to. “Oh! Yes! You mean an Audubon Society sticker.”
“Yeah, one of them.”
“Well, yes, I belong to the Audubon Society. And, as you can see, there are also stickers for the Smithsonian Associate Program and Montgomery College, where I work. But what’s that got to do with the tower?”
I’m playing innocent, but I know what’s she’s thinking: I’m an environmental activist, out to make trouble at the municipal waste recycling plant. It doesn’t really make much sense, but perhaps she’s been told to keep an eye out for Green Peace types. Just in case. You know the sort: they drive battered vehicles, bumper stickers basically holding the rusted hulks together.
Oh dear. I see, in a flash, what the guard must see. “I’m at that awkward stage between birth and death,” proclaims one of the stickers on my pick-up''s bumper.
Rather than answer my question, she narrows her eyes and announces, “Wait just a minute,” pointedly turning her back to me as she makes a phone call. Long minutes go by. I feel like a child again, standing outside the principal’s office. Honest, Miss Green, I didn’t mean to trip Johnny. It just happened.
I snap back from my guilt-ridden reverie as she hangs up the phone and swivels to face me.
“Now, normally what we do in these circumstances is to confiscate the film,” she says. Then, observing my somewhat slack-jawed incredulity, there’s a pause before she goes on magisterially, “But seeing as how you’re from Maryland and all,” she gestures at my license plate, “we’ll just let it slide.”
“Thh-thh-thank you,” I stammer.
She’s got me squirming now, and uses the occasion to let me know how badly I’ve betrayed her trust. She continues, in rising tones, ex cathedra: “No sir, it shouldn’t oughta ever have happened, that’s all.” She shakes her head solemnly, letting the lesson sink in. “It. Shouldn’t. Ever. Have. Happened.”
“I’m truly sorry,” I repeat, edging toward my truck. “I won’t even download that picture. This camera’s digital, see?” This seems to confuse her, and I mentally kick myself. Is she going to check with the supervisor about that, too? Before she has time to pick up the phone, I’m in my truck. Giving her a cheery wave, I pull away.
“Good GRIEF!” I exclaim to no one but my trusty vehicle. “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
I’m still feeling a bit rattled driving back toward downtown Baltimore, when I see one of my favorite Baltimore landmarks ahead, the Bromo Seltzer Tower. The mere wackiness of this Italian-style campanello built in 1911 to advertise a popular bromide exerts a peculiar calming effect upon me.
It is with some satisfaction that I pull into a parking spot on South Paca Street, get out, and start photographing the tower from every conceivable angle. People in business suits coming out of the Convention Center are looking at me a bit oddly, but they can go to blazes.
No one’s going to stop me this time.